Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

The end of the world has come and gone. We survived.

A headless Statue of Liberty, imploding skyscrapers, cars that hurtle through the air and mass screaming panic. It is the end of the world. Again. Armageddon version 78. Or is it 79?

Godzilla is the latest; a remake of a remake of a remake of an over-sized angry lizard that tramples though our cities.

Why are we so enamoured by the catastrophic end of our existence? We humans are so painfully aware of our individual extinction and so fascinated by the extinction of our species that we have created a plethora of nightmare scenarios which we call entertainment and happily pay to watch in 3D sensurround.

A survey at the time of the Mayan end of the world prophecy (December 21, 2012) showed nearly 15 percent of people believed the world would end during their lifetime.

Well, the good news is that the end of the world has come and gone. We survived, but only by the skin of our teeth (de justesse).

The monster in question was a trillionth the size of Godzilla. Its Latin name comes from the Canton Vaud. You may know someone with the same family name: *Yersin.

The bacillus (bacille) Yersinia Pestis almost wiped out human existence with an efficiency and diligence unmatched by one hundred angry Godzillas.  It was better known as simply the Great Death and the Great Mortality, and later the Black Death or the Bubonic Plague. In five years between 1345 and 1350 it consumed much of the populated world. One in three people died horrible horrible deaths, from China to the east, Greenland in the west, Siberia in the north and India in the south.  The final death toll was about 25 million. In parts of Italy, England and France the death toll was as high at 60 per cent.  A similar epidemic today would kill about two billion people.

The US Atomic Energy Commission used this medieval plague to model the consequences of a world nuclear war. Of all recorded human events, the commission wrote: Nothing comes closer to mimicking global nuclear war in its  geographical extent, abruptness of onset and casualties.

This analogy comes nowhere close to describe the horror of the plague. Imagine for one moment, half the population of Geneva gone; half of your family, friends and neighbours, all vanished in a year to two. Normal life come to a stop, replaced by death, despair and fear. Every day is filled with a terrible waiting.

Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a tax collector in Sienna, Italy wrote in 1348:

Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices ... great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night... And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug ... And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.

At first it was believed to be God’s punishment, but others searched for a more tangible scapegoat (bouc émissaire). In September 1348 the Swiss town of Chillon, famous for its postcard chateau on the lake, was the scene of a terrible confession. Using various torture methods, including placing a rope of thorns between a Jewish prisoners legs and then yanking it up into the scrotum and crutch, the Chillon authorities discovered a network of Jewish agents who were putting poison in Christian wells, fountains and springs across Europe.

By Christmas 1348, the conspiracy theory has spread through Europe. The residents of Basel took time off from burying their dead to construct a large wooden barn (grange) on an island on the Rhine River where they burnt the city’s adult Jewish population of 600. Similar atrocities were repeated in cities across Europe.

Christian religious zealots called flagellants toured Europe whipping themselves with nails and spikes in public shows of penance. These troupes, sometime numbering more than 1000, travelled across Europe carrying crosses and performing bloody orgies of self mutilation twice a day.  Their blood was considered holy and often collected by their enraptured and desperate audiences and smeared on their faces.

By 1350 the plague was over. The end of the world had been averted.

As the plague raged, the poet Francesco Petrach wrote a letter to his brother, and to you and me (Oh happy people of the future). His brother was the sole plague survivor among 35 people in a monastery in Montrieux in France, and had remained, alone with his dog, to guard and tend the monastery.

My brother! My brother! My brother! Alas! my beloved brother, what shall I say? How shall I begin? Whither shall I turn? On all sides is sorrow; everywhere is fear. I would, my brother, that I had never been born, or, at least, had died before these times. How will posterity believe that there has been a time when without the lightnings of heaven or the fires of earth, without wars or other visible slaughter, not this or that part of the earth, but well-nigh the whole globe, has remained without inhabitants. When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?... Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater; but our forefathers also have deserved them, and may our posterity not also merit the same...

* In July 1894, the brilliant doctor and bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin (below), born in Aubonne in Vaud, isolated the plague pathogen (agent pathogène) for the first time. The bacillus was named in his honor - Yersinia pestis. It is one of medicine's most important discoveries.

 More reading:  The Great Mortality: An intimate history of the Black Death, by John Kelly

Video: The Black Death - History Channel

The Black Death in the Britain - BBC

The Black Death images

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