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[Adapted from The Last Secret by Michael H. Brown]

Are our times like the Middle Ages? And if so, might we one day face plague?

Let's take a look, today, and in a second installment next week, at the "black death," which occurred in the 14th century.

That great disaster -- one of the greatest on record -- took place at a time of immorality, irreligion (the Mass was celebrated in some places like a circus), and materialism.

It followed on the heels of a climate swerve -- decades of strangely warm weather (corn was grown as far north as Norway) and ferocious storms, followed by a sudden cooling.

In England a monk named Gervase of Canterbury reported that in 1178 "on the Sunday before the Feast of St. John the Baptist after sunset when the moon had first become visible a marvelous phenomenon was witnessed by some five or more men who were sitting there facing the moon. Now there was a bright new moon, and as usual in that phase its horns were tilted toward the east; and suddenly the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of the division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals, and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the moon which was below writhed, as it were, in anxiety, and, to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw in with their own eyes, the moon throbbed like a wounded snake."

It sounded like they had seen asteroids hitting the lunar surface, while on earth there were wholesale migrations.

Whether from heightened El Niņo activity, tidal waves that may have resulted from meteors, or some mysterious shift, Indians in South America seemed to be avoiding the coasts and islanders were moving all over the Pacific.

A pale had descended on the planet.

Crops crashed and starving peasants roamed the countryside. As the weather continued to change, prophets rose with hysterical prophecies (the antichrist, the end of the world).

From China came word of bizarre events.

"The mountain Tsincheou disappeared and enormous clefts appeared in the earth," recounted writer George Deaux. "Near King-sai, it was said, the mountains of Ki-ming-chan utterly fell in and in their place appeared suddenly a lake more than a hundred leagues in circumference."

There was "subterranean thunder" in Canton and a flood along the Yellow River that a climatologist named H. H. Lamb described as "one of the greatest weather disasters ever known, alleged to have taken seven million lives in the great river valleys of China.

In a province "hard by Greater India" were "horrors and unheard of tempests" for a span of three days, according to a Flemish missionary who reported to Church authorities that "sheets of fire fell upon the earth, mingled with hailstones of marvelous size; which slew almost all, from the greatest to the least."

In Europe, earthquakes shook Greece, washed it with tidal waves, collapsed highland in Cyprus, and did the same in Naples, Pisa, Padua, Bologna, and Venice.

Tremors rumbled all the way into Germany.

At St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, tremors had cause the bells to sound.

The Middle Ages were not overrun by abortion (it was forbidden in the Latin text of the Hippocratic Oath), but there was plenty of other sin, sin attracts demons, and evil brings accidents and illness. 

When man is in sin, there is tribulation.

If modern Americans studied this time period, they would find it sobering (to say the least).

People forgot devotion in the High Middle Ages, they forgot the truths of the Savior, they had fallen deeply into materialism, there was crime, there was corruption in the Church, there was suddenly high fashion, and vanity (it was even when they invented the vanity mirror), and so something began to arrive, something so grave as to defy prophecy, something that, as it turned out, was like Pompeii and the destruction, thirteen centuries before, of Jerusalem.

Something that was called the Black Death or bubonic plague.

Born in the Asian hinterlands and carried by Mongol horsemen, the disease was marked by fever and huge swellings the size of eggs, a combination of several bacterial agents that thrive in rats and their fleas. Most prominent was a lethal bacteria that caused pneumonic and septicaemic illness -- attacking the lungs and causing dark blotches on the skin -- the pneumonic aspect similar to what has been reported in certain mutant strains of the current H1N1 virus.

Perhaps the skin discoloration or the fact black rats were carriers was why they called it the "black death," but more likely it was simply its lethality, the utter darkness of its effect -- the fact that once introduced into an area it could spread by human contact and kill in days.

It preyed especially on populations like China's (where ironically the zodiac included a "Year of the Rat" and where the droughts, locusts, and floods had weakened the population in the 1330s), and although we don't know exactly how many died from it there, the Chinese population would be reduced from 123 million in 1200 to a mere 65 million by the end of the 14th century.

It does us well to revisit what plague can do -- and why we need God's protection.

When it comes to pandemics, one can run but not hide.

In 1339 the first record of the plague's westward movement showed in mortalities near Lake Issyk in the Tien region. From central Asia it moved on overland routes or through merchant shipping to the Middle East and then Europe (for by now Asia was a source of silk, spices, and other luxuries). In 1345 the plague was at Sarai, a major trading center on the lower Volga in what is today Russia, and within a year it was in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan.

Dead bodies littered territories from Armenia to India, the infirm no doubt fleeing to Vedic gods as this mysterious and awful ailment, this horrid coughing of blood, which could be spread by merely breathing near or touching someone -- simple contact with contaminated clothing --  depopulated much of the subcontinent and found its way around Yemen to the Red Sea.

Kurds fled in vain to the mountains and hardly anyone survived in places like Caesarea (the current⌐day Iran⌐Iraq region). Syria and Egypt were hit, and so was Mecca -- despite Mohammed's preaching that disease would never reach the Holy City.

Within two years the entire Islamic world would be engulfed -- losing from a third to fifty percent of its population. Strange phenomena were noted, including lights at tombs and aerial phenomena.

As the disease made way over commercial routes, the Christian parts of the eastern Mediterranean were likewise devastated.

After ravaging Constantinople, the Black Death was carried on Italian ships to Cyprus in 1347 -- the same year that this region (as if in pre-warning) suffered an earthquake and several tidal waves.

The water had swept over large parts of the island, destroying olive groves and fishing fleets.

Islanders murdered many of their Arab slaves for fear they would take advantage of the chaos, and then fled inland but couldn't avoid what one chronicler called "a pestiferous wind" that spread "so poisonous an odor that many, being overpowered by it, fell down suddenly and expired in dreadful agony."

Earthquakes also did severe damage in Rome, Naples, Pisa, and Venice just before the plague arrived in those places. The entrance into Western Europe came at least in part through the Sicilian port of Messina, where residents insisted there were demonic entities transfigured into the shape of dogs and that these dogs wreaked the harm on human beings.

So aghast was the populace that few ventured from their homes until by common consent and at the wish of the archbishop they gathered their courage and marched around the city reciting litanies.

According to a scribe named Michael of Piazza, "while the whole population was thus processing around the streets, a black dog... appeared among them, gnashing with his teeth and rushing upon them and breaking all the silver vessels and lamps and candlesticks..."

It was a terrifying and prodigious vision and such was also captured by artists who portrayed the plague as spread by demons.

Pope Clement VI declared it a "pestilence with which God is afflicting Christian people" and it seemed indeed like the stench of hell, a plague so disgusting that it inspired less pity than detestation.

Many theorized that poisonous fumes were rising from cracks in the earth. Sulfur from the netherworld?

Meteors were seen (known as "black comets"), and there were reports of strange columns of fire. These were witnessed in Florence and Avignon -- above the papal palace (which was now in France)! A ball of flame was also seen over Paris, and there were phantoms -- demons that in places like Messina were said to transform into frightening "dogs."

More horrid, however, was the disease itself, which rapidly moved west and north, striking Avignon. The death rate there was fifty percent. Hundreds who worked at the papal palace were turned into corpses; Pope Clement VI fled, and such was the shortage of priests that laymen had to give Last Rites. In Vienna the evil came as a hovering light that was exorcised by a bishop.

Spain fell under assault. Five million died in France. Throughout Europe cadavers were left in the front of homes like refuse and even scavenging animals wouldn't touch them. In England in one field 5,000 lay dead and within two years half of the 17,500 monks, nuns, and friars in that nation's monasteries were no longer counted among the living.

An astonishing 66 percent of clergy in Buckinghamshire were killed, and by 1350 the death toll was at least 35 percent in London. It was relentless. It was sinister. At sea, ghost ships wandered. It was as if the whole world had been placed "within the grasp of the Evil One," noted a friar in Kilkenny, Ireland, who wondered just before his own death if "any child of Adam may escape this pestilence."

It was a good question; never before (at least not since Noah) had there been a trauma like this; on three continents the very existence of homo sapiens was threatened. Men and women, driven to despair, wandered as if mad across the breadth of Europe.

According to the Neuburg Chronicle "cattle were left to stray unattended in the fields for no one had any inclination to concern themselves about the future.

The wolves, which came down from the mountains to attack the sheep, acted in a way which had never been heard before. As if alarmed by some invisible warning they turned and fled back into the wilderness."

In desperation the residents of Messina, Italy, fled by foot and horse six miles outside of town to get an image of the Madonna said to have special power, but as the horse carrying it approached Messina the animal suddenly stood motionless and fixed like a rock.

That was interpreted as a sign that what was occurring was God's requital of an unrighteous, blood⌐stained people and that Mary was not to intervene.  

In the words of Michael of Piazza, the Blessed Mother judged the city to be "so hateful and so profoundly stained with blood and sin that she turned her back on it, being not only unwilling to enter therein, but even abhorring the very sight thereof."

Really Mary never turned her back on her children but the protection of Heaven did seem absent and there was a lapse in the Virgin's apparitions, which had been ongoing for many decades -- a relative silence during the 1340s, except at a Ukrainian monastery called Pochaiv -- as the scourge continued to cause wreckage.

It was the same casualty count -- one⌐third -- as prophesied in Revelation 9:15.

Aimless ships were spotted with dead crews and by December of 1347 the disease had spread to much of southern Europe, making its entry through various ports and fishing villages.

There it coursed into the central and northern parts of Europe through other harbors like Genoa, where three galleys which had put to port after being driven by fierce winds from the East were found to be laden not just with the sought-after spices but also with Pasteurella pestis.

Terrified residents had attacked the ships with flaming arrows "and diverse engines of war" in hopes of keeping it out, but it was already too late:

The plague had found its way ashore and also entered Venice and Pisa.

In hard-hit Florence an estimated 100,000 died, the stately homes, the grand palaces, all evacuated. Brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, parents their children.

As the classicist Giovanni Boccaccio phrased it, "there came the death⌐dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God, had some years before appeared in the parts of the East, and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread towards the West."

It was devastating. It was eerie. As the plague arrived church bells were silenced and black flags flapped in the quiet breeze.

While conservative estimates say 33 percent of Italians succumbed, many scholars would put the mortality for that particular nation -- lined as it was with ports -- at forty or even fifty percent.

The same would hold true for the rest of Europe.

[Next week: the climax of the Black Death and its supernatural implications]

[Adapted from The Last Secret]

[see also: Mystery lights]

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