Wildfire: the purpose of … (hour 2)

Written by on May 28, 2018


la segunda hora


Signs of distress: 1200-1700

 It was quite a vision—but of course the fire burned on under the cauldron of our culture, and the next doubling of our population would take only five hundred years. There would be eight hundred million humans at the end of it, ninety-nine percent of them belonging to our culture, East and West. It’s the age of the bubonic plague, the Mongol Horde, the Inquisition. The first known madhouse and the first debtor’s prison are opened in London. Farm laborers revolt in France in 1251 and 1358, textile workers revolt in Flanders in 1280; Wat Tyler’s rebellion reduces England to anarchy in 1381, as workers of all kinds unite to demand an end to exploitation; workers riot in plague- and famine- racked Japan in 1428 and again in 1461; Russia’s serfs rise in revolt in 1671 and 1672; Bohemia’s serfs revolt eight years later.


The Black Death arrives to devastate Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century and returns periodically for the next two centuries, carrying off tens of thousands with every outbreak; in two years alone in the seventeenth century it will kill a million people in northern Italy. The Jews make a handy scapegoat for everyone’s pain, for everything that goes wrong; France tries to expel them in 1252, later forces them to wear distinctive badges, later strips them of their possessions, later tries to expel them again; Britain tries to expel them in 1290 and 1306; Cologne tries to expel them in 1414; blamed for spreading the Black Death whenever and wherever it arrives, thousands are hanged and burned alive; Castile tries to expel them in 1492; thousands are slaughtered in Lisbon in 1506; Pope Paul III walls them off from the rest of Rome, creating the first ghetto.


The anguish of the age finds expression in flagellant movements that foster the idea that God will not be so tempted to find extravagant punishments for us (plagues, famines, wars, and so on) if we preempt him by inflicting extravagant punishments on ourselves. For a time in 1374, Aix-la-Chapelle is in the grip of a strange mania that will fill the streets with thousands of frenzied dancers. Millions will die as famine strikes Japan in 1232, Germany and Italy in 1258, England in 1294 and 1555, all of Western Europe in 1315, Lisbon in 1569, Italy in 1591, Austria in 1596, Russia in 1603, Denmark in 1650, Bengal in 1669, Japan in 1674. Syphilis and typhus make their appearance in Europe. Ergotism, a fungus food poisoning, becomes endemic in Germany killing thousands. An unknown sweating sickness visits and revisits England, killing tens of thousands. Smallpox, typhus and diphtheria epidemics carry off thousands. Inquisitors develop a novel technique to combat heresy and witchcraft, torturing suspects until they implicate others, who are tortured until they implicate others, who are tortured until they implicate others, ad infinitum.


The slave trade flourishes as millions of Africans are transported to the New World. I don’t bother to mention war, political corruption, and crime, which continue unabated to reach new heights. There will be few to argue with Thomas Hobbes when, in 1651, he describes the life of man as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” A few years later Blaise Pascal will not that “All men naturally hate one another.” The period ends in decades of economic chaos, exacerbated by revolts, famines, and epidemics.






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