Yellow Fever, Black Goddess: The Coevolution of People and Plagues

By Christopher Wills | Go to book overview

4
Four tales from the New Decameron

Between March and July of the year in question ... it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence[.] Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (tr. G. H. McWilliam)

In the summer of 1986, a Canadian government helicopter was carrying out a routine aerial survey that included some flights over remote Banks Island. This island, covered with low tundra vegetation, lies in the Northwest Territories, far above the Arctic Circle. In previous years, dead and dying muskoxen had often been spotted by aerial surveys. But now, as the helicopter flew over the peaceful landscape, the pilot suddenly saw the bodies of almost sixty wild muskoxen, scattered over several square miles. Had they been wantonly shot by airborne hunters? Veterinarians who were helicoptered to the site found that the truth was even more unnerving. All were discovered to have died, within the space of a few days, from acute respiratory infections.

During that summer, 122 sick and dead animals were found over an area of 1000 square kilometres. Muskoxen, which were driven to local extinction on the island a century ago by overhunting, have rebounded to a population size of 25,000, a size that has remained fairly stable. Before these dead and dying animals were examined, it had been assumed that shortage of food was now limiting the size of this recovered population. Microscopic investigation of various tissues showed that their deaths

-53-

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Yellow Fever, Black Goddess: The Coevolution of People and Plagues
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Figures *
  • Author's Note xi
  • Part One - The Anatomy of Plagues *
  • 1 - The Delicate Balance between Life and Death 3
  • 2 - The Penumbra of Disease 29
  • 3 - The Worst of Times 37
  • Part Two - Chief Monster That Hast Plagued the Nations Yet .. *
  • 4 - Four Tales from the New Decameron 53
  • 5 - Was the Indian Plague Actually Plague, and If Not Why Not? 90
  • Part Three - Naïve and Cunning Diseases *
  • 6 - Cholera, the Black One 105
  • 7 - A Cleverer Pathogen 131
  • Part Four - The Challenge of the Temperate Zones *
  • 8 - An Ague Very Violent 149
  • 9 - Syphilis and the Faustian Bargain 186
  • Part Five - Plagues, Populations and the Biosphere *
  • 10 - Aids and the Future of Plagues 215
  • 11 - Safety in Diversity 254
  • 12 - Why So Many Diseases? 272
  • Glossary 295
  • Notes 304
  • Index 318
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