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Plague mentality through the centuries

November 27, 2009

* The symbolism and representations of reality found in the film, The Seventh Seal, offer insight into human history and make this an apt film for Global Past, Global Present studies. For example, in the film, the Plague in the Middle Ages was greatly feared because there was no known cure and the best course of action was to avoid people who had the disease. This was true in life.

* Because of the Plague, travelers and traders avoided contact in diseased areas which caused a shift in demographics. Populations became decimated in some areas, thus reducing the strength of those civilizations – economics, government, religions.

* Also found in the film are symbols in the form of characters: Death, Antonius Block as a seeker of Truth, Jof as the Soul of Man, Karin as the Lamb who opens the Seventh Seal, and others.

* There is much we can learn from the symbols of our Global Past to make our Global Future a safe and secure one. Whether we use this symbolic information to benefit all of mankind remains to be seen.

“When regions previously isolated from each other came into regular contact, they swapped diseases. And this exchange could prove devastating in regions that lacked the necessary immunities. For a time, plagues and epidemics could reverse or slow population growth on both sides of the old epidemiological frontier” (Christian, 2004, p. 315).

The above quote from Christian is used as a blanket statement to represent the individual countries and civilizations that were affected by the diseases which they came into contact with due to increased trade and travel to: Afro-Eurasia, China, India, and the Mediterranean.


Demographics changed, followed by the loss of power of some states due to reduced economics. Powerful, intellectual civilizations, such as the Roman Empire, were adversely affected by diseases. Religions were also affected.

From the film, “The Seventh Seal”

Scene between the two male actors. JOF wondered if their play should be bawdy instead of about death to which SKAT replied: “Idiot. There’s a rumor going around that there’s a terrible pestilence in the land, and now the priests are prophesying sudden death and all sorts of spiritual agonies.”

Scene between Squire Jons and a mural painter at the church.

JONS: “The plague. That sounds horrible.”

PAINTER: “You should see the boils on a diseased man’s throat. You should see how his body shrivels up so that his legs look like knotted strings — like the man I’ve painted over there. (a small human form writhing in the grass, its eyes turned upwards in a frenzied look of horror and pain.) He tries to rip out the boil, he bites his hands, tears his veins open with his fingernails and his screams can be heard everywhere…. The remarkable thing is that the poor creatures think the pestilence is the Lord’s punishment. Mobs of people who call themselves Slaves of Sin are swarming over the country, flagellating themselves and others, all for the glory of God.”

KEY POINTS: These scenes represent increased contact between civilizations due to the expansion of trade routes resulting in the exchange of information… and rumors. It is interesting to note that, due to superstitions, people blamed the cause of the plague on their own sinfulness.

Sanitation problems. Bacteria carried by global fleas and rats. Public health policies created.

“Plague first appeared in Roman Europe in the sixth century under the Emperor Justinian as sanitation systems of the ancient world decayed. Later, as the caravans made their way along the Silk Routes of Asia in the 14th century they took with them yerisnsa pestis, a plague-causing bacteria carried by fleas and the rats on which they lived. Yet another theory puts the fleas on ships and sailors entering Black Sea ports from the East…. these first tentacles of globalization were the source of the ‘Black Death’ that swept the then-known world from Indochina to Northern Europe. Millions died, particularly in the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the newly chartered towns. In response, the first rudimentary measures of public health were created: ship inspections, quarantine, leprosariums, mass burials. In the following centuries, as global commerce and conquest spread, infectious diseases hitchhiked along, with devastating consequences for the indigenous populations of the Americas and the South Pacific. A radical change in people’s circumstances – contact with outsiders, changing climate, expulsion from land, altered diet, hard wage labour or urbanization – added stress factors and increased vulnerability to disease” (Health Hazard, 2001).

(2001). Health Hazard [Electronic Version]. New Internationalist, 331.

* “‘UNCLEAN, unclean,’ the leper mumbled and rang his bell. The cowled figure tapped out a tattoo to accompany the cry that rang through the Dark Ages of Europe. Society demanded this warning, on pain of death. And both peasant and lord shrank back, ostracizing an illness they didn’t understand and couldn’t cure.

* “The mysticism, xenophobia and prejudice of the Middle Ages are well-known. They define the plague mentality. Quarantine, historically a part of this mentality, is still appealing in some quarters as a draconian way of limiting AIDS transmission. In its late 14th-century form it decreed isolation of the plague victims for quaranta giorni (40 days) from which our modem word comes.

* “During the Great Plague of London in 1665, a red cross and the words ‘May God have mercy on us,’ marked the houses of plague victims forcibly imprisoned. This solution was not universally admired. The courageous apothecary William Boghurst (who stayed tending the sick while others, including Charles II, fled the city) wrote, ‘As soon as any house is infected all the sound people should be had out of it, and not shut up therein to be murdered'” (Gregg, 1987).

Book of Revelations 8:1

“And when the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of the trees was burnt up and all the green grass was burnt up. And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea; and a third part of the sea became blood…. And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a torch, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood …”


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