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A society facing the threat of nuclear war can look to the Black Death of 1348-1350 for valuable lessons in the social and psychological reactions to a disaster which rocked civilization, William L.Langer, Coolidge Professor of History told an audience of Physicians For Social Responsibility in Boston last night.
"Nuclear attack far exceeds the worst epidemics in the mortalities, the suddeness and the unimaginable destruction it would cause," said Langer. Nuclear war would also differ from a plague in that society would consider it "man willed and man-made," he added.
Langer, however, called the great bubonic plague epidemic, which in two years carried off one-third to one-fourth of Europe's population, "the greatest disaster that has ever overtaken mankind." He explained that this "disaster of the first magnitude must have had profound social effects."
Of particular concern to Langer was the 'rather disgusting performance" of the leaders of medieval society who fled the cities in the face of approaching disaster. "Officials of the towns and the upper clergy fled, professors and students dropped their books, wealthy tradesmen closed their shops," said Langer.
The predominantly medical audience smiled when Langer said, "there is very little evidence of physicians fleeing". However, Langer later told how doctors were stoned in the streets for failing to relieve the epidemic.
For those who could not flee from the cities "life was an unrelieved nightmare," Langer stated. "You could hear the rumble of coffin carts all day long; parents deserted their children and people went mad with terror."
Langer also outlined the "polarization of attitutes among the population," as some people became fanatically pious engaging in flagellation, magic or witchcraft while others "gave themselves up to drunkeness and debauchery." He quoted a medieval source which spoke of "drunkards and whoremongers following their lasts with the sword of the pestilance hanging over them." Langer called this "the Boccacio effect, a common human reaction to the threat of impending death."
In discussing long-term effects of the Black Death, Langer said that "the richness and extravagence of the later Middle. Ages were no doubt also attributable to the horrors through which society had passed." He further mentioned the vast economic effects of the plague, which he termed a cause of the European economic stagnation that continued through 1500
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