Cola, Plague, Other Opportunities
When did the Medieval period end?
Just as it didn’t "begin", it didn’t really end. History simply doesn’t stop and then restart as something else.
History courses do begin and end, however, so historians invent and embrace "periods".
Most historians say that the European Medieval period ended with The Plague and its aftermath or that the Roman/Italian period ended with Cola di Rienzi and his aftermath.
[and remember that Italy was invented, formed, discovered during the Medieval period.]
A. Cola di Rienzi
Much of what we know about Cola di Rienzi is semi-legendary.
Petrarch, who transmitted and controlled some of the initial information was an interested party — some say that Petrarch may have manipulated Rienzi as part of the Guelph/Ghibelline conflict and/or as part of the Colonna / Orsini rivalry in Rome and/or as an agent for the Avignon Pope (a Frenchman) who really wanted to stay in Avignon.
If Petrarch really was the puppet-master, he then was the first Renaissance man
The Rienzi Story: A cynic might find a different story: Rienzi’s younger brother was killed in a dust-up between the Orsini and the Colonna.
Rienzi, who had been a client of the Colonna, asked for and was promised revenge by the Count, but the count reneged when he discovered that Rienzi’s younger brother was killed by Colonna’s own lieutenant.
Rienzi rallied the people to oppose/expel all of the nobility — i.e. both the Orsini and Colonna factions and their various allies.
The nobility fled — perhaps because they had previously had to send most of their urban retainers to the countryside to fill in behind a starving peasant population.
Rienzi antagonized the population and the church, and he fled when the nobles returned with their minions.
After wandering and imprisonment, Rienzi was returned to Rome under the sponsorship of Petrarch and the Avignon Papacy.
Rienzi soon antagonized the population again by taxes and his own excesses Including bathing in the St. John Lateran baptismal font.
The nobility moved against him, and the antagonized "popolo" didn’t rally to his aid.
Rienzi was murdered by the nobility on the steps of the Palazzo Senatorio — he was then hacked by other nobles and thrown to the dogs.
End of Revolution.
Post-Rienzi exploitation of the legend After Rienzi was shocked by the death of his brother he was manipulated through the above chain of events by Petrarch and other Avignon Papal partizans(/agents?) who wanted to bring the nobility down a notch or two.
After that was accomplished, the church withdrew its support and Rienzi was discarded.
Petrarch, as poet laureate and papal house philosopher made a pretty speech.
Later dictators (universally ignoring how Rienzi ended) made him an heroic icon. Napoleon, Hitler, and Mussolini all glorified Rienzi as their own heroic predecessor — they would finish his mission and restore the ancient Roman Empire. Napoleon had a copy of de Cerceau’s Rienzi book with him at Waterloo.
Hitler told friends and the heirs of Wagner that Wagner’s opera, Rienzi, had been the motivational force of his life. (Wagner’s opera was based on Bulwer-Lytton’s novelization of the Rienzi story (full text).
Mussolini had Gabriele d’Annunzio, the author of the most famous Italian glorification of Rienzi (Italian text), as his own philosopher/poet laureate — the relationship paralleled that of Rienzi with Petrarch.
-- audio recording of Wagner's Opera Rienzi
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69KJnFju-tU -- video recording of Wagner's Opera Rienzi
Pre-plague Population growth and decline
The evidence is clear that population had hit a peak in Italian towns well before the plague struck in 1347.
Expansion of city walls stopped. In Rome, where there had already been large open spaces inside the Aurelian walls, the abitato had been growing, but then it shrunk again.
According to Malthus, population grows geometrically while supplies grow arithmetically, but, in fact, that's not true in subsistence economies where supplies regulate population pretty quickly and very effectively -- folks simply starve to death as you move from subsistence to famine.
(Malthus was also wrong, of course, in the longer run -- he didn't know about or factor in the coming industrialization and green revolutions, birth control, or education-driven declines in birth rates. Some countries, notably Russia and Italy, already have negative population trends, and others appear to be moving toward negative population growth. Modern experts -- De Blij, et al., now ascribe local food shortages to distribution rather than over-fecundity.)
A three-year famine started in
1315. Then there were a few good years, a few bad,
etc., but soon there were more bad than good. Land
had been overused -- couldn’t even raise an increase
on initial seed weight. And the weather also
changed. As we've seen, the "Medieval
Warm Period" ended and the "Little
Ice Age" started at the end of the first
quarter of the 1300s. A population die-off caused by
famine was already in progress even before the
plague arrived, and those who didn't die were in a
When plague entered Rome, the
population was therefore neither physically nor
mentally able to resist.
Early in 1348, a major earthquake
rattled Italy from Naples to Venice: it was clearly
volcanic as indicated by the release of vast clouds
of sulfurous gasses — smelling of fire and brimstone
-- in the Campi Flegrei. Within hours of
feeling the quake, Romans and Neapolitans smelled
the results, and when plague reached the cities a
few weeks later, everyone "knew" that the "mal aria"
was the real cause.
Diseases can and do change, sometimes by mutation ("evolution").
Diseases evolve toward weaker strains. The most virulent strains produce the greatest death rates in their hosts and therefore have less probability of long term survival: if, after a short time, there are few remaining hosts, then there is less probability of continued contagion.
Diseases can have multiple hosts. In the case of "plague" caused by yersina pestis bacteria, there are three: rodents, fleas, and humans.
Fleas die after being infected (their digestive systems get blocked), but before they do, they may infect humans. The mechanism appears to be that a common mutation in yersina pestis that makes it indigestible in the flea gut. The gut blocks and the flea stomach fills with rapidly proliferating yersina, but nothing gets to its intestine where digestion takes place. The flea gets (literally) insatiably hungry. When it tries to feed, the pressure from within its engorged stomach forces some yersina into the bite wound. Fleas would keep biting and trying to feed Intel they died of malnutrition.
People die either from
massive infections at the bite site(s) — large
swellings called buboes marked the sites
(bubonic plague). If the infection had time to
reach the victims’ lungs before they
died, the pneumonic version of the
by aerosol expulsions (coughing, sneezing).
Plague could also reach the blood stream
(sometimes called septicemic plague) and blood
would then also be infectious. If
infected bodily fluids entered the food supply
enteric plague could spread.
Of the four versions of
yersina pestis plague, enteric killed fastest
(a few hours after ingestion -- 100 percent
fatal), followed by pneumonic (shortly after
inhalation -- 100 percent), bubonic (several
days -- 30 to 50 percent), and septicemic (a few hours after the
bubonic infection entered the blood stream).
If you survived (having had
the bubonic version of plague) you might have
enough antibodies to survive the next outbreak
(but you could still be a bacteria
A second plague outbreak
(years after the first) might then be called a
"children's plague", because it infected
mostly antibodyless persons born after the
Pandemics are multiple
epidemics, either across wide area or over long
periods, and usually both.
Another theory links spread of
the plague to the Mongol unification of Asia which
facilitated trade in Asia and inadvertent
transportation of infected rats by traders and or by
persons who had survived the bubonic type of plague
but were still contagious. If they went toward the
Crimea, that may have been how the plague got there
and then onward to Europe.
In 1347 the plague spread into Europe (from the Crimean Area) and Egypt (from Syria/Mesopotamia). By 1350 plague had crossed North Africa and all of Europe to the Atlantic Ocean and looped back into north eastern Europe (Russia and other north Slavic areas) — the farthest extent appears to have been Greenland where the population was totally wiped out.
Spread of the disease is thought to have been a result of trade, because it demonstrably followed land and sea trade routes
-1348 Jan - France Marseilles
-1348 - England, Spain
-1349 - Eastern Europe, Iceland,
-1350 - Wipes out Greenland?
-Spread by same trade routes
-1361-62, 1369, 74-75, 79,
Population Effects -- some putative numbers
Up to 50% in some towns - less with bubonic form of the plague
-Bohemia 10% -- got off lightly, and this was the area of minimum loss
-Paris -— 35-50% and the university, much worse
-Rome —- 35-50%
-Siena -- 40-50%
-Orvieto -- 50%
-Florence -- 45-70%
"Childrens plague", 1361-- 25% of population dies.
Population declines for 150 years as a result of local recurrences.
-No shortage of supplies (so lower prices) of goods and food (if anything, oversupply)
-Shortage of Labor
-Commerce revived after 1460.
Dance of Death
"Ring Around the Rosie" denial