Would you stop the Black Death?

In an earlier thread, there was a discussion about whether or not, assuming you had a time machine, you should stop Adam Walsh from being kidnapped. Adam Walsh, as I’m sure you remember, was the little boy who was kidnapped and killed after wandering away from his mom at the store. His father, John Walsh, decided to do something constructive with his grief, and became instrumental in advocating for missing children and in fighting for crime prevention. It was largely thanks to his efforts that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children came into existance, and he was the creator and is the host of America’s Most Wanted, which publicizes the names and faces of people who are wanted for horrible crimes. It’s thought that at least 1000 criminals have been taken into custody due to the efforts of the show and its viewers.

In that thread, a lot of people said they would save Adam Walsh, even though that would probably stop John Walsh from starting his crusade, and could stop the abducted child database and the TV show from coming into being.

So, I’m raising the ante. I give, for your consideration, the Black Death, which was a virulent form of bubonic plague that broke out in the 14th century. It killed about 75 million people worldwide, and wiped out from 30-60% of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Of course, the Black Death also led to numerous social and political changes, and probably helped lead to the modern world.

So, I’m giving you a time machine, and a virtually unlimited amount of penicillin and rat traps. What do you do? Do you go back and wipe out the Black Death or not?

Why risk causing something much worse. If I could travel back to the modern time make sure it didn’t totally fuck up everything, and if it did pop back and undo the fix well then yes.

This is something that I’ve thought about before in different contexts,for example should we stop the Germans developing rocketry and save all of those Londoners lives from V2s?
But of course lose out on satellite technology in todays world?

Or allow the world to have continued in global financial recession instead of letting WW2 kick off?
It sounds harsh but I would have let things happen as they did for the simple reason that by stopping a known bad historical event we may well have caused an even worse thing for the human race that at this time we have no conception of.

I’d stop it. To do otherwise would be playing God. How so? Because only God can see the big picture; us mortals can only be asked to do the right thing on a case-to case basis. Stopping millions of people from dying is the right thing to do.

Could it cause something much worse? Maybe, but that isn’t for me to say. What I do know is that I’d rather save actual people in the present than potential people in the future.

In that case, though, I think it’s reasonable to think that the stuff they developed for the war would have come out anyway, especially considering how many European physicists we stole for their own safety.

As for the Black Death, I wouldn’t take the chance that something even worse wouldn’t develop.

Yes Sir, I would most definitely go back in time, but first, I would change the name to what it really truly was - “the White Death”, then proceed to wipe it out with Penicillin.

Well, how about if a plague were coming right now, one that would wipe out a third of the world’s population? Would you stop that if you alone could?

You don’t know what the world without the black death would look like. Maybe great scientists or artists who would change the world were never born, maybe slavery would have ended a hundred years earlier. History is totally contingent and unpredictable. All that you know is that human beings are ends not means, and you know, in the hypothetical, that you can save a lot of lives.

Actually we just assume it was the bubonic plague as historians and scientist -especially in the 19th and early 20th century- ignored much of the evidence that suggested it wasn’t the modern bubonic plague whose cause was first isolated by Alexandre Yersin in 1894. According to Giovanni Boccaccio who chronicled the plague was it hit Florence in 1348:

The swellings in the groin and armpit sound like modern bubonic plague but the the swellings that occur throughout the rest of the body don’t fit the pattern. Nor does the bruising that appears on the bodies of plague victims, as described later by Boccaccio, fit the pattern of modern bubonic plague either. Then we have to take into account the virulence of the plague that hit the medieval world in the mid 14th century. Modern bubonic plague just isn’t as virulent as the plague describe by medieval contemporaries.

Nor does it have the same pattern as modern bubonic plague. For example, prior to a modern bubonic plague outbreak in India in the 19th century there was seen “drunken” rats who “danced” in the streets before dying. This isn’t something that’s described by anyone in the 1340’s in Europe. Finally we have to take into account immunity. Modern bubonic plague is something that human beings do not develop a long term immunity to. In contrast, humans were able to adapt to whatever plague hit Europe in the 1348 in about a century.

An excellent book to read is The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe by Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. and The Black Death translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox which contains several contemporary narratives about the plague.


Without a question I would. I wouldn’t even think twice about it. I would let history worry if I was right or wrong. Let it be said that I did the right thing with the knowledge I have now.

Well let see. If you ancestors were right in the path of the Black(err, strike that) White Death, I kinda don’t think you’d be here to talk to me about what ever the heck history has to say. You’d never be born.

But you do know the big picture–you live in 2008 and you’ve just traveled back to 1348. You know what mankind has done since the plague and you know what the plague did to reshape Europe. With that knowledge, stopping the plague would be playing God, not letting it run its course.

I thought the White Death was a nickname for tuberculosis. And while Odisio is right that the disease might not have been the bubonic plague, it certainly wasn’t tuberculosis.

This is a slight hijack but forgive me. You’ve hit on what I think is one of the bigger historical mysteries out there. I’ve read most of the major plague books out there, including your cites, and one theory that intrigues me is the idea that the Great Famine of 1315-1320 may have permanently weakened the immune system of the young children who survived it, making them uniquely susceptible to Plague 20 years later.

Stopping the plague would literally be playing god, since you’d have to figure out how to manufacture penicillin all over Europe, or teach people about microbiology, or force people to change their sanitary practices. You’d probably get killed as a heretic before getting very far. If you somehow got Europe to the state that the Black Death could be stopped back then, we’d probably be to the stars already, having had a couple of hundred years jump in technology.

On the other hand, if you could magically wave your hand and make it all go away, we might be a couple of hundred years behind where we are now. The plague empowered the common man by making his labor far more valuable, opened up lots of land for peasants, and wiped out a lot of the nobility. That was actually helpful for the advancement of civilization. I’d have to think very hard about the implications of stopping it.

The Black Death changed the balance of power in feudal Europe, the value of labor skyrocketed and serfs just walked off the land in which they were bound to find better paying jobs.

I think it contributed to the value of Humanism and which then lead to the Enlightenment and eventually government deriving its power from the will of people.

Better or worse is debatable, but Europe would be unrecognizable for us today if that catastrophe never happened.

I don’t believe in sacrificing millions of non-volunteers “for the greater good”.

And let me put it another way; suppose you are given a button that will release the Plague, if and only if you press it ? Do you press it, and kill millions to reshape Europe ? It’s the same scenario really - it’s just harder to sit back and pretend innocence.

And we have no way to know whether the long term result would be good or bad, so we should go with the short term. If I see some woman dying by the road, I’ll call for help, not let her die because her child might be the next Hitler.

As for potential good scenarios; I’ve read in the past that one effect of the Black Plague was an upsurge in superstition and religiosity, and a discrediting of rationalism, thanks to the desperation of the time. And I’ve read that it retarded the advance of medicine, by discrediting those who were trying rational methods to understand and stop the Plague and failing, in favor of frauds who claimed cures. Perhaps they would have figured out such things as the germ theory, sanitation, and perhaps even penicillin and the use of cowpox to stop smallpox centuries earlier. And if a healthy Europe had encountered the native peoples of the Americas, far more would have survived and they’d be a thriving population now, and not a few remnants.

How much science was there back then? The quack cures came from what passed for doctors, and from the ancients. They had rational theories, but without the scientific method had no concept of testing those theories in practice.
And perhaps the plague reduced the influence of religion, very slightly, since it is relatively harder to believe in a merciful god as people die all around you. Could it have indirectly inspired the Renaissance? As an analog, the Lisbon earthquake certainly shook the faith of many. Pun intended.
Given increased contact with the East, the plague would have happened eventually - if not then, later. You’d have to eliminate it in the whole world.

Not real science; but some did have the idea that you were supposed to at least try to investigate things, instead of either looking up something the ancient Greeks wrote or declaring something to be true by God’s decree.

A merciful God ? No. A ruthless God that demands absolute faith and sends plagues to kill those who lack sufficient faith ? Oh, yes.

Improved sanitation, penicillin or even just the germ theory of disease could have greatly diminished it. That’s why even diseases we can’t cure are less prevalent, and even the ones we can often never get caught in the first place.

If I was gonna travel back in time and fuck it up just for the heck of it, I’d whack Augustine of Hippo and see what happens.

Stopping it by snapping your fingers would be problematic. Stopping it by introducing science somehow would be very positive.
I think you overestimate the utility of following the Greeks. That the quacks and the doctors had the same results didn’t cause people to abandon the quacks. This was true until recently. The recent homeopathy was so well accepted 200 years ago or so was that at least it didn’t poison the patient.

But maybe the world without the plague would be better. I have no way of knowing, do I? Sure, saving those people would make the world different than the world we know, but lacking any sort of godlike omniscience, who’s to say it wouldn’t be an improvement.

All things being equal - and they are - it’s best simply to save them. At least then I’ll know I’ll being doing something good. Anything more than that is beyond my ken.