Re: Memory of Plague (was Re: diseases and immunity)

Eric Brunner (
7 Jul 1996 19:48:28 GMT

john tillinghast (vanya@leland.Stanford.EDU) wrote:
: I have been following this discussion of these incredibly lethal epidemics
: in the New World, and they sound like events that be remembered for a long
: time. (For example, in England the nursery rhyme "ring around the rosies"
: is supposed to describe the effect of the Black Death -- to name a trivial
: example.) So I am wondering how the affected peoples interpreted what was
: happening (especially if they did not meet Europeans themselves), and how
: the memory of the catastrophe was passed on in various cultures, if you
: have that kind of information.

Your question is a good one John. Clearly Europeans retain to the present
a collective consciousness of the pandemic events of the 14th century, but
this rememberance is selective -- Plague events took place in Europe as
late as the 18th century but European collective memory places the 14th
century events -- the "medieval" in greater highlight than these much more
modern events. I'm guessing that this has something to do with the rise of
antiquitarinism as a fashion, that is that this "memory" is constructed
out of more than simple depopulation ratios.

I can speak to the advent of smallpox in the high plains of the US and
Canada -- the "stinking sickness" or "white spots sickness" visited my
indigenous ancestors in the late 17th through early 20th centuries and
is "remembered" as caused by contact with Europeans, either French and
their associated trading partners, Dominicans, or Lower Missouri River
trade, and of course, as several major depopulative events with social
disruption attending the infections and die-offs. We recall the winter
the Mandan were wiped out by smallpox.

I can also speak to the advent of TB in the same region, in the very
late 19th and early 20th centuries. We lost up to 2/3rds of all children
taken to boarding schools in the US and Canada to TB -- "wasting sickness".
The cause and effect were interpreted as any modern would interpret them,
as TB was common in all places of incarceration and incarceration was then
the norm for large numbers of adults as well as non-adults.

To give you an example to match the English children's rhyme, "ring
around the rosies", for deeply embedded memory and meaning, here is the
English translation of the Siksika (Blackfeet) word for the Queen's Courts:

"Where we (natives) have a black door"

Some things change very slowly, neh?

: Thanks,

Welcome. Any contribution that isn't eugenics-in-drag is always welcome
in sci.anth.

: John

: Visit the SAGE page:


Those Unix sysadmins, always cracking up wise.

Eric Brunner