Monday, November 24, 2008

Germ warfare; the Mongols say hello

Image of a corpse tied in a knot to make a bag, hanging from the side of a horse taken from the wall of a temple, lit by headlamp. Image taken in Tibet.
Hello Gentle Reader,  

...Hmm....  Maybe not so gentle.

Some of you liked the post about the Black Death...

...Well, let me follow that post with a family-friendly post on germ warfare.

...First, an apparently stream-of-consciousness diversion.  

There is a human genetic anomaly called Down Syndrome. It is named after the British Doctor, Dr. John Langdon Down, who fully described the disorder in 1866. Later, in 1959, France's Dr. Jérôme Lejeune showed that people with Down Syndrome all had an extra (partial) copy of the twenty-first chromosome.

Of course Lejeune's recognition of the chromosomal nature of the disorder did not change the name of the disorder as characterized by Dr. Down. Similarly, Dr. Down's categorization of the syndrome did not create or change a well known human condition.

I suppose that line of thought could lead us to the question of what is in a name...

In English, today, we talk about people who have Down Syndrome as being mentally challenged.  

When your humble scribe was in high school the descriptive phrase for this condition was mentally disabled. When your scribe was at grade school the descriptive phrase was mentally retarded. 

Going back much further, the descriptive phrase in my grandmother's life was mongolism. Similarly, people who had mongolism were called Mongoloids. 

Finally, older medical texts that your scribe used to use also referred to Mongolism...  

...But I always thought that Mongols were people from Mongolia, like the Great Genghis Khan? Rapacious, yes, but so was Alexander the Great. So why were Mongols singled out in such a way in European history? 

This is where the apparent diversion cease to be a diversion.

In 1346 the Mongols were on one of their raids of conquest and began besieging the port city of Kaffa. Kaffa lies on the Black Sea (Kaffa is now Feodosiya (zoom out to see it better on the map) in the Ukraine's Crimea). 

(Note, by raid, your scribe means a monumental horde of pillage and loot hungry calvarymen.)

The Mongols were fast attackers, horsemen of the steppes. They were not so keen on sieges. Mongol warriors liked to end sieges as quickly as possible.

The Plague was endemic in Mongolia and the higher steppes. In combination with other diseases such as anthrax, dropsy, leprosy, cholera, or dysentery, the Plague was used as a potent weapon by the Mongols.  

The Mongols would gather the corpses of people who had died of these horrific diseases. The corpses would be opened and the innards of the corpses would be scooped out. The scooped out remains would then be mixed up and combined to make a rather pungent and nasty concoction.  

This concoction would then be poured back into the original corpses which were then individually resealed by being sewn and tied up forming individual proto-bodybags; lets call the resulting invention a bag of diseases.

These bags of diseases would either be dropped into local water sources or hurled directly into cities which the Mongols were besieging.  

These bags of diseases were used as germ warfare siege engines and they would dramatically speed up the process of siege conquest.

While besieging the city of Kaffa the Mongols had an outbreak of the plague in their own ranks. The Mongols, of course, made some body bags and hurled these bags of diseases into Kaffa. These bags, as usual, exploded and spattered on impact; the besieged became quite sick.  

Who were the besieged? Kaffites? Kaffians? How do you call citizens of Kaffa? Were there citizens of Kaffa?

Well, at the time, denizens of Kaffa were subject to Genoa.

Genoa was, then, a major trading, naval power in continuous conflict with Venice, the other major naval power in the West. 

Genoa controlled the Black Sea, amongst other areas, and Kaffa was a Genoese trading settlement/fortress.

So what did you call a denizen of Kaffa when the Mongols started lobbing bags of death into the city?

You called them dead, or soon to be dead. 

Unless they were Genoese citizens. Then you called them loudly, waving money in your hands, because they were fleeing Death--who was apparently stalking Kaffa with his scythe in hand.

Genoese citizenship did not provide immunity to the effects of the bags of disease, but it did provide a way out of the city.

Genoese merchants and militamen, in Kaffa, fled the diseases unleashed by the Mongols. 

Well, the merchants thought they had escaped Death, and the mysterious diseases of Kaffa, as they took off in trading and war galleys.  

In the Genoese merchants' flight they landed at various ports in Southern Europe to take on supplies... and, as normal, they off loaded some trading goods, and, incidentally and inevitably, they offloaded some rats (rats were a harmless enought irritant, as perceived at the time, and all ships had them).  

No one wanted rats on a ship, they ate and fouled everything, but they seemed to be endemic to ships. 

In 1346 no one had any clue how the Plague was transmitted. We are talking about a time long before the concept of germ theory, so there was no concern or awareness as to what the merchants and naval men were inadvertently offloading when rats (and rat fleas) made their way onto each deck at each port of call. 

Of course, as the Swiss-cum-French Dr. Yersin discovered in Hong Kong in 1894, rats could spread the Plague. Japan's Dr. Masanori Ogata subsequently showed that fleas had the same bacterial infection as the rats. 

Finally, in 1897, the Frenchman, Dr. Paul-Louis Simond, dispatched by the Pasteur Institute (Institut Pasteur) to India to follow-up on Dr. Yersin's research, showed that rat fleas, Xenopsylla cheopis, were the vector transmitting the Plague bacteria from rats to people.

None of this was known in 1346-1347 in Europe, but people in the port towns visited by the fleeing Genoese recognized that the stories of death told by the Genoese merchants, sailors, and military men were terrifyingly followed by similar deaths after the trading fleets left.

These vessels fleeing Kaffa, and Kaffa's diseases, infected Europe with the Black Death via their ship rats and the fleas on those rats. 

But the Genoese were not blamed for the resulting carnage, The Black Death, that decimated Europe. 

No, the Genoese were not blamed; the Mongols were blamed.

The Mongols, after all, had used abominable bags of disease as weapons of war.

As the Plague was first brought to Europe, at least in the public's consciousness, by Mongols who lobbed putrefying corpses over the walls of Kaffa, gentle Readers (and possibly throughly appalled Readers), this is why your humble scribe thinks that there has been a link between Mongols and things that we fear striking but cannot explain. Such as Mongolism.


Chris, Regina, and Pommes

PS. Again, to see the genesis of this post was, read here...


Junosmom said...

Interesting and disgusting at the same time. Good post. I saw a great program here on public television about the Mongols and their horses. They still take young children and put them on their fastest horses to race for miles. If a horse comes back riderless, they then go looking for the missing kid.

Sepiru Chris said...

Success! Interesting and disgusting! Precisely what I aimed for!

The disgusting aspect of many of the modern horse riders is the saddles. The saddles are raised high off the horse's back so there is no contact with the horse--you should see the action in the poor horse's mouth. Very sad...