IELTS Reading Exercise 23

Complete each sentence with the correct ending, A-G.

The Black Death

The Black Death, which swept across Europe in the late 1340s, seemed to contemporaries to herald the end of the world. To the chroniclers of Padua the plague was a devastation more final than Noah's Flood - when God had left at least some people alive to continue the human race. On the other side of Europe, in Kilkenny, John Clynn left blank pages at the end of his chronicle "in case anyone should still be alive in the future". The very enormity of the disaster drove chroniclers to take refuge in clichés: there were not enough living to bury the dead; whole families died together, the priest was buried with the penitent he had confessed a few hours earlier. The same comments appear in chronicle after chronicle, and the result can seem curiously perfunctory, with only the occasional vivid detail bringing the reality of the situation before the reader, such as William Dene's remark that the stench from the mass graves was so appalling that people could hardly bear to go past a churchyard.

Alongside these verbal clichés are the numerical ones. The most common claim was that scarcely a tenth of the population survived the plague. Other writers opted for one in five. A few, more modestly, suggested that barely half or a third of mankind was left alive. It is easy to dismiss such claims as meaningless exaggeration: one more example of the notorious medieval tendency to inflate numbers. The mortality rate was clearly nothing like 90% (one in 10 surviving) or even 80% (one in five surviving). But if the figures are exaggerated, they are not meaningless. The chroniclers' resort to them is a measure of their horror and disbelief at the number of deaths they saw around them. The best modern estimates of the death rate in England during the first outbreak of plague cluster between 40% and 55%, which give a probable average mortality of around 47% or 48%. In other words nearly half the population of England died in something like 18 months. Not all of Europe was so badly affected, and even within the worst affected areas there must have been communities which, for whatever reason, managed to escape relatively lightly, but the Black Death was a human disaster of appalling magnitude.

The name Black Death is a later coinage. Contemporaries do not seem to have put a name to the illness, referring to it in non-specific ways as a mortality or epidemic. Even the words plague or pestilence, which became the standard terms for the disease, were originally non-specific, and have remained so: not all plagues are the plague. This is not to say that contemporaries had failed to recognise that they were dealing with a specific disease, or that they were hazy about its manifestations. On the contrary, writers across Europe not only present a consistent picture of the symptoms of the disease, but had realised that the same disease was taking two distinct forms.

One, the most common, manifested itself by painful swellings in the groin or armpit, less commonly on the neck, often accompanied or followed by little blisters elsewhere on the body or by a blotchy discolouration of the skin. The first sign of illness was a sudden coldness, and a prickling sensation like pins and needles, accompanied by extreme tiredness and depression. By the time the swellings had formed the patient would be in a high fever, with severe headaches. The victim might well fall into a stupor, or be unable to articulate when conscious. Several writers note that the matter contained in the swellings and the bodily effluvia were particularly noisome. The other form of the disease attacked the lungs, causing chest pains and breathing difficulties, followed by the coughing up of blood and sputum. This was invariably fatal and killed more quickly than the first form, whose victims lingered for several days, and might even recover. Not all contemporary writers distinguished explicitly between the two forms of the disease, although the distinction was clearly common knowledge within the papal court at Avignon, where it was familiar to men with no medical training, such as Louis Heyligen. But even writers who conflated all the plague symptoms into a single list were often making the same distinction implicitly. Most believed that the appearance of the swellings was a sign that the body was trying to expel the poisonous matter to its surface, and that if swellings did not form the poison would work inwards, affecting first the lungs and then the brain. They had recognised, in other words, that the swellings and the coughing up of blood from the lungs did not generally occur together.

What such writers were describing were quite clearly cases of bubonic and pneumonic plague. Plague is primarily a disease of wild rodents, caused by the bacillus Yersinia Pestis. Once the disease has become well-established in the human population, person to person transmission can occur, but in the first instance plague can be transmitted to humans only by the agency of fleas from infected rodents. Bacilli multiply rapidly in the blood of an infected rodent and are ingested by fleas feeding on the animal. Several types of flea can carry the disease, but much the most effective vector is the rat flea: Xenopsylla cheopis. This will not, for choice, seek non-rodent hosts if rodents are available, but may be driven to find new hosts as rodent communities are thinned by the plague.

Under normal conditions the plague makes the transition from rodents to humans relatively rarely, in part because the wild rodents in which the disease is endemic are unlikely to come into sufficiently close contact with people for their fleas to move across onto a human host. Thus although plague exists today among the rodent population in parts of the United States, there have been only a handful of cases of people contracting the disease. What seems to have happened in the mid-fourteenth century is that ecological changes in central Asia (where wild rodents formed a reservoir of the disease) drove the infected animals out of their existing habitats and into closer proximity to human settlement, allowing the disease to become endemic among the local rat population and facilitating the movement of fleas to human hosts. This is not an entirely speculative scenario. Islamic authors believed that the plague in the east was preceded by famine, floods and earthquakes, and the highly coloured stories of natural prodigies which appear in a number of European sources are garbled versions of the same belief.

Source: The Black Death (1994)

a. had occurred
b. crossed over
c. was affected
d. would survive
e. had died
f. could catch
g. showed itself

  1. One chronicler was concerned that nobody .
  2. By the end of it all, probably just under half .
  3. Not every region of Europe , some parts escaping almost unscathed.
  4. The disease in two main forms, one of which that attacked the lungs.
  5. Natural disasters that in Asia might have launched the Black Death.

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