This paper analyzes the documentary film “Secrets of the dead-Mystery of the Black Death”. This film discusses about the Black Death, a disease resulting from a combination of bubonic and pneumonic plague, which killed millions of Europeans during the Middle Ages. Researchers in this video clarify the origins of this pandemic/how it spread, the damage it caused on the whole European continent, the theory explaining how some people managed to escape the Black Death and the relationship between the disease and today’s most dangerous virus: the HIV. The team of experts in this film is composed of historians, geneticists, a microbiologist, a virologist and even a gastroenterologist. Thus, the combination of historical and scientific knowledge will answer the questions about the past that people have always asked. Primary sources
First of all, many primary sources were used in this film to analyze the subject of Black Death. The experts had access to the written files in the London Archives, such as the burial records and plague register of the period where the disease appeared. The first type of primary source used was the burial records. Another type of written document (handwritten volume, also known as registers), is also considered as a useful primary source that helped the researchers get a clearer view of history. For example the parish and plague registers. The third type of primary source showed in this video was the oral stories/records, told by the direct descendents of Black Death’s survivors. As a matter of fact, the plague register analyzed by the historian Justin Champion, indicated approximately the number of households who were affected by the plague, and the burial records indicated the number of people who died. Thus, if we correlate the findings of both primary sources, we will obviously have an idea of the numbers of survivors. The parish register( document from the Churches) was used with similar purpose as the burial records and plague register (archival files). The plague historian John Clifford was also interested in the number of people
that survived the pandemic. He examined the parish register that started in 1630, and then he analyzed the parish register of 1725 and finally chose 433 survivors on that list that would be subjects of his researches. Oral records also helped shedding light on the past. Joan Plant, a descendent of the plague survivors, explained that many people survived the disease, for example her ancestor Margaret Blackwell. Thus, because of the stories brought by the descendents, experts and researchers became aware that surviving the plague is possible, and they could expand their researches to learn the factors that allowed the infected Europeans to survive. This video mentions about the case of Elisabeth Hancock, whose six children and husband all died because of the infection but she somehow managed to survive. The historians and researchers know about this story because of the oral records. However, there is not any source that clarifies why she was the only one alive, while the rest of her family members died. Consequently, if a resource was available explaining or providing information on how she managed to survive, the researchers would be come with more powerful findings and conclusions about the Black Death. Many of these sources suggested that there were survivors who managed to escape from the Black Death and some of them did not even get infected. Therefore, the survivors become the key study of this research. Many scientists, such as the geneticist Stephen J. O’Brien, rely on modern technology and knowledge to draw conclusions on their researches, after analyzing the primary sources. For example, O’Brien studied the genetic make-up of modern people from Eyam, through a process that could only be done using modern technologies (knowledge and equipments). He found many interesting results, such as the presence the Delta 32/CCR5 (a gene mutation that is going to be explained in details, in the second section of this paper). Different interpretations of the past
This documentary clarified two aspects concerning the Black Death: the origins/spread of the plague, and what made it possible to survive the illness. First, one has to understand the Black Death started in the Middle Ages and it spread throughout the European continent. Around 1347, thirteen Genoese galleys entered the harbor of Messina, Sicily carrying the disease. Actually, the ships contained rats infected by flea that transmitted the
tiny bubonic bacterium to the people on land. When the ships arrived at the harbor, it took only twelve months for the pandemic to kill a third of the population. Eventually, by January sixty percent of population in Marseilles die, and during spring seventy-five percent of people in Florence died. Around 1348, the plague approaches the shore of England, but was already installed in England before reaching the shore. People at that period lacked medical knowledge about these kinds of plagues, therefore when it first hit the Europe, they couldn’t react on time to prevent it from damaging the population further. Some people did not even know that the Black Death exists, such as the tailor of Eyam, George Viccars, who received a bundle of cloth infected by fleas carrying the disease; consequently he could not prevent it from spreading. Another reason was because of the tiny bubonic bacterium that penetrated into infected people’s lungs, thus transforming into pneumonic plague and after that transformation, the contamination by air became possible. The disease spread even faster. The second aspect that needs to be clarified is the ability of some people to survive. Indeed, the earliest assumption suggested that the Europeans’ nutrition, environment, natural immunity are factors influencing immune system’s resistance against diseases. On the other hand, modern researchers possess way more knowledge, thus they come with a more sophisticated and theoretical hypothesis: there was a mutation in the Europeans’ gene that allowed people to survive the illness. Actually, we must be familiar with the role and functions of gene in order to comprehend why experts came up with this theory. The genes are often related to the immune system of a person’s body, therefore if a mutation exists , it might stop bacteria from infecting the body. More precisely, when a flea bites someone, the disease will enter the blood stream to damage the person’s health. At that time, the body’s microorganism will send an army of white blood cells to kill the bacteria. Unfortunately, the bacteria gets into the white blood cells and use them to travel to the lymph nodes, then they eventually breaks up to attack a person’s immune system. That is how an individual normally get infected by a plague disease. The CCR5 Gene, also known as the Delta 32, can block the crucial ports into the human cells, thus preventing plague bacteria from penetrating and installing in the body. That was why Dr.O’Brien correlated the mutation of the gene and the resistance of the pague. Dr. O’Brien, with the help of Rick Titball (Microbiologist) and another geneticist, David Goldstein, worked on his initial hypothesis.
He collected DNA tissue samples from the direct descendents of plague survivors, in the village of Eyam and sent their DNA to the University College in London. The results indicated that fourteen percent of the sample population actually carried the mutation of gene (Delta 32). Fourteen percent is not literally a large number, but genetically a significant number, thus we can relate the resistance of the plague with the mutation. In addition, with the help of Goldstein, O’Brien found out that the mutation appeared around 700 years ago, which was also the time when the Black Death hit Europe, thus a strong correlation between the mutation and the disease could be made. Also, he compared the results found in Eyam with the frequency and level of mutation of genes of people in other countries. O’Brien found out that only the people whose ancestors survived the plague had Delta 32 gene. Also, this documentary mentioned about people who did not even caught the disease. The explanation for that was the possession of two copies of Delta 32, one from each parent. In conclusion, one copy of Delta 32 allows people to survive, and two copies assure their total immunity against the Black Death. Plus, the mutation was truly responsible for the survival of Europeans. Connection to the Modern World
The study of the Black Death and mutation of gene-the Delta 32, is closely connected to our modern world. First it explains the modern day Europeans’ immunity against certain disease, plus it connects with another issue our today’s society: the HIV virus that killed a great number of people. Although the HIV is a virus and the Black Death a bacterium, they are really similar in the way these illnesses attack the body. To be more specific, both of them take over the white blood cells sent by the microorganism to destroy them, and then infect the body’s immune system. The virologist Bill Paxton took a blood sample from Steve Crohn and mixed it with doses of HIV virus( 3000 times more than necessary to infect the cells). He found out that even with the strong quantity of virus, Steve’s cells were not infected. This result brought the following observations: the virus could not enter the cells of Steve because of the Delta 32 gene. Later, the experts found that Steve’s body contained the CCR5 gene because
he was a descendent of Europeans. Thus, we see clearly that there is a very strong correlation between the Black Death and the HIV. The mutation called Delta 32, a trait passed by the European ancestors, gave many modern day Europeans immunity against some disease. Thus, Stephen O’Brien’s theory was again proved to be on the right track. Conclusion
Finally, I found this documentary useful, because it explained one important fact: the quarantine of Eyam village, that brought the discovery of some people’s ability to survive, was ordered by the reverend William Mompesson. However, the video did not mention enough what the clergyman did with this issue: did he move to neighbour towns or outside to seek help for his villagers? Or he just left his people to their fate? Thus, these questions were left unanswered. I learned that, according to this documentary, only Europeans and their descendents seem to possess the Delta 32 Gene, thus they could be immune or survive certain diseases( HIV, Black Death), and other ethnicities such as the Native Africans, East Asians and Indians did not have the CCR5 mutation. These findings led me to ask two questions: Were there any cases of foreigners( Asians and other ethnicities) who did not have the Delta 32 but who survived diseases such as AIDS? And was the Delta 32 the ONLY explanation for the illnesses’ resistance? I found that these questions were not mentioned or explored deeply enough. This documentary’s purpose was great, because it clarified many elements and shed light to the past, but it was too concentrated on the European reality, without conducting further researches on other continents.