The Threads of History


It is no coincidence that the novel coronavirus emanated from China. We need look no further than the Silk Road, which reminds us with great immediacy that humankind has never occupied isolated worlds, but shares a single space that flourishes because of and despite of our interactions with one another. (Dear reader, let me interject at the beginning that New Utopias has not succumbed to a global urge to write about the present pandemic, but still pursues the no longer rhetorical question of “How shall we then live”.) 

Our dealings have always taken place across vast distances, ones which led to the creation of famous historic routes. Although these have contributed greatly to our culture and enriched life in general, what has become a rampant human interconnectedness and free-flowing movement of populations now presents dangers as never before. 

It was the constant movement and mixing of populations along the Silk Road which had such a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the peoples of Eurasia. The route started at Xi’an, and stretched for 6400 kilometres, passing the Great Wall of China, the Takla Makan Desert, crossed Afghanistan, and continued to Levant. From here merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Revived in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Silk Road was travelled by the Venetian Marco Polo to Cathy, and in all likelihood was the main way that plague bacteria responsible for the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the mid-14th century moved westward from Asia.

Just as an aside, and regarding the nomenclature, the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, and the term 'Silk Routes' has become increasingly favoured by many historians, though 'Silk Road’ is the more common and recognised name. 

We owe to the Silk Road the rapid development of ideas, knowledge, beliefs and culture, of science, the arts and literature, but also of crafts and new technologies. All these were shared and disseminated amongst societies along the length of the route. 

The common good can be recognised here. By way of a significant caveat: wherever people, animals and goods have moved and brought enriching effects, undesirable phenomena such as disease have also been transmitted on a broad scale. Global movement and concomitant inter-connectedness are nothing new. They have always carried the potential to create epidemics. And various pathogens, to include parasites, bacteria and viruses, were transmitted along the Silk Road. The Plague was one of the most notable. This disease is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, commonly carried by fleas; three pandemics occurred in human history, the largest and most horrendous was the second outbreak, which is often referred to as the “Black Death”. 

Vast numbers of people across Eurasia were infected, and deaths are estimated to have been somewhere between 75 and 200 million. The outbreak peaked between 1347 and 1351, and reached the trade ports of Europe by 1346. Many theories try to explain exactly where the 14th century plague originated and how it spread. A plethora of historical citations points to rodents carrying the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis and hence spreading the disease along the Silk Road, where it then reached Europe having first infected merchants.

In the late Middle Ages, societies lacked any real ability to prevent the spread of plague or to treat it effectively. There was just no accurate knowledge available on the exact cause of the disease. The best response was to flee. This remained the only effective preventative measure for the population, as any attempted cures for plague had practically no effect. The Black Death did have one positive outcome: because the disease had a habit of returning periodically, it prompted Europe in subsequent decades and centuries to draw up public health measures. One key way to prevent the spread of plague, as introduced by Venice, was to put suspected marine vessels and travellers into isolation for 40 days before anyone was allowed to enter the conurbations of the city. This is still practiced today, and it is from this practice that we derive the term “quarantine”.

More anon . . .