You might have noticed that there was no Word of the Week last week. The reason is because, medically speaking, I was dying. According to the hypochondriac’s best friend, WebMD, my symptoms indicated I was suffering from either a cold, flu, cancer, or pregnant. Given the uncertainty, I simply took to telling people I had the plague and left it at that.
Now, you might think that the word plague is a general word for any spread of infectious disease. But, if you want to get very technical, and I always do, the modern word plague officially refers to a single disease. Actually, three, closely related infections caused by the same bacteria. There’s the bubonic plague if the infection is in your lymph nodes, the pneumonic plague if the infection is in your lungs, and the septicemic plague if the infection is in your blood. The sources of all of these names are the fairly standard mix of Latin and Greek. Plague comes from the Latin plaga, meaning to attack or wound. Septicemic comes from the Greek septikos, meaning blood. Pneumonic comes from the Greek word for lungs. And bubonic comes from the Greek word for crotch or groin.
Why crotch or groin? Well, the bubonic plague causes these nasty black, swollen nodules as it pools in your lymph nodes (which the body uses to help flush away infection and waste). These nodules occur all over your body, wherever you have lymph nodes, which include the armpits, throat, and especially the groin area. Hence, they got the name buboes (singular: bubo). And hence, the bubonic plague. Also, because they were ugly festering black, the bubonic plague which swept across Europe in the 14th century and killed between one and two thirds of the European population was also called The Black Death. Incidentally, do not do a Google image search for buboes, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death.
Now, if you’re a Harryhausen fan, you might recognize the name Bubo, not as a swollen, black lymph node, but as a robot owl. In the classic 1981 Ray Harryhausen stop-motion masterpiece, Clash of the Titans, the smith god Hephaestus crafted a clockwork owl for Athena. The goddess gave the owl to Perseus to help him rescue the princess Andromeda. Bubo is also briefly seen in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans, where the Argosian soldiers call it trash, showing that no one appreciates the classics anymore. And, insofar as horrific diseases can ever be mentioned in the same sentence as the word “funny,” there’s a funny coincidence here.
See, the Black Death of Europe gets a lot of play as THE pandemic. By the way, that’s the word for a general spread of disease. Actually, there are a couple, and they have the same root as the word democracy. Demos means people in Greek. So an epidemic is an infection “among the people,” which is generally limited to a single geographical area. And a pandemic means an infection of “all the people,” which means that the disease has spread across many regions. The Black Death is famous for being THE pandemic everyone knows. But there have actually been a lot of major disease outbreaks that shaped the course of history.
For example, and this gets back to the not-funny coincidence, the Plague of Athens. See, from 431 BCE to 404 BCE, Greece was at war pretty much with itself. Actually, to be totally fair, the situation was complicated. Greece was really a collection of leagues and alliances ruled by various city states. A series of wars between these leagues, chiefly lead by Athens on one side and Sparta on the other, called the Peloponesian Wars had broken out. It was complicated. But in 430 BCE, Athens was under seige by Spartan forces. And it might have held out, but then, the plague of Athens hit. And it spread quickly due to the close quarters and poor hygiene caused by the seige. Interestingly, it does not appear that this epidemic was actually the plague, but despite excellent records from the time, historians have still be unable to identify what disease it was that killed off one quarter to one third of the population of Athens. By the way, Sparta eventually went on to win the war.
Apart from the illness and the death, one of the most devastating impacts of both the Plague of Athens and the Black Death and many other epidemics in history comes from a single Latin word. The word is germ. And, until the 17th century, the word germ meant “seed.” Until that time, people had no idea what caused disease and how it spread. In Athens, many people believed that the plague was a sign that the gods had turned against them and had sided with Sparta. Temples were abandonned or used to store the dead and people became miserable and hopeless. There was a failure of morality and a breakdown of social structures. The same happened in Europe during the Black Death when people believed that the plague had been a punishment from God, weakening the church’s role in society and, by many accounts, causing rises in crime, immorality, violence, war, and general strife. People were afraid and they had lost hope and faith.
However, some folks were more savvy than others. In ancient Greece, for example, some scholars observed that when carrion eaters ate the corpses of the plague victims, the carrion eaters quickly got sick and died. They concluded that the disease was spreading by more natural means. In the Medieval period, miasma theory became prominent. Scholars believed the plague was spread by “bad air,” including the fumes of decaying bodies. Victims of the plague were advised to get clean air to help cure them. Because of this, traveling plague doctors took to wearing bird-like masks. The prominent beaks were filled with linen, spices, and armoatic herbs that were thought to clean the air. It seemed like a good theory. The trouble is, what actually spread the Black Death was contact with bodily fluids of the infected, usually thanks to fleas biting victims and then passing the infection on to others. So the “clean air” idea did no good. What did even less good were the flagellants, groups of religious zealots who traveled from town to town, whipping themselves to atone for the sins of man and hopefully convince God to end the plague. That’s right, you had people traveling from town to town across Europe opening bloody wounds to prevent a blood-borne illness. But you can’t fault people. No one had any idea about germs.
And that brings us to D&D and how this relates to your game. See, no one really thinks much about it, but D&D is technically a world without germs. I mean, sure, some of the vectors for disease in various editions have been explained, but given that you have divine magic that cures disease and causes disease and given that you have magical diseases that defy any sort of rational explanation, most players and DMs take a sadly scientific view of illness. And that’s a shame because we simply don’t think about the full impact of an epidemic on a society that is literally ruled by aloof deities rather than science. An epidemic is already a pretty horrible occurance, it’s a natural disaster, but it’s a slow natural disaster and it spreads and it lasts for a long time. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, the tarrasque waking up, Far Realm invasions, those things happen pretty quick. They occur, they are over. But a pandemic can last for many years, devastating a region. It doesn’t just kill, it crushes spirits and destroys faith and social order. A plague is probably the most terrifying natural disaster that can occur in D&D. And that’s a world that includes motherf$&%ing dragons. No one knows how plagues happen or why or where they come from or how they spread. A city in the grip of plague could be quarantined by the rest of the world, starved out, as civilization inside collapses and people try to escape. And, because germs aren’t really a thing, such containment measures might fail. People might be convinced to turn to dark gods, begging for relief. Refugees might be slaughtered as healthy populations try to prevent the outbreak from spreading. It’d be an amazing basis for a campaign.
Of course, it’s too damned easy for players to cure their characters of disease in D&D. So, if you want to make a plague the basis of a D&D game, or even just the driver of a single adventure, maybe limit the curative magic so that the players might be afraid of being infected. Just remind them that diseases are magic and all the handwashing in the world isn’t going to help them when the gods are pissed at them.
By the way, if you’ve played Shovel Knight, now you know why Plague Knight looks like a bird. And if you haven’t played Shovel Knight, PLAY IT! It’s on Steam and it’s awesome!