Not deferential enough: Four horses

Posted Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Four horses

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wood cut by Albrect Durer (1498), now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

by Gina Hamilton

Okay, we're all still here and it didn't happen.  Which is, I suppose, on the whole, a good thing.  But as anyone in my family could tell you, I have had an unholy and probably unhealthy fascination with end-of-the-world prophecies and other proposed human die-backs for many years, since childhood, really. I am the only person I know with a Black Death European Tour t-shirt.  I watch the Seventh Seal every time it comes on television.  I have re-read DeFoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year' several times.

Now, I would like to differentiate between an actual, real life catastrophe - such as we lived through in the 80's at the height of the AIDS crisis, when we all stood by helplessly as dear friends sickened and died, seemingly before our eyes - and a historical plague in which we didn't know anyone. 

End of the world prophecies predate the Black Death (the first known prophecy in which some people gave their worldly belongings to the Church  was in the year 1000, when they went to the tops of mountains, froze for a few days, and then returned home when it didn't happen, poorer but wiser), but it was during the mid-1300's that people really, truly believed for the first time that the end of days had come, and with very good reason. 

A third of the population died around them. Some towns were completely depopulated.  In others, there weren't enough of the living to bury the dead. It must have seemed like the end of days.  And the plague returned year after year, taking new babies born to replace the ones who had died the year before. 

What I always found fascinating was the cultural stuff that arose with the end of the world beliefs, some of which had folk-remedy origins, such as the ring-around-the rosy nursery rhyme (indeed, it's amazing how many children's songs and stories have their origins in the plague years, but more about that another time).  Depending on the interpretation, the rhyme either teaches people to stay away from the sick (ring around the rosy) or refers to a skin rash that precedes the eruption of the bulboes.  People believed sickness was carried by foul air - and plague smells particularly foul - so it was recommended to carry a sweet-smelling bouquet or dried herb to combat the smell.  Ashes, ashes either referred to the practice of burning the dead toward the end, or is an alternative spelling of the sound of a sneeze (achoo), and then, of course, the horrific end - all fall down.

Other cultural stuff had origins in Revelation, which was written by John the Divine, then a prisoner (or patient) on the Isle of Patmos, a Roman mental facility of sorts.  All sorts of lunacy was born in his fevered rantings, including the whole notion of what the Apocalypse would look like.  The four horsemen above were part of that dreamscape.  All the numerical rantings that priests, popes, charletans, sociopathic mass murderers, and the innocent credulous tried to hang their collective hats on - the lamb opening the seventh seal, for instance, and the appearance of an antichrist whose number 666 should spell doom - all originate in this single odd book. 

One of the most interesting cultural aspects of this era is known as the Danse Macabre, or the dance of death. The omnipresent possibility of sudden and painful death increased the religious desire for penitence, but it also evoked a hysterical desire for amusement while still possible; a last dance as cold comfort. Visual representations show Death, usually the grim reaper or a skeleton, leading a group of people in a jerky dance to an open grave.  The people come from all walks of life - priests and cardinals, gentlefolk and royalty, peasants and sailors, children and infants.

The idea, of course, is that death could come at any time, and it was best to be prepared.  The dance of death had its origins in the medieval mystery plays, but during the plague years it became wildly popular.

Danse macabre was performed at public gatherings of all kinds - market days, fairs, church festivals, and private entertainments.  But before you wonder at the mentality that would make light of such a weighty topic, consider what our own entertainment is like.  When was the last time you went to a movie or watched a television show that didn't feature people getting blown apart in some way?

Nothing has really changed, and the average 14th century European felt the same way we do when we come out of the theatre after a shoot-em-up film - secretly relieved.  For the moment, we're all still here.  And on the whole, it's a good thing. 

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