Doomsday Book by Connie Willis: Fact or Fiction?

Topics: Black Death, Yersinia pestis, Bubonic plague Pages: 6 (2451 words) Published: June 13, 2006
Doomsday Book, Fact or Fiction?
In our day and age, movies and novels are passed off by many as history. Movies like Troy, U-571, and Enemy at the Gates (it can't get any worse than that) are historical inaccurate and at times horribly offensive. One must be dubious towards any form of entertainment with historical "facts" put out, be it a book or a movie. On the contrary, Connie Willis does a relatively good job of portraying the past in the Doomsday Book. She writes about traveling in time to the era of the Black Death and how it was experienced by the people who lived during the time. She discusses the plague itself, the religious aspects of it, and the hygiene of the people. For the most part, she depicts the past accurately as it was recorded by people who lived during the time. The Doomsday Book focuses on the Late Middle Ages, especially the Black Death. Willis describes the path of the plague, the symptoms, the results and such. According to records from the past, she does this quite accurately. She twice mentions the three different types of plagues and discusses the differences between them. "There are two distinct types, no, three—one went directly into the bloodstream and killed the victim within hours. Bubonic plague was spread by rat fleas, and that was the kind that produced the buboes. The other kind was pneumonic, and it didn't have buboes. The victim coughed and vomited up blood, and that was spread by droplet infection and was horribly contagious." (Willis, 324) These facts are definitely correct. The flea of the rat was in fact the vector of the Y. pestis bacteria which carries the plague. The Centers for Disease Control discuss the Plague in detail as well and say that "Plague is an infectious disease that affects animals and humans. It is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This bacterium is found in rodents and their fleas" (CDC) Willis goes on to slightly repeat herself but still has the correct facts. "I wish I knew whether the disease is contagious before the symptoms appear and how long the incubation period is. I know that the plague takes free forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic, and I know the pneumonic form is the most contagious since it can be spread by coughing or breathing on people and by touch." (Willis, 335) According to the CDC, the Bubonic Plague was the most common form. The patients developed fever, headaches, weakness and typically buboes. Boccaccio describes what he has seen in his own time "in men and women alike there appeared, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils." (Boccaccio) The Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria infects the lungs. This type can be spread from person to person via the air. A person can get infected from coming in contact with the ill person or anything he has touched. Boccaccio makes many observations of this. He talks about the failure of physicians to clear the plague and the results of them trying. "The mischief was even greater; for not only did converse and consortion with the sick give to the sound infection or cause of common death, but the mere touching of the clothes . . . appeared of itself to communicate the malady to the toucher." (Boccaccio) Trying to help the sick would make the physician sick as well. The Pneumonic Plague was very contagious, even the clothes of those sick carried the disease. In the book, Kivrin is constantly telling Father Roche not to touch the clothing or the sick person themselves unless he could not avoid it. There was just case for this worrying. "Of this my own eyes had one day…the rags of a poor man who had died of the plague, being cast out into the public way, two hogs came upon them…took them in their mouths and tossed them about their jaws…then fell down dead upon the rags with which they had...

References: Boccaccio, Giovanni. Stories of Boccaccio. London: Bibliophilist Library, 1903
Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Newhall, Richard A. The Chronicle of Jean de Venette. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.
Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2001.
Thompson, Sir EM. Chronicon Galfridi le Baker de Swynebroke. Oxford, 1889.
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book. New York: Banthom Books, 1992.
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