• Adrian J. Boas

On Plagues

Locust swarm in Australia (CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (])

This year it was butterflies, then moths and there was a brief threat of locusts moving north through the Arabian Peninsula. It was, we were told, the outcome of heavy rains off the Indian Ocean, a particularly wet Winter that followed several years of drought. Lately it has been grasshoppers crossing into northern Israel from Syria. You wonder if there is not some vast opening in the dusty landscape hidden among the boulders where these creatures rise in a whirlwind mass like the swirling steam from a giant subterranean cauldron.

Plague comes upon us as suddenly and unexpectedly as disease. I recall eons ago, an invasion of caterpillars, thousands of them, all sizes, green and yellow, and the small ones dark, almost black, consuming the garden plants, climbing the walls and trees, dropping into your hair or down the back of your shirt, covering the pavements. They were sprayed and swept away but kept coming back. It was difficult to walk without slipping and they were even entering the houses. My mother poured boiling water over the footpath, and a steamroller was brought in by the local council. The pervading smell was inescapable and nothing seemed to help until finally, and as suddenly as they had appeared, their numbers dwindled and they vanished altogether, leaving behind devastated gardens and the lingering smell.

In the Latin East plagues came and went, often accompanying or preceding other disasters such as earthquakes and invasions. Walter the Chancellor recorded a plague of locusts in 1114, and William of Tyre mentions a combined outbreak of locusts and mice, the latter remaining for four years.* In 1127 an infestation of rats spread through the Holy Land. Fulcher of Chartres records that some of them seized an ox by its hindquarters, suffocated it and then devoured it along with seven goats.** That might sound implausible but there are indeed accounts through history of rats attacking animals and even humans. (I am reminded of once arriving at an army base in the desert where we were warned that the night previous a rat had eaten a sleeping soldier's ear. Whether or not this was true I spent a sleepless night with my head wrapped tightly in a blanket.) This invasion concentrated in the region of Acre, perhaps originating in the filthy city itself. When they began to suffer from thirst, the rodents went north into the hills above Tyre, a well-watered region, until a storm forced them down into the valleys.

In 1178 a swarm of locust struck, accompanied by an earthquake. It is interesting how disasters frequently come in combinations, collaborations it must seem. In December 1267 Lusignan Cyprus was struck by locusts along with the plague and a series of earthquakes. Locust swarms were common events. They were back in 1351, 1410 and in an extended visit from 1432.

Of all disasters, the devastating arrival of the Black Death was the worst. It became a repeating visitor to Cyprus, with a number of outbreaks in 1348, 1351 (accompanied by an earthquake and tsunami), 1362, 1392-93, 1409 and culminating in a three-year outbreak commencing in 1470 which is believed to have wiped out a third of the island's population.

* William of Tyre, I.II, p.535 ** Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, transl. F.R. Ryan, ed. H.S. Fink, III.LXII, pp. 303-4.