Probably not what you were thinking for the letter B. What the heck does the plague have to do with romance novels? Well, the Bubonic Plague or Black Death was a very important part of the medieval period and helped me create excellent conflict in my first novel, Time Enough to Love. In fact, my one sentence pitch for the book is: Romeo and Juliet during the Bubonic Plague with a happy ending.
The Bubonic Plague was a disease that originated in China in 1330 and was spread through trade routes to the west via the fleas that live on rats. When the rats died, the fleas moved to other hosts, usually human, and infected them. The first major outbreak of plague in Europe, called the Black Death, began in Italy in 1347. By 1348 it had spread to France and England and by 1349 had circled the globe, killing approximately one third of the population of Europe.
There were actually three bacterial strains of the plague infecting people during the 14th century outbreak. According to the PubMedHealth medical encyclopedia, the first was bubonic plague, an infection of the lymph nodes. Symptoms onset occurred usually 2-5 days after exposure an included: fever, chills, headache, muscle pain, seizures, and painful swelling of the lymph nodes (called buboes). Mortality rate was approximately 50%. Treatments consisted of good diet, rest, and relocating to a non-infected area. If the swollen buboes burst, the patient often recovered.
The second strain was pneumonic plague, an infection of the lungs. This strain was
airborne, transferred from human to human by moisture droplets present during coughing. This strain of plague had a higher mortality rate, and shorter incubation period, usually 2-3 days after exposure. And the third strain, septicemic plague, an infection of the blood, was the most virulent. Death could occur even before symptoms appeared. It usually lasted less than a day and had a 100% mortality rate.
Fear of the plague made parents forsake their children, husbands abandon their wives. Finally the only people willing to nurse the sick were the nuns and monks in holy orders. Their numbers quickly became decimated because they worked intimately with victims of the disease and then became victims themselves.
One of the most prevalent images found regarding the bubonic plague is this one of a physicians’ costume during the epidemic. The beak contained herbs and flowers that the doctors inhaled to protect themselves. Flowers were considered a sovereign remedy for warding off the plague. According to Charles Mee Jr.’s article on the Black Death, people were encouraged to carry posies near their nose to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them.”
Not the usual stuff of romance novels perhaps, but a fascinating look into a major epidemic that changed the face of medieval Europe.