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Sunday, 21 August 2016

All about germs

Originally, a germ was a seed, and this sense is still preserved in expressions like 'wheat germ' and 'germinate', which is what a seed does when it sprouts, or in the 'germ of an idea', but for the most part, germs are now the latter-day equivalent of evil spirits, for they are invisible, all around us, and they cause us to be ill. The only difference, perhaps, is that certain mages can sell you cloths and sprays that will banish these spirits from your hearth and home. Then again, maybe things today aren't all that different after all.

Those of us with a thoroughly modern outlook are inclined to commend ourselves smugly for understanding these things, when those before us did not. But then again, maybe they did have a few clues about what was going on. Here is Daniel Defoe, in his Journal of the Plague Year, (published in 1722!) discussing what really caused the disease, writing about how one could tell who had caught the plague:
I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party's breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents and devils, horrible to behold. But this I question very much the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.
In fact there were microscopes in London just before the plague arrived, but these were primitive devices that would not have revealed the germs of the disease, the Yersinia pestis bacteria. It seems fairly clear, however, that Defoe had some idea that there were microorganisms of the sort that Anton van Leeuwenhoek had described, and that these might have caused the disease.

Well and good, by the time Defoe published, the scientific age was well advanced. Back at the time of the Black Death, our ancestors were really stupid, and knew nothing, right? Well, maybe not...

For a start, they were not completely lacking in any understanding. Here is Chaucer speaking through the host of the Tabard, in the Prologue to the 'Cook's Tale', most of which is sadly lost to us.

And many a Jakke of Dover hastow soold
That hath been twies hoot and twies coold.
Of many a pilgrym hastow Cristes curs,
For of thy percely yet they fare the wors,
That they han eten with thy stubbel goos;
For in thy shoppe is many a flye loos.

The Jack of Dover was probably a pie, and the cook stands accused here of twice heating and twice allowing the food to cool before selling it, a sure recipe for food poisoning, even if it is one ignored by many modern fast-food sellers. Pilgrims who have eaten the cook's old goose, fed on stubble, will have cursed him because his shop has many flies. In other words, Chaucer was fully aware, some time before he died in 1400, of what caused people to get ill from food they ate.

But refrigeration, surely that is a modern invention, and something that only modern people like us understand? Perhaps not, if you consider how Francis Bacon died in 1626, according to John Aubrey:
Mr Hobbs told me that the cause of his Lordship's death was trying an Experiment . . . it came into my Lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in Salt. They . . . bought a Hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the body with Snow, and my Lord did help doe it himselfe. The snow so chilled him that he fell immediately ill . . .they put him into a good bed, warmed with a Panne, but it was a damp bed that had not been layn-in in about a yeare before, which gave him such a colde that in 2 or 3 dayes . . . he dyed of Suffocation.
In other words, they decided to see if poultry meat could be preserved by chilling it, had the woman who supplied it remove the entrails ('exenterate' it), and then used snow to do the freezing task. So even the principles of refrigeration, it seems, were understood in the dim, dirty, unhygienic past. About the only thing we can give ourselves credit for is for inventing a phobia about germs.

And even there, we aren't very original. Louis Pasteur hated three things: the Germans, the left-wing French who swarmed everywhere and threatened to destroy the body politic, and the germs that he felt were trying to do the same thing to human bodies, like tiny, malignant revolutionaries. At least one good thing came of it: Pasteur studied the brewing of beer so French beer would be better than the German beer that all those horrid workers insisted on drinking.

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