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Iconic Plague Images Are Often Not What They Seem

NPR illustrated an article about the plague with a medieval image. A historian pointed out that the picture was actually depicting victims of leprosy. So they replaced the image. Well, the second image was about the biblical curse of skin boils. It turns out that a lot of what we thought was art about the plague is just wrong. Most real plague victims were not covered in spots or sores as we've come to think. What a real plague victim looked like was worse, but not as easily conveyed in a painting.    

First off, there were a lot fewer spots involved. People in the mislabeled images tend to be covered from head to toe in red lesions. Some patients probably did get petechial hemorrhaging — pinpoint dark spots of blood under the skin. But today, as in the past, plague victims would only have had one bump on their bodies — a big swollen lymph node called a "bubo" close to where they were bitten by a flea carrying the infection.

This is not to say they looked good. They were probably sweating and shivering with fevers, and they supposedly smelled terrible, says Jones, "because their bodies were breaking down from the inside." But those aren't characteristics that would stand out in an illustration.

The Black Death swept through Europe between 1347 and 1353, but artists weren't keen on sitting down to paint them. Read about the lack of plague victim images and how we got the wrong idea about the disease at NPR. -via Digg

(Image credit: The British Library)


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