History

The Plague, in the Plague

Two years of Black Death comparisons. What have we learned?

"The Black Death, map of the world, with vignettes." Undated watercolor by Monro S. Orr, who lived from 1874-1955.
Undated watercolor by Monro S. Orr, who lived from 1874–1955. Wellcome Images

It’s a boom time for the Black Death. Interest in the bubonic plague that burned through Europe and Asia in the 14th century, and then returned in waves of outbreaks for three centuries afterward, has been rekindled during the COVID-19 era. For two years now, hot takes about the worst pandemic in history have rolled through the media landscape with the grim persistence of a Monty Python corpse collector calling out, “Bring out your dead.”

Plague most recently struck the New York Times in February (“In Medieval Europe, a Pandemic Changed Work Forever. Can It Happen Again?”). In January, Vice (“What the Black Death’s Labor Shortage Can Tell Us About Our Own”). December of last year brought coverage of the Black Death and conspiracy theories from Salon, as well as the plague and economics in both Insider and Investors’ Chronicle. In November, a pair of quantitative social scientists explained in Politico “What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How COVID Will Change Politics.” And lest anyone think contemporary uses of the Black Death are all doom and gloom, the stage-blood-spewing, latex-monster-costumed metal band Gwar just announced its upcoming “Black Death Rager World Tour.”

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As a novelist who has spent much of the past two years afflicting fictional characters with the pestilence in question, I would like to believe the recent ubiquity of the Black Death signals a resurgence of medieval interest like the one that made Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose a publishing phenomenon a generation ago. The more likely explanation is bleaker: Death on a mass scale cries out for precedent. Today we are interested in that bygone plague mainly because we hope it will shed light on our own.

Yet the world in which the bacterium Yersinia pestis led to the deaths of tens of millions from 1346–53 was very different from the one brought to a standstill by coronavirus 2019. Facile comparisons between the two risk obscuring the facts of each, all in the name of illumination.

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"The great plague in London in 1665," by Walter George Bell, ca. 1924.
The Great Plague in London in 1665, by Walter George Bell, circa 1924.  Wellcome Images
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“There are a lot of what I call ‘rainbow connections’ that are being made in popular media,” historian Matthew Gabriele said in a Medieval Academy webinar early in the pandemic. “This tendency to try to leap from the moment now back to some moment in the past, skipping over anything in between, and see some kind of direct causal connection between then and now.”

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A professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, Gabriele is the author, with David M. Perry, of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. He first began using the phrase rainbow connection in 2017 when describing efforts to view terror attacks through the lens of the Crusades. He sees the tendency to draw these arcing lines as even more prevalent today.

“The idea is really simple,” he told me. “A ‘rainbow connection’ is an attempt to draw a line directly from today to some moment of the past, but to leave out, jump over, all the events and ideas that occurred between now and then that complicate the picture. It’s a way of sanitizing the past in order to make a specific contemporary political or cultural point, to leave out the contingency and debate within history and by historians to make a moral argument.

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“But history is messy because we’re talking about people, and people are messy,” Gabriele says. “Anyone who tells a simple story about the past is selling something, and we need more scholars pointing out the carnival barkers for what they are.”

Scholars are rightly aggrieved by casual or cynical deployments of historical periods they have spent careers trying to understand. Yet for every drive-by exegete eager to place an op-ed (or sell a book), there is a curious audience drawn to century-straddling comparisons simply because they hope context might help make sense of a frightening time. Contemporary Americans are relatively inexperienced with infectious disease compared with our ancestors; in search of explanations, many have reached for what seems closest at hand in popular culture and popular history, where the plague has always loomed large. Though the connections made can be fanciful, invocations of the Black Death have become, for better or worse, an abiding part of our pandemic experience—and the ways it has been used are continuing to evolve.

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Wooden statue depicting a plague sufferer, Europe, sometime in the 1600s.
A wooden statue depicting a plague sufferer, Europe, sometime in the 1600s. Science Museum, London, via Wellcome Images
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In the beginning—way back in 2020—the plague mostly served as shorthand, offering an odd kind of reassurance. Along with the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was enlisted to suggest that, yes, things might get bad, but we’ve seen worse. Writing for NBC News in August of that year, the historian Michael Oren argued, “As we wrestle with our contemporary challenges, it’s important that we look back and learn from those who survived and ultimately surmounted similar ones 700 years ago. Doing so may give us something we’re short on: hope.”

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Some comparisons from the pandemic’s first year even strained to imply that we would be better off in the long run, as did NBC’s headline for the Oren piece: “COVID-19’s Death and Suffering Could Lead Us to Rebirth, as the Bubonic Plague Did in Europe.” A few weeks later, National Public Radio likewise used the plague as a pep talk. “The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history, tearing apart the social fabric of medieval Europe and inflicting a gruesome death on up to half the population,” NPR’s Planet Money noted before making this remarkable transition: “But there’s another side to it that we don’t usually talk about—a sort of silver lining.”

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The silver lining argument—the idea that the plague cleared away the dead wood of the Dark Ages and allowed the Renaissance to bloom—is well worn. Writing in the Journal of the History of Biology in 1991, medievalist Faye Marie Getz, author of Medicine in the English Middle Ages, cited an actual National Enquirer headline that would set any historian’s teeth on edge: “Even Though 55 Million Died, Black Death That Wiped Out Europe Had a Good Side!”

The desire to put a positive spin on catastrophe is understandable, but it more often reflects current emotional needs rather than an accurate accounting of the past. “Humanity can rest assured that no disaster, no matter how terrible, is without redeeming social content,” Getz observed sardonically. “History, like a novel, ought to make sense, and how could the death of most the population of Europe have happened for no good reason?”

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More than three decades ago, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic she has acknowledged was an influence on her work, Getz explained that historically, there have been two broad approaches to interpreting the Black Death and its aftermath. The first, developed in the 19th century and informed primarily by medieval accounts of the plague as an essentially religious event, offered a Romantic or Gothic understanding of the loss of millions as a world-renewing cataclysm, in the manner of the biblical flood. The second interpretation, championed by historians of the French Annales school a century later, sought data from less biased sources, including municipal records that provided a view of “the enduring nature of medieval social and intellectual institutions” rather than the kind of rupture and rebirth described in scripture, which had subtly informed secular tales of a civilization resurrected after its near demise.

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In either view, interpretation of the Black Death has not been merely a matter of describing a global health crisis from long ago. It has at times amounted to a creedal statement about the nature of history: One either believes catastrophic events are leading somewhere, imbuing upheavals like pandemics with a unifying purpose across time, or one admits they are just one damned thing after another—a messy complex of damned things that cries out for elucidation, to be sure, but not the ultimately simple story any teleological understanding provides.

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“Medievalism to me seemed a door into something that always interested me,” Getz told me recently, “the axiomatic notion in so much of the history of science that we bear witness to the unfolding of a master narrative of progress from a dark age into an enlightened era.” This narrative, she suggests, has roots in “deeply embedded millennial thinking.” It looks to dramatic epochal turning points shaped by singular figures and events to explain how things became as they are, rather than grappling with the diverse, diffuse, slow-moving complexity of the past.

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Something similar in the movement from Gothic interpretations of the plague to more open-ended views of social change seems to have emerged in popular comparisons of medieval and contemporary pandemics. While silver lining arguments endure, most Black Death stories do not aspire to the same muddy optimism they once did. Gone are the arguments that somehow this will all be for the best, a revelation that will lead to a better world, replaced with sadder, truer, assessments that we are living through, as the Annales school historian Élisabeth Carpentier said of the 14th-century plague, “one catastrophe amid others.” Or as Getz told me, “I think we are in that ‘anti-apocalyptic’ narrative with COVID now.”

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It is perhaps telling that the most recent widely distributed news about the history of the Black Death did not provoke explicit connections to our current predicament at all. Research released last month in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution presented the possibility that the great mortality was not quite so great as usually supposed. Amplified by newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, the Daily Mail, and Haaretz, an international team of 62 researchers argued that palaeoecological evidence of variable rates of pollen production suggest common estimates of half the population of Europe succumbing to the sickness should now be revised.

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The plague of Florence, 1348; an episode in the Decameron by Boccaccio. Etching by L. Sabatelli the elder, after G. Boccaccio.
The Plague of Florence, 1348, an episode in the Decameron by Boccaccio. Etching by L. Sabatelli the elder, after G. Boccaccio. Wellcome Images
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Two full years into the pandemic, all historical comparisons wear thin. Analogies that may have been comforting when they set thousands of deaths beside tens of millions have become less so as the difference in the number of zeros has decreased. With any suggestion of a bright side seeming as crass in 2022 as it no doubt would have in 1348, maybe all we want to hear is that, at some point in the distant future, it all may seem not quite as horrific as it does today.

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History’s real usefulness in times of crisis is not found in either counting the dead or finding a practical purpose for their suffering. It’s a matter of reckoning with what it means to survive. The most significant piece of literature to emerge from the Black Death, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, included searing descriptions of the sickness itself, but it was primarily a chronicle of how humans passed the time: 100 stories shared by 10 narrators, each an exile from the lives they had known, spinning yarns to distract themselves from the fate of a city where “despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it … the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent.” Between the lines, we can glean in the gathered tales an entwined tedium and dread that seem uncannily familiar.

Among those living in the plague’s shadow, Boccaccio reports that some “banded together, and, dissociating themselves from all others, formed communities in houses where there were no sick, and lived a separate and secluded life, which they regulated with the utmost care.” Others, meanwhile, “the bias of whose minds was in the opposite direction” decided instead that “to drink freely, frequent places of public resort, and take their pleasure with song and revel … was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil.”

Every age has its own normal to which it longs to return. Yet history also expands our notion of what “normal” and its return might mean. Early in The Decameron, when one of its protagonists laments the paralysis living in fear of death has brought, she asks: “What do we here? What wait we for? What dream we of?”

To be mired in uncertainty as one plague year becomes another, to again and again change one’s life and choices and possibilities, all the while addled by conflicting notions of how one should behave—in perilous times such as theirs and ours, this is normal. The lessons to be learned from plagues of the past are not merely about how many died, but that those left alive struggled as we do, waiting and dreaming.

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