Night falls in the thick of a strong smell of smoke. No one can enter or leave the house. The whole family is confined inside. The maid has been infected with the virus. She’s quarantined in the attic. There’s a guard posted at the door. On the facade someone has painted a red cross. The city is besieged by that same virus. Those who could, fled to the countryside before the authorities blocked off the exits. Every night a truck full of dead bodies rumbles through the neighborhoods. This is how families bury their dead, simply adding them to the heaps of corpses. The cemeteries are empty. It’s not March 2020. It’s not the Italian city of Bergamo. It’s London. It’s 1664.
The English who lived during the Great Plague knew it wasn’t the first time they had experienced something similar. The Black Death of the Middle Ages was still studied in schools. It had killed 60% of Europe’s population. I know our generation likes to think that we invented everything, including drama, but our ancestors went through pandemics worse than the coronavirus and with far less means.
History repeats itself. In the Middle Ages the Black Death spread from China or Central Asia. Apparently early historians who denied that the Black Death originated in China did so, also claiming that it was important to “avoid racism”. It’s just proof that idiots stubbornly refusing to accept reality is nothing new. The medieval Black Death reappears every few years in Asia. In 2019, in Mongolia, a couple died of black plague after eating the raw kidney and gallbladder of a groundhog, an animal known to be a common carrier of the disease. They had to put the whole region under quarantine. The Mongolian and Chinese authorities then timidly asked people to avoid eating raw groundhog meat. I can almost see Phil breathing a sigh of relief over in Pennsylvania. Not for long. Still today a high percentage of the Chinese consider eating wild animals a sign of identity.
It was communism, though, that took culinary innovation too far. Their taste for exotic animals developed during the Great Famine. When in 1958 Mao decided that the sparrows were eating too much grain, he ordered them all killed. The result was a plague of locusts and other pests with millions of deaths from malnutrition. Mao then told the Chinese to feed themselves with whatever they had on hand. So the poor Chinese chose to eat all kinds of weird and wonderful animals to survive.
Seven centuries before the coronavirus pandemic, the spread of the plague across Europe began with an early instance of biological warfare. It was in 1347. The Mongols came up with it, shall we say, organically. They were laying siege to the Christians in the Genoese city of Caffa — today called Feodosia. The Black Death was wreaking havoc among the Mongolian troops. They loaded the catapults with their dead and shot them over the walls into the city, in the hopes of spreading the plague to the enemy. They didn’t succeed in taking Caffa, but they did decimate the city and infect the inhabitants in the process. The surviving Genoese fled Caffa to their Italian ports carrying the disease with them. If by chance they hadn’t been infected before, they would catch it from the fleas off of infected rats.
These days we’re all under the impression that the world won’t be the same after the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why it’s comforting to see that after every epidemic in history, for all its pain — human suffering does not change over the centuries — it has resulted in the beginning of a new world, not the End of the World.
Historians from Venice and medieval Florence recorded the events. Human relations disappeared during the plague. In the absence of TikTok, families did crazy things, like sitting around the fireplace and telling stories about their ancestors.
Families had to be divided, their sick quarantined and left to die. Those who could afford it fled the cities. Venice pioneered banning foreigners from the city. I don’t know if journalists back then called the Venetian ruler a racist as they have done with Trump when he cut off traffic from China. Milan built a cordon sanitaire. They improvised measures like we’re improvising measures. Some were stupid, some were effective. Like how thousands of Chinese have drank bear bile in an attempt to cure themselves of the coronavirus, during the Black Death many sick people had to endure healers putting live toads on the boils that erupted all over their skin from the disease.
In England, the medieval monk William Dene left us a chilling account of the Black Death’s arrival. As cemeteries collapsed, citizens improvised mass graves at the entrances to churches. The stench of death permeated everything and drove many to madness. Historians recounted terrible stories. They tried to disinfect things by burning them — houses, objects, corpses and sometimes the sick themselves.
The plague left such a shortage of labour that the higher classes were forced to thresh their own corn, plough their own land and make their own bread, as we can see in the pretty engravings of the time. William Dene, who admittedly wasn’t overcome with optimism, concludes his account by telling us that everyone was continually in a foul mood, that no one obeyed anyone, and that most indulged in bad habits, vice and depravity. It would be interesting to find some middle ground between Dene and another famous London diarist, Samuel Pepys, who, before the arrival of the epidemic, sent his wife to Greenwich, left himself for Woolwich and took advantage of the circumstances to dedicate himself to doing absolutely nothing. With true gall, he wrote: “I have never lived as happily as I have in this time of plague.”
During the plague of 1665, schoolchildren and university students were also sent home. It was during this time of homeschooling that Isaac Newton lived out the novelized story of the apple tree in his garden. Perhaps this pandemic is a good time for every child to look for his or her own apple tree. Better if he or she does it with a helmet.
Perhaps we are also surprised these days to find people who do not abide by the standards of social separation. Medieval people didn’t believe the threat either, and while the first deaths arrived in each city, they filled the taverns and made fun of the news that came from far away. These days in Europe there are also people who would defy authority. This reminds me of a young woman arrested this week in Spain for civil disobedience, pitifully attempting to attack the law enforcement officers. Delicately handcuffed by the military who are helping the police these days, she asked her friend to record everything and threatened the soldiers: “I am recording you with my mobile phone and I am going to upload this abuse on Instagram”. The level of professionalism shown by the military in these situations is manifest in their ability to contain the fits of laughter. They simply took her to the barracks and begged her to “please” try to calm down while she tried to beat them off with her Louis Vuitton bag.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe describes how during the plague those who still drank in the taverns used to laugh at the cries of those who went about burying their relatives. He also tells of how, when faced with confinement, many preferred to hide the illness so that they could continue to enjoy themselves on the streets, like those stupid runners today who skip the ban on sports because they “need it.” My favourite is an Instagramer from the Canary Islands who went to the beach this week and broadcast it on Instagram, boasting, “You will arrive fat and white in the summer and I will be tanned and strong.” He was arrested this morning. That’s a shame. He’ll be white and skinny in the summer. Maybe Wodehouse was thinking of this kind of person when he wrote, “He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly not more”.
Another similarity to our current pandemic is that medieval Europeans had to face two dangers: the plague and fear. Fake news travelled more slowly before Twitter, but it also took longer for it to be corrected. So, many sick people died after ingesting herbal concoctions and precious stones or sessions of supposedly therapeutic bleeding. The use of aromatic plants and purifying fire was common because it was then believed that the main contagion was from the fumes of the plague. That’s why the so-called plague doctors wore a mask with a long beak “filled with perfume,” according to John Wiley’s Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases.
A rumor spreading through Florence claimed that the plague was transmitted by dogs and cats. So they killed them all. Problem: the rats were free to run amok and spread the disease with the invaluable help of their fleas, the real carriers of the disease.
The Black Death of 1348 was followed by a demographic crisis that badly hurt the economy. The surviving workers saw their wages rise, but in the long run the only way out of the crisis was to promote increased birth rates and immigration. The latter was difficult, being that medieval cities were not known for being particularly foreigner friendly. The former was easier because by the end of the plague millions of people had gone without sex for a very long time.
Remember that in some places there were expensive fines for fornication, while in others, as David Herlihy has documented, doctors said that the rise in body temperature associated with sex favored the plague. Despite the warnings, in some areas a kind of disgusting depravity would take the form of orgies that shared venues with the corpses in the cemeteries. Herlihy says that they did this “to celebrate the victory over death,” but personally I sympathize more with those who waited for the plague to pass before fornicating, and did so in their home. Like any normal person might.
Overall, the literature of the time suggests that moral stances became polarised in view of the plague. There were those who became much more pious and those who gave themselves completely to worldly pleasures. We see the same today —the best and the worst of human beings surfaces.
When the Black Death ended, the baby boom arrived, and many marriages took place between young widows and widowers. In the 15th century the population began to grow, the economy began to grow and many of the wars of the previous century vanished. The lack of workers sharpened the ingenuity of men that worked the land, devising new technologies, expanding production, improving food and reopening infrastructures, markets and commercial routes that had been abandoned for decades.
Lifestyles changed. The idea of death was something to be lived with. People fled to the cities because, although they were more polluted, it was easier to find economic aid and food. Meanwhile, many of the upper classes left the infected cities to settle in the countryside. Those who could not escape were the Muslims. Even though Christians tried to make it easy for God to deliver them from death during the epidemic, the Muslims believed that the plague was martyrdom granted to the faithful and punishment against infidels. They were not allowed to flee from the plague and they did not believe they could catch the infection, but that each infection was sent from God.
For their part, guided by Christian beliefs, many volunteers, priests, friars and nuns worked to care for the sick and the terminally ill, just as we have seen these days in so many parts of the world. Medieval monasteries and convents were left depleted, but heaven must have been busting at the seams. Not unlike now. Perhaps because, as Chesterton put it, “the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man”.
Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author. He has written nine books on topics as diverse as politics, music or smart appliances. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast, The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, National Review, The American Conservative and Diario Las Américas in the United States, and columnist at several Spanish magazines and newspapers. He was also an advisor to the Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports in Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @itxudiaz or visit his website www.itxudiaz.com.
Translated by Joel Dalmau