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Will coronavirus change the world? As we await a new contagion, the legacy of the Black Death is worth remembering

Already we're expressing more concern for our elderly loved ones. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Already we're expressing more concern for our elderly loved ones. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

February 28, 2020   8 mins

Over the course of that anxious year, London’s Italian community began to develop a worried and then alarmed turn of mind. Rumours of a contagion back home began to spread in the early spring; there were stories about people dropping dead in the street, whole families wiped out, sons deserting dying fathers and fathers their sons as the disease tore away at the social fabric.

By the year 1348, the city’s Italians had been well-established for half a century, having been admitted by Edward I as representatives of the great banking houses of Florence. French and English kings relied on loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi to fund their extravagant wars and these ‘Lombards’, as they were referred to, gave their name to London’s main financial thoroughfare.

As the year went on, dark stories of contagion grew more common and more terrifying: it was heard that Marseilles and then Paris were overrun by the deadly disease. There was no doubt that London’s time would come, and so on June 23, Saint John’s Eve — a traditional midsummer festival where young women might flirt and dance with men before settling down to a backbreaking life of repeated, dangerous pregnancies — a ship turned up in Melcombe in Dorset, most likely from Bordeaux or possibly Calais. On board were rats infected with Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague-carrying bacterium. By the time the illness had burned out, between a third and half of England’s people were dead.

There had never been a terror like it, and the “Great Mortality” as it was known — and much later, the “Black Death” — has seared itself in the European imagination. It changed the culture and tested the institutions of the time, and as we anxiously await the arrival of another — thankfully far less deadly — contagion from Italy its legacy and impact are worth remembering.

Epidemics have been around as long as civilization. Plaga — from the Greek for ‘strike’ or ‘hit’ — devastated classical Athens in the 5th century BC, when the historian Thucydides nursed sufferers; the Antonine Plague — probably smallpox or measles — killed as many as five million Romans at the empire’s peak. Far more deadly was the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century, which had a toll of 25 million and emptied whole regions of the eastern (Byzantine) Empire. Only in the 21st century did researchers confirm that this was the same illness that would appear eight centuries later — the Bubonic Plague.

Empires were particularly affected by these horrific epidemics, because empires are a form of globalisation — bringing different people into contact with each other and, more dangerously, into contact with other mammals, who act as disease vectors.

Another danger is climate change, which might turn a mild virus into a deadly one, or cause disease-carrying animals to migrate. This is what happened during the 14th century when the northern hemisphere became considerably cooler, soon after the Mongols had created the largest contiguous empire in history.

Genghis Khan’s people have generally received a historical bad press — people are more likely to recall the pyramid of skulls and the Tigris flowing black and red — yet their rule had opened up trade routes, allowing goods and people to cross Asia. Whether brought at the point of a sword or a trade deal, globalisation always brings the new: new cultures, new ideas, new languages and new pathogens.

Yersinia pestis had been living on gerbils and other rodents in central Asia, but unstable climate conditions in 1330s caused the disease to jump onto the rat flea. It was killing people by 1339, and in the mid-1340s Christians first heard of a disease raging in the Islamic world, which some at least took as divine punishment for the crusades.

After two centuries of Holy War this was understandable, yet hatred was not universal and during these conflicts Italian merchants had continually done business with Muslims, much to the Church’s fury. Now this trade, once the source of prosperity and peace, proved deadly: plague reached Europe via the Genovese colony of Caffa on the Black Sea (now Feodosiya, in the Ukraine). In October 1347, four ships escaping the diseased city had turned up in Sicily, condemning Italy to its fate.

The first sign of the dreaded illness was bad breath. Sufferers would then feel lightheaded and nauseous, before experiencing pain in the groin and the terrifying appearance of the bubos, a lump the size of an apple, either on the neck, groin or armpit. By this stage, the victim would be vomiting blood; six in ten of those infected died.

Everywhere corpses were dumped in mass graves, where some of the bodies were seen to wriggle as victims struggled for their last breaths. There was no one left to help them; if they had living family, they had probably fled.

As the disease spread across Italy, each city tried to prevent their neighbours from approaching, but it seemed impossible to stop. Some became fatalistic, and Orvieto’s Council of Seven decided to ignore the coming plague in case it scared people. Six of them died of the disease. In Ragusa the city government concluded that all they could do was order everyone to make a will.

Now in late 1348 the illness spread across England, averaging a mile a day, and the death rates were apocalyptic in parts: 80% were killed in Jarrow in County Durham. At one point, 200 a day were dying in London, a toll proportionately equivalent to 20,000 a day today. The city was described as a “Nomanneslond”, the sort of 28 Days Later ghost town scenario we associated with plague.

Almost everywhere in Europe suffered death rates of between one-third and a half, although pockets of Bohemia and Poland escaped; Italy perhaps suffered the worst, with up to 60% dead. Venice lost as many as three-quarters.

In contrast, Milan perhaps had higher survival rates, because its rulers, the ruthless Visconti family, ordered that any house where the plague was identified be boarded up and its inhabitants left to starve. In a later outbreak the city of Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, initiated the rule that all ships stay anchored for 40 days — quaranta — a sensible measure that appreciated the potential length of incubation periods.

Yet no one really knew much else. In October 1348, the King of France asked the leading thinkers at the University of Paris for their theories about what was causing the disease. Their best guess was that it was due to “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius”.

In other words, no one had a clue; inevitably, though, many blamed the disaster on loose morals, and such abominations as people dressing in sexually provocative clothes. Many countries introduced strict laws against gambling, prostitution and cohabiting, while Philip VI of France ordered for blasphemers to have their upper lip cut off. More tragically, many looked for scapegoats — firstly lepers, and then, more violently, Jews, with pogroms spreading across France and Germany.

A second outbreak of the Plague struck Europe in 1361, known as the Mortality of Children as it especially killed the young, who had acquired no immunity from the first outbreak. Plague returned from time to time but eventually died out in Europe, the Marseilles outbreak of 1722 being the last. Most likely the pestilence-carrying black rat was driven out by its cousin the brown rat.

There have been other pandemics, the worst of all being smallpox, which has killed hundreds of millions. Even in the 20th century, it cost far more lives than all wars combined. There is also influenza — first named in the 14th century but only really a problem since the 16th — which has produced various deadly strains. The 1889 pandemic, which originated in Russia, killed a huge number of notable individuals, including the second in line to the throne, Prince Albert Victor.

Most recently the Spanish Flu of 1919 killed as many as 100 million. Yet like the previous strain, it barely made any impact on the public consciousness, perhaps because it followed such a traumatic war.

Only the Black Death seared itself into the public consciousness, partly because of the social impact it had. In Paris a chronicler recorded that “those who were left drank, fornicated or skulked in the cellars according to their inclinations”. In Florence people were terrorised by the becchini, grave diggers whose motto was “Those who live in fear die” and drank and stole with abandon. In Venice criminals roamed the street because their jailors were all dead; everywhere crime increased, as did pregnancies.

The outbreak also led to growing anger at the authorities, especially the Church, which was already attracting criticism because of its great wealth. Clergymen were disproportionately hit by the disease, because they had to administer the Last Rites to the sick; those that survived tended to be the least diligent. Afterwards, totally unsuitable candidates were rushed in to replace them — often widowed men, teenagers or even petty criminals.

Anarchic new religious groups sprang up, the most notorious being the Brethren of the Cross, or Flagellants — fanatics who went from village to village where they would form a circle, confess their sins, then ritually beat themselves with a scourge made of iron spikes and needles. Soon they turned on Jews, priests and other figures of authority. There was also the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who claimed to be in a state of grace and so it was fine for them to have guilt-free sex and even steal stuff.

The disease had broken down normal restraints and barriers, and had even led to a breakdown in authority where the aristocracy had fled. By being able to leave cities, aristocrats had much lower death rates, one-quarter dying compared to half of peasants. And so an English ploughman’s wage went up from 2 shillings to 10 shillings by 1350, when craftsmen’s real incomes were three times what they were in 1300.

Authorities brought in various laws setting a maximum wage but they were widely ignored, and by the 1370s, 70% of legal business in English courts involved labour legislation. Authorities in Gloucestershire even built stocks to imprison those who took higher wages — but they had to pay the carpenter who built it 5 1/2d a day, twice the legal limit.

Lords were forced by labour shortages to ease the various onerous labour demands they made of their peasants, and so serfdom eventually disappeared. Before that happened, though, increasingly oppressive measures by the crown to put uppity peasants back in their place provoked an uprising in Essex and Kent. Somewhat less directly, chronic lack of manpower also spurred technological innovation, and may even have led to the invention of movable type by Johann Gutenberg the following century.

Without tempting fate, coronavirus isn’t going to be 28 Days Later, but neither is it just the regular flu, and it is bound to have a social impact. Perhaps it will increase pressure for reform in China and Iran, for example, or speed up the decoupling of the global economy. In the US universal healthcare may become a more urgent issue, especially if the country is badly affected and the prohibitive cost of testing is implicated.

More generally, it may spark more irritation with the sort of complacent, high-status, FT-reading brahmins who comprise our modern clergy, the sort of people who like to explain how the world is divided into open vs. closed —because they’re the least vulnerable to open systems.

Their complacency on this issue arguably echoes their complacency about globalism generally, and an inability to see what really matters. From the time the virus first emerged, we’ve heard the same sort of platitudes we’re told about everything else: how the biggest danger facing us is ‘prejudice’ — not the actual fatal disease — and that the coronavirus “knows no borders”.

By contrast, those on the outside Right have noted how open societies seem especially vulnerable to a disease of globalisation, and the political alignment of a worldwide pandemic becomes obvious.

Contagious diseases historically raised fear of the outgroup, and already we have seen low-level violence against east Asians in Italy. We’re not going to get pogroms now, partly because children are largely unaffected — the fatality rate for the 0-9s in China still 0 per cent of the 416 confirmed cases —and that’s what really drives terror, but plagues do draw out our most atavistic fears. There is a theory that xenophobia is an evolutionary response to pathogens, since strangers are more likely to carry diseases that the in-group has no immunity to, and that’s why conservatives respond more strongly to disgust and value purity and cleanliness.

If the disease spreads, due to a failure to take measures quickly enough, then it will only increase people’s problem with globalisation. Alternatively, the lesson might be, as with aircraft safety, that well-co-ordinated international groups of experts are pretty effective at dealing with major problems, and should therefore be given more power. Although a pessimistic Tory, I’m certainly hoping for a Pinkerite Whiggish outcome.

One important change might be the way we see the least valued members of society. Our economy is especially vulnerable because, with three-quarters of children having two working parents, once the schools are shut then a huge chunk of the workforce needs to become “economically inactive”, as the government describes childcare. With communal clubs not an option, people my age would normally recruit their parents into babysitting duties, but for an illness that kills maybe one in six old people, that’s too much of a risk.

Perhaps, just as the Black Death perversely raised the value of the peasantry, so coronavirus will do the same for the elderly. Already people up and down the country are checking up on parents to make sure they’ve got alcohol spray, masks and gloves, and protect themselves from the virus. Already the illness has brought about a small cultural change.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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Rob Grayson
Rob Grayson
4 years ago

Two and a half weeks after this article was published, it seems like we in the UK are only just beginning to wake up to the unprecedented long-term impact this outbreak is going to have on all of our lives.

To my mind, this pandemic is just another of the various ways in which the planet is trying to get our attention and ask us to consider some serious questions. If our hope is to return to business as usual once the peak is past, we may as well be climbing back onto the tracks in the sure and certain knowledge that there will soon be another oncoming train, and another, and another.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rob Grayson

Thanks for that observation Rob. I think the emphasis on history to guide us to understand what the future will bring is misplaced. Your picture of a sequence of trains coming down the track to mow us down is entirely relevant. We need to recognise who is telling us that getting back on the track to normal is our route to heaven and educate the population of the inevitability of the train service schedule.

Ian Thompson
Ian Thompson
3 years ago

There are key differences of COVID-19 to appreciate compared to past worldwide epidemics (vice “pandemics”). Whereas the Bubonic Plague paved the way for advances in government, science, and labor rights, COVID-19 has paved the way for governmental abuse, election fraud, and tyranny.
Prior histories of disease are indeed examples of uncoordinated approaches to true epidemics which demonstrate a legitimate risk. The mitigation of polio and other debilitating and deadly diseases through science and sanitation are examples of effective coordinated responses. Current COVID over-reaction, however, is a manipulation of the coordinated approach. With COVID, historical fear, a weaponized virus, and inaccurate models were used to present a false narrative; science is being further suppressed and denied to sustain that fear and allow the implementation of policies that change world economies and institutions. Is COVID-19 “an illness that kills maybe one in six old people” when the average age of “COVID-deaths” is above the average life expectancy? What is the real cause of this “crisis”? The changes to counting methods? The use of PCR tests which are completely unsuitable to disease testing? The policies of lockdowns and mask-use that are counter to scientific reality and result in risks from other health concerns to include stress disease and suicide?
 Like any tool, disease can be harnessed for good and for evil, and COVID-19 is truly unlike any “disease” the world has yet known.