Did people clap for carers during the Spanish Flu epidemic? Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

May 28, 2020   5 mins

Like maybe 98% of writers around the world, I’ve spent lockdown compiling my own account of quarantine restrictions: from the terrible non-haircuts, to the chorizo-fuelled weight gain, to the way I think I probably have Covid-19, throughout the day, right until the moment I have my first gin — all of this set in the wider, weirder world of shuttered streets, abandoned to empty buses and racing motorbikes.

When I began these corona diaries I decided I should put the pandemic in context — by reading all the available literature relating to plagues and pestilence. So I went online to do some shopping — and to my great surprise, the anticipated spree took about five minutes. Because when it comes to Plague Lit, there isn’t much.

Let’s begin with the most fearful pestilence of all: the Black Death. In the 1340s and 50s this bacterial pandemic slaughtered 30-50% of Europe’s population and similar numbers across most of Asia. It was the greatest calamity endured by homo sapiens since the end of the Ice Age.

You would therefore expect such a colossal disaster to generate a large amount of literature. It did not. Indeed there is one standout work: Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which describes, in the introduction, the assault of Yersinia pestis on early Renaissance Florence. Boccaccio, the middle-class son of a Florentine merchant, spares no details, and no citizens, in his prose: he tells of the buboes in the groins and armpits, as “big as eggs or apples”, then talks of the poor “dying by the thousands” even as the “ruthless” — i.e. the rich — decamp to their castles in the country.

It’s a small masterpiece of eye-witness reporting, but it is just that: small. Following this brisk prologue, Boccaccio pursues the rich people into the Tuscan countryside, and the bulk of the book is 100 ribald, funny stories told by 10 posh young survivors, as they wait out the pox. The plague is, then, merely a framework. And this is the book about the Black Death: the other contemporary accounts are minor diaries by physicians.

Can this paucity be ascribed to the illiteracy of the times? Perhaps, but the same fourteenth century produced the Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, the Chronicles of Froissart, and the Florentine scholar Petrarch. There was no lack of writers. Moreover, and puzzlingly, the bubonic plague was not revisited in later eras. Shakespeare was happy to write about medieval kings and their loves and battles: King John, King Richard II, King Edward III (who actually ruled England during the Black Death); the Black Death itself is ignored.

The same curious pattern can be seen elsewhere. From classical times we have Thucydides’ brutal description of the Plague of Athens: “it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory.” It’s a brilliantly harrowing account, yet also unusual. There is almost no literature, for instance, on the terrible Antonine Plague (AD165-180), which killed 5 million, or the Plague of Cyprian (250), which culled 5,000 a day in Rome alone.

More recent epidemics receive the same scant attention. The Great Plague of London (1665) gets a fine slice of Pepys’ diary, and Defoe’s meandering A Journal of the Plague Year; after that, pickings are thin. As for the Great Plague of Marseilles (1720), I’d never heard of it until I did this research, yet it killed a third of the city: 100,000 people. For comparison: the American War of Independence, in 1775-83, was responsible for the deaths of 40,000.

Closing in on modern times we reach the most anomalous example of all, the Spanish Flu of 1917-1919. Historians now think this form of influenza killed around 50 million people (some reckonings go as high as 100 million). Put it another way: in just a couple of years, Spanish flu killed five times as many people as the First World War, and almost as many as the Second World War. It was the greatest die-off in all human peacetime, and it visited the world in a time of mass literacy, and of famous writers who were read worldwide. And what books did it produce in the aftermath? A rather good novella called Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Astonishingly, that’s about it. Compare this silence to the howling tsunami of novels, memoirs and biographies that came after the Great War. As for the other arts, they are similarly devoid. There is not one major movie which addresses Spanish Flu as its central subject.

By the time I’d finished reading all the books on plague (about a day later), marooned once more in the cheese-munching torpors of lockdown, I asked myself why writers, artists and moviemakers refuse to tackle this momentous subject, when they are so eager to examine the horrors of war. The answer was staring me in the fridge. Plague is difficult to tackle because it is simultaneously too boring, too horrific and too depressing.

In other words, it is worse than war. Deaths in plague are unglamorous, or revolting: you drown in your own body fluids (corona), you bleed out through your eyes (Ebola). There is no hero storming the Reichstag. Likewise, plague-time deaths are solitary, dismal and sequestered. There is none of the black humour and camaraderie of war, no crowded pubs as in the Blitz, no sing-songs about bluebirds. Instead there is just a lot of lonely, locked-away people, waiting to get ill. Nor can there be any grand or compelling narrative, culminating in victory: the end is just the cessation of suffering.

This is not to say that plague has no effect on literature at all. It certainly does, but it seems to do it obliquely. As we cannot bear to confront this frightful subject head on, plague is heard as an echo, or glimpsed as a shadow. Look at famous poetry after the Spanish Flu. T.S. Eliot (who got the Flu bad, and feared it might send him mad) is surely, if tangentially, referring to the wheezing disease in these famous Dante-haunted lines from The Waste Land (1922):

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Another great poet impacted by the Flu, W.B. Yeats (he watched his wife nearly suffocate in her own lung fluids), likely alludes to the virus here, in The Second Coming (1920):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned

Perhaps this is the best way for writers and artists to address the subject of plague. Perhaps, in fact, it is the only realistic way: if you don’t want people to shun your overly bleak and desolate work you can only speak in whispers, allegories, metaphors.

However, if this is what happens to plagues in literature, it comes at a hefty price. Because, if there is so little to read, and to remind us of the past, it means that every time a new plague comes along, humanity has to learn the same painful lessons, about quarantines, masks, infection and isolation. All over again.

Sean Thomas is a journalist and novelist, based in London. He writes thrillers under the name S K Tremayne