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What will the next plague bring? History has shown us what the end of the world will look like

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse mowed down sinners. Credit: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse mowed down sinners. Credit: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty


July 15, 2021   6 mins

Half a millennium ago, people thought much more about the end of the world than we do. The early 16th century was an age obsessed with eschatology, the branch of theology preoccupied with judgement day. They were convinced they were living in the final throes of humanity, and they had a pretty good idea about what they thought would spell our downfall.

It might feel counterintuitive to look to history for insight into the end of the world — because, of course, we’re still here and the world clearly didn’t end when our ancestors thought it would. But if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that certain historic fears — of pestilence and pandemics, for instance — were not misplaced.

So, let us turn to Albrecht Dürer’s extraordinary woodcut of 1498, which depicts Four Horsemen. They ride with a wild fury. Their weapons are raised, their steeds gallop. Before and beneath them people cower and fall. They trample all in their path. The image is an illustration of the Book of the Revelation of St John, also known as the Apocalypse.

Dürer’s The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse.

In chapter six, it describes four horses of different colours. On a white horse rides a crowned archer who sets out to conquer. On a red horse sits a rider bearing a great sword who is granted the right to take peace from the earth. The black horse’s rider holds a pair of scales. And he who sits on the final, pale (from the Latin pallor) horse — depicted by Dürer as skeletal and wizen — has the name Death (think of Clint Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider).

Dürer created his woodcut in 1498, two years before the world was expected to end. But even if 1500 failed to bring the Last Judgement, as the 16th century dawned, there were many signs to indicate that the end approached.

Let us take them in reverse order. The pale horse was disease; it was dysentery, typhus, smallpox, malaria, and typhoid fever. It was also bubonic plague that continued to reappear on average every 16 years, with a lethality rate of between 60% and 80%. It killed quickly and horribly. “Plague has no tomorrows,” wrote Guillaume Potel in 1623.

But these epidemics — though deadly and greatly feared — were known enemies. What was startling was, like Covid, the manifestation of awful new diseases. Two appeared at the end of the 15th century. The sweating sickness, which broke out for the first time among Henry Tudor’s troops before the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, produced a fever and pain all over the body, accompanied by thick, vile-smelling sweat and delirium, and all that within the space of a day. Its lethality rate was high, and it recurred repeatedly over the subsequent 60 years, before vanishing as quickly as it had come. We still don’t know what it was.

The second new disease arrived and stayed. It was the pox, which came to be known by the Latinate name of syphilis. Again, it emerged among armies — those of the French during the First Italian War of the 1490s — and it produced great agonies through deep, rotting sores all over the body. It was incurable and terrifying, and quickly associated with sexual sin. The long-term effects were lesions, ulcers, paralysis, blindness, dementia and disfigurement. In comparison with the sweat and the pox, Covid is a walk in the park — but we should fear what comes next. In December 2019, Professor Peter Frankopan wrote presciently that the biggest threat to the world in the 2020s would be a pandemic. Let’s hope it’s the one we’ve already had.

The black horse was dearth. In the 16th century, there were some awful famines, resulting from harvest failure and bad weather. Contemporaries blamed man’s gluttony: “if we in eating and drinking exceed when God of his large liberality sendeth plenty, he will soon change plenty in[to] scarceness,” wrote an anonymous pamphleteer in 1563, while John Downame in 1613 similarly concluded that drunkards and gluttons were at fault “because in time of plenty, they take too much and so abuse his creatures”, so “he bringeth upon them in the time of dearth and famine a proportionable punishment.”

Much famine, then as now, was man-made, like the eight-month siege of Sancerre in 1573 during the French Wars of Religion. The inhabitants first turned to eating their horses and donkeys, then cats, rats, and finally dogs. Six months in, people tried eating leather. When that was gone, they soaked, chopped, and boiled their books up with herbs and spices. After paper, they ate the hooves of cattle, and then they collected human excrement to eat. One family ate the ears, tongue, head, brains and entrails of their three-year-old daughter after she had died from hunger.

What is the equivalent in our own age? From 2019 to 2020, in part because of the pandemic, the number of undernourished people increased by 161 million, on a planet that produces more than enough food to feed everyone. In the rich West, we probably won’t die of hunger — but we may die of gluttony. The British poor, who can more easily afford processed foods than fresh produce, suffer from among the worst rates of obesity globally. And our metaphorical gluttony — for energy and convenience — prevents our action against climate change. A cataclysmic weather event or natural disaster threatens apocalypse for us as much as it did our ancestors; what distinguishes us is that they feared what they could not control, while we know what to do about it but don’t seem to fear enough to do it.

The red horse was war. The 16th century witnessed fewer than 10 years of complete peace. It was an age in which battles moved from being fought by sword, lance and halberd to cannon, arquebus and musket. In 1545, Ambroise Paré published the first book to deal with treatments for gunshot wounds and battlefield amputations. Armies grew dramatically in size and their provisioning devastated the lands through which they marched.

Warfare is less obvious today. Troops do not get billeted to our homes, nor loot and pillage our food supplies. But world peace is something that remains elusive. Judged by societal safety and security, ongoing domestic and international conflict, and levels of militarisation, the world feels like it’s getting steadily less peaceful. We no longer fear the H-bomb, nor do we expect warfare to bring about the imminent end of the world, but maybe we should.

The conquering white horse will perhaps seem most distant. It came to be associated — not as we might suspect with the European invaders of Latin America — but with revelation. People living in 1500 believed that the ultimate cause of the world’s annihilation would be God delivering on his promise of a Second Coming of Christ and a Day of Judgement (something conventionally not feared by the poor but looked forward to as a time of reckoning for those who had wronged them). Martin Luther styled himself as Elijah, a prophet sent to expose the Pope as the Antichrist and to herald the Second Coming. Protestant images, such as Lucas Cranach’s The Origins of the Antichrist, show the Pope to be a grotesque female, with enlarged labia, and being breathed into by two devils. More demons pound monks in a winepress, extracting from them the juice of damnation.

But Catholics, too, were infused by a sense of millenarian thinking. Professor Denis Crouzet’s book Guerriers de Dieu argued that French Catholics saw the Protestant heretics as the harbingers of the Last Days. Catholic preachers ascribed the pestilence and famines of the century to divine wrath that had been provoked by the Protestant apostasy. Catholics engaged in a mighty struggle with the forces of darkness when they slew their Huguenot neighbours; they were the “warriors of God” of his title.

The imminence of the end of days was confirmed by the stars, as Jesus promised in the Gospels. Great comets in 1577, 1596, 1607 and 1618 caused much fearful commentary, while astronomer Tycho Brahe, writing about the new star discovered in 1572, wrote that it has been “now finally shown to the world while it is approaching its evening”. Floods, storms, and avalanches too were all thought to foretell the approaching end of time, as observers sought out auguries of when that end might come with fear and fascination.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse had one shared aim: they mowed down sinners. We may not use the word “sin” much, but we cannot deny that the pandemics, famine, war and so-called “acts of God” of our own time are, in large part, ultimately caused by humankind’s own avarice and selfishness.

Perhaps, in the end, it is that which may bring an end to human time itself. Perhaps we should pay more heed to the auguries of our own times: the wet markets of Wuhan, or the news that Canada registered a record, Sahara-desert like high of 49.6°C last month, that UN officials have warned that 400,000 people in Tigray, Ethiopia are now in famine… The Four Horsemen are on the horizon once again.


Suzannah Lipscomb is Professor Emerita of History at the University of Roehampton and the host of the Not Just The Tudors podcast from History Hit. She has written numerous books, including The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII and The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I have been calling the four horsemen Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Dorsey for years, Disease, Famine, conquest, and self appointed scales of judgement. I do not know other historical 4 that have had equal power and wealth in a world spanning way. Bezos has just been declared the wealthiest man to have ever existed.

Not Attila the Hun, not killers and pillagers, not Nero, but mass peddlers of secular amorality and the vices: Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Pride. Dante gave the 8th level of hell to the Seducers and Panderers – the ones who do not commit the deadly sins themselves, but enable others to do so. There is no greater legacy the 4 can claim than that.

Faust, and The great Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, they met the devil at the crossroads and traded their soul for worldly success, and I have always supposed many we know of have done likewise. Is not Soros exactly the kind that would visit the crossroads at midnight? The wealth and power he has, and the evil he does with it, what else could it be. Nothing else can explain their vast power, and how little good, many ever do with it.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hmm. Bezos runs the most successful shop in the world. In the old days, he’d have built Carnegie hall or a new train line west. History has survived Rockefellers before.

Zuckerberg has the perpetually shocked expression of a man forced to look into humanity’s knicker drawer – which I suppose he has been. Facebook’s data mining tells him more about people than I’m sure he wants to know.

Bill Gates? It’s true early computers were sources of rage and frustration. His genius improved and improved them – for Apple and Microsoft as he was involved in both. His impact is incalculable, but not automatically evil, I think.

Dorsey though? He might deserve a horse of the apocalypse. Twitter is a chance to read the thoughts of others. It sounds magical, but the reality is horrifying, like being dipped in filth.

Last edited 3 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

“Twitter is a chance to read the thoughts of others. It sounds magical, but the reality is horrifying, like being dipped in filth.”

I have seen a great deal of the world and humanity and I disagree. Most human thoughts are merely chatter, uninformed thoughts on a life which is full problems.

But still I believe in the innate goodness of people Unfourtnately a great many are raised in dysfunction, and so are dysfunctional in their humanity, and so what we see is the outward projection of their hurt.

Anger is almost always the response of being hurt, of pain, not physical, but emotional.

Us nice middle-class, raised with love and security, we are not full of anger or rage. The masses of underclass, and unfourtnate other classes, they were raised as children with abusive relationships from family, peers, and community, this coupled with no security in their life, leaving wounds which never heal. And so prone to anger, and lack of trust and, and not peace we have.

I have written here before of the endless angst I feel from having seen too much suffering, cruelty, hopeless misery, and Understand how so many can be so messed up – but then we should not be so thinskinned, to expect everyone who did not have our blessings to be nice like us. That ‘Filth’ you so dispise is most likely merely an outward projection of the inner pain the writer has suffered. Get over it, find it sad, but not take it personally.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That’s a mature viewpoint. When I taught English a lifetime ago, it was inescapable that *every* blowup, every act of rage had some origin in the home. After a while, I wanted to ask: “What’s your mum’s new boyfriend like?” – it was such a common tale. So I do appreciate your point.

Twitter though is worse, I think. Perhaps the anonymity provokes people, or the quick and personal responses, but it is depressing. I like to believe most people are good-hearted, but if they are, they’re certainly not on Twitter. In the Venn diagram, there’s hardly any overlap.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Secular immorality? No, selling things people want to buy at good prices! That is why Jeff Bezos is rich. Most, probably all of us in the West are also richer than Attila the Hun in absolute terms if not in political power. Not many of us need to suffer with a weeping abscess for years as did Henry VIII.

By all means, tax Amazon more if we can get international agreement to do so. Etc.

Much as I oppose the massive overreach of modern ‘woke’ leftist thought, let’s not delude ourselves that there were not in the past major injustices in society. I as a gay man now in my 60s experienced that all too well. But only in the West do we have an opportunity to change that through political and social action.

I know you and others on here appear to pretty much hate modern Western society, but a lot of people on these fora, with their doom and gloom, not at all according with any actual, you know, data, should be careful what they wish for. Talk about missing the target! Of course the alternative could well be some sort of Islamist or perhaps neo Communist quasi religion we could all believe, or pretend to believe in.

There are lots of things we can do to give ourselves a sense of meaning, maybe yes we do get too complacent and materialist, but it is up to us. The ultra poor in the world, a diminishing proportion though they are, would love to have the luxury of these choices.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

The Four Horsemen are on the horizon once again.
Indeed they are. They never left. Their mighty steeds are silhouetted, angrily pawing the earth, way over there on the horizon. I hope the author is doing more than restating this rather obvious fact.
We were recently reminded of their presence by SARS-covid-2, a moderately infectious virus with a low lethality rate in the general population. The media have relentlessly focused our attention on this one threat for 18 months, but all the other possible black swans are still out there. If we’re really inclined to worry about something then worry about an especially virulent strain of flu comparable to the so-called Spanish flu that was at least 10-fold deadlier than covid. Such strains can easily arise.
I was disappointed by the author’s reference in the final paragraph to “the wet markets of Wuhan, or the news that Canada registered a record, Sahara-desert like high of 49.6°C last month.
Presumably the inference is that covid might (or did) infect humans in the wet markets which specialize in the entirely unnecessary practice of selling wild animal meat (‘bush meat’) to humans for food. Humanity was being punished for its gluttonous exploitation of the natural world.
I think the wet markets should be abolished, but we now know there’s a substantial argument that covid did not come from the wet markets but from an experiment gone wrong at the Wuhan virology institute. I suppose this can be attributed to human arrogance, presuming to modify nature for human benefit, but I’m not sure that’s one of the four horsemen.
The reference to “the news that Canada registered a record, Sahara-desert like high of 49.6°C last month,” appears to buy hook, line and sinker into the argument that this extraordinary heatwave was the result of global warming. That’s certainly the message delivered by the mainstream media. But qualified experts have provided strong scientific evidence that this heatwave was a true black swan event that was only slightly influenced by global warming. I’m not trying to argue global warming is or is not real, just that we should all be very careful about which climatic events we cite as evidence for global warming. I refer you to the work of Professor Cliff Mass which is summarized on his website (although the inclusion of links in my post will likely trigger the moderation software):
https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/
The world may yet come to an end. I can at least agree with the author on that point.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The writer does not understand being a Historian. That job is not to list facts, (ones outrageous seem preferred, the cannibalism specifics were totally Unwarranted!) but to use history facts to demonstrate some human condition universal to all man, and so we can see it more clearly, yet in context to the evolution of modern thought.
I am afraid the younger ones cannot understand the past at all, ever. The have been raised in such a judgemental thinking style that the past is just SOO Wrong that they cannot even see the people are just us, but in the past. Modern thinking refuses to believe the past people were reasonable, but the times were completely foreign to us now – and so stop judging, and understand instead. Toppling statues of Ceicel Rhodes, of past Slave owners, it is insanity – the past is a foreign land and reality – but Liberals like the writer always want to allow modern correctness to condemn the past, rather than understand it.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
3 years ago

People are starving in countries where many live at substance levels at best are because of lockdowns not because of the pandemic.
Never, ever before in history would the world’s population have cowered from an illness with over a 99% recovery rate and an average age of death of 82.
Average lifespan in the 1500s it was around 40. In the early 1700s it was pretty much the same.
On the African continent today it is 62 for men and 65 for women.
Of course in earlier times infant mortality rates were incredibly high and people were aware of the imminence of death.
God help us when a truly deadly disease unleashes itself on us all.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
3 years ago

It is interesting that it needs a historian to point out that covid was a walk in the park (compared to other epidemics) and that the main epidemic is the ill-health of the population (people ill with covid mainly dying because they are at the end of their life, or their bodies reacting in an inappropriate self-destructive way due to their underlying poor-nutrition-state) and then politicians (and mainstream journalists) subjecting the poor to starvation.
…it is indeed more our behaviour we have to fear….

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 years ago

Fear in the past is understandable considering our lack of knowledge. We passed through the Age of Enlightenment to a new age of fear.
This time the fear is being generated by scientists who are able to take advantage of the educated ignorance of several generations. This is being orchestrated by politicians. An educated, thinking population is the last thing politicians want and the fraudulent scientists and useless teachers are all in the pay of the governments.
The four riders destroying us now are educated ignorance which prevents rational thinking, socialism which creates dependency and takes away personal responsibility, democracy which results in the most incompetent being elected, and political parties that create divisions.
History has warnings about all of them.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

“Protestant images, such as Lucas Cranach’s The Origins of the Antichrist, show the Pope to be a grotesque female, with enlarged l***a, and being breathed into by two devils.”
The perfect mental image to end the day with – thank you!

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
3 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I believe there is a Cardi B video similar to that.

David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago

“…if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that certain historic fears — of pestilence and pandemics, for instance — were not misplaced.”
Er, worldwide deaths from covid19 since Jan 2020 are under 4.5 million. During that time the earth’s population has increased by over 100 million. Hardly an apocalypse.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Harris
Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
3 years ago

The wet markets of Wuhan merchants association ought to sue for defamation.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

when you see the last Tiger alive in the World just hope he doesn`t see you……….