I’ve been reading quite a lot about the Black Death this year, which wasn’t the best distraction as it turns out. At least it puts things into perspective — the Bubonic plague having a IFR of at least 60%. During the “Golden Age of Bacteria”, from the 14th to 19th century, communities might be hit by the plague and then soon after by other catastrophes like smallpox (IFR at least 30%) or influenza. Covid-19 would most likely not even have been noticed.
But what also comes out of the accounts are people’s zest for life once the plague retreated. “So came the day, the whole remainder of the village turned out,” Benedict Gummer describes one scene in Sutton, now a suburb of Hull: “more relieved than overjoyed, almost all were still in mourning. Yet the weather now conspired to bring a little hope, for happily it was warm and sunny.” Everyone would have turned out for the party, relieved that the nightmare was over and life could begin again (actually the plague would return within a few years but they weren’t to know that).
Without wishing to curse the year like the most jinxed tweet of all time, I imagine 2021 will feel like that. By early spring enough people will have had one of the vaccines to make a difference: immunity will increase week by week, restrictions will be eased, and masks will come off. When the first warm day arrives in April, the sun on one’s arms will feel golden.
After the “Great Mortality” of 1348-1350, pregnancies went up, with French monk Jean de Venette observing that “Everywhere women conceived more readily than usual.” (Although the longer-term impact was lower fertility, perhaps a reflection of pessimism.)
Casual sex became more common, and even clergymen were accused of “disgusting pursuit of carnal lust” and of being sucked into “the whirlpool of voluptuousness”. People acted more impulsively, and so crime also rose. In one of the most notorious riots of the age, dozens were killed in town v gown violence in Oxford after two students were served “indifferent wine” and given “saucy language” by the innkeeper.
The summer of 2021, especially with the European Championships, will probably see similar visions of Merrie Olde England. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the increased alcohol use kills more people under 50 in Britain than Covid did.
The Black Death didn’t end the Middle Ages, but it did lead to improvements in the treatment of the sick (just as Covid will result in lots of medical spin-offs), big increases in charitable giving and a narrowing of economic inequality.
Perhaps most telling, more people went on pilgrimage, and according to Robert S. Gottfried’s book on the plague, “In the 1350s and 1360s, there was a glut of travel guidebooks — some sober and earnest, others fabricated — which describe the process of pilgrimage and tell the pilgrims where to stop to eat and spend the night, even the proper way to venerate particular saints.” The most popular travel book was John Mandeville’s (a lot of which was just made up).
Having spent about 90% of the year in one postcode, I can really empathise — because what I really want to do next year is see the world. Or at the very least the neighbouring postcode.