What can the experiences of the Black Death tell us about pandemics?


Despite being created in the sixteenth century, the painting above – Peter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ – is a pretty good depiction of what we might think of as societal collapse. The apocalyptic tones expressed by Bruegel are feelings that have been felt widely both in the past and continually in the present. One such moments of the past was the Black Death where feelings of fear and worry were rife. People had no idea what was killing them nor as to how it could be stopped. 

Created by the bacteria yersinia pestis, the Black Death originated in Central Asia and was carried by various vectors, primarily fleas who bit and infected their carriers, ranging from rats to humans. The disease can be separated into three types: bubonic (infection of the lymph nodes), pneumonic (infection of the lungs), and septicemic (infection of the blood); once integrated in a human population, these types of infections increased the methods of transmission. One way or another, the disease eventually reached the shores of Europe in 1347/8 and left behind a devastating wake of destruction. 

With the coronavirus pandemic currently affecting our daily lives, the fear of the unknown and the worry for the future that must have been felt at the time is something we can definitely relate to. It is important, therefore, to look back at this catastrophe to help better understand what we’re going through and to see what lessons we can learn and uphold.


Expect different reactions:

The misconceptions of the Middle Ages as being a backward time full of suffering, ignorance and blind religious zeal is probably responsible for the idea that the reactions to the Black Death were somewhat similar to the painting mentioned at the beginning, as completely chaotic. This idea isn’t completely unfounded since we do see abnormal reactions to the plague. Two groups that have been described to us in Giovanni Bocaccio’s ‘The Decameron’ fit into this bracket: the first, fleeing and completely isolating themselves from society and the second, merrymaking and enjoying life as much as possible before what they saw as the inevitable end. A particularly abnormal group were the flagellants whose practice of self-flagellation (whipping) was a form of penance. This group of militant pilgrims reached their peak during the Black Death, travelling from place to place while whipping themselves, hoping that this would stop the plague which they attributed to human sin. 


We should not fall into the obvious trap of generalising and taking these attitudes as how the majority reacted to the Black Death as this can easily be done when considering the periodic misinterpretation mentioned earlier. What recent research has revealed was that for the most part, people continued living normal lives. The only noticeable difference was that necessary caution was being applied to try and avoid the disease and several searches were being done for potential remedies as more permanent solutions.

It is the people who make or break society:

While the fear was real enough in the imagination, the Black Death did not bring about the end of medieval society. Poland is an exceptional example because unlike many other places, they were able to implement a full quarantine as soon as they received word of the plague and were able to more or less avoid it altogether. The other European kingdoms survived, albeit not as strongly and with a heavy price paid in life. 

Contemporary evidence actually shows us that the governments of these kingdoms did not collapse as we might imagine and were in fact operating normally. The continued production of court rolls describing land inheritance and distribution for example, suggest that the system followed a ‘business as usual’ policy. We can also see this with the existence of last wills and testaments during the pandemic. The presence of wills in this period is important not only because they show that the government was still working, but because they can tell us more about the people and the state mind of the time. 

In medieval wills, especially during the Black Death, we find people making meticulous preparations for themselves as well as for their family, taking care of both secular and ecclesiastical matters. This trend is best reflected with the Italian innkeeper Marco Datini whose will is very typical in this period. In his final testament, once Datini ensured that his property and wealth were passed on to his wife and kids, he made payments to several churches to pray for his soul for an easier journey into heaven and pays even more for the souls of his relatives. This overall suggests that the Black Death did not cause a mass panic and people didn’t abandon each other out of fear but stayed together, optimistic that they would see this plague through. 


Persecution is not the solution:

Whenever something happens in the world that cannot be explained, we all have the immediate urge to try and understand it. This was of no exception during the Black Death for as far as medieval people were concerned, this plague mysteriously appeared out of thin air, destroying the lands and its people. Several causes were thought of for the disease, prominent examples being the movement of planets, toxic fumes from deep underground, or divine retribution. People also scapegoated the blame on groups of minorities. In this case, the Jewish community was targeted. 


As people who lived in society while remaining on its fringes both geographically as well as in the imagination, Jews were a perfect target for persecution, an easy scapegoat for any unexplained phenomenon. The Franciscan friar Herman Gigas tells about some of the accusations put against Jews during the Black Death:

Some say that it was brought about [the plague] by the corruption of the air; others that the Jews had planned to wipe out all the Christians with poison and had poisoned wells and springs everywhere… Throughout Germany, in all but a few places, they were burnt… This action was taken against the Jews in 1349, and it still continues unabated, for in a number of regions many people, noble and humble alike, have laid plans against them and their defenders…

While this wave of anti-Semitism was popular among the peasantry as well as some of the nobility, we can see from the friar that members of the clergy were less enthusiastic about this. The church in the Middle Ages was actually more tolerant towards the Jewish community and saw it in their interest to protect them. This is because of their shared past and how Judaism serves as living reminder of Christianity’s origins and history. Even the pope at the time, Clement VI, attempted to dissuade these pogroms but with little success. Ultimately, we see this kind of persecution happening throughout the Middle Ages and for centuries onwards.

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