It’s not your great, great, great… grandparents’ Black Death

Students and readers have asked me to offer some points of comparison between the period of the Black Death, 1348-1352, and our current Covid-19 epidemic. It is understandable that we want to understand today’s unfolding catastrophe in the context of the other big morbidity events, but it is too early for a historian to be making such comparisons.

Historians, maybe especially historians of the Middle Ages, learn to develop an intuition about the multiple and varied social stresses brought on by war, disease, and economic insecurity. We gain a feel for how societal ills get exacerbated by the hubris, ineptitude and infidelity of political, business, and religious leaders. Our sense of circumstance and contingency gets honed and tested when we ground it in careful study of the past. But we have to remember: intuition is suggestive, not predictive; historical insight does not suffice for explaining the present or forecasting the future.[1]

We find ourselves in the middle of whatever the current coronavirus moment is becoming, or perhaps we are still far from a midpoint. I’m not in a good position to explain a fast-moving present. I don’t own a crystal ball or a magic mirror, so I have no way to foretell what the world will be.  Still, throwing caution to the wind and bringing a historian’s intuition to the purpose, I’ll try to offer here a few premature thoughts….

By the way, I promise not to be too grim, and, in fact, my effort at a premature history may forecast a glimmer of (comparative) hope.

One difficulty in making any detailed comparison between the Black Death and the era of Covid-19 is that we lack a clear understanding of many of the elements we might want to compare. We have a good understanding of some basic facts about the Black Death, but much that we would like to know remains out of reach, still uncertain or debated. Similarly, even as we learn more each day about the epidemiology of the present strain of coronavirus, there are smallish things we can’t figure out, like whether those made-at-home masks make things better or worse, and biggish things we can’t wrap our heads around like the extent of the cost to our longstanding social norms and economic foundations.

Here’s what we know about the Black Death: It arrived into Europe in the summer of 1347 – yes, presumably first from Asia; yes, arriving into Genoa and other Italian merchant city states on ships carrying dead men; yes, most likely spread first from fleas riding on host rats, fleas that got into clothes and bedding and then passed the bacillus to humans through their bites. It was transmissible in its bubonic form when one person touched the infected skin of another, although it likely spread most widely, like coronavirus, in a pneumonic fashion, through droplets expelled by coughing. The plague spread rapidly and with devastating consequences, perhaps because the strain of the plague was hypervirulent in comparison to earlier and later plague outbreaks. Perhaps one-third to one-half of the population of Europe died in the period from 1347 to 1352. That would put the number of deaths somewhere around 100 million. 100 million, just in Europe – compare that to a count of just over 26,000 US deaths as of April 15 ( in making the comparison I mean no disrespect to the humanity of those who have succumbed to the present virus, nor to the families and friends who suffer their loss). After the initial onslaught, the plague recurred, but became intermittent and less damaging over time.

Black Plague Diffusion
source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Two definitional points: First, a bacillus, a rod-shaped bacterium called Yersina Pestis, caused the Black Death. Not all bacteria are bad; but this one, without antibiotics, leads to death. Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, as we all now know, is a new manifestation in the family of coronaviruses; there are many types, from some of the 200 viruses that cause the common cold to the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 epidemic called the Spanish Flu. Second, many disease outbreaks have been called plagues, but we should not confuse plagues in general with the Black Death; Black Death is what we call the event of 1347 to 1352, sometimes sources also referred to it as the Great Pestilence or the Great Mortality. Black plague is a misnomer, a conflation of specific event and broad generalizations that I train my students to remove from their vocabularies.

Here is what we do not know about the Black Death: While the world after the Black Death was not like the world before it, historians argue about the nature and extent of change. They often focus on the economic outcomes. In the late fourteenth century, we see evidence of food disruption, inflationary and deflationary spirals, social unrest, shifting relationships between landowners and servile peasants, and abundant evidence of what looks like social disarray and decline. It makes sense, certainly, that with about half of the population gone, predominantly agricultural workers, the distribution of foodstuffs would have become a crucial concern in the first post-plague years. Many of the people who survived suffered greatly from the lack of basic food goods. Nonetheless, while historians until recently were quick to see evidence of a late medieval economic unraveling as a result of the Black Death, that the explanation presumes too much. Solid evidence indicates that the food insecurity and other problems I have mentioned occurred with regularity in the prior half century. The Great Famine of 1315-1322, a period of extraordinary death by starvation in northern Europe induced by cool weather, resulting from extended periods of rain, failed harvests, rot of seed crops, and mass deaths of livestock, serves as one clear example of the deterioration of Western European society before the arrival of plague at mid-century. Catalan Chroniclers called 1331 “the first bad year,” because of bad harvests in the region in that year. Giovanni Villani recorded a flood in Florence in 1334 that washed away the city’s major bridges and took as many as 3000 lives; a famine hit much of Italy in the 1339-1340. Illnesses like smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis accompanied or followed these floods and famines.[2]

Famine in the Apocalypse,Biblia Pauperum c. 1300-1325
Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, Fol. Max4, f. 15

But even in the worst of times not everyone suffered from lack of food. When Petrarch wrote, in 1340, in a way that illustrates extremes of rich and poor very much like those we notice in our own times, he had in mind the excesses of Pope John XXII and his friends. We have a list of items served at a banquet the pope held on November 22, 1324, in honor of the wedding of his niece.[3] It includes, among other items for the feast: 4,012 loaves of bread, 9 oxen, 55 sheep, 8 pigs, 4 wild boars, 690 chickens, 270 rabbits, 37 ducks, 50 pigeons, 4 cranes, 2 pheasants, 2 peacocks…. The long list goes on, but you get the idea. There is good reason to beware the moral vacuity of those who prosper in bad times, gorging themselves while others starve. One more detail reveals something about the situation of the great middling populations of Europe after he Black Death. The lack of workers on farms and in the production of goods for urban markets sent wages skyrocketing. For a short moment, the middle classes seemed to do well. That changed quickly, however, when rural lords and wealthy merchants imposed it upon bishops and kings to make it lawful to force people back to work at low wages. The most severe hardships became a matter of public policy aimed at restoring the incomes of the wealthy. We can the leave details of such flouting of human solidarity to another time.

The points to take away from the above are: First, the Black Death’s economic effects remain difficult to measure since what we want to believe was caused by the mid-century event appears in evidence in the decades earlier. Second, as a general rule, it is in the nature of wealth to beget wealth while pushing the costs of profiteering on to others.

If much of what we want to say about the economic effects of the Black Death is speculation, what then of the psychological effects? It suits the intuitions of compassionate people to imagine that death on such an unimaginable scale as happened in the mid-fourteenth century would take a deep emotional toll. People must have suffered something like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wouldn’t you think? And we can imagine that after repeat appearances of the plague – the plague returned to London, for instance, in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665 – a kind of paranoia would have set in, a deep panic about the next time, an ever-present sense of impending doom.[4] Some evidence corroborates that view. A very common image in the Later Middle Ages was the imago mortis, the image of death. It became an artistic genre, one so widespread that it encompassed several subgenres, among them the dance macabre.

replica of c. 1490 danse macabre fresco by Johannes de Castua, National Gallery of Slovenia

But even this evidence can be read in positive terms, not only as a means of understanding and accommodating death, a way of negotiating anxiety about life’s end, but also as a means of invigorating artistic craft, realizing horror as an embodied aesthetic, making social commentary, and re-imagining or re-confirming individual and corporate identities in their connection to both the here and the hereafter. The proto-surrealist Hieronymus Bosch and the proto-realist Pieter Bruegel the elder made careers of exploiting the aesthetic.[5]

Pieter Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562

In similar fashion, we might wonder how our current pandemic will alter many of our most basic conceptions of everyday activities, from family relationships, to work requirements, the meanings of friendship and camaraderie, our expectations about government, health care, military expenditure, etc. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is plenty of fear to go around in our own pandemic season. Beyond the obvious fear of coming into contact with a virus that one cannot see, there are other fears. For those who find themselves alone, being cooped up inside one’s home or apartment comes with feelings of isolation, helplessness, and depression.  Those who a few months ago thought that the bifurcation of their work-and-home lives felt tidy, normal, right, and lasting, now find themselves frustrated with work that can’t get done like it used to. Kids at home need the education and support that schools and after-school activities used to provide.[6] Some among us will suffer acutely, especially, for instance, those trapped in situations with others who are abusive; it is an uncomfortable reality that recent reports confirm a rise in domestic abuse already underway.[7] And one of the most strikingly obvious results of our Covid-19 environment is that it brings into even higher relief the extremes, and extreme costs, of a society grounded in and governed by race and class distinctions – race and class being among the manifestations of the wealth begets poverty phenomena mentioned above.[8]

The foregoing makes clear that one of the difficulties we face in making comparisons between then and now is one of situational perspective. Even with all we do not know about the period during and after the Black Death, our historical view confirms that it is now over. It is behind us, the collective historical “we” survived it. By way of contrast, our current situation is different because we are living it, it scares us now and we worry in a visceral way that our survival is threatened now. In the middle of a crisis we feel acutely the sense of panic, of not knowing the way out. The doubt, the dread, and the worry just don’t go away.

There is some perennial advice useful for tackling the fear in the gut. In both the then and the now, mystics and contemplatives have advised us to recall a historical truth, which intuition and evidence affirms. It is, simply, that this too shall pass. Such advice might seem ill-fitted to the midst of tribulation, but it can serve as an effective solace for those who make themselves aware of it.

For those who find the metaphysical approach unsatisfying, a perspective grounded in evolutionary science might serve better. In my last post, I pointed to one important finding described in the studies of human responses to recent disasters. I mentioned there that we seem to have a very deep-rooted desire to return to normal, to restore a sense of normalcy to our lives even in the aftermath of the most unimaginable traumas. Of course, I don’t mean to make light of traumas; they clearly have lasting effects. But many or perhaps most of us learn to overcome them, or ignore them, or once in a while if only for a moment we forget them. We then fill the gap, the void, the scar, with what we want to think of as normal.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to return to normal. Instinct seems to want us to go back to where we recognize our safe zones, but human reason might whisper for something better. Valuing our past everyday lives might be a sign of relative luxury. Much of the world’s population finds life burdensome, frightful, and dangerous. Here is an example close to home: Even in the prosperous United States, the first step in coronavirus mitigation was the closing of schools. That meant that the 13.9 percent of households – that is, according to the USDA, the percentage of households in which food insecurity is an everyday problem – faced the prospect of trying to feed thirteen million kids without the meals those schools offered.[9] Rather than returning to normal, we might let our current situation move us to stabilize our planet, pick up some of the trash, build a smarter infrastructure, and support those who have little share in the bounty we take for granted. Of course, a new normal that values the planet and equally values human life is somewhat contradictory if we accept, without a sustainability ethic, the Malthusian perspective that there are limits to the number of people the earth can feed (by the way, fantasies about mining on mars will exacerbate not mollify that problem).

If you find yourself curious about historical perspectives on the question of the return to normalcy, you might take a stab at reading an article of mine published a decade ago in the journal of the Medieval Academy of America. “How a ‘Brood of Vipers’ Survived the Black Death: Recovery and Dysfunction in the Fourteenth-Century Dominican Order,” Speculum 86 (2011), pp. 688-714, looks at organizational changes over the course of the fourteenth century inside the Dominican Order of Preachers. Historians studying the religious order of the Dominican friars, initiated by Dominic of Guzman early in the thirteenth century, used to assert that the Black Death caused a range of disciplinary problems. The most common argument was that because the senior leaders of the Order died in the plague years, the Order lacked experienced men with the constancy of good thought and practice to teach newcomers. After the Black Death, then, newcomers to the Order, lacking capable mentors, succumbed to abuses, disorders, and scandals. While scholars including myself found it difficult to combat an argument made and reinforced over many centuries, recently tools and methods help us to discover that, in fact, the old argument did not fit the evidence. The paper will show you that plenty of the cadre of older leaders survived the mid-century Black Death and later plague outbreaks, and that a demographic bounce, a surge of new recruits followed each plague-induced drop in the numbers. Moreover, it also makes clear that some Dominican friars were plenty good at scandalous behavior long before the great pestilence.

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1017/S0038713411001151

Mention of the Dominican friars reminds me of another point of similarity between then and now. Dominican preachers led Christian society in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in attacking Christians who felt outside of the orthodox norm (the Church called them heretics), as well as Jews and Muslims. The Black Death gave the Dominicans a great opportunity, an excuse and reason to attack the Church’s enemies. One thing we know with certainty about the period of the Black Death may seem strangely familiar to our ears: Even before the arrival of plague, Christians were quick to scapegoat Jews, blaming them (wrongly) for any number of social and economic ills. Into the plague years, Christians who developed the conspiracy theory that Jews were killing people by poisoning wells forgot to notice that the plague killed Jews and Christians without regard to their religious affiliation. Similarly, Americans have taken to blaming “outsiders” (wrongly) for the causes and effects of decades of economic malaise and political disquiet in the US. Recently, some of the most self-satisfied Americans have taken to calling the pandemic the Hunan virus or the Chinese virus, ignoring the fact that the people of Hunan, rather than plotting against us, were the first innocents to get sick and die. As has always been the case, the ways in which people die typically have nothing to do with religion or national origin, excepting of course that a great deal of violence is encouraged by the baneful wishes of conspirators who draw upon the double-helix of political ideology and religious conviction.

Being human, we tend to perceive change in our own time as something more dynamic than the change that happened to people in the past; each “now” moment offers another nth change factor that complicates our ability to measure and generalize. Some people find that lack of control something frightening. But maybe the present isn’t a bad place to be. At the very least, we can say that the morbidity of the current crisis pales in comparison to the earlier one. And we have a lot of tools, many more than they did in fourteenth-century Europe, that we can bring to the question of shaping the future. As always, the real question is whether we will apply the tools we have to present problems, or whether, instead, we will run scared, choose money over people, look for scapegoats, hide behind the straw men who play strongman. Animosity or goodwill, meanness or charity, hatred or love – if we could choose between these polarities of thought and action before a crisis, they remain available to us afterwards as well. Which course we take always belongs to each of us in our own moment.

Choose well.


[1] Some speculation about how Covid-19 will change the world is smart and thoughtfully produced, but it is speculation nonetheless: “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.” Politico (March 19, 2020) https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/19/coronavirus-effect-economy-life-society-analysis-covid-135579?cid=covid_m

[2]  See, for example, Andrew B. Appleby, “Epidemics and Famine in the Little Ice Age,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10 (1980), pp. 643-663. For a review of economic fallout from the Black Death, see David Routt, University of Richmond, The Economic Impact of the Black Death, EH.net (July 20, 2008) https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-impact-of-the-black-death/. Ole Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-1353: The Complete History (Boydell Press, 2004) offers a substantial summary of events in the whole of Europe.

[3] Unn Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested (Harvard University Press, 2017), p. 21.

[4] Vanessa Harding, The Dead and the Living in Paris and London (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 25.

[5] See, for instance, Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Brill, 2013) and Zuzana Stanska, “Plague in Art: 10 Paintings You Should Know in the Times of Coronavirus,” Daily Art Magazine (March 9, 2020) https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/plague-in-art-10-paintings-coronavirus/

[6] Chloe I. Cooney, “The Parents Are Not All Right,” Gen / Medium (April 5, 2020) https://gen.medium.com/parents-are-not-ok-66ab2a3e42d9

[7] Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” New York Times (April 6; updated April 14, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html

[8] Jim Zarroli, “The Rich Really Are Different. They Can Shelter in Nicer Places,” NPR (April 15, 2020) https://www.npr.org/2020/04/15/834247954/the-rich-really-are-different-they-can-shelter-in-nicer-places

[9] Food Security Status of US Households with Children in 2018, USDA (accessed April 15, 2020) https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#children

One thought

  1. Great article professor! I was wondering if you would write a blog post on comparing the Black Death and the Covid-19 pandemic. Your article demonstrates why I always found history fascinating. Right now people are really feeling the experience of history in ‘real time’. I doubt most of the people that lived through the time of the Black Death realized that what happened would be studied with intense scrutiny almost seven hundred years later. Most were just trying to stay alive and figure out a way to ‘return to normal’ as you mentioned above:

    “Instinct seems to want us to go back to where we recognize our safe zones, but human reason might whisper for something better.” (Beginning of the 17th paragraph)*

    Humans love normality. It’s safe, predictable, unchanging, planned out, etc. Yet there are many among us that will thrive and change their lives because we’re not in normal times. Some of us will look at this pandemic and spit in its face after its over, doing their best to reshape their lives and the lives of others (hopefully for the better. No one is a perfect angel.) Maybe some individuals will start new businesses that shape human kind for the next century or become the critical engineer whose small change in the plans could improve the design of renewable energy design. Perhaps someone that had no interest in politics or microbiology will change their mind as they they remember the uncertainly and want to mitigate, change the world’s structure, or stop another pandemic from happening again. That without their contribution, even if it is at the smallest level is the game changer. I think it’s because of history that I’m an optimist for the human race as a whole. Despite all the catastrophes that have happened whether by Nature or by Mankind we find a way to move on.

    As a final note I find your comment about PTSD after the Black Death most intriguing. Certainly today’s psychologists and psychiatrists would find the reaction of artists developing so many sub genres dealing with death and the macabre of the disease. Not to mention their patrons paying for an displaying their artwork when they had the chance. However, for them this was most likely the only way to help them through, accepting, and trying to understand the trauma of such an event Your paragraph of the artist Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the elder reminds me similarities from some articles and ideas that I’ve come across that all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work was his own way of working through his own PTSD of fighting in the trenches of World War I. The shriek of the Nazgul akin to bullets passing by everyone’s head, men losing their minds from the fear of not knowing what’s out there, the Dead Marshes akin to all the dead bodies across No Man’s Land and the trenches. The people were still scared and terrified of the plague and its impacts. They developed their own way to adapt and move on from the events and most likely not the best way for them to do it, it created a unique perspective for the descendants and after comers to study what happened and try to understand how it was so awful for them.

    *(As a note forgive me for not properly quoting the article like a true academic would. It has been a very long time since I quoted anything from a blog post or article since my college years for an academic paper I figured separating the quote and putting the exact paragraph would be easier for those reading this comment.)*

    Liked by 1 person

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