I drew this conclusion after watching a lecture series on the Black Death produced by Great Courses and offered by Amazon Prime Video. I understand that is rather morbid viewing compared to the many mood-lifting offers available, but I’m glad I hunkered down to several hours of fascinating, if dark, history lessons.
The first thing I figured out was Covid-19 is pretty much a wimp pandemic with a death rate of just 1.4 percent of people infected. The influenza pandemic of 1918 infected 500 million people – a third of the world’s population – and killed 50 million.
The many 14th century waves of plague wiped out half the population in what we now know as Europe. And the population loss wasn't recovered for two centuries due to subsequent onslaughts, some lasting a decade.
More importantly, the documentation by lecturer Dorsey Armstrong, a professor of medieval literature at Purdue, shows that in some ways we’re not coping with viral Covid-19 much differently than the good people of the 14th century did their brutal infectious assaults.
Armstrong notes during the later ‘Black Death” years, some ports ordered incoming ships, crew sand goods to remain offshore for forty days before entry, hence the word quarantine. In some cities, everyone in an infected person’s family was required to remain in their home until they were proved healthy. People in public covered their faces with floral bouquets or cloth infused with spices to fend off “miasmic” odors thought to carry the plague. During peak infestations the number of dead bodies overwhelmed the resources available to dispose of them.
Armstrong makes clear medieval medicine was more mystic than scientific and nothing its guesswork offered prevented wave after wave of plague from killing millions of people. The greatest plague infestation of London ended in 1666 only when the ‘Great Fire’ ravaged the city and, consequently, its rat and flea populations. Even today there are no ‘cures’ for viral infections such as influenza or Covid-19 or any of their permutations. Yet, we desperately reach out for anything that even nips at the edge of the problem.
Prayer was no more effective during the 14th century than today. Then, the faithful asked why their spiritual leaders were dying in the same numbers as they if the priests are so close to God. Some scholars contend such widespread skepticism fed ideas that resulted in the Reformation. And, how many of us today have rolled our eyes when some pastor defies bans on church gatherings claiming god will out and, along with a couple dozen parishioners, comes down with Covid-19?
In the medieval world, science had no cure or prevention for the forms of plague that combined to create the Black Death. And science has no cure or prevention for Covid-19. People tried outlandish and irrational cures then and now. Sacrificing children? Drinking poisonous cleaning fluids?
The impact of the plagues that assailed the Western medieval world was profound. Many scholars have asserted that, absent the fundamental political, social and economic changes caused by the Black Death, the Renaissance might have been delayed by a century or more.
In 2020 we still possess few defense and no cures for viral diseases, including Covid-19. We’re suffering only the first global wave of the pandemic so we're focused on survival. We have little time or energy to imagine what the future will look like. I’m willing to wager, though, that the impact on every part of global society will be just as profound as in the medieval era and, because of modern technology, much faster to arrive.