At the peak of the mass mortality, urban space for the numerous plague deaths was becoming scarce everywhere, as this dramatic depiction of Tournai in 1349 shows.
At the peak of the mass mortality, urban space for the numerous plague deaths was becoming scarce everywhere, as this dramatic depiction of Tournai in 1349 shows.   © KIK-IRPA, Brussels

How the Great Plague changed the world

The plague epidemic in the Middle Ages, and its aftermath, readily invites comparison with the coronavirus pandemic. In his fascinating account of the ‘Great Plague’, however, historian Volker Reinhardt also warns of the limitations of such comparisons.

Hibou Pèlerin

Hibou Pèlerin

For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been winging his way to cultural and historical exhibitions. For the Swiss National Museum’s blog, Pèlerin picks out one or two pearls and showcases them here – in these times of museum closures and travel warnings, a recently published book also counts as a shining gem.

The longer the coronavirus pandemic drags on, the more we’re worrying about what impacts it will have in the long term – for us as individuals in our day-to-day lives, on families, on society, and on economic and political systems. So it makes sense to look back at relevant experience from history by comparing the current situation with past pandemics. Maybe we could even learn something? Alongside the Spanish flu of 1918, the ‘Great Plague’ is a worthy pandemic for comparison. In the years 1347 to 1353 the plague held virtually the whole of Europe in its grip, and continued to flare up again and again in the ensuing centuries. Even in the title of his account of this epidemic, Die Macht der Seuche (The power of the Plague), Freiburg historian Volker Reinhardt alludes to his central question: How did it change the world at that time? And are there parallels to the coronavirus epidemic? But in the introduction to his highly readable account, he then warns against exaggerated expectations. Such comparison has its pitfalls.

A quantum leap in the development of medicine

The Great Plague and the coronavirus epidemic are separated by more than just 700 years and a fundamental shift in world views. Most notably, plague was a far more terrible and more deadly disease – and there have been huge advances in medicine since then. In 1350, people had reached the level of formal description of the symptoms, alchemy and faith healing. But when it came to the causes of the plague, people continued to grope in the dark for a long time. For want of any better explanation, the disease was interpreted as punishment from God. The transmission routes also remained unclear for a remarkably long time. Was it the ‘blight’, the breath of other people, was it contact, did the clothes of the deceased carry the plague? And those who didn’t already know it may be astonished to hear that the pathogen that causes the plague, a bacterium, wasn’t discovered until 1894, in China during what was the last plague pandemic to date – specifically, in Hong Kong, by Alexandre Yersin, a researcher from western Switzerland. He also identified the house rat as the carrier of the disease, which was named Yersinia pestis in his honour in 1970. The full chain of transmission was discovered in 1897 by two researchers in Bombay: a flea that was infected with the bacterium, and for which the rat acted as an intermediate host for transmission to humans.
Spread of the Black Death in Europe.
The spread of the plague in Europe. Wikimedia
In the 14th century, people surmised only that the lethal cargo travelled by ship: port cities such as Messina in Sicily were the first to be struck by the plague. In Venice, the concept of ‘quarantine’ for incoming vessels was devised. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. The 40-day (the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian for forty) isolation of ships and seafarers was the right approach. But, foolishly, no one thought about the infected rats. They scuttled ashore via the ships’ mooring ropes. By the way, Yersinia pestis is around 20,000 years old. Like the coronavirus, the pathogen is thought to have originated in (western) China. Inscriptions in that part of the world evidence its spread along the Silk Road – albeit at the much more leisurely pace of travel at that time. From the Crimea and Constantinople (now Istanbul), where the Genoese had their trading establishments, it moved in the direction of Sicily and on to other seaports and commercial centres. The epidemic then gradually spread to Central and Northern Europe via trade routes and navigable rivers. In Switzerland, Geneva and Basel were the main ‘gateways’.
Plague 101 with National Geographic YouTube / National Geographic

Far-reaching social upheavals

The coronavirus comparison may have fallen at this first hurdle – the state of medical knowledge. At societal level, it stands pretty well. Both epidemics unleashed great uncertainty. First of all, an epidemic stirs up irrational fear and panic – the buzzword is panic-buying or hoarding. Particularly in interpersonal contact, both epidemics have been tough on people: the common defence mechanisms include isolation, ‘social distancing’ and even exclusion. Then comes the search for someone to blame, which during the plague led to massive persecution of Jews.
The plague brings out the most base cruelty in people: in 1349 innocent Jews are burned as scapegoats in Tournai, and the members of society’s upper echelons look on with satisfaction.
The plague brings out the most base cruelty in people: in 1349 innocent Jews are burned as scapegoats in Tournai, and the members of society’s upper echelons look on with satisfaction. © KIK-IRPA, Brussels
Another symptomatic feature, in both cases, is a growing distrust of established authorities which are quickly overwhelmed by the crisis. This affords a fertile breeding ground for ideas that are sometimes absurd and conspiratorial. The plague turned the prevailing social structure of society upside down. Firstly, because a very considerable portion of the population died. Estimates vary widely but at a minimum, a quarter of the population perished – and, unlike with coronavirus, the deaths cut across all age groups. Similar to coronavirus the poor, already weakened by earlier famines and living in cramped conditions, were hit much harder. They couldn’t simply withdraw to their country estates, like Boccaccio’s jeunesse dorée from Florence in the frame story of his famous plague novel Decameron. The population slump had significant economic and political consequences. For example, as a result of the shortage of workers after the plague years, especially in the flourishing textile industry but also in agriculture, those workers who were present were better able to push through their wage demands and rights. This culminated in the peasants’ revolts of the early 16th century.
Depiction of two plague sufferers in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411.
The black pox (smallpox) which God imposed on Egypt as a punishment because Pharaoh refused to let the Jews go, is depicted in the 1411 Toggenburg Bible with symptoms of the bubonic plague. According to contemporary accounts, however, the appearance of the plague was much more hideous than it is painted here. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin State Museums – Prussian Cultural Heritage, photo: Jörg P. Anders

Politics and religion put to the test

In the rising city-states, the plague upset the existing power structure. Although there was no breakdown in the social order, there was a change in the leadership ranks. A terrified populace looked to figures who offered ways out of the crisis. For example, in Florence, about which plentiful information is available due to the city’s importance as a cultural and commercial centre at the time, the plague coincided with the incredible rise of the Medici. In the city-republic of Venice, one of the doges even attempted a coup under the shadow of the plague; the insurrection was foiled at the last minute. In Milan, the city’s ruler Luchino Visconti, who had taken a hard-line approach to the epidemic, earned enormous prestige because he saved the city from the first wave of plague through brutal measures, including walling in of plague sufferers while they were still alive. Milan was then seized by the second great plague wave of 1640, an event that is immortalised in world literature: drawing on a contemporary account, Alessandro Manzoni described it vividly in his novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, first edition of 1827).
Altarpiece dating from the early 16th century. Artist Hans Leu the Younger has depicted St Roch, the patron saint of plague sufferers. The angel is applying a tincture to Roch’s leg.
Altarpiece dating from the early 16th century. Artist Hans Leu the Younger has depicted St Roch, the patron saint of plague sufferers. The angel is applying a tincture to Roch’s leg. Swiss National Museum
Throughout these years the Church gained enormous additional wealth, even though its representatives often cut a sorry figure, ironically, in its core area, spiritual welfare. Nonetheless, many plague victims appointed Church representatives as their heirs. But this didn’t make up for the enormous loss of authority suffered by the Pope and the Church. The consequences are known, in the briefest of terms, by the keywords ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Reformation’. The foundations for a worldview that was no longer based on belief but on (natural) scientific knowledge were laid in the plague years, and subsequently consolidated.

A zoom lens on hot spots and flashpoints

The quality of Volker Reinhardt’s account lies in the overview of key social, political, cultural and artistic developments between 1347 and 1353, which is set out authoritatively and, despite the wealth of detail, in a focused manner. By zooming in on hot spots and flashpoints such as the cities of Florence, Venice and Milan already mentioned above, but also the Avignon of the popes, Rome, Paris and cities in what was then the German empire such as Würzburg, Frankfurt and Strasbourg, it is made clear precisely where and how the plague had an impact. In the main, Reinhardt draws on what are for the most part the known sources. At the same time, he rearranges and reclassifies them. He shows that even apparently factual descriptions are often subject to a certain narrative interest. For example, he reminds the reader that Giovanni Boccaccio’s graphic account of the plague in Florence, already mentioned above, should be treated with some caution as the frame story of the Decameron. For one thing, it’s likely that Boccaccio wasn’t even in Florence at the time of the plague outbreak. Above all, however, his description is astoundingly similar to that of the ancient author Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War. The bottom line is that in Boccaccio’s work, as also in other oft-cited accounts from Florence, the plague is used as a setting for moral deliberations on human nature. Similar ideologically based fusions of facts and fictions can be observed in abundance as an attendant phenomenon of coronavirus – albeit, so far, mainly in various Internet forums. And the genuinely representative plague accounts all appeared after some considerable time.
Catherine of Siena dictating her chief theological work, the Dialogue.
Catherine of Siena dictating her chief theological work, the Dialogue. Her compatriot Giovanni di Paolo depicts the dyer’s daughter, who according to legend overcame plague several times, around 1461 with the nimbus of the saint, a status which was conferred on her in the same year when she was canonised by Pope Pius II Piccolomini. Detroit Institute of Arts

Basic pattern for dealing with an epidemic

In the evolution of society post-Plague, Reinhardt notes a number of behavioural patterns that are shaped by the collective experience of mass mortality. The author shows how, firstly, a “rampant hedonism” arose and how art, after the trauma of the plague, began to express a new ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day) attitude, a new zest for life. At the same time, there was a surge of interest in saints of the people (Volksheilige) such as Catherine of Siena, who advocated a new piety and endeavoured to bring their influence to bear on reforming the papacy and the political system. There also seems to be a striking “willingness to forget and block out” – which is stronger than the need to process and come to terms with what has happened. In summary, the historian asserts that, ultimately, the plague “did not produce any completely new ideas or behaviour”. Rather, it acted as a catalyst in that “with its upheavals, it has consolidated and reinforced beliefs, attitudes and developmental trends that had been established long before”. We will now be able to see for ourselves whether the same applies to the coronavirus. However, an examination from a greater distance, such as Reinhardt provides for the plague, will have to be left to future historians.

The power of the plague – How the Great Plague changed the world – 1347 – 1353

Volker Reinhardt, Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich 2021. 256 pages with 25 illustrations and a map. Currently available in German.

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