One of my Christmas gifts was a book I had long wanted to read, Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror,” her historical account of “the calamitous 14th century.” The book describes in minute detail the events and conditions in Europe during the deadliest pandemic the world has ever seen, the Black Death, or bubonic plague, that swept across the Middle East, Russia and Europe in waves during the 1300s.
As the title of “A Distant Mirror” indicates, Tuchman saw parallels with her own time in the social chaos left in the wake of the massive disruptions of plague and war. She couldn’t have known when the book was published in 1978 that another global pandemic lay ahead.
There is a little comfort for us in knowing that however bad we have had it during the COVID outbreak, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what people went through during the Black Death. Tuchman notes that no one knows how many died, but rough estimates are that as much of a third of the population of Europe was wiped out. The young were more affected than the old. The historical accounts read like something out of Stephen King.
In Avignon, France, “when graveyards filled up, bodies … were thrown into the (river) until mass burial pits were dug. In London in such pits corpses piled up in layers until they overflowed. Everywhere reports speak of the sick dying too fast for the living to bury. Corpses were dragged out of homes and left in front of doorways. Morning light revealed new piles of bodies. In Florence the dead were gathered up by the Compagnia della Misericordia… When their efforts failed, the dead lay putrid in the streets for days at a time.”
The social effects of this kind of death and disruption ought to concern us. One of the most interesting parallels has to do with economics.
“When death slowed production, goods became scarce and prices soared. …. At the same time the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest social disruption – a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks, and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity. Within a year after the plague had passed through northern France, the textile workers of St. Omer near Amiens had gained three successive wage increases. In many guilds artisans struck for higher pay and shorter hours.”
Sound familiar? A footnote is that the ruling class immediately – and unsuccessfully – tried to repress the workers’ wage gains.
There were other troubling effects on people’s behavior. Antisemitism soared because people blamed the Jews, for no other reason than they were Jews, and there were terrible persecutions. Since medical remedies were few, all sorts of superstitious preventions were tried. Bad leadership led to cynicism about rulers, and there were several popular uprisings, all of which were put down by force.
“Emotional response, dulled by horrors, underwent a kind of atrophy,” Tuchman writes, and quotes a chronicler of the time: “‘One man shunned another … kinsfolk held aloof, brother was forsaken by brother, oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children to their fate…’”
Others carried on as if nothing were wrong, adopting a kind of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” attitude. “Behavior grew more reckless and callous, as it often does after a period of violence and suffering,” Tuchman observes.
Finally, there was an ominous effect on religion.
“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. … If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. … Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight… To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”
The COVID pandemic may not have such a dramatic effect on our age, but it shouldn’t surprise us to see around us glimmers of what happened in the past. It’s still an open question how far humanity has come in 700 years.
Cary McMullen is a retired journalist and the former religion editor of The Ledger.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: In our pandemic, disturbing glimmers of a distant one