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Historic precedents to the coronavirus crisis
As Tuchman described it, the sailors who brought the contagion to Europe from the Black Sea in October 1347 “showed strange black swellings. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms.”
It was, it seemed, the end of the world — and that was before the plague came. In the first decade of the 14th century, the climate was changing, and not for the good. “A physical chill settled on the 14th century at its very start, initiating the miseries to come,” Barbara W Tuchman wrote in her 1978 book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. “The Baltic Sea froze over twice, 1303 and 1306-07; years followed of unseasonable cold, storms and rains, and a rise in the level of the Caspian Sea.” Known as the Little Ice Age, the shift in weather was mysterious in cause but clear in its effects: Colder weather meant a curtailed growing season, which in turn meant less food, which in the last resort meant people starved to death.
Then came the rains, which in 1315 washed out what crops there were, and famine, Tuchman reported, “the dark horseman of the Apocalypse, became familiar to all. And then, at last, as if ice and cold and famine weren’t enough, came the bubonic plague. Rats were long believed to be the culprit, but the Black Death is now thought to have largely spread by fleas, lice and through the air — transmitted, in other words, from human to human.
As Tuchman described it, the sailors who brought the contagion to Europe from the Black Sea in October 1347 “showed strange black swellings. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms.” Soon the road from apparent infection to death shortened considerably. “These victims coughed and sweated heavily and died even more quickly, within three days or less, sometimes in 24 hours. … Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end ‘death is seen seated on the face.’”
Thus began the deadliest pandemic in human history. The Black Death killed an estimated third of the world’s population, leading to fundamental social, economic and political shifts. It’s too early to know where our own battle against COVID-19 will lead us — the fight is far from over — but the non-fiction literature of plague reveals that pandemics, while ending individual human lives, can mark the beginnings of new ways of being and of thinking.
Wrongly believed to have come from China, the Black Death was everywhere. “Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through air and sight,” a chronicler of Siena wrote. “And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship.” The economically vulnerable suffered the most. “The rich fled to their country places,” Tuchman wrote; Boccaccio reported that the wealthy of Florence found refuge in palaces “removed on every side from the roads” with “wells of cool water and rare wines.” When the poor died, it was reported, “only the stench of their bodies informed neighbours of their death.”
The failure to socially distance exacerbated matters. Early on the pope authorised “penitent processions … some attended by as many as 2,000, which everywhere accompanied the plague and helped to spread it.” And healthcare workers died doing their duty. In Paris, the nuns “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.”
As Tuchman observed, “New nuns repeatedly took the places of those who died.” How did it end? For a long time it didn’t. There were numerous recurrences; scientists and historians still debate how the plague was brought under control. Some believe quarantine (the word derives from a 40-day period of confinement) and improved sanitation did the trick. The plague made no sense, and in making no sense, it helped reorder how human beings understood the world.
— Jon Meacham is a contributing writer for NYT© 2020
The New York Times