20th April, 2020
One of the hardest working words of the moment is ‘unprecedented’. The economic toll levied by Corona can certainly be seen as unprecedented. But the disease itself has had all too many predecessors. Over tragic millennia, waves of anthrax, bubonic plague, diphtheria, dysentery, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid, typhus, whooping cough, yellow fever and yet other terrible afflictions have erased countless lives and altered great events.
Every country in every period (excluding the post-1945 West) seems to have suffered epidemics and pandemics. Written records go back to the 11th century BC, in present-day Israel. The Chinese suffered from ‘Hunpox’ (probably smallpox) as early as 1122 BC. The Persians were unable to capitalise upon their victory at Thermopylae partly because of the Plague of Xerxes. The Great Plague of Athens of 430 BC probably helped prolong the Peloponnesian War; Thucydides himself was infected, although he survived to give an account of the symptoms.
The Carthaginian Plague of 396 BC put paid to Carthaginian ambitions in eastern Sicily, and weakened the empire for the following century’s first brush with Rome (illness would also kill Carthage’s generals during the Second Punic War). The Antonine Plague (also known as the Plague of Galen, because the hugely influential medic described it in Methodus Medendi) that arrived in 165 AD carried off two Roman emperors, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (of Meditations fame), whose last words are said to have been,
Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.
The Plague of Justinian (542 AD), the first plague pandemic, caused over 10,000 deaths a day in Constantinople at its height, and destroyed the Byzantine Emperor’s dreams of unifying the Mediterranean basin. The Roman Plague of 590 AD killed Pope Pelagius, indirectly benefiting the Church by allowing the succession of the reforming Pope Gregory the Great. Disease fatally weakened Holy Roman Empire armies in Italy in 1081-3 and 1167, in Hungary in 1542 and 1566, and France in 1552. Crusaders were struck at Antioch in 1098, Antalya in 1147, Acre in 1189, Damietta in 1218 and Al Mansurah in 1250.
The Black Death devastated cities and rural districts across Europe and the Near East; one conservative estimate is that 25 million Europeans died between 1347 and 1351. The pope at Avignon consecrated the Rhône so Christian corpses could be consigned to it. Distracting or expiatory dance-manias (which psychologists call epidemic chorea) swept spasmodically across Europe from the 12th century on, often in tandem with self-flagellation and other excesses, as sufferers tried everything to divert cosmic evil or sweat out symptoms. (Sometimes, however, epidemics brought rejection of religion rather than recrudescence.)
Inadvertently-imported smallpox aided Cortes and Pizarro by decimating Aztecs and Incas, and later English and French settlers also brought viruses in their baggage. 90% of Massachusetts Bay Indians died between 1617 and 1619. Jesuit missionaries to Canada in the 1630s made earnest efforts to combat smallpox among the Huron, but may actually have facilitated its spread. There is ongoing debate about whether early Anglo-Americans deliberately infected hostile tribes by given them contaminated blankets, as is often alleged – or whether, if they did, it was effective. The Thirty Years’ War was made even more appalling, and perhaps protracted, by raging dysentery, plague, scurvy and typhus. There were around 45 lethal mass diseases across China and Indochina between 1817 and 1978 alone.
To focus on ‘The English Patient’, The Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence (1995), enumerates 65 specifically British and Irish outbreaks of diseases causing widespread fatalities between the Irish Yellow Plague (buidhe conaill) of the 540s and the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. Disease was always present, but always terrible when it came in waves, so generally, so inexplicably, so suddenly. The Old English word for epidemic disease was on-flyge, or ‘the onflying’, alluding to the speed with which viruses travelled even in less mobile ages.
Diseases were often thought to have celestial or divine connotations. Bede connected the Yellow Plague of 664, the first recorded major English outbreak, with that year’s total eclipse of the sun. In 961, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
there was a very great pestilence; when the great fever was in London; and St. Paul’s minster was consumed with fire.
1087, the Chronicle further notes,
was a very heavy and pestilent season in this land. Such a sickness came on men, that full nigh every other man was in the worst disorder…Yet such things happen for folks’ sins, that they will not love God and righteousness.
The outbreak of 1111 was prefigured in 1110 and tail-ended in 1112 by ‘uncommon stars.’
The 1550s Augsburg Book of Miracles, an illustrated compendium of past momentous events, shows the plague year of 1348 under a ‘dense and hideous’ cloud, and claims
a great number of worms and vermin fell upon the earth in the East, so that many people died from the stench and hardly ten were left alive out of a thousand.
This obvious allusion to Biblical plagues would have been understood in Black Death-belaboured England, even though the authorities tried to be more rational. It was only natural that people panicked. As many of half of all Londoners (around 100,000) people may have died. Two thirds of Oxford students succumbed. Conspiracy theories and eccentric ideas circulated in the corrupted air. The plague, people said excitedly, was caused by corpses, cripples, dirty water, excrement, fruit-eating, Jews, nobles, planets, southerly winds – almost anything, except for the almost invisible real culprit, the oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis).
Even some ancient writers had noticed an association between rats and the plague, but it would not be until 1898 that Paul-Louis Simond put forward the theory that the rat flea was the intermediary that transmitted the bacillus from rats to people, and the actual method was not demonstrated until 1914.
Lincolnshire, which had important trading links with infected Europe, started experiencing the plague indirectly in 1348, when 11 tithing-men or tenants died in the Cambridgeshire estates pertaining to Lincolnshire’s Crowland Abbey (The Estates of Crowland Abbey, Francis M. Page, 1934). Page incidentally doubts widely-held assumptions about the Black Death’s supposedly revolutionary economic effects, demonstrating that even after the plague had passed through many long-present families resumed or retained their tenancies ‘on ancient conditions’. ‘The Black Death’, he concludes,
was a great episode in the history of these manors, but it would be incautious to ascribe to it, per se, any far-reaching influence upon subsequent events
But they were world-altering events by contemporary criteria. In 1349, according to the Louth Park Chronicle,
the hand of the only Omnipotent God struck the human race with a certain deadly blow…. So great a pestilence before this time had never been seen, or heard of, or written of.
The Bishop of Lincoln, John Gynewell, who had early taken an interest in the plague’s progress, rose powerfully to the occasion. In July 1348, he ordered that penitential processions be held on Wednesdays and Fridays to
assuage the anger of the Saviour, who brings vengeance upon sinners in divers ways…from pestilences, stormy weather, and the deaths of men
More practically, he continued his restless visitation of his huge diocese (which extended into Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland), consecrating suddenly desperately-needed cemeteries, installing priests to replace those who had died, dealing efficiently with all problems, never shirking from entering parishioners’ plague-hit towns and villages. He covered almost 900 miles in three months, some days covering 30 miles on horseback (The Scourging Angel: The Black Death in the British Isles, Benedict Gummer, 2009). His calmness and immunity from infection must have seemed marvellous in itself, and brought comfort to petrified people.
Gynewell’s exemplary conduct could not, of course, prevent the partial emptying out of his see (although Black Death depopulation was only one cause). Lincolnshire has well over 200 deserted village sites (The Lost Villages of Britain, Richard Muir, 1985), echoing places where the only traces of old inhabitation may be mounds in fields, or harrows’ furrows on hillsides – or oddly outsized medieval churches, whose handsome proportions were meant for larger populations.
The Black Death was just the worst of endless diseases, in times when even mumps might mean death. A few churches have perhaps fancifully-identified ‘lepers’ squints’ – narrow, angled windows leading out into the churchyard, which allegedly allowed leprosy sufferers to ‘attend’ Mass while keeping a wall between them and the uninfected inside. Plague itself kept returning, becoming endemic in England between 1590 and 1665. In 1643, the English Civil War was slowed by outbreaks apolitically affecting both the Parliamentary troops at Reading and the King’s at Oxford. Charles II’s ‘Merry’ reign was punctuated by the Great Plague of 1665, which carried off over 68,000 Londoners. The following year’s Great Fire is supposed to have helped reduce plague’s persistence, by razing many of the unhygienic thatched, wood-framed buildings which had proved so congenial to black rats, although diseases like cholera, smallpox and typhus too often took plague’s place.
Since then, slowly accrued scientific knowledge has gradually inoculated Western societies – so successfully that we have forgotten what it is like to live in the shadow of death, to tremble at the first signs of fever because we know what fever might mean. Antibiotic-reliant, historically complacent, religiously indifferent, well-fed Westerners are not finding it easy to emulate their ancestors’ acceptance and humility, their endurance in the face of almost-intolerable facts. But there are worse dangers than disease, as Marcus Aurelius meditated even in the midst of miasma,
For the destruction of the understanding is a pestilence, much more indeed than any such corruption and change of this atmosphere which surrounds us. For this corruption is a pestilence of animals in so far as they are animals; but the other is a pestilence of men in so far as they are menMeditations, IX.2
And even death may not necessarily have dominion. In The Scourging Angel, Benedict Gummer exhorts readers to remember
The greatest power of pestilence and mass mortality is not their own, but the reaction they provoke in the hearts of those left behind – the will to survive, the instinct for increase, and – for many – the desire to seek something better.