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The strange and startling similarities between the Great Plague and COVID-19

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What will befall us was the most common question then, as now, and isolation, the most common preventive strategy

A true story: 12 ships dock in the Italian port of Messina in 1347. The sailors on board are all either dead or very gravely ill, covered in the oozing, pus-filled black boils that gave the greatest pandemic of the Middle Ages its lasting moniker: the Black Death. This was the bubonic plague which was to wipe out a third of the population of Europe, or more than 20 million people, in less than a decade. How was ‘social distancing’ practised then, almost 700 years ago, and how different is the situation today?

Let’s begin by looking at a couple of historical coincidences concerning a world narrative of disease transmission and spread. In 2011, an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature that traced the genetic route of the Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that caused the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. Their conclusion was that, then as now, the infection originated in China or nearby. The virus moved variously via the Silk Road and other land-trade routes, until sea trade brought it to the docks of Europe. Then, as now, the first major epicentre in Europe was Italy.

Then, as now, the recombinant transmission was animal to human: rats were the proximate cause then, as is the bat and/ or snake or, perhaps, the pangolin today. Travel routes were the pre-eminent vectors then, as now. Fear, apprehension and hope were the dominant emotions then, as now. What will befall us was the most common question — and isolation, the most common preventive strategy.

Social symptomology

Medically, of course, there are huge differences: the infection in the case of the bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium, while it is a virus, the SARS-CoV-2, that precipitates the sometimes deadly symptoms of respiratory failure of COVID-19. For this reason, most comparisons made so far have been, appropriately enough, with the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1916-20. Yet, in terms of social symptomology, just as revealing could be the long-term impact of the Black Death, which hit Europe in times of relative peace, a century after the bloody fervour of the Crusades had peaked, just as the coronavirus has now gone global in peace time. It goes without saying that the economic impact of the plague pandemic was devastating, with starvation rampant and riots breaking out among the poor over sheer survival needs. It took almost a century then for global financial systems to recover.

To this day, the Great Plague remains stamped in world memory through the ubiquitous children’s rhyme ‘Ringa-Ringa Roses’, where the ‘roses’ refer to the buboes on the bodies of victims and the innocuous ending “all fall down” indicates mass death. In contrast, the pandemics of the 20th and 21st centuries seem to have produced less major literature comparable, for instance, to Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece, The Decameron, although I’m willing to be corrected on this somewhat contentious claim.

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Anyhow, it turns out that, almost immediately after the Black Death made its dramatic entry into Italy, Boccaccio, an established literary name, began to record the story of the isolationist measures that the elite of his time took to combat the crisis that had so suddenly overcome them. His descriptions of the distress are graphic. He writes of the “multitude of corpses”, of graveyards so full that “vast trenches” had to be dug “wherein those who came after were laid by the hundred and being heaped up therein by layers, as goods are stowed aboard ship” and of whole families thrown pell-mell into the streets each day. Conditions were so “piteous”, especially among the “common people” that:

...what more can be said save that… so great was the cruelty of heaven (and in part, peradventure, that of men) that, between March and the following July, what with the virulence of that pestiferous sickness and the number of sick folk ill tended or forsaken in their need, through the fearfulness of those who were whole, it is believed for certain that upward of an hundred thousand human beings perished within the walls of the city of Florence, which, peradventure, before the advent of that death-dealing calamity, had not been accounted to hold so many…

Another coincidence: the arc of the infection. Boccaccio specifically mentions March to July. Which is precisely where we are now with the coronavirus. Note, too, the reference to the teeming population. Here, too, Boccaccio’s observations are acute: “fearfulness” and the capacity for “cruelty” among the unaffected population; the high death toll in Florence where ‘upward of a hundred thousand perished’ when no one even guessed the city held so many! Our cities from Milan to Mumbai have over a hundred times the medieval densities; on the other hand, the coronavirus is far less fatal than the plague — but the bottomline is still ‘lockdown’.

Watch | A history of pandemics since the 20th century 

The Decameron is the tale of 10 aristocrats, three men and, rather surprisingly, as many as seven women, young, well-bred and well-read, who barricade themselves in a villa in order to avoid the grim disease. Call it self-quarantine, if you will, and note its striking similarity to medical advice today. Social behaviour in the Middle Ages, it appears, was not that dissimilar to ours.

True, we know immeasurably more about medication, drugs, genetics and epidemiology today. Global cooperation of the sort that organisations like the WHO so swiftly call on would have been unthinkable then. After all, the Great Plague preceded Shakespeare and Galileo by more than 200 years. Modernity and its rationalist, ‘scientific’ view of natural laws were barely a glimmer in the eyes of even great humanists such as Dante or Boccaccio; democratic norms unimaginable. But turn to human nature and its anxieties, and we find in The Decameron a universal text.

Tapestry of hope

What seems to have remained stubbornly unaltered down the centuries is the generic role that narratives — “an hundred stories or fables or parables or histories or whatever you’d like to style them” as Boccaccio says cheerfully — play in coming to terms with the stress and trauma generated by the vengeful and “devilish” unknown. All that the characters in The Decameron do is hang out, tell stories and sing songs. Together, however, they cooperatively create a durable tapestry of hope.

Most modern interpretations of The Decameron, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s famous 1971 film based on the book, have highlighted the bawdy concupiscence, the persistent lust and lechery on display in these stories. But it does not take a Freud to surmise that the obsession with the body in The Decameron at a time when the mutable human body is under terrifying siege makes psychological sense. These stories form immunity cordons, ringfencing the young people in their villa against desperation.

One of the striking features of The Decameron is that its cast is young and mostly female, with seven women (Boccaccio specifically mentions that their ages range from 18 to 28), and only three men. Why? Well, for one, it is clear throughout the text that Boccaccio thinks women are naturally more talkative and empathetic. Indeed, at the end of his book, he credits his female neighbour with complimenting his “tongue” as “the best and sweetest in the world” although some men are of the opinion that the same tongue is quite “venomous”.

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More fundamentally, Boccaccio’s underlying philosophy seems to be that it’s not so much the sagacity of old age that’s required in times of unprecedented crisis but a buoyant belief in the future such as comes naturally to the young. Today, we’d say that the evolutionary will to survive and mate for the good of the species — and to lead a good life, la dolce vita, is a primal instinct in our millennials, for example. In this respect, we could maintain that the coronavirus metaphorically follows the pattern set by Boccaccio: it spares the young. The young are certainly “not invincible”, as the Director of WHO has cautioned. But should they believe they are, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., Dr. Antony Fauci, adds a wise, ethical footnote: the youth, he says, owe a debt to the rest of the species not to act irresponsibly and selfishly. It is here that The Decameron’s message resonates.

Early humanism

Boccaccio offers us a microcosm of an early humanist world in the making. Though embedded in the local and inevitably mired in the prejudices of the time, its vision is astonishingly non-polarising, cosmopolitan and inclusive. For example, the trope of the Jew as the iconic ‘other’ is prominent, but Boccaccio’s Jews are not in the least evil or targets of hate; instead, they are rational, likeable souls. Simultaneously, the Christian clergy are roundly condemned for their hypocrisy and venality, as are the “pickmen” who collect and dump the dead for money; Boccaccio calls them “bloodsuckers”. Today, such leeches could well include the callous rich and the politicians who seek to profit from calamity.

On display in The Decameron is the entire range of human folly: deceit, duplicity, dementia, violence. In one typically melodramatic story, a father cuts out his daughter’s lover’s heart and offers it to her in a silver dish, whereupon she pours poison into the bloody bowl and consumes the gory potion, killing herself instantly. The point is that these harrowing instances of “man’s inhumanity to man” only throw into luminous relief the innate goodness and generosity of ordinary folk. In this sense, Boccaccio intelligently recognises that nature, in essence, is non-hierarchical, even if culture chooses to privilege some over others.

If the adage is that death is the great leveller, infectious diseases surely come a close second. The Decameron begins with the pious declaration: “A kindly thing it is to have compassion for the afflicted” and then proceeds to examine, with no small degree of irony, the forms and genealogy of such empathy. It ends with admirable, self-reflexive humility: “I confess that the things of this world have no stability and are still on the change and so it may have befallen on my tongue”.

In other words, no judgement is infallible, and even one’s most cherished beliefs are subject to correction. Part of this humility may be due to the demands of literary convention, but part seems to stem from genuine conviction. Boccaccio was deeply aware of the instability of his world and, consequently, his words.

Admit it as Boccaccio bravely did or not, we are perhaps just as uncertain in the 21st century during the times of the coronavirus. That is why reading The Decameron in the present corona hotspot of New York or in the possible future hotspot of New Delhi or anyplace anywhere, could be just the social prophylactic against depression and despair that we need in these troubled times.

The writer is critical theorist, writer, poet, and Professor Emerita at IIT Delhi. She was Distinguished Professor at Hunan University, China in 2019. Her books include Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, Culture.

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