Plagues, pandemics and narrative …

Like much of the world we are in lockdown due to Covid-19. Fortunately we have a garden, and we live in a small town with a reasonably stocked supermarket, and a populace, who, on the whole, observe social distancing measures.

However, autumn is here, and has brought days of lashing rain interspersed with the occasional fine clear  day.

Lockdown of course means no going out to meet with friends for a coffee or a drink, so I’ve been catching up on my reading backlog.

By coincidence a two or three of the books in my backlog are about either the Black Death or the Great Plague in London. The internet is of course full of articles drawing parallels between those times and the current pandemic.

I’m not going to rehash them, but I’ve found a couple or three things quietly fascinating about the Black Death in particular.

Firstly, that once it had began to spread in Europe the bishops of the English church realised that it would inevitably come to England – after all the church hierarchy maintained a pan European network of correspondence – and took the extraordinary step of sending out a letter warning of the plague to all parish priests to be read out in English, not Latin, so that their congregations were aware.

They also advised the laity that in times of plague, if no cleric was available, any man or woman could hear the victim’s final confession, something extraordinary in those pious times.

Secondly, once the pandemic passed, in many places there was an attempt to transfer land and other property to the survivors in an orderly manner by the normal rules of inheritance.

Of course, with up to half the population in their graves, it was impossible to go back to the old ways. Peasants had more land than they had ever had before, and with fewer people to work the land, were reluctant to spend time discharging their feudal obligations by working their feudal superiors’ land, something that led to the rise of the medieval English wool trade – marginal land ceased to be intensively farmed and was turned into pasture used to raise sheep. And in a game of consequences, indirectly to  the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 – the tax base had shrunk and there were fewer people to pay the poll tax to fund the King’s household and wars in France.

And of course it wasn’t only peasants who died. Skilled craftsmen also died meaning that those that survived could name their price, increasing the prosperity of what remained of urban society.

The third thing that I found fascinating, or perhaps the most fascinating, was that many writers of contemporary accounts of the plague used Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens as a model.

Not having ever had to compose a history of a pandemic, they fell back on the only model that they had.

They had no ready access to accounts of the plague of Justinian, which were mostly written in Byzantine Greek, and even if they had access to the best known account (Procopius’ s Secret History – with its well known passages about the Empress Theodora that might well have excited the scriptoria – I have this fanciful vision of monks reading the dirty bits out to each other – they would have found that Procopius had also used Thucydides as a template)

This shouldn’t surprise us – for example, the monks who wrote down the story of Fergus Mor Mac Erc and the Gaelic invasion of Dalriada in the sixth century clearly knew of the Aeneid and the Iliad and used these as templates  to give some form and shape to a perhaps rambling and repetitive oral history.

Of course, in using Thucydides as a template they missed out information that we might find interesting. It also shows that Thucydides must have been known to educated men, and like other parts of classical canon as known in the Middle Ages, provided a lens through which they saw and understood the world …



About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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