Analysis: The Black Death and coronavirus… is history repeating itself?

The world has re-invented itself over and over since the miseries of the Middle Ages. While medieval families lived off bread and scraps of meat, we now enjoy dishes from all corners of the globe, delivered to our doorstep.

Forget the printing press: we’ve got wireless printers, photocopiers and tablets. Horse-drawn carriages? We are in the age of the driverless car.

Our society has eaten up all the knowledge it can find, is inventing new knowledge, is more rational and humane than our primitive 14th-century ancestors. Just look at the coronavirus: thanks to our ventilators, our news sources and our sanitizing equipment, our response to this pandemic is infinitely more advanced than the senseless panic that reigned during Black Death outbreaks.

Or is it?

On the face of it, the first Black Death pandemic, which killed 75-200million people – 30-60% of the world population – between 1347 and 1351, bears very little resemblance to our modern-day battle with COVID-19.

With no hope of adequate medical care, let alone antibiotics, the infected would sprout oozing buboes from their neck or groin, and promptly die, after being barricaded inside their homes alongside their – probably healthy – families, for 40 days.  

With newspapers yet to be invented, knowledge of symptoms, death tolls and preventative measures was gained through word of mouth, and the only overarching, omnipresent authority that people could turn to for information and comfort was the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, in our largely secular society, we devote all our adoration and veneration to a very different deity: social media.

Omniscient and omnipotent, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like are the gods that we hold close to our hearts, the higher powers that inform and inflect our every desire and decision.

Back in the plague-stricken Middle Ages, it was the Church which offered explanations for the causes and spread of the illness. It preached that the Black Death was an act of God, who had sent the pestilence to punish humankind for their sins, and to remind them of His glory on earth.

In their scramble to prove their repentance, many Europeans joined the Flagellant movement, a radical offshoot of the Catholic faith.

Adherents would process through the streets of a town, singing hymns and whipping themselves with a leather strap. Their leader would then read out a “Heavenly Letter”, calling for all mankind to seek absolution.

Little did they know that, by moving between different places, they were doing more to spread the plague than they were to fight it.

While the Flagellants may have believed themselves to be the true followers of the word of God, when Pope Clement VI deemed the movement to be heretical in 1349, they swiftly surrendered their grisly practice.

And this is where a modern parallel begins to emerge. Self-flagellation was a sort of fad, which escalated due to the terror of the Black Death, and then disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

It “went viral”, just like the sensational headlines about coronavirus which blow up on our Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds.

And just like the Flagellant movement, these news stories are often completely devoid of logic or fact.

One recent Facebook post claims that coronavirus “remains in the throat for four days and at this time the person begins to cough […] gargling with warm water & salt or vinegar eliminates the virus. Spread this […] because you can save someone with this information.”

This notice, while clearly untrue, has since done the rounds on Facebook feeds, disseminating fake-news and contributing to mass hysteria surrounding the pandemic.

Other “helpful” advice seen on social media includes instructions to drink water every 15 minutes to “flush out” the virus (despite the fact that it infects the lungs not the stomach) and authoritative, though unproven, assertions that COVID-19 will die under heat.

Although delivered in a more civilised manner, these trending posts are really no different to the Black Death’s self-flagellation frenzy. They’re just another example of the harmful herd mentality which distracts people from the reality of the pandemic, and offers no real help to anyone.

Throughout the long history of global pandemics, people’s sources of information have changed, but their truth has not: it always has and always will be based on a pack of lies.

During the 14th-century plague outbreak, the religious self-righteousness which fuelled the Flagellant movement was also used as a pretext for antisemitic scapegoating.

As they searched for someone to blame for the pandemic, European Christians initiated a series of violent attacks on Jewish communities, including the Strasbourg massacre of 1349, where hundreds of Jews were killed. 

700 years later, you only have read the tweets of one of the world’s most influential men to see that this primal need to attribute blame is still alive and kicking.

President Trump has repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, a phrase which implies that China somehow manufactured it or orchestrated its spread.

In this way, he gives people an outlet for their fear, while distracting attention from the shortcomings of his own response to the virus: killing two birds with one xenophobic stone.

The racist undertones of Trump’s words have been echoed all over the world: Germany’s Der Spiegel recently published a front-cover image of a person in protective clothing, with the caption “Made in China”, while French media reports joke about “le péril jaune” (“yellow peril”).

And while we might think racial or religious pogroms are a thing of the past, the coronavirus crisis has seen Asian people subjected to verbal and physical abuse by people who seem to view them as a symbol of the disease.

This reveals that, when stripped down to our base instincts, we are no different to our fourteenth-century counterparts. Like them, we are desperate to place responsibility on the Other, to channel our frustration and worry into unfounded hatred and malice.

If we ignore all the technological advances and the plush trappings of modern life, we see a society that has hardly progressed at all.

When the darkness of the Black Death finally lifted in Europe, and people realised that the Catholic Church did not have the power to protect them, they began to question their religious beliefs.

In the minds of many, Catholicism’s reputation was forever sullied, opening the way for the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

After coronavirus, will the same thing happen to the media outlets which enable the spread of fake-news and bigoted attitudes? I think not.

Related Articles