How the spectre of the Black Death still haunts our collective memory

Despite 800 years of medical advancement, coronavirus has resurrected our dormant fear of the plague. 

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When a ship sailed into one of the ports along England’s south coast in the summer of 1348, its unwitting crew also delivered ashore the most deadly cargo to ever reach the British Isles: Yersinia pestis, a bacterium causing bubonic plague. Having erupted out of Asia, the disease had travelled along the Silk Road and torn through Europe via rats roaming merchant ships.

The symptoms of such a virulent infection, which would devastate England’s infrastructure, were as dramatic as its spread. First a fever, cold and general flu-like symptoms, followed by blackening buboes forming in the joints, most commonly the groin or the armpits. It was these buboes that would later give the disease its nickname: the Black Death. Sometimes people survived this stage, but usually the infection would reach the bloodstream and death was inevitable – and swift.

Over the next few months the highly infectious disease ravaged the south of England, wiping out entire towns such as Bristol, and reaching London in November 1348. By New Year’s Day 1349, the mood was apocalyptic, with 200 bodies a day being piled into “plague pits” in the city’s suburbs – Smithfield being a favoured spot to bury the corpses of citizens of the City. Henry Knighton, an Augustinian monk, witnessed the devastation caused by the Black Death: “There was a general mortality throughout the world… villages and hamlets became desolate and no homes were left in them, for all those who had dwelt in them were dead.”

The panic, fear and hysteria surrounding the Black Death were unprecedented. In a society driven by religion, the view was that the disease was a form of divine punishment. This consensus induced waves of ritual flagellation on the streets; people whipping themselves until bloodied, often not stopping even then. Blame was also pointed at the Jewish community, leading to a period of brutal anti-Semitism.

The 1348 epidemic was not the only outbreak of the plague, just the first, the most famous and the most deadly. Mortality by plague epidemic became a regular occurrence in almost every decade that followed, often sending people into a frenzy of fear and panic. Henry Knighton described another episode in 1355 during which people ran wild and were forcibly bound in churches in order to be given “relief” by God. In 1374 the Flemish chronicler Jean d’Outremeuse recounts a similar event in the city of Liège (in present-day Belgium), where women “abandoned themselves to frivolity” – a Danse Macabre. The Black Death appeared an endless scourge on humanity, attacking everybody from nobleman to labourer.

The plague of 1361 was particularly cruel: it was nicknamed “the children’s plague” after virulently attacking an entire generation of children. Following the 1348 Black Death, three decades of recurrent epidemics halved the British population from around five million to 2.5 million, until the infection eventually slowed in 1377.

There was no cure for the Black Death, despite the desperate and sometimes bizarre remedies that were popularised – strapping live chickens to the emerging buboes being one. People could isolate themselves, run away or impose a household quarantine. In cities, the poor, usually bound to their homes, would have to remain inside and wait, whereas most of the nobility would retreat from the cities during peak plague season for centuries after 1348.

The plague returned in varying degrees over the next three centuries, until its final shattering year in 1665, when it devastated England yet again, acquiring the name the Great Plague. In London alone, almost 70,000 people died. Antiquarian scholars in the 19th century instigated the long task of sifting through and even transcribing archival documents from the Middle Ages, paving the way for our understanding of the period. However, the spectre of the Black Death endured throughout the centuries that followed, with superstition, fear and panic across generations.

By the 20th century, the Black Death had become the model for “epidemics”, symbolising catastrophic mortality and the mass hysteria surrounding the outbreak of infection. By the 21st century, this escalated further in popular culture. The 2010 film Black Death depicts the culture of fear surrounding epidemics – suspicion, panic, violence – using the 1348 plague as a backdrop.

When the coronavirus outbreak was detected, plague iconography became a regular feature on social media – macabre images of a 17th-century plague doctor, with his black robes and beaked nose, began to circulate as a series of memes. In Italy, the European centre of the epidemic (with 7,335 cases at the time of writing), citizens recently paraded through the streets of Venice to mark the anniversary of the 1575 plague outbreak, which killed 50,000 people – they were dressed as plague doctors.

Despite infectious diseases ravaging society for centuries, the recollection of the Black Death remains at the forefront of our collective memory. After 800 years of enlightenment, medical advancement, antibiotics, vaccines and information, coronavirus has resurrected our dormant fear of the Black Death.

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down

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