Plague!!! Lessons from History

Ironically, Venice canceled Carnival this year due to the threat of a possible new worldwide plague caused by a new coronavirus, COVID-19. This virus is of the same family which causes the common cold, but it is NOT the common cold virus, as some might have it. One of the more popular masks worn by Venetian Carnival revelers is that of the fearsome plague doctor, a wicked-looking bird-like design, its wearer swathed in a long back gown.

All the talk about the COVID-19 coronavirus naturally calls up images of the catastrophic 14th-century pandemic of bubonic plague. Or the Black Death, as it came to be called, because of the gangrenous flesh of its victims, thanks to the disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), or purpura, that occurred. Actually, three types of plague occurred: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The bubonic form apparently accounted for most of the millions of deaths.

We, of course, may not be facing quite the horrors of that earlier plague, but the mere knowledge of an impending plague generates fear, a lot of it.

Plagues invite novelists, as well as scientists and historians, to examine the societal effects of such rampant death and destruction. Ruth Linnea Whitney treated the African AIDS pandemic in her novel Slim (2003), while as every high school student knows (or should know), Albert Camus wrote The Plague (La Peste) about the impact of bubonic plague on the modern, yet hypothetical, Algerian city of Oran.

For what “feels” like an eye-witness account of the 14th-century plague, turn to Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001). Another such point of view appears in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), actually a fictional account taking place in 1665, and based on the realities of history. Note: a few readers have suggested Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book: A Novel (Oxford Time Travel).

Of course, the Black Death – and other pandemics – lend themselves to academic scrutiny. A few of the more thorough such works include Samuel K. Cohn’s The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe (2002) and Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (2009)

And there’s also Norman Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made (reprint 2002), as well as The Great Mortality, an Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Times (reprint, 2006). To get a feel  for the way people lived, take a look at Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1987).

In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands, just like your Mom always told you.

Be well.

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