The Good News About The Plague
Over the course of 600 years, humans have faced every kind of illness, financial bubble, and atrocity that can be dreamed. If we look back to the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, it shares its secret to recovery. Tell jokes.
How It Happened
In October 1347, twelve Genoese merchant ships pulled into port at Messina, Sicily, where the dockworkers knew something had gone wrong. Most of the sailors on board were dead. The reason Sicilians called it “black death” is likely because they were returning from the Crimean seaport of Caffa on the Black Sea — or it might have been the black sores that covered the victim’s bodies.
The contagion was brought to Caffa by Mongolian warriors who wanted to lay siege to the city. Rats scurried about picking up the infection in the form of fleas. They made their way to the ship when the sailors departed. What no one suspected back in the 14th Century was when the rats died the fleas wouldn’t die with them but wander onto human hosts. Soon after the Genoese sailors returned, the infection turned into an epidemic and spread all over Europe.
What It Did
Before it would run its course, the Plague killed as many as 200 million people or 50% of the population in Europe. According to medieval historian Philip Daileader, “In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as the south of France, where the Plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75–80%.” It was an equal opportunity disruptor and spared no one, neither king nor queen and, especially not children.
The world caved in. The medieval agricultural economy was unable to provide food. Shortages worsened every decade by the time the Plague reached Marseille in the mid 14th Century, allowing it to spread rapidly through cities and towns. Within two years of exposure, the small village of Digne declined from over 10,000 population to 1,500. Within two centuries, the population growth of France from all previous centuries was wiped out. The Romans built walls to protect the city against the spread of infection that stand today.
How We Reacted
The Plague was followed by the first global anti-immigrant movement. Naturally, a force so destructive required someone to blame. The lingering resentment against minority groups such as foreigners and Jews turned into objects of hate and persecution.
The Plague led to a series of complex and social changes in addition to economic consequences. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the Plague as it ravaged Florence in 1348, wrote, “One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.”
As society turned on its head, life changed in countless ways, which, if you survived, turned out to be a better thing. Why? It has something to do with our power to transform in the face of total disruption.
- The scarcity of labor meant that wages rose, and an abundance of cheap land allowed more competition for production. Estates inherited by a handful of survivors were b like a medieval version of condos. Spreading the wealth became a much more common theme during the Middle Ages. Today, we would call this the rise of a middle class.
- The Plague disrupted the Medieval caste system. It liberated the serfs and peasants by increasing wages. They could spend more on luxuries such as meat, reducing their pure grain diet, which gave them strength and vitality. The landowners had no choice but to put up with these changes as the population dwindled.
- Villages emptied and forced people to move to places they weren’t welcome, so they had to learn new languages and customs. Locals who had never before met anyone outside of their village had to overcome a fear of strangers. They would confront someone by touching the passerby’s hand to detect the presence of a weapon. Today, we refer to this customary greeting as a “handshake.”
- Families thrived under these dire circumstances. The roles of men and women began to equalize. Working the family farm and raising children required everyone on deck. Estates inherited by a handful of survivors created more widespread wealth. A surplus of empty land and farms made bargains available to the few survivors who inherited their entire family holdings.
- The newest status symbol wasn’t the coachman and a fancy carriage, but life itself. Hierarchical society flattened out, Not only was life mobile, but people’s status became mobile, too. You were no longer bound by where you were born but who you might become and where you might move.
- When we think of the Europeans living in the 14th Century, we need to weigh the devastation they suffered against the outcomes. For instance, if you like the skits on Saturday Night Live, you can thank the Plague or, more accurately, Boccaccio, as he was inspired to write The Decameron — the first medieval sitcom which allowed people to escape their troubles. His message wasn’t aimed at courtiers either, but at commoners, which is why he broke with tradition and wrote in the language of the day, Florentine, and not Latin so that everyone could enjoy it.
- If you enter a hospital with an infection today, the Plague inspired the practice of isolating people with specific symptoms long before we understood infectious disease. Before then, everyone was together in the same room or even the same bed.
The Plague teaches us one thing, that by examining the troubling lessons of the past perhaps we can skip learning them a second time. The gift to a later generation was the discovery that by using our imagination we can find new ways of living and working together. That period would be called the Renaissance.