Pandemic then and now…

I wrote much of this piece a couple of weeks ago for a smaller audience, but I thought I’d like to share it more widely, as our present global “pandemic” happens to have come at the very moment when I’m again writing about pandemic, so it’s uppermost in my writer’s mind right now…


I’d hate to think you might feel I was misappropriating others’ distress for my own ends but the present worrying coronavirus inevitably makes me think about how people of earlier centuries coped with a “pandemic” when they didn’t understand its origin and for which they had no remedy.

If you’ve read my first Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel, you’ll realise that the century I’m thinking of particularly is the 14th, and the pandemic is the plague – what we call the Black Death – which killed between a third and a half of people, not only in England but across a huge swathe of the world from the far east to northern Europe.

I’m currently writing the fourth Chronicle, and I’m thinking about plague all over again, because the disease returned to England in 1361, eleven years after the first outbreak. (It came again in 1369, then at intervals for the next three centuries, with the Great Plague of 1665 the last serious outbreak, in terms of fatalities, though it didn’t finally die out in Europe until the 19th century.) But book four covers 1361, and the plague that year was notable for killing a disproportionally high number of children and young men, although from what I’ve read it is unclear exactly why that happened.

The way that the coronavirus is spreading apparently so fast and so easily is frightening enough. But doctors and scientists do at least know what coronavirus is (they understand the nature of viruses), how it spreads (for example, coughing), have some idea of how to mitigate it (for example, isolation), have a way of testing for the disease and are working to find a vaccination.

But imagine that you had no idea what the disease actually was, or how it spread. The black rat and its fleas have always been implicated in the spread, but there is also a view that human fleas and lice might also have carried it from person to person, given the speed of the disease’s transmission. Of course, people then didn’t necessarily understand the role of fleas as vectors for disease, though it’s clear they did believe that close contact with a victim was to be avoided.

V0020711 A black rat sitting upright on the ground. Etching by W. S.
Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? (Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. Public domain.)

Doctors really didn’t know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. But I suspect that many doctors didn’t attend to plague victims at all, knowing, or at least believing, the risk of catching it from their patients. In later centuries, doctors found ways to protect themselves, and this image of a 17th century “plague doctor” does remind one of today’s medics wearing “hazmat” suits:

The 17th century equivalent of a “hazmat” suit? Though these sorts of beak masks weren’t used in the 14th century.  (Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in 17th century Rome.  Published by Paul Fürst (1608–1666) who was perhaps also the engraver. Public domain.)

Anyway, it seems that some communities did consider isolation as a way of avoiding plague, although often it was done too late. Famously, in 1665, Eyam in Derbyshire went into “lock-down” after plague invaded the village (from fleas in a bolt of cloth apparently). The plan was to prevent the disease spreading beyond the village, but a large proportion of Eyam’s population lost their lives to plague, as you can discover if you visit Eyam today.

However, catching plague wasn’t inevitably a death sentence, for some people clearly did survive it – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims – though of course vast numbers didn’t. However, whereas it appears that, generally speaking, the present coronavirus is more serious for people who are old or already ill with some other condition, the 14th century outbreaks of plague killed people of every age and condition and, as I’ve said, in 1361, a disproportionally high number of children died, which must have been particularly distressing, but also a lot of fit young men, which must also have been quite hard to understand.

In the 14th century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life generally subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People didn’t believe they were really in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I’m not suggesting that people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how very frightening it must have been to be told that pestilence was God’s punishment for man’s sin, for your sin. This was what priests told their congregations. As an example, in September 1348, at the original behest of the king, Edward III, a letter was sent from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to all the bishops in the southern counties, ordering them to arrange urgent prayers to be offered up against the plague. It is clear from the letter that the coming of the Great Mortality was seen as divine punishment for sin:

“Terrible is God towards the sons of men… Those whom he loves he censures and chastises… he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways… He…allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.” *

Letters were then sent by the bishops to every parish in their diocese, reiterating this assertion that the Great Mortality was God’s punishment for mankind’s sin, and urging priests and their parishioners to repent earnestly of their sins and beg God for His mercy. These words come from the bishop of Winchester’s letter to his clergy:

“…God often strikes us, to test our patience and justly punish us for our sins… it is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan… the most likely explanation is that human sensuality has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgement, to this revenge.” *

Some people took these assertions to heart and thought that flagellating themselves in public acts of penitence might avert God’s anger, though I think this was more common on the continent of Europe than in England. Processions and masses were ordered to be undertaken throughout the country, in another form of public demonstration of contrition, and people were also urged to go on pilgrimages.

Yet, I’ve often thought, surely many people must have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them, and especially their children, so severely?

Though one chronicler actually blamed children’s disobedience for the unduly high number of children who died in the 1361 outbreak, and parents’ indulgence of their offspring was seen also to be partly responsible. These lines come from William Langland’s Piers the Plowman:

“…the dearer the child the more teaching it needs.

And Solomon said the same, in his book of Wisdom:

Qui parcit virge odit filium,

Which is in English, if you want to know,

Who spares the rod, spoils the child.” *

While one might agree that children probably grow up better with a degree of discipline, saying it’s their fault, and their parents’, that they died in such great numbers in the plague does seem rather harsh.

This image is from 1353, so contemporary with the Meonbridge Chronicles. (Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360). The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. Public domain)

But going back to that letter from the Bishop of Winchester (“…the most likely explanation is that human sensuality has now plumbed greater depths of evil…”), it was, apparently, “sensuality” – sexual immorality – that had provoked God’s especial anger… This was the Church’s explanation at any rate.

Anyway, to introduce a slightly lighter note to all this, one particular aspect of sensuality that some held up as a prime cause of God’s “punishment” was the fashion for clothing considered to be outlandish or indecent. These words come from a chronicle written a few years after the 1361 outbreak of the plague:

 “…the English…remained wedded to a crazy range of outlandish clothing without realising the evil which would come of it.” (From a chronicle of 1365) *

So, what were these “outlandish” clothes? I’ll give you a few examples, all describing men’s fashion, though women’s clothing was certainly criticised as well…

“…full doublets, cut short to the loins” “…which failed to conceal…their private parts.”

“…particoloured and striped hose…which are called harlottes, and thus one ‘harlot’ serves another, as they go about with their loins uncovered.”

“…a long garment reaching to the ankles, [but] not opening in the front, as is proper for men, but laced up the side to the armhole in the style of women’s clothes, so that from the back their wearers look more like women than men.”

“…little hoods, tightly buttoned under the chin in the fashion of women…the liripipe ankle-length and slashed like a jester’s clothes.”

“They also possess shoes with pointed toes as long as a finger…more like devil’s talons than apparel for men…” *

These clothes were seen as signs of both pride and lewdness. As one chronicler put it:

“Because the people wantonly squander the gifts of God on…pride, lechery and greed – and all the rest of the deadly sins – it is only to be expected that the Lord’s vengeance will follow.” *

Mens short tunics

Mens shoes
From the 14th century treatise on health Tacuinum sanitatis. These examples are perhaps on the benefits of exercise and the dangers of alcohol?? Public domain.

These two images give you some idea of very short doublets, and very pointed shoes (the chap on the right in the bottom image). These are Italian men so maybe Englishmen’s clothes would have looked a little different but, from the criticisms above, one might deduce not much!

Clearly these clothes were worn by the rich rather than peasants, although, as some peasants and artisans became more prosperous, they too aspired to, and acquired, more fashionable clothes, which was even more deeply frowned upon.

But doesn’t it all seem rather odd that fashion was held responsible for the coming of the plague? Or even that immorality should take the blame? But the chroniclers were certainly moralists of one kind or another. And plague was perhaps a good pretext for them to criticise the masses for their bad behaviour. Not that most people, of course, would, or could, have read the chronicles, though I suppose they might have heard similar sentiments coming from the mouths of their priests. But I wonder to what extent the average Englishman or woman believed them? How I’d love to know…

However, despite our present worries about the spread of COVID-19, I’m glad I live in a world where what is happening is at least understood, even if a remedy has not yet been found. We can be reasonably confident that one will be found in due course.

In the meantime, I’m more or less in isolation, which for me is no bad thing. Not because I’m sick, but simply because I’m trying to finish writing that fourth book. And how interesting it is to be writing about a pandemic while living in the midst of one.

* All texts are taken from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox.

One thought on “Pandemic then and now…

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I am DELIGHTED that you are writing another book in the series so am doubly excited that you have this wonderful opportunity of “isolation” to dedicate even more time to finish it!! I await! In the lovely words of Julian of Norwich after her near-death experience: “…but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Stay safe, stay healthy.


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