As the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, “social distancing” has become a buzzword of these strange times.
Instead of stockpiling food or rushing to the hospital, authorities are saying social distancing – deliberately increasing the physical space between people – is the best way ordinary people can help “flatten the curve” and stem the spread of the virus.
Fashion might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of isolation strategies. But as a historian who writes about the political and cultural meanings of clothing, I know that fashion can play an important role in the project of social distancing, whether the space created helps solve a health crisis or keep away pesky suitors.
Clothing has long served as a useful way to mitigate close contact and unnecessary exposure. In this current crisis, face masks have become a fashion accessory that signals, “stay away.”
Fashion also proved to be handy during past epidemics such as the bubonic plague, when doctors wore pointed, bird-like masks as a way to keep their distance from sick patients. Some lepers were forced to wear a heart on their clothes and don bells or clappers to warn others of their presence.
However, more often than not, it doesn’t take a worldwide pandemic for people to want to keep others at arm’s length.
In the past, maintaining distance – especially between genders, classes and races – was an important aspect of social gatherings and public life. Social distancing didn’t have anything to do with isolation or health; it was about etiquette and class. And fashion was the perfect tool.
Take the Victorian-era “crinoline.” This large, voluminous skirt, which became fashionable in the mid-19th century, was used to create a barrier between the genders in social settings.
While the origins of this trend can be traced to the 15th-century Spanish court, these voluminous skirts became a marker of class in the 18th century. Only those privileged enough to avoid household chores could wear them; you needed a house with enough space to be able to comfortably move from room to room, along with a servant to help you put it on. The bigger your skirt, the higher your status.
In the 1850s and 1860s, more middle-class women started wearing the crinoline as caged hoop skirts started being mass-produced. Soon, “Crinolinemania” swept the fashion world.
Despite critiques by dress reformers who saw it as another tool to oppress women’s mobility and freedom, the large hoop skirt was a sophisticated way of maintaining women’s social safety. The crinoline mandated that a potential suitor – or, worse yet, a stranger – would keep a safe distance from a woman’s body and cleavage.
Although these skirts probably inadvertently helped mitigate the dangers of the era’s smallpox and cholera outbreaks, crinolines could be a health hazard: Many women burned to death after their skirts caught fire. By the 1870s, the crinoline gave way to the bustle, which only emphasized the fullness of the skirt on the posterior.
Women nonetheless continued to use fashion as a weapon against unwanted male attention. As skirts got narrower in the 1890s and early 1900s, large hats – and, more importantly, hat pins, which were sharp metal needles used to fasten the hats – offered women the protection from harassers that crinolines once gave.
As for keeping healthy, germ theory and a better understanding of hygiene led to the popularization of face masks – very similar to the ones we use today – during the Spanish flu. And while the need for women to keep their distance from pesky suitors remained, hats were used more to keep masks intact than to push strangers away.
Today, it isn’t clear whether the coronavirus will lead to new styles and accessories. Perhaps we’ll see the rise of novel forms of protective outerwear, like the “wearable shield” that one Chinese company developed.
But for now, it seems most likely that we’ll all just continue wearing pajamas.
The pandemic of COVID-19 is often called “unprecedented” – and for many people cooped up in their homes in different countries, the experience is both unparalleled and challenging. But in late-medieval Europe, individuals self-isolated professionally. Some people – women particularly – permanently withdrew from society to live walled in, alone in a room attached to a church.
Guides for, and texts written by, these female “anchorites” – as the women were known – from Britain and continental Europe give us descriptions of their way of living and recount their reflections. So what can these medieval women teach us about how to cope with self-isolation?
These anchorites chose to be confined in these cramped cells for many reasons. According to medieval religious culture, a life of prayer on behalf of others vitally supported society. Isolation empowered women to express their love for Christ, and minister to their fellow believers through their prayers and counsel. Anchorites were even presented as possessing “super powers” of interceding for the deceased in purgatory.
Furthermore, in the late Middle Ages, devotion among laypeople – people who are not clergy – flourished. Life as an anchorite offered laywomen an option to express this piety, but offered more freedom for individual contemplation (and solitude) than a nun’s life.
Warnings in guides for anchorites also hint at less spiritual motives. Life as a recluse, paradoxically, situated anchorites at the heart of their communities and could transform them into religious celebrities. Their cells often faced busy roads in bustling cities and doubled as a bank, teacher’s cubicle, and storehouse of local gossip.
Don’t expect comfort
The 13th-century, medieval English guide for female anchorites, Ancrene Wisse, warns recluses not to look for comfort. Instead, the anchorite should remind herself that she was enclosed not just for her own benefit, but for the sake of others too.
She is told to “gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched” and “feel compassion”. By self-isolating, the anchorite “holds [all fellow believers] up” with her prayers. Now, nurses and doctors are urgently calling for a similar commitment from the public, when begging “Stay home for us.”
The Wisse’s advice has a flavour that feels equally relevant today. Self-isolation may be easier to bear if instead of seeing it as a stretch of boring but comfy nights in, you recognise it as an unpleasant, stressful experience – but also visualise all the people whose health you are protecting by staying home.
The earliest-known English woman writer, Julian of Norwich (c.1343–c.1416) – an anchorite – likewise encouraged readers to acknowledge their own vulnerability, but suggested perceiving it as a strength. She assured readers in her late 14th-century or early 15th-century text, A Revelation of Love, that suffering and difficulties will not defeat them:
Christ did not say, ‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’
Julian promises that readers will experience emotional turmoil during any crisis but will ultimately conquer it. This promise parallels modern survival psychology. When adapting to life during a crisis, acknowledging the challenging circumstances as forming one’s real life now is essential. Yet one should simultaneously remember that one is doing one’s utmost to return to a better, pre-crisis style of living. Only by acknowledging our vulnerability – both physical and mental – and consequently taking action to protect and care for others and ourselves, will we make it through.
Guarding the senses
According to manuals for anchorites, they should guard their metaphorical windows (their five senses) and actual cell windows, to prevent falling into temptation and being distracted from their prayers and meditation. The Wisse declares: “disturbance only enters the heart through something … either seen or heard, tasted or smelt, or felt externally.”
The external world can upset one’s interior world. Dutch anchorite Sister Bertken (1427-1514) recounts this confusion in a poem:
The world held me in its power
with its manifold snares
it deprived me of my strength.
Yet this nervousness about the effect of sensory input can also be understood as a medieval analogue to a warning against fake news or anxious over-consumption of news. Several guides recommend having a female friend scrupulously guarding the anchorite’s window, refusing to allow access to visitors who spread gossip and lies. Social media today can be a little like such visitors.
Keep busy, keep sane
Anchorites and writers of manuals for anchorites also reflected upon how to keep sane. Keeping occupied prevents one from climbing the walls. British Cistercian monk, Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), tells his sister, an anchorite, in A Rule of Life for a Recluse that: “Idleness … breeds distaste for quiet and disgust for the cell.”
Routines are key. Anchorites recited sequences of prayers, psalms and other Bible readings at fixed points of the day. According to modern survival psychology, dividing a problem or stretch of time into manageable steps is crucial when faced with a crisis. Equally important is performing each step one by one, never looking further ahead than the next step.
Mentally absorbing hobbies, such as crafts, gardening or reading, are another time-honoured strategy for dealing with self-isolation. After recommending sewing clothes for the poor and church vestments, the Wisse assures anchorites that keeping occupied will shield their minds against temptation:
For while [the devil] sees her busy, he thinks like this: ‘It would be useless to approach her now; she can’t concentrate on listening to my advice.’
These suggestions are easily translatable to today. After all, according to survival psychology, performing manageable, directed actions with a purpose is crucial in crises. Incidentally, the Wisse also recommends keeping a cat.
On the one hand, self-isolation can feel limiting – Julian of Norwich also felt that: “This place is prison,” she said, referring either to earthly life or her cell. But the cell’s cramped space also granted medieval women a paradoxical, spiritual freedom. In his letter to the anchorite Eve of Wilton, the 11th-century monk Goscelin of St Bertin exclaims: “’My cell is so narrow,’ you may say, but oh, how wide is the sky!”
Antarctica is the remotest part of the world, but it is a hub of scientific discovery, international diplomacy and environmental change. It was officially discovered 200 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1820, when members of a Russian expedition sighted land in what is now known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf on the continent’s east side.
Early explorers were drawn there by the mythology of Terra Australis, a vast southern continent that scholars imagined for centuries as a counterweight to the Northern Hemisphere. Others sought economic bounty from hunting whales and seals, or the glory of conquering the planet’s last wilderness. Still others wanted to understand Earth’s magnetic fields in order to better navigate the seas.
I am a geologist who specializes in understanding the timing and extent of past ice ages. Much of my work focuses on the glacial history of Antarctica, and I’ve been privileged to conduct five field seasons of research there.
For the next two years I’ll be working with a field team made up entirely of undergraduate students from Vanderbilt University to determine whether the East Antarctic Ice Sheet changes flow patterns as it changes shape. All of the research these budding scientists conduct will be done under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty, a global agreement that promotes scientific cooperation and environmental protection.
Frozen but abundant
Antarctica separated from South America 35 million years ago, and its climate started to change. It began to grow ice sheets – masses of glacial land ice covering thousands of square miles. As plate tectonics shifted other continents, Antarctica became colder and drier. For the past 14 million years, it has been the frigid continent that persists today.
Antarctica is the only continent that was literally discovered, because it has no native human population. British explorer Sir James Cook circumnavigated the continent in 1772-1775, but saw only some outlying islands. Cook concluded that if there were any land, it would be “condemned to everlasting regidity by Nature, never to yield to the warmth of the sun.”
Cook also reported that Antarctic waters were rich with nutrients and wildlife. This drew sealers and whalers, mainly from England and the United States, who hunted the region’s fur seals and elephant seals to near-extinction in the following decades. This hunting spree led to the discovery of the Antarctic mainland and its ice sheets, the largest in the world.
Reading the ice
Today the combined East and West Antarctic ice sheets hold 90% of the world’s ice, enough to raise global sea levels by roughly 200 feet (60 meters) if it all melted. Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, brightest, and yes, iciest continent on Earth. And 200 years of research has shown that it is a key component of Earth’s climate system.
Despite the appearance that it is an unchanging, freeze-dried landscape, my research and work by many others has shown that the East Antarctica Ice Sheet does slowly thin and thicken over millions of years. Interestingly, my data also suggest that as the ice advances and retreats, it moves in the same patterns each time. Put another way, the ice flows over the same land each time it advances.
While East Antarctica adds and loses ice slowly, it is so large that it is a major contributor to sea level rise. Understanding how the ice has changed in the past is key to predicting how much and how fast it will melt in the coming years.
These questions are especially important in West Antarctica, where the bottom of the ice sheet is below sea level, making it very susceptible to changes in sea level and ocean temperature. By itself, the West Antarctic ice sheet has the potential to raise sea level by 16 feet (5 meters) if it collapses.
We also know from the geological record that this ice sheet is capable of rapid collapses, and has sometimes thinned at rates in excess of 30 feet (10 meters) per year. Recent models show sea level could rise by 1 meter by 2100 and 15 meters by 2500 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates and the ice sheet experiences a rapid collapse, as it has in the past.
Finding inspiration in scientific diplomacy
Despite the potential for environmental disaster in Antarctica, the continent also offers evidence that nations can collaborate to find solutions. The Antarctic Treaty System is the world’s premier example of peaceful and scientific international cooperation.
This landmark accord, signed in 1961, sets aside Antarctica for peaceful and scientific purposes and recognizes no land claims on the continent. It also was the first non-nuclear accord ever signed, barring use of Antarctica for nuclear weapons testing or disposal of radioactive waste.
Under the treaty, scientists from North Korea, Russia and China can freely visit U.S. research stations in Antarctica. Researchers from India and Pakistan willingly share their data about Antarctic glaciers.
Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, 10% of Earth’s land surface is protected as a wildlife and wilderness refuge. I have set foot in places in Antarctica where I know no one has ever been before, and the treaty sets areas aside that no one will ever visit. Antarctica’s landscapes are unlike anywhere else on Earth. The best comparison may be the Moon.
Yet in these stark environments, life finds a way to persist – showing that there are solutions to even the most daunting challenges. If Antarctica has taught us anything in 200 years, it’s that we can cooperate and collaborate to overcome problems. As Ernest Shackleton once said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
Most Australians – Indigenous people under the protection acts were an exception – have long taken for granted their right to cross state borders. They have treated them much as they do the often unmarked boundaries dividing their suburbs. Not any more.
Australia has closed its international borders to non-residents. South Australia has announced it will close its borders, New South Wales is moving closer to lock-down over the next two days, with Victoria set to follow suit. The Tasmanian government is forcing non-essential travellers into 14 days of quarantine. The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of Alice Springs called for severe restrictions on entry to the Northern Territory, and its government has now followed Tasmania’s example. Queensland has reciprocated by imposing controls on part of its western border.
Indigenous representatives are right to be concerned. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919 devastated some Aboriginal communities. There are many other echoes of that crisis of a century ago in the one we face now.
COVID-19 represents the worst public health crisis the world has faced since the Spanish flu. Estimates of global deaths from the flu in 1919 vary, often beginning at around 30 million but rising as high as 100 million. Australian losses were probably about 12,000-15,000 deaths.
The outbreak did not originate in Spain, but early reports came from that country, where the Spanish king himself went down with the virus. It happened at the end of the first world war and was intimately connected with that better-known disaster.
The virus likely travelled to Europe with American troops. As the war ended, other soldiers then carried it around the world. The virus would kill many more people than the war itself.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in Europe, at first in London and then at the Paris Peace Conference. But the Commonwealth acted early. The imposition of a strict maritime quarantine in late 1918 and early 1919 helped slow the spread and was decisive in producing a lower rate of infection. But the authorities were ultimately unable to provide a uniform response as the crisis worsened.
Confusion caused by a milder form of influenza that arrived in Australia in September 1918 didn’t help matters. Some authorities, such as the Commonwealth director of quarantine, J.H.L. Cumpston, erroneously believed cases diagnosed in the early months of 1919 were part of this earlier wave. As the historian Anthea Hyslop has shown, having been the architect of the successful maritime quarantine, Cumpston became a victim of his own success. He clung to the theory that new infections were a result of the local epidemic, rather than being a new and more virulent form arriving from overseas.
The Spanish flu came in waves and was extraordinarily virulent. There were reports of people seeming perfectly health at breakfast and dead by evening.
An illness lasting ten or so days, followed by weeks of debility, was more common. An early sign was a chill or shivering, followed by headache and back pain. Eventually, an acute muscle pain would overcome the sufferer, accompanied by some combination of vomiting, diarrhoea, watering eyes, a running or bleeding nose, a sore throat and a dry cough. The skin might acquire a strange blue or plum colour.
Unlike with COVID-19, which has so far had its worst effects on older people, men between the ages of about 20 and 40 seem to have been especially vulnerable. The well-known Victorian socialist and railway union leader, Frank Hyett, seen by some as a future Labor prime minister, lost his life on Anzac Day 1919 at just 37. Five thousand attended his funeral, probably not wise in the circumstances, but testament to his standing.
Almost a third of deaths in Australia were of adults between 25 and 34. The Spanish flu probably infected 2 million Australians in a population of about 5 million. In Sydney alone, 40% of residents caught it.
For Australia, the flu came after a most divisive and traumatic war in which Hyett himself had been a prominent anti-conscriptionist. Many Australians then and now believe the war made the nation. The federation of the colonies had occurred less than two decades before, but it is supposedly the blood sacrifice of war that melded what were still quasi-colonies into a nation in the emotional and spiritual sense. Gallipoli and the Anzac legend are credited with strengthening a national outlook.
But that outlook was hard to discern during the crisis of 1919. In November 1918, the various state authorities had entered into an agreement for dealing with the threat, but it did not long hold. In his groundbreaking social history of the Spanish influenza epidemic, Humphrey McQueen suggested that in relation to many matters, “the Commonwealth of Australia passed into recess”.
“The dislocation of interstate traffic is quite unavoidable,” commented the Tamworth Daily Observer on January 31 1919, “as naturally the clean States could not be expected to continue communications with the infected.”
The flu probably came into the country via returning soldiers, many of whom broke quarantine. The precise source of the first known infection – in Melbourne in January 1919 – was never discovered.
Under the federal agreement, Victorian health authorities should have promptly reported the case to the Commonwealth, which would then have closed the borders with New South Wales and South Australia. Once cases were reported in other states, the Commonwealth would then lift the border controls. As with the rabbit-proof fence ridiculed by Henry Lawson, there was not much point in trying to prevent the border crossing of a disease already on both sides, especially considering the threat to interstate commerce.
It was a cumbersome plan and it did not work. Melbourne authorities did not report its early cases to the Commonwealth. With the delay of a week, the flu reached Sydney by train from Melbourne. Authorities in New South Wales quickly declared that state’s small number of infections a day before a dilatory Victoria reported its much larger number, now over 350.
There were too few doctors and nurses to deal with the crisis – many were still with the armed forces overseas, and others caught the flu. Health facilities were overrun. In Melbourne, the Exhibition Building was turned into a large hospital, as were some schools. Schools shut down at various times in different states during 1919, but widespread disruption was caused either by government decisions to close or the illness of teachers.
Individual states did their own thing as the national agreement fell apart. Tasmania imposed a strict quarantine and had the lowest mortality rate in Australia – 114 per 100,000 – but the pandemic did its economy great damage. Western Australian authorities impounded the transcontinental train and placed its passengers in isolation.
Queensland imposed border control. Travellers had to cool their heels in Tenterfield, in tents and public buildings adapted to house them. There was irony here: this was the town where, in a famous address, Henry Parkes initiated the move toward federation of the colonies in 1889.
Land quarantine was likely ineffective. And while maritime quarantine had almost certainly slowed the rate of infection, its prolongation by the states did great damage to an already fragile economy devastated by the war. Coal was the lifeblood of an industrialising economy, and it was mainly carried by the coastal shipping trade.
There were shortages of other goods, too. Tasmania was running low on flour, and its developing tourism industry was badly knocked about. But such a price was surely worth paying for Australia’s moderate rate of infection and death compared with international standards.
As with COVID-19, doctors bickered about the best way of dealing with the crisis. Newspapers raised alarm with their regular comparisons with the Black Death of medieval times. Advertisements for quack cures abounded, just as dodgy advice – along with plenty of good sense – can be found at a glance on social media today.
Inoculation was widely practised and might have had a positive effect on those not yet infected. For a time, it was compulsory to wear a mask in the street. Places of entertainment such as theatres, cinemas and dance halls closed, as did churches. The Sydney Easter Show was called off in 1919, as it has been for 2020.
Some good came of the crisis. The formation of a federal Department of Health in 1921 was a response to the failure of the states to cooperate.
But there are also plenty of warnings for us in the Spanish flu pandemic. Some thought the crisis under control early in the autumn of 1919, with state governments lifting some restrictions. But it came to life again and carried off many Australians with it.
The Spanish flu might have hit working-age men most seriously because they were more likely than others to have multiple social contacts. Vulnerable communities such as Indigenous people were very badly affected.
And Australia at times suffered from deficiencies of political, medical and administrative decision-making.
The recent move by Tasmania, and the announcements over the weekend that other state premiers are moving beyond the nationally agreed restrictions on activity, might presage future divisions between Australian governments.
The history of women making excellent films but not having their achievements fully acknowledged stretches back a very long way. This was most recently seen in Pamela B Green’s documentary Be Natural about the “lost” foremother of film, Alice Guy-Blaché. The French-American filmmaker was largely forgotten in formative accounts of the history of cinema. This was despite her important innovations, including making what is arguably the first narrative film La Fée aux Choux (1896).
It is vital historical work to recover women’s filmmaking, which is always prone to being overlooked, downplayed or forgotten. Organisations like the Women Film Pioneers Project and the Women’s Film and Television History Network, alongside other initiatives and people, have laboured to prevent its erasure from the historical record, but there is always more to be done to ensure its preservation and celebration. Archiving is key to this.
The recently released report, Invisible Innovators: Making Women’s Filmmaking Visible across the UK Film Archives, strives to rewrite women into history. Commissioned by Film Archives UK, the report surveys work by women held in UK media archives and proposes strategies for making it more accessible. It suggests there are incredible riches waiting to be unlocked, and compelling stories that deserve to be more widely known.
Amateur film of various kinds constitutes a large proportion of those collections. Many are home movies, which women were actively encouraged to make at the advent of home movie-making technology in the early 20th century. This was because it was seen as an extension of their roles as wives, mothers and custodians of family keepsakes.
Although some amateur films might have interest solely as historical or familial records, others are much more aesthetically inventive. Such films suggest how filmmaking could become a vehicle for unleashing women’s creativity.
For instance, one of the most intriguing filmmakers discussed in the report is Ruth Stuart. A teenage prodigy, she was described as “the maestra of Manchester” by Movie Maker magazine after her 1933 travelogue To Egypt and Back (begun when she was only 16) and her 1934 apocalyptic vision Doomsday. Both won the highest accolades for non-professional work from American Cinematographer and Amateur Cine World.
However, a gendered double standard was in operation around the status of amateur film at this time. While amateur filmmaking could act as a launchpad for the professional filmmaking careers of talented young men like Ken Russell and Peter Watkins – who both went from amateur filmmaking to the BBC and onto acclaimed feature film production – no such leverage seems to have been available to their female equivalents, however talented. As such, Stuart’s filmography is frustratingly brief. Little is known about her life or why she appears to have stopped making films altogether by the 1940s.
Clearly some women relished their adventures as hobbyist filmmakers and enjoyed the freedom of amateurism. In the flourishing cine club culture from the 1930s to 1960s, women were key participants, and not merely as helpful companions or tea-makers. As early as 1928, an all-female amateur filmmaking team put together the madcap comedy Sally Sallies Forth. Featuring an all-female cast, it was a rare gynocentric achievement.
More often women worked collaboratively with men, but this has resulted in systemic problems in their work’s attribution. When the prize-winning films made by married couple Laurie and Stuart Day were discussed in amateur film magazines, it was automatically assumed that Stuart was the main filmmaker and Laurie just his wifely assistant. Evidence from the films themselves seems to suggest that actually the reverse was true. However, these kinds of assumptions have impacted the cataloguing of films when deposited in archives, inadvertently effacing women’s contributions.
Films by female filmmakers to watch:
Women’s films should be a priority for digitisation, and archival catalogues and records should accurately reflect female contributors. If all relevant works across all film collections could be marked with an easily searchable term like “woman filmmaker”, it would really help to bring these women’s works out from the shadows.
Here are five films by female filmmakers that have been successfully digitised from the East Anglian Film Archive which give a flavour of the range and richness of women’s filmmaking across the 20th century:
Doomsday (1934): Ruth Stuart’s haunting vision of a very English apocalypse.
1938, the Last Year of Peace (1948): Laurie and Stuart Day’s montage of memories of suburban family life just before the outbreak of the second world war.
England May Be Home (1957): A moving documentary about Italian migrant workers. Bedfordshire cine-club member Margaret Hodkin is part of the team behind this.
The Stray (1965): Marjorie Martin’s moody tale of an errant wife with laddered stockings returning to her taciturn shepherd husband.
Make-Up (1978): A hand-drawn animation about “putting on a face” from Joanna Fryer, who went on to work on The Snowman(1982).
The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.
These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.
One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.
Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:
Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered
in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded
quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.
Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.
Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.
Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.
Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.
A health crisis
The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).
Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.
Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.
He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.
The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.
Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.
Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.
The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.
Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.
As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.
The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.
The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.
Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.
A modern lens
Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.
Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.
Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.
The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.
For the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be able to access abortions without having to travel to Great Britain as of April 1. This is the culmination of years of fighting for access to reproductive healthcare and follows similar changes in Ireland, where abortion became legally accessible in January 2019.
As heated debate raged across both Northern Ireland and Ireland in the lead up to these changes, the stories of women, who for various reasons, took the “abortion trail” across the Irish Sea became more widely shared. These are personal and often harrowing stories of being forced to travel to Great Britain to terminate a pregnancy.
Indeed, while it may not be widely known, women who did not want to be mothers in Ireland are also a consistent feature of Irish migration throughout the 19th century. Some took the short journey across the Irish Sea to Great Britain. Others, however, took their chances further afield responding to the promises of a fresh start in America.
We have been researching these stories for our “Bad Bridget” project, a three-year study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council named after the fact that Bridget was commonly used in 19th-century North America to refer to Irish women. From looking at criminal and deviant Irish women in Boston, New York and Toronto, we have uncovered many who made the extreme decision to emigrate while pregnant and often alone.
It is clear from our research that the stigma and shame attached to illegitimacy in Ireland, in both protestant and catholic communities, led girls and women to make this journey to the “new world” rather than be condemned and possibly ostracised at home. In 1877, for instance, Maggie Tate, an Irish Protestant, migrated to New York to “cover her shame”. She hoped that the father of her child would join her in the US to fulfil his promise to marry her.
Kate Sullivan, who was 18 when she travelled to New York, was “betrayed” by the son of a farmer for whom she worked in Ireland. He had allegedly “shipped her over [to New York], promising to follow on the next steamer”. He didn’t and she gave birth to their twins there.
Other women in similar situations gave up their children for adoption. While some relatives and friends would likely have been complicit in decisions to hide pregnancies by migrating across the Atlantic, others likely remained entirely ignorant. Unfortunately, many Irish women found that when they arrived in America, attitudes towards single mothers were no more positive than at home. For some women the experience of migrating while pregnant ended in tragedy.
Catherine O’Donnell ended up in court in Boston in 1889 for the suspected manslaughter of her baby, having allegedly “sought the shore of America to give birth to an illegitimate child, her lover [in Ireland] deserting her”. Her case reveals the issues experienced by many single mothers, both in the past and today, of having to support a child alone. Catherine initially paid for her baby’s board, but her financial difficulties were exacerbated when money from home ceased. She was refused assistance at charitable and religious institutions and, after wandering around for two days in a storm, seems to have left her infant on the shoreline at low water where the baby drowned.
Abroad and alone
Our research on Bad Bridget has also shown that many Irish female migrants became pregnant after their arrival to North America. This is undoubtedly related to the fact that many Irish women emigrated alone and at a young age, some as young as eight or nine. This was unlike their counterparts from continental Europe, who tended to travel in family groups.
But if many Irish migrants in large cities experienced a new found sexual freedom outside of parental and family control, this lack of supervision also meant a lack of support and assistance. The experience of Rosie Quinn who became pregnant while in New York in 1903 reveals the tragic consequences that could follow. Rosie was found guilty of throwing her nine-day-old daughter into a reservoir in Central Park and sentenced to life in prison. Her case generated considerable public support, with one woman writing to the governor of New York:
my heart is so burdened for that poor Irish girl (alone in a strange country deserted by family and friends) that I cannot rest.
Like Catherine O’Donnell, Rosie explained during her trial that she had sought and been refused charitable assistance. She had gone to Central Park intending to drown herself and the baby, she claimed, but while contemplating suicide the baby had slipped from her arms. She recalled that she “got scared and ran away”. Servants at the hotel where Rosie had worked on Fifth Avenue appealed to patrons to help appeal her case and she was pardoned in December 1904.
These examples are only some of the wide variety of stories and experiences of unmarried Irish mothers in North America. In many situations, pregnancies outside marriage will have turned out well; women will have managed on their own, married or used support networks. But for others, experiences of emigration ended badly. Historical discussion of emigration often ignores the female experience.
Understanding the myriad migration stories in the past will give greater insight and understanding into the pressures and demands of migration today, especially relating to women migrants. Such stories also complicate rose-tinted views about economically, socially and politically successful Irish migrants who contributed to their new home countries. An awareness of the variety of pressures and stresses that led to a decision to emigrate, and an understanding that not all migrant experiences in the past were positive, can encourage a more empathetic consideration of migrants and migration today.
Today’s latest medical advice is to wash our hands to the chorus of songs from the likes of Lizzo, Gloria Gaynor or Beyoncé. This is to mitigate the boredom of washing to Happy Birthday … twice!
Public health strategies have been linked to popular culture before. In the 1930s, it was modern dance that taught Melburnians how to perform personal hygiene.
Dance classes were so popular the Sun News Pictorial reported:
Doctors, Barristers, other professional men are learning or relearning dance, and there are busy classes for business and married girls, tiny toddlers, and even mothers of families, and social heavyweights.
One dance instructor, Russian immigrant Sonia Revid, specialised in the instruction of hygiene through movement.
Revid choreographed and performed ballets that taught audiences how to brush their teeth. She also published a pamphlet outlining the importance of personal hygiene. The City of Melbourne’s medical officer, John Dale, publicly praised Revid’s efforts and parents were advised to enrol their children in her classes.
Body and soul
Revid had opened her dance studio in Collins Street, Melbourne, in 1933, a year after her arrival in Australia.
The Sonia Revid School for Art Dance and Body Culture was promoted as ensuring “physical well-being and lasting health” and provided “lessons to correct specific physical defects, such as obesity, flat feet, unshapely hands, self-consciousness and shyness”.
By 1936, Revid was promoting her method as not only a way to stay fit and healthy but also as means of acquiring a “consciousness of cleanliness”.
Revid asserted the capabilities of her practice based on the evidence of a medico-social experiment she conducted on a group of poor children in 1935. Revid wanted to see whether poor children who lived in the then “slums” of Fitzroy could learn to distinguish between hygienic and unhygienic practices through dance education.
Poor hygiene had been associated with a lack of social responsibility and immorality and so Revid’s published pamphlet asked through metaphor: Do Slum Children Distinguish Light From Dark?
From her observations, Revid concluded modern dance had a cleansing capacity – performing a sort of physical and spiritual bath. Not only did it teach children how to identify hygienic and unhygienic practices, she wrote, but imparted a more hygienic constitution.
Don’t forget to smile
Emboldened by her belief in the hygienic potential of dance, Revid began to include ballets with public health messages in her performance repertoire.
Her 1938 ballet, Little Fool and Her Adventures, instructed audiences how to brush their teeth correctly and portrayed the painful consequences of poor dental hygiene.
The ballet was first performed at the University of Melbourne’s Union House Theatre and later at school halls such as at Melbourne Church of England Girls Grammar School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar. It was performed in four parts. Part one was an introduction to the protagonist, Little Fool, and to the themes of the ballet.
Little Fool Has a Toothache, the second section, told of the pain associated with dental decay. It was dramatically enhanced by a thumping musical score by the French composer, Charles Gounod, titled Funeral March of a Marionette. The score alluded to the serious medical consequences of poor dental hygiene. Audiences reported its repetitive rhythm reminded them of the thumping pain of a sensitive nerve.
The ballet’s climax was in part three: The Toothache Leaves a Mark on Little Fool – She imagines she is pursued by evil spirits. This section was ominously danced to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre (known in English as Dance of Death). The choreography showed Little Fool overcome by delirium.
Revid’s ballet concluded with a positive message of calm vigilance. Little Fool overcame her sore tooth and departed the stage to a lively and uplifting tune.
Little Fool remained in Revid’s repertoire for many years, providing hygienic instruction and a cautionary public health warning to all who saw it.
Revid’s dance classes and her performances taught the importance of daily hygiene and kept the community informed of best practices through the fluctuating realities of Melbourne’s public health.
With advances in medicine and technology, such as vaccines, we often take the basics for granted, losing sight of the importance of thorough handwashing until a global pandemic reminds us of its preventive power.
Although hygienic instruction hasn’t been a part of popular artistic culture for a while, in 2020 Beyoncé and Lizzo are taking matters into their own clean hands.