Florence Nightingale, who was born 200 years ago, is rightly famed for revolutionising nursing. Her approach to caring for wounded soldiers and training nurses in the 19th century saved and improved countless lives. And her ideas on how to stay healthy still resonate today – as politicians give official guidance on how best to battle coronavirus.
For example, although Nightingale did not fully subscribe to the idea that many diseases are caused by specific micro-organisms known as germs until she was in her sixties, in the 1880s, she was well aware of the importance of hand washing. In her book Notes on Nursing (1860), she wrote that:
Every nurse ought to be careful to wash her hands very frequently during the day. If her face, too, so much the better.
During the Crimean War (1853-1856) Nightingale had implemented hand washing and other hygiene practices in British army hospitals. This was relatively new advice, first publicised by Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s, who had observed the dramatic difference it made to death rates on maternity wards.
Nightingale’s attention to international medical research and developments was just one factor behind her ability to make effective interventions in public health. Like many public health experts of her age, Nightingale considered the home to be a crucial site for disease-preventing interventions. This was the place where most people contracted and suffered from infectious diseases. (The same is true today: in Wuhan’s coronavirus outbreak, around 75-80% of transmissions were reportedly in family clusters).
Nightingale’s book, Notes on Nursing (1860), was more of a public health instruction book than a nursing manual. It advised ordinary people how to maintain healthy homes – particularly women, in accordance with the worldview of the times. There was straightforward advice on everything from how to avoid excessive smoke from fireplaces (don’t let the fire get too low, and don’t overwhelm it with coal) to the safest material with which to cover walls (oil paints, not wallpaper).
Nightingale strongly counselled that people open windows to maximise light and ventilation and displace “stagnant, musty and corrupt” air. And she advocated improving drainage to combat water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.
In her view, all domestic interiors must be kept clean. Dirty carpets and unclean furniture, she wrote with characteristic bluntness, “pollute the air just as much as if there were a dung heap in the basement”.
Notes on Nursing also called upon the “mistress” of every building to clean “every hole and corner” of her home regularly, for the sake of her family’s health. But Nightingale also recommended a more holistic approach to health. She encouraged soldiers to read, write and socialise during their convalescence so they would not sink into boredom and alcoholism.
During her youth, Nightingale’s father had introduced her to a leading practitioner of statistics, then a brand new academic field, and paid for her to have a mathematics tutor. During and after the Crimean War, Nightingale seized on statistics as a way of proving the effectiveness of different interventions.
She went on to produce her famous diagrams, which demonstrated the high proportion of soldiers’ deaths caused by disease as opposed to battle wounds, and became the first woman admitted to the London Statistical Society in 1858.
Thereafter she designed questionnaires to obtain data on such questions as the sanitary condition of army stations in India, or the mortality rates of aboriginal populations in Australia. Her guiding principle was that a health problem could only be effectively tackled once its dimensions were reliably established.
In 1857, around a year after returning from the Crimean War, Nightingale suffered a severe collapse, now believed to have been caused by a flu-like infection called brucellosis. For much of her subsequent life, she was racked with chronic pain, often unable to walk or leave her bed.
Working from home
Having been declared an invalid, she imposed a rule of seclusion on herself because of pain and tiredness rather than from fears of contagion – a form of self-isolation that extended to her closest family (though she still had servants and other visitors).
During her first years of working entirely from home, Nightingale’s productivity was extraordinary. As well as writing Notes on Nursing, she produced an influential 900-page report on the medical failings during the Crimean War, and a book on hospital design.
This was in addition to setting up the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas’ hospital in London in 1860, and a midwifery training programme at King’s College Hospital in 1861, plus advising on the design of a number of new hospitals.
Later in the 1860s, Nightingale proposed a reform of workhouse infirmaries to make them high quality taxpayer-funded hospitals; and also worked on sanitary and social reforms in India. All of this she accomplished without leaving her house (though government ministers sometimes came to her home for meetings).
Having said this, it is worth remembering that Nightingale’s was a privileged form of self-isolation. Her father’s fortune, derived from Derbyshire mining interests, meant she had no money worries.
She lived in a nice house in London with various assistants and servants to help, shop and cook for her, and had no children to look after. Her entire waking time could be devoted to reading and writing. So while this is an appropriate time to recall and celebrate the huge contribution Nightingale made to modern nursing and public health care, we shouldn’t feel too bad if we don’t quite live up to her high standards of isolated productivity.
The queues of unemployed people outside Centrelink offices in recent days are reminiscent of the dole queues seen across Australia during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
At that time, most states provided inadequate food vouchers rather than cash to people in the form of income support payments. This made it particularly difficult for renters, many of whom were unemployed due to the mass closure of factories, to continue to pay rent.
In NSW, lower-income areas of Sydney were particularly badly hit by unemployment, and because the working class was a renting class, this quickly translated into homelessness.
For example, male unemployment reached 38.9% in the then-working class suburb of Newtown by 1933, well above the NSW average of 32% and three times the rate in the affluent suburb of Vaucluse.
Tent cities sprang up in Sydney’s Domain and on the outskirts of the city in suburbs like La Perouse, such as the ironically named tent city, Happy Valley. Although this is likely to underestimate the numbers of homeless at the time, the 1933 census reported
33,000 people [were] travelling in the hope of work and 400,000 [were]
living in shelters made of ‘iron, calico, canvas, bark, hessian and other scavenged materials’.
COVID-19 and assistance for renters
There are distinct parallels between the severe economic downturn of the 1930s and the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of mass business closures and worker layoffs.
The Australian government has estimated that one million Australians could become unemployed as a result of the coronavirus. However, it is not clear if this comprises only those who will be directly affected by business closures or includes people impacted by the flow-on effects.
Taking into account the current unemployment rate, an additional one million Australians would bring the rate to 13% of the Australian workforce, from my own estimates.
Although the increase in Centrelink payments announced by the Morrison government will help those workers suddenly without jobs, additional measures are needed to protect people who can’t pay their rents and are faced with possible eviction.
Emergency laws to protect renters are also currently being debated in Tasmania.
Staving off homelessness in the Great Depression
There is precedent for legislative reform of this kind from the Great Depression.
In response to the mass numbers of job losses in NSW, the government at the time, led by Premier Jack Lang, passed two pieces of legislation aimed at providing relief for renters. This legislation was very significant, as it was the first of its kind that afforded tenants across NSW any serious amount of protection.
One of the bills, passed as the Reduction of Rent Act 1931, reduced rents state-wide by 22.5% and made leases that did not acknowledge this reduction illegal.
The other piece of significant tenancy reform was the Ejectments Postponement Bill 1931. This bill prohibited eviction from a dwelling house without an order of the court. If the court could be shown the rent could not be paid, the tenancy could be extended indefinitely.
In his second reading speech, William McKell, minister for justice in the Lang government, described the bill as “a bona fide effort to provide against hardship due to unemployment”.
As honourable members are aware, there is a large amount of unemployment, and there are many very deserving and reputable people who, unfortunately, are not able to pay their rent. It is a tragedy that people of that type, with their families, are being evicted from their homes, and the Government is desirous of preventing as far as possible evictions of that character.
Though the government was committed to helping renters, McKell clearly distinguishes between the deserving and undeserving unemployed in his speech, an unhelpful way of thinking that is still with us today.
Although it is not known how many evictions the reforms of 1931 prevented, the new laws were undoubtedly a boon for renters, given the news coverage of the time. Landlords and their representatives complained about the impact the laws had on their ability to evict tenants.
Hundreds of cases have been reported to the Real Estate Institute, where the owners of houses, dependent on rents for their livelihood, have been refused possession, and have also been refused relief under the dole system, on the grounds that they are property owners.
Unfortunately for renters, these reforms were relatively short-lived. The Lang government was sacked by the NSW governor in May 1932 and replaced in the next election by the more conservative United Australia Party and Country Party coalition government.
This change in government saw the passage of the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Act 1932, which repealed the Ejectments Postponement Act 1931. The rent reduction law was also made more favourable to landlords.
The interests of landlords were prioritised over those of unemployed renters, a salutary lesson to present governments not to let ideology and vested interests get in the way of needed reforms that will benefit a significant portion of the population during a crisis not of their making.
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!”
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.
What this demonstrates is that the word crusade has many meanings, depending on how it is wielded. While it seems to pop up frequently for all manner of campaigns, strictly religious meanings still prevail.
This kind of use is a reflection of modern views of the medieval “crusades” led by Western Christians to conquer Jerusalem from the 11th to the 13th century. Such perceptions have charged a single word with so many, and often contrary, ideological meanings. However, using the term this way is not a new phenomenon.
Historical research demonstrates that since its appearance in the middle ages the word crusade has always had very different meanings and has repeatedly served as a political instrument. Untangling this history of the word can help better understand and counter the extremists who use it.
The term “crusade” appeared in the 1210s, more than a century after the launching of the first expedition to Jerusalem in 1095. Despite our understanding of what “the crusades” are, it wasn’t used to describe these expeditions. Instead, it was used in reference to other wars promoted by the pope, against Muslims in Spain and Cathar “heretics” in southern France.
This use of the word created a common category, the “crusade” – a military campaign waged to defend faith. This meaning now associated these conflicts with the expeditions in the Middle East and opened the way to complete assimilation of wars fought against different enemies, in varied places and often for similar reasons.
Considering the moral sanctity associated with defending the “Holy Land” in Christian minds, the word quickly took on a legitimising function. Any contested action could be justified by dubbing it a “crusade”. It, therefore, became a word used to wield power and silence denouncers. In the middle ages, the term described new taxes imposed by the kings of Castile, wars led by the popes against their political opponents or Europe-wide collections of faithful donations (called indulgences).
Similarly taking a negative view of the word, the Enlightenment philosophers considered the expeditions to Jerusalem as a demonstration of Catholicism’s violent and intolerant attitude. Scottish philosopher David Hume, in the first volume of his History of England, wrote of them this: “The Crusades – the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.” The negative connotation of the word was therefore strongly reinforced.
From the end of the 18th century, “crusade” was widely employed to criticise any movement considered as backward looking or needlessly aggressive. Conservative political attitudes, in particular, were frequently disqualified as “crusades”.
Both world wars were dominated by ideologies of simplistic opposition of good against evil. This new meaning of the word crusade fitted well this conception. As a result, crusades against diseases, war or unemployment, crusades for temperance, children or good manners flourished in western societies in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in Catholic and Anglo-Saxons countries. But in Germanic and Eastern European countries the negative understanding of “crusade” remained stronger, and the word was not as commonly used.
The final change occurred in the 1960s. Criticism against colonialism and western interventions considered the medieval expeditions in the Middle East as acts of racism and violent conquest. Positive meanings became more frequently condemned or avoided. We are still strongly influenced by these conceptions, but the previous meanings haven’t disappeared.
When using the word, meanwhile, extremists rely on a single meaning based on their understanding of the medieval “crusades”. Christian supremacists remain faithful to the early 20th-century visions and consider the crusade as a holy cause. Muslim fundamentalists are influenced by later conceptions and condemn them as an act of imperialism. In both cases, the crusades are read as a basic opposition between Christians and Muslims.
The term can, therefore, be used to promote a simplistic idea of the eternal fight between good and evil. By doing so, extremists are not misusing the word “crusade”. They’re using it as it has always been used: to support an ideology.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In 1839, George Augustus Robinson arrived in Melbourne as Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, bringing with him a select group of Aboriginal guides from Tasmania, including a woman called Truganini. He could never have foreseen the dramatic and tragic consequence.
Sometime in August 1841, Truganini left Melbourne with her new husband Maulboyheener travelling toward Westernport, working for food and shelter at stations along the way.
On September 4, they were on James Horsfall’s Ballymarang station, where they were joined by their companions, Peevay, his wife Plorenernoopner, and Maytepueminer, wife of their friend Lacklay who had gone missing. All five were on a mission to find out what had happened to Lacklay, last heard of heading into Lower Westernport in May 1840.
On a mission
Negotiating the mangroves at the top of Westernport was torturous. The Koo-Wee-Rup Swamp spread for miles to the north and east making it near impossible to find a way through. Truganini and her companions were obliged to make a wide detour around it to find higher ground, where they followed the course of the Lang Lang River to the coast, where massive tide fluctuations had created an extensive inter-tidal zone providing a rich harvest of scallops, mussels, oysters, abalone, limpets, marine worms, crabs and burrowing shrimp.
Despite the evidence of long-standing occupation in the exposed shell middens, the place was empty. When Samuel Anderson and Robert Massie first sailed from Launceston to the eastern shores of Westernport in 1835, they had found the Boonwurrung owners had been extinguished by the cumulative effect of encroachments from Van Diemen’s Land, endemic warfare with the Kurnai from Gippsland and attacks by sealers who “stole” women, all compounded by epidemic disease.
On September 15, Anderson and Massie became aware that Truganini, Maulboyheener, Peevay, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer had established camp on their pastoral lease on the Bass River. The two squatters knew members of the group very well from their time working for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, where Anderson had been a bookkeeper and Massie the engineer. If anyone in Lower Westernport knew what had happened to Lacklay, it would be these two squatters.
While at Anderson and Massie’s station, the five almost certainly heard the same information they’d given to Assistant Protector William Thomas when he had come looking for Lacklay — known to him as Isaac — in the previous year: that he was last seen in the company of settler who lived at the end of Westernport Bay. Further inquiries by Thomas established the man in question was the skipper of a cutter that had sailed away from the far eastern tip of Westernport Bay. On board where a woman and her three children, plus Lacklay and an unnamed German man as the crew.
The night they sailed, a heavy squall had swept in from the Tasman Sea and the boat was presumed to have capsized, with everyone drowned, though no bodies or pieces of wreckage had been recovered. Thomas was not convinced, noting in the margin of his journal “the death of Isaac supposed”.
Thomas was right to have reservations about this narrative of death by drowning. The truth, only established 176 years later, was that the cutter did not capsize, but sailed all the way to the remote whaling port of Kororareka in New Zealand. At the time, there was no conceivable way that anyone in Port Phillip could have known the boat had managed to sail across the Tasman Sea.
Lacklay’s disappearance was left to speculation. A story that made much more sense than drowning was that he had been shot by a settler, a narrative everyone in Port Phillip was familiar with. Truganini and Maulboyheener had heard that version of the story too, and now were in Lower Westernport to investigate.
After a leisurely stay at Anderson and Massie’s run, the five moved off on September 29. They crossed the Powlett River and made camp close to the home of William Watson. He was the sole settler below the Bass River, having very recently arrived with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, Walter Ginman, in May 1841. Watson was employed by a consortium of investors to work the seam of coal that Anderson had discovered. He had sunk a shaft into the coal seam near the mouth of the Powlett River, where he built a rudimentary hut just above the high-water mark.
Watson welcomed Truganini and her friends, giving them tea and sugar and even lending them a kettle. On October 2, the fourth day of their visit, Watson and Ginman departed for the mine, and the five approached the hut and lingered in the yard until Mrs Watson came out to give them some more tea and sugar.
Some time later, the women began to scatter the bark from their shelters and pack up their belongings, while the men went to the hut to return the kettle.
Once the men gained entrance to the hut, the tone of their interactions suddenly shifted. The reasons why would only become clear much later.
Peevay went to look for Watson’s guns, while Maulboyheener took Mrs Watson and her daughter by the shoulders to propel them outside. There Truganini and Maytepueminer pulled them into the bush and pointed them in the direction of safety at Anderson and Massie’s station. Meanwhile, Peevay and Maulboyheener systematically stripped the hut of food staples, blankets, clothing, an axe, two guns and a supply of buckshot. After setting fire to the hut, the five loaded up their plunder and followed the river towards the coast.
Early that evening, Peevay and Maulboyheener lay concealed in the low coastal heath watching Watson and his son-in-law returning from the mine. When the two men came into range, they fired a volley of shots from several guns, hitting Ginman in the calf and slightly wounding Watson in the foot and elbow. Hobbling towards their hut, the two men saw their home was a smouldering ruin and their wives had vanished. It was well after dark when they reached Anderson and Massie’s station and found their wives unharmed. The next day, Massie supplied Watson with a brace of firearms and two of his workers for a search party.
Peevay and Maulboyheener must have known that Watson would come looking for them, and that he would likely shoot them on sight, yet they lingered at the Powlett River mouth for another four days.
Blood on the beach
Staying low, with the heath to provide cover, the five kept careful watch for Watson’s search party. From a high point on the sand dunes, they had an excellent view of the flat country to the north and east, the direction they knew danger would come from. They managed to avoid detection until the evening of October 5, when Watson caught a glimpse of Maulboyheener standing on a high dune. Several shots were fired, failing to wound Maulboyheener, although a bullet came close enough to make a neat hole in the coat he was wearing.
Alert to the danger from Watson’s party, Truganini’s group failed to notice six unarmed men approaching from the south, walking along the beach to Watson’s mine in the late afternoon on October 6. The six men had walked overland from the whaling station at Lady’s Bay, on Wilson’s Promontory, more than 50 miles away. Two of the whalers, known as Yankee and Cook, had set out to locate the miners while their companions entered the hut to rest. Minutes later, two shots rang out in quick succession.
Maulboyheener and Peevay had each fired, first one then the other, in such quick succession there was no time between to reload with powder and shot. Having seen the two men fall, Maulboyheener kept watch from the top of the dune while Peevay, Truganini, Plorenernoopner and Maytepueminer went down to the beach to check the fallen. Lying on the beach were two men they had never seen before: a shot had hit one in the head, killing him instantly, while the other had entered the second man’s side, leaving him grievously wounded and in agony.
The four returned with this terrible information to Maulboyheener, who pulled up a couple of strong tree roots and went alone to the beach to dispatch the wounded stranger with heavy blows to the back of his head. Watching from above, the three women cried in distress.
They were not the only ones watching. Having been woken by the gunshots, two more whalers, Robbins and Evans, stepped outside the hut to look about. They saw a party of four or five people, with what looked like two guns visible on a high dune some 200 yards away. The whalers could not distinguish whether these figures were male or female, but they observed some of the group going down to the beach, leaving a person with a gun watching from above. When they returned, the one who had been watching went down to the beach alone.
Believing they had seen a group of miners hunting birds or kangaroos, Robbins and Evans concluded there was no reason to be alarmed and went back inside to sleep. Waking about an hour later, Evans was disturbed to see his companions Yankee and Cook had not returned. This time he went to search for them. He was a few yards from the hut when Watson’s search party materialised, with their guns aimed right at him. Evans talked quickly and established that none of these men had fired the shots he’d heard earlier.
Alarmed, he enlisted Watson’s party to help search for Yankee and Cook and found their bodies on the beach, their blood staining the sand. Yankee was already cold, with a bullet wound behind his ear. Cook had a deep wound in his side and had been bludgeoned on the back of his head.
‘What could make you do it?’
It was another six weeks before the five were captured before dawn on November 20, in the coastal heath just south of the murder site. The search party was led by Land Commissioner Frederick Armand Powlett, after whom the river was named. It was comprised of 18 soldiers and policemen, reinforced by four settler volunteers with seven Kulin men as trackers.
Once caught, Truganini, Peevay and Maulboyheener were taken by Powlett to point out the exact place of the murders. On locating the spot, Truganini explained only one shot had been fatal and Maulboyheener had used sticks to beat the wounded man’s head.
“What could make you do it?” Powlett demanded. “We thought it was Watson,” Maulboyheener volunteered, and then fell silent.
Truganini and her companions arrived in Melbourne in chains on November 26. They were taken to the watchhouse, where committal proceedings commenced almost straightaway. Statements were taken from the whaler Evans, from Watson and his wife, from Powlett and members of the search party.
When the display of damning evidence concluded, Maulboyheener made a garbled attempt at a defence. Watson had tried to kill him, he explained, and when he saw the whalers he thought it was Watson and had fired his gun.
On December 2, Robinson and the Methodist minister Reverend Joseph Orton went to speak with the accused men. Peevay remained silent, but Maulboyheener gave an explanation for their otherwise inexplicable actions. Both Robinson and Orton separately recorded in their journals how Maulboyheener explained that James Horsfall of Ballymarang station had told them Watson had in fact killed their friend Lacklay. The men were sentenced and publicly hanged on January 20, 1842.