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On August 30 2019, a comet from outside our solar system was observed by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea. This was only the second time an interstellar comet had ever been recorded. Comet 19 or C/2019 Q4 , as it is now known, made its closest approach to the sun on December 8 2019, roughly coinciding with the first recorded human cases of COVID-19.
While we know that this is merely coincidence, in medieval times authorities regarded natural phenomena such as comets and eclipses as portents of natural disasters, including plagues.
One of the most learned men of the early Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in Northumbria in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. In chapter 25 of his scientific treatise, De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things) , he describes comets as “stars with flames like hair. They are born suddenly, portending a change of royal power or plague or wars or winds or heat”.
Plagues and natural phenomena
Outbreaks of the bubonic plague were recorded long before the Black Death of the 14th century. In the 6th century, a plague spread from Egypt to Europe and lingered for the next 200 years. At the end of the seventh century, the Irish scholar Adomnán, Abbot of Iona wrote in book 42 of his Life of St Columba of “the great mortality which twice in our time has ravaged a large part of the world”. The effects of this plague were so severe in England that, according to Bede, the kingdom of Essex reverted to paganism.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that 664 “the sun grew dark, and in this year came to the island of Britain a great plague among men (‘micel man cwealm’ in Anglo Saxon)”. The year 664 held great significance for the English and Irish churches: a great meeting (or synod) was held in Whitby in Northumbria to decide whether the English church should follow the Irish or Roman system for calculating the date of Easter. By describing the occurrence of an eclipse and plague in the same year as the synod, Bede makes this important event in the English Church more memorable and meaningful.
Plague and medieval religion
In the Middle Ages, occurrences like plague and disease were thought of as expressions of God’s will. In the Bible, God uses natural phenomena to punish humankind for sin. In the Book of Revelation 6:8, for example, pestilence is described as one of the signs of Judgement Day. Medieval scholars were aware that some plagues and diseases were spread through the air, as explained by the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville in chapter 39 of his De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things):
Pestilence is a disease spreading widely and infecting by its contagion whatever it touches. When plague (‘plaga’) smites the earth because of mankind’s sins, then from some cause, that is, either the force of drought or of heat or an excess of rain, the air is corrupted.
Bede based his On the Nature of Things on this work by Isidore. In a discussion of plague in the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History we find a reference to the “an-fleoga”, meaning something like “the one who flies” or “solitary flier”. This same idea of airborne disease is a feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. One example comes from an Old English poem we call a metrical charm, which combines ancient Germanic folklore with Christian prayer and ritual. In the Nine Herbs Charm, the charmer addresses each herb individually and invokes its power over disease:
This is against poison, and this is against the one who flies,
this is against the loathsome one that travels throughout the land …
if any poison come flying from the east,
or any come from the north,
or any from the west over the nations of men,
Christ stood over the disease of every kind.
As well as fearing plague, medieval scholars attempted to pinpoint its origins and carefully recorded its occurrence and effects. Like us, they used whatever means they could to protect themselves from disease. But it is clear medieval chroniclers presented historical events as part of a divine plan for humankind by linking them with natural phenomena like plagues and comets.
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!”
Valentine’s Days is not all love hearts and roses for everyone. For the hapless in love, the day can be a yearly reminder of failed romances, unrequited love and the seemingly unending search for the illusive “one”.
Such problems of the heart span cultures and history. The inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world suffered the same heartaches and the same emotional highs and lows as we do today. While we are left with apps to swipe on, a greater belief in magic in this period provided interesting opportunities to find love.
Hope was placed on spells, mysterious words and magical objects to grant the gift of love on their users or to take it away from rivals.
Ticks and fish blood
The Greek Magical Papyri are a series of ancient spell books from Egypt from between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century AD. They are a sort of do-it-yourself guide to magical rituals that offers solutions to problems like finding a thief, keeping calm, curing fevers and demonic possession. Unsurprisingly, love charms feature prominently.
Depending on the lengths a hopeful lover was willing to go (and their level of lust/obsession/desperation) there was something for all levels of effort. Some spells are “simple”: “To get a certain [her] at the baths: rub a tick from a dead dog on the loins.”
Others require a bit more preparatory work. One advertised as the “irresistible love spell of attraction” asks the unlucky lover to use fish blood to write a spell invoking demons on the skin of an ass. They must then wrap it in vetch (a plant with pink flowers) and hide it in the mouth of a recently deceased dog.
Most spells required a special ingredient to be used in a specific way in combination with arcane words. These spells don’t leave archaeological traces for us to find. One love spell asked the user to have an iron ring inscribed with Harpocrates (the Hellenistic god of silence) seated on a lotus in their hands while they shouted magical words at the moon from a rooftop. Several such gemstones matching this description have been found.
Love potions themselves have a long history and are discussed in several ancient texts. A Demotic (written in ancient Egyptian) spell proposed the following method:
Take the fragment of the tip of your fingernail and apple seed together with blood from your finger… Pound the apple, add blood to it and put it in the cup of wine. Recite [the given spell] seven times over it and you should make the woman drink it at a special time.
This visceral recipe is a variant of a spell that also added semen, and the hair of a dead man to the mixture.
Rings, curses and more blood
A gold ring found in Corbridge, Northumberland, in 1935 is inscribed in Greek with ΠOΛEMIOYΦIΛTPON, “The love charm of Polemius”. Polemius was a man who either wore this ring to enhance his allure and sexual qualities or gave it to the object of his affections. If it was the latter, it may have been given conspicuously as a gift or hidden on or around them as a clandestine token. It is a uniquely personal object from the edge of the Roman Empire that speaks of the unfulfilled desires of a Greek-speaking man over 1,700 years ago.
Curses were used in the ancient world to condemn thieves, protect businesses, ruin rival chariot teams and to create better opportunities for lovers. Sometimes a desired partner was already in a relationship, and cursing their partner (to discredit, harm or kill them) offered a chance to change this. A lead curse tablet from Boetia, Greece, was written by someone jealously in love with a man called Kabeira and tries to damn his wife Zois:
I assign Zois the Eretrian, wife of Kabeira, to Earth and to Hermes — her food, her drink, her sleep, her laughter, her intercourse, her playing of the kithara, and her entrance, her pleasure, her little buttocks, her thinking, her eyes…
Curses were personal, private contracts between a person and a deity. The leaden tablets were often folded over and sometimes pierced with a nail, which often went through the written name of the curse’s target. They were thrown into rivers, sacred springs, hidden in secret places and even dug into the graves of the recently dead.
Magical and medicinal means were also suggested for resolving relatable problems in ancient relationships. Aelius Promotus, an Alexandrian physician, recommended that barley soaked in menstrual blood and wrapped in mule skin could be tied onto a woman as a contraceptive.
Opposingly, Marcellus of Bordeaux (4th-5th century AD) suggested that a waning sex drive could be cured by finding the right aphrodisiac. He suggested wearing the right testicle of a rooster in a pouch around the neck.
Roman magic may have been a cathartic experience for the heartbroken or an exhilarating one for the lovestruck. The idea that people will do whatever is within their power to find love belongs to a long and ever-evolving tradition. These spells, rituals, tokens and curses highlight the essential nature of love and heartbreak in the ancient world and implicitly connects our cultures across time.
What will happen in the 2020s? If history is any guide (and there’s good reason to think it is), the outlook isn’t great.
Here are some big-picture predictions: stagnant real wages, faltering standard of living for the lower and middle classes, worsening wealth inequality, more riots and uprisings, ongoing political polarisation, more elites competing for limited positions of power, and elites co-opting radical movements.
Thanks to globalisation, all this won’t just happen in one country but in the majority of countries in the world. We will also see geopolitical realignment, dividing the world into new alliances and blocs.
There is also a low to moderate chance of a “trigger event” – a shock like an environmental crisis, plague, or economic meltdown – that will kick off a period of extreme violence. And there is a much lower chance we will see a technological breakthrough on par with the industrial revolution that can ease the pressure in the 2020s and reverse the trends above.
These aren’t just guesses. They are predictions made with the tools of cliodynamics, which uses dozens of case studies of civilisations over the past 5,000 years to look for mathematical patterns in human history.
Cycles of growth and decline
One area where cliodynamics has borne fruit is “demographic-structural theory”, which explains common cycles of prosperity and decline.
Here’s an example of a full cycle, taken from Roman history. After the second Punic war in 201 BCE, the Roman republic enjoyed a period of extreme growth and prosperity. There was a relatively small divide between the richest and poorest, and fewer members of elites.
As the population grew, smallholders had to sell off their farms. Land coalesced into larger plantations run by elites mostly with slave labour. Elite numbers ballooned, wealth inequality became extreme, the common people felt pinched, and numerous wealthy people found themselves shut out of power.
The rich resisted calls for land reform, and eventually the elites split into two factions called the Optimates and the Populares. The following century involved slave revolts and two massive civil wars.
Stability only returned when Augustus defeated all other rivals in 30 BCE – and ended the republic, making himself emperor. So began a new cycle of growth.
Booms and busts
Demographic-structural theory looks at things like the economic and political strength of the state, the ages and wages of the population, and the size and wealth of the elite to diagnose a society’s health – and work out where it’s heading.
Historically, some things we see today are bad signs: shrinking real wages, a growing gap between the richest and the poorest, rising numbers of wealthy and influential people who are becoming more competitive and factionalised.
Another bad sign is if previous generations witnessed periods of growth and plenty. It might mean that your society is about to hit a wall – unless a great deal of innovation and good policy relieves the pressure once again.
The modern global system has experienced a period of growth unprecedented in human history since 1945, often referred to as the “Great Acceleration”. Yet in country after country today, we see stagnant wages, rising inequality, and wealthy elites jousting for control.
Historically, periods of strain and “elite overpopulation” are followed by a crisis (environmental or economic), which is in turn followed by years of sociopolitical instability and violence.
Elite competition makes crises worse
Factional warring after a disaster in a top-heavy society makes things much worse. It can keep the population low for decades after the initial catastrophe, and may only end when elites are exhausted or killed off.
This underlying cycle fed the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and Yorkists in 15th century England, the struggle between the Optimates and Populares in the Roman Republic, and countless other conflicts in history.
In a period of growth and expansion these dynastic, political, and religious animosities would be less pronounced – as there is more of everything to go around – but in a period of decline they become incendiary.
In different regions and time periods, the factions vary widely, but the ideological merits or faults of any particular faction have literally no bearing on the pattern.
We always massacre each other on the downward side of a cycle. Remember that fact as we embark on the pattern again in the 2020s, and you find yourself becoming blindingly angry while watching the news or reading what someone said on Twitter.
A connected world
Because the world’s societies and economies are more unified than ever before, the increasing political division we see in Australia or the United States also manifests itself around the world.
Violence between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress in Bengal, political polarisation in Brazil following the election of Jair Bolsonaro, and less public conflicts within China’s ruling party are all part of a global trend.
We can expect this decline to continue steadily in the next decade, unless a trigger event kicks off a crisis and a long period – perhaps decades – of extreme violence.
Here’s a dramatic historical example: in the 12th century, Europe’s population was growing and living standards were rising. The late 13th century ushered in a period of strain. Then the Great Famine of 1315–17 set off a time of strife and increasing violence. Next came an even bigger disaster, the Black Death of 1347–51.
After these two trigger events, elites fighting over the wreckage led to a century of slaughter across Europe.
From my own studies, these “depression phases” kill an average of 20% of the population. On a global scale, today, that would mean 1.6 to 1.7 billion people dead.
There is, of course, only a low to moderate probability that such a trigger event will occur in the 2020s. It may happen decades later. But the kindling for such a conflagration is already being laid.
Technology to the rescue?
One thing that could reverse this cycle would be a major technological breakthrough. Innovation has temporarily warded off decline in the past.
In mid-11th century Europe, for example, new land-clearing and agricultural methods allowed a dramatic increase in production which led to relative prosperity and stability in the 12th century. Or in the mid-17th century, high-yield crops from the Americas raised carrying capacities in some parts of China.
In our current situation, something like nuclear fusion – which could provide abundant, cheap, clean energy – might change the situation drastically.
The probability of this occurring in the 2020s is low. Nevertheless, innovation remains our best hope, and the sooner it happens the better.
This could be a guiding policy for public and private investment in the 2020s. It is a time for generous funding, monumental projects, and bold ventures to lift humanity out of a potential abyss.
Sunlit uplands of the distant future
Cheer up. All is not lost. The further we project into the future the brighter human prospects become again, as great advances in technology do occur on a long enough timescale.
Given the acceleration of the frequency of such advances over the past 5,000 years of history, we can expect something profound on the scale of the invention of agriculture or the advent of heavy industry to occur within the next 100 years.
That is why humanity’s task in the 2020s – and much of the 21st century – is simply to survive it.
Due to the increased volume of spam posts and propaganda from other websites (including those of a ‘Christian’ nature who think it is acceptable practice to spam others) I am attempting to tighten up the protocols for comments on this Blog. I don’t want to stop comments altogether, but sadly, that may eventually happen. It seems there are some idiots (I am being kind) who want to continue to attempt to post their propaganda and nonsense on this Blog via the comments, even though they never get through the moderation process. I am fed up with having to work through all of this rubbish (and that is generally what it is). I understand there are some genuine people out there that will be inconvenienced by this ‘tightening’ up in the comments process here and I really didn’t want you to have to endure this moving forward. I am saddened that this has had to happen.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Late Bronze Age ‘Must Farm’ in eastern England.