Tag Archives: Bubonic Plague

Comets, omens and fear: understanding plague in the Middle Ages



A comet depicted in medieval times in the Bayeux tapestry.
Bayeux Museam, Author provided

Marilina Cesario, Queen’s University Belfast and Francis Leneghan, University of Oxford

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.

In the Middle Ages, comets like 2019’s C/2019 Q4 signalled a calamitous event on earth to come.
NASA, ESA & D. Jewitt (UCLA), CC BY

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 Conversation

Marilina Cesario, Senior Lecturer, School of Arts, English and Languages, Queen’s University Belfast and Francis Leneghan, Associate Professor of Old English, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Uprisings after pandemics have happened before – just look at the English Peasant Revolt of 1381



In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels.
The British Library

Susan Wade, Keene State College

As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.

The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.

“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.

Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.

And like today, the majority of wealth was held by an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population. When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked the pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country’s leaders refused to listen.

Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.

Clamoring for higher wages

Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.

The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.

The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.

Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.

Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.

Enough is enough

The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.

Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates, 30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king. The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named Wat Tyler and an itinerant, radical preacher named John Ball.

Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.

With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.

A bait and switch

To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.

The Peasant Revolt was one of Richard II’s first tests.
Westminster Abbey

While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.

For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was drawn and quartered. On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void. The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.

American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income.

The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.

It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism – where the richest 1% now own more than half of the world’s wealth – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.

When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we’re seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.

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Susan Wade, Associate Professor of History, Keene State College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


How the rich reacted to the bubonic plague has eerie similarities to today’s pandemic



Franz Xavier Winterhalter’s ‘The Decameron’ (1837).
Heritage Images via Getty Images

Kathryn McKinley, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.

The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep showing up to work.

As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of this story before.

Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on everyday life in 14th-century Italy.

Giovanni Boccaccio.
Leemage via Getty Images

Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.

“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.

In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”

Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.”

Josse Lieferinxe’s ‘Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken’ (c. 1498).
Wikimedia Commons

After the bleak description of the plague, Boccaccio shifts to the 100 stories. They’re narrated by 10 nobles who have fled the pallor of death hanging over Florence to luxuriate in amply stocked country mansions. From there, they tell their tales.

One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and ambition.

In one fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and ritually slaughters the same woman who had rejected him when he was alive. In another, a widow fends off a leering priest by tricking him into sleeping with her maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his undying loyalty to his friend when, in fact, he has profoundly betrayed that friend over many years.

Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation.

Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life?

In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 16, 2020.

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Kathryn McKinley, Professor of English, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


England: The Black Death



Bubonic Plague



United Kingdom: London – Black Death Pit Found


The link below is to an article concerning the discovery of what is thought to be a pit of Black Death victims in London, dating back to about 1348.

For more visit:
http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/15/world/europe/uk-london-skeletons/index.html


Article: Bubonic Plague Hazmat Suits from Yesteryear


The link below is to an article taking a look at ‘hazmat suits’ from the great Bubonic Plague era.

For more visit:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/49217/anatomy-14th-century-bubonic-plague-hazmat-suits


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