Analyzing the Past in the Present: The Black Death, COVID-19, and the Ursinus Quest
Junior and senior history majors in HIST-475W have been grappling with the history of the Black Death, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Ursinus Quest core questions. Here’s what they want the Ursinus community to know.
When most people hear the term “pandemic,” their minds automatically turn toward the Black Death. While our current pandemic, COVID-19, is very different from the infamous fourteenth-century plague, is it possible that studying the Black Death can teach us something about how to handle our current situation? History majors in Dr. Susanna Throop’s capstone seminar on the Black Death have been considering that very question.
What was the Black Death?
The Black Death was the second pandemic of the bacterium Y. pestis (“plague”) in the eastern hemisphere, i.e. Afro-Eurasia. Known in its time simply as the “pestilence,” or “mortality,” the pandemic was first described as “the Black Death” in the eighteenth century; the phrase sometimes refers to the full pandemic, and sometimes only to its earliest years. The initial phase of the pandemic took place in the mid-fourteenth century, with recurring outbreaks for centuries afterwards. Indeed, the four centuries from approximately 1350-1750 CE are known to scholars simply as the Second Plague Pandemic. Due to its chronological and geographical range as well as its mortality rates, the Black Death is recognized as the largest pandemic in human history.
As any historian will tell you, understanding the past is never simple, and that is especially true for the Black Death. Knowledge of this pandemic comes from many disciplines, including history, bioarchaeology, genetics, and epidemiology. Indeed, our knowledge of the Black Death has changed quite dramatically in the last several decades, thanks to the work of groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholars, including historians such as Monica H. Green. “The historical and transdisciplinary complexities involved with studying this particular pandemic make it an ideal topic for a capstone seminar, and with pandemics an ongoing part of the human experience, I knew the course would always be relevant,” notes Dr. Throop. But she did not foresee how directly relevant the course would become.
The Black Death and COVID-19
In recent weeks, as the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, pieces comparing it to the Black Death have spread rapidly online. Why this gravitation towards a centuries-old pandemic, when we have many more recent examples in the late twentieth century alone? Dr. Throop’s students suspect that people are turning towards the Black Death primarily because it is such a widely recognized historical pandemic. Most people will have heard a reference to the Black Death in a history class, movie, video game, or tv show. The very words “the Black Death” may seem to accurately communicate the fear and grief that many are feeling now.
So, are these two pandemics actually comparable? Certainly there are similarities. Above all, both outbreaks of disease have met the parameters to be considered a pandemic: a novel organism that is highly contagious and infectious, geographically widespread and fast-moving, with minimal population immunity.  In both cases, contributing factors include active global connections between human societies, climatic and environmental changes, and human pursuit of resources from the natural world.  During both pandemics, people learned about the disease during and after its spread, and as a result of feelings of desperation, many sought easy answers and solutions. In particular, many sought a group of people who could be scapegoated, drawing upon existing prejudices to do so. Similarly, in both pandemics, the impact of the disease was heavily influenced by existing socio-economic differences and inequities. And both then and now, some individuals and communities went to extraordinary lengths to help each other.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is also considerably unlike the Black Death, and it’s risky to make simplistic comparisons. The Black Death had much higher rates of infection and mortality than COVID-19. Furthermore, while COVID-19 is a human disease, the Y. pestis bacterium is enzootic and affects both humans and other mammals. This makes the plague harder to trace, because animals do not leave a written record.  And of course, the societies in which pandemics occur are markedly different, and those differences affect outcomes. Differences in economic institutions, social classes, political hierarchies, and cultural values shaped the Black Death in significant ways. And now, we can see the COVID-19 pandemic playing out differently around the world, too. We risk not only misunderstanding the past, but also making injudicious decisions in the present if we overlook the vast differences in human cultures and institutions during pandemics, whether that be across time or space.
Points to remember
At the end of the day, what can we take from the study of the Black Death? According to history capstone students and their professor, there are six important ideas to keep in mind: don’t panic, be patient, don’t seek scapegoats, recognize and address inequities, remember to have hope and help each other, and value interdisciplinarity. These ideas reflect students’ knowledge of the Black Death as well as their engagement with the four core questions: What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? and What will I do?
Morgana Olbrich ’20 points out that many people were in a state of panic during the Black Death, which led to increased violence, ineffective treatment options, mass distrust, and the breaking down of cultural practices meant to keep people together. She warns us that “COVID-19 is bad, but panicking will only make things worse.” During the Black Death, there was a well-known story of a ship full of infected Genoese merchants that was chased from port to port by panicking communities. But sending these men away purportedly caused the plague to spread to new societies.  Such a tale exemplifies the problems that can arise when people act out of fear. While we may think that we are doing what is best, panicked responses can actually put more people in danger than we realize.
Matt Furgele ’21 takes a different approach by pointing out that it took hundreds of years for people to figure out how to handle plague, and that the Black Death wasn’t the last plague pandemic in human history. “We should take solace with the fact that we know that COVID-19 is a disease causing this pandemic instead of guessing about it,” he explains. “However, we should not expect instantaneous or even moderately quick results. Even in the twenty-first century, fully understanding COVID-19 will take time.” We all want to know what is going on and what we should do, but spreading misinformation has the potential to harm others as well as ourselves. And while public health measures such as quarantines and social isolation insisted on by governments can be inconvenient, historically they have proven to be the best measure against mass outbreaks of disease. Indeed, the challenges we face now in ascertaining accurate and up to date information should help us recognize the immense work generations of historians have invested in trying to provide accurate information about the past.
Don’t seek scapegoats
Andrew McSwiggan ’20 pulls his takeaway from the history of those who were incorrectly targeted and blamed for spreading the Black Death. As he notes, scapegoating Jewish communities in Europe during the plague did not make anything better for anyone, and made things horribly worse for those targeted. He points out that “it is important to accept that a pandemic is not a situation in which ‘closure’ is easily available, and a disease does not have a tangible enemy behind it whom one can blame. Scapegoating others only adds more tension and suffering to an already scary situation.” In the time of the Black Death, some in Europe targeted and blamed their Jewish neighbors for the spread of the pestilence. In many accounts, Jewish people were robbed, beaten, and killed by those who tried to find an end to their suffering by blaming someone else for their troubles.  This response did not bring an end to the Black Death, but instead increased tensions between religious groups and ruined the lives of many people who were simply trying to make it through the plague.
The UN is warning us of a “tsunami of hate” during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that people today will instead approach the current pandemic together, with support for each other. Indeed, some communities did just this during the Black Death. According to one witness, Muslim, Christian and Jewish citizens of Damascus came together in July 1348 in joint prayer and supplication for divine assistance.  While some medieval communities divided against each other, others sought unity in the face of an overwhelming crisis, and we can and should do the same.
Recognize and address inequities
Logan Mazullo ’20 wants us to recognize that diseases are not in fact “great levellers.” The effects of any infectious organism are co-determined by social factors, and, he explains, “In both pandemics, we see groups of people disproportionately affected by the disease because they are denied resources.” Many accounts from the time of the Black Death suggest that people from the upper classes, especially rulers and royal families, did not seem to get the plague.  This apparent disparity further inflamed existing class tensions and social anger, and often those in positions of power simply sought to reconsolidate their control. In the COVID-19 pandemic, already-marginalized people are suffering disproportionately or being left out of record-keeping altogether. Recognizing this should lead us to the realization that effectively handling a pandemic and minimizing suffering necessarily involves addressing social inequities and injustices.
Remember to hope and help each other
Tiffini Eckenrod ’20 focuses mainly on the outcome of the Black Death, encouraging us to look ahead and plan for the future, even when things seem impossibly hard. While our circumstances may be new to us, they are by no means new in global history. And in moments of extreme crisis, we can still help each other. For example, in Marseille in 1348, a man named Bertran Paul was willing to watch one friend’s six-year-old daughter and serve as executor for another friend’s estate, despite the fact that he himself was close to death. 
Without seeking to deny or downplay the devastating loss and suffering of so many in the COVID-19 pandemic, there is cause for hope, and hope may help us move forward. “Even though it can sometimes be hard to look ahead to the future with everything going on at the moment, just remember that the current situation is not permanent and that things can get better, especially if we do our best to make them better,” says Eckenrod. Jean De Venette, who wrote about the plague in 1359-60, after the first catastrophic outbreak of the Black Death, pointed out that regular life did resume in time. People married, they had children, and they moved forward.  If people in the past could find a way to latch onto even the faintest glimpse of hope in order to pull themselves forward, then we might be able to do the same. An act as simple as hoping and believing that an end is in sight may provide us all with a reason to keep fighting, even in a time filled with mass loss, suffering, and uncertainty. It’s worth noting that these aren’t idle sentiments for Eckenrod, who has been hard at work making 3D-printed PPE for local organizations.
Interdisciplinarity is essential
For Dr. Throop, a final takeaway is that dealing effectively with present and future pandemics requires the interdisciplinary study of the past as well as the present.  This interdisciplinary study of the past should include historians. “The stereotype remains of the oblivious historian reading outdated books and reciting obscure facts ad nauseam,” she notes wryly. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. Historians are constantly revising and updating our knowledge of the past. We do this work because we care urgently about the present and the future. And studying history requires the ongoing critical and comparative analysis of complex and potentially unreliable sources of information.”
Actions taken by current leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic – for example, the very idea of “flattening the curve” – have been directly informed by the work of historians alongside scholars from many other disciplines. Yet too often interdisciplinary teams of scholars studying the past fail to include a single historian. This is problematic.  Failing to include historians when studying the past impoverishes and distorts knowledge that we need to effectively treat diseases. To quote biologist Michelle Ziegler’s discussion of the potential reemergence of the plague as a significant global disease, “We cannot discern the epidemiology of historic plagues without knowledge of the historical environment and human ecology. Only when the sciences and the humanities work together can we really begin to understand the medieval phenomenon of ‘the Black Death’ and put that knowledge to work in our own world.” 
Want to learn more about the Black Death as we now know it? Join the Medieval Academy of America’s upcoming webinar “The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of Covid-19” on Friday, May 15, 2020, 1-3 p.m. EDT.
- D.M. Morens, G.K. Folkers and A.S. Fauci, “What is a pandemic?,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 200/7 (2009): 1018-21.
- For the Black Death, see Bruce Campbell, “Physical shocks, biological hazards, and human impacts: the crisis of the fourteenth century revisited,” in Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europe preindustriale. Secc. XIII-XVIII (Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe from the 13th to the 18th centuries), ed. S. Cavaciocchi (Prato: Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini,” 2010), 13-32.
- Monica H. Green, “What happens when we expand the chronology and geography of plague’s history? (Or why Yersinia pestis is a good ‘model organism’ in these pandemic times),” Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, University of Oxford, 16 March 2020.
- A classic comparative analysis of socio-economic institutions’ influence on outcomes during the Black Death is Stuart J. Borsch, The Black Death in Egypt and England. A Comparative Study (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).
- Lodewijk Heyligen, “Epistola” (27 April 1348), Recueil des chroniques de Flandre, ed. Joseph-Jean de Smet, 4 vols (Brussels, 1837-65), 3:4-15, quoted in Louis Sanctus, “Letter,” in The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350. A Brief History with Documents, Bedford Series in History and Culture, ed. John Aberth (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 21-2.
- Peter IV of Aragon, “Edict” (23 December 1349),” in Amanda Lopez de Meneses, “Una consecuencia de la Peste Negra en Cataluna: el pogrom de 1348,” Sefarad 19 (1959): 336-38, quoted in King Pedro IV of Aragon, “Response to Jewish Pogrom of Tarrega,” in The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350. A Brief History with Documents, 142-3.
- Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, Travels, ed. and trans. H.A.R. Gibb, The Travels of Ibn Battuta, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 142-4, quoted in “8.2 Warding off the plague through processions: Ibn Battuta, Travels (before 1368),” Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World, ed. B. Rosenwein, 3rd ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 484.
- Cortusii Patavini Duo, sive Gulielmi et Abrideti Cortusiorum, Historia de Novitatibus Paduae et Lombardiea ab anno MCCLVI usque ad MCCCLXIV, in Rerum Italicarum Scriptores XII, ed. L.A. Muratori (Milan, 1728), cols 926-7, quoted in “The Plague in Padua,” in The Black Death, ed. R. Horrox, Manchester Medieval Sources Series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 35.
- “The postmortem inventory of the estate of Bertran Paul, peasant of Marseille and plague victim in 1348 (undertaken by his daughter and heir, Alayseta Paul),” Archives municipales de la ville de Marseille 1 II 44, folios 61r-62v, 30 August 1349, transcribed and translated by Daniel L. Smail, April 2020.
- Chronique Latine de Guillaume de Nangis de 1113 a 1300, avec les continuations de cette chronique, ed. Hercule Geraud, 2 vols (Paris: J. Renouard et cie, 1843), 2:214-16, quoted in Jean De Venette, “Chronicle” (c. 1359-60), in The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350. A Brief History with Documents, 83.
- Frank M. Snowden, “Emerging and reemerging diseases: a historical perspective,” Immunological Reviews 225 (2008): 9-26.
- Just two examples are: Monica H. Green, “‘History of Medicine’ or ‘History of Health’? Past and Future 9 (2011): 7-9; and Brian Connolly, Hans Hummer, and Sara McDougall, “Weird Science: Incest and History,” Perspectives on History, May 6, 2020.
- Michelle Ziegler, “The Black Death and the Future of the Plague,” in Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, ed. Monica H. Green, The Medieval Globe 1 (Arc Medieval Press, 2014), 259-83. See also her blog Contagions.