Plague time: Simon Schama on what history tells us
Samuel Pepys was always better at social than distancing. At the end of 1665, after bubonic plague had taken off a quarter of London’s population, he wrote in his diary: “I have never lived so merrily . . . as I have done this plague time.”
By December the great tide of death had abated but even as it had swept in months earlier, Pepys wrote of “the greatest glut of content that ever I had”, adding, almost as an afterthought, “only under some difficulty because of the plague”. He was a prosperous government official, member of the Navy Board during a maritime war with the Dutch; treasurer of the English colony at Tangier.
While Pepys had sent his wife downriver to Woolwich to escape the disease, he remained in London and continued to visit taverns and flirt his way through the evenings. He took what he thought were precautions, chewing tobacco and forgoing new wigs lest they be cut from the head of an infected body. On one occasion, “I met a dead corpse of the plague in the narrow alley . . . but I thank God I was not much disturbed at it.”
But in the last week of August, more than 6,000 had died from the plague and Pepys’ imperviousness to melancholy was under strain. The few people he saw, he wrote, looked as if they had “taken leave of the world”. He moved amid Buriers and Searchers, often elderly women assigned the dangerous job of examining the dead for signs of the plague, carrying long white wands to warn people to keep their distance as they went about their gloomy work. It was getting closer. His physician and the waterman who ferried him daily had both died, and Pepys decided to make a will.
His more austere friend, also a diarist, John Evelyn, Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Seamen, as well as for prisoners of war (many incarcerated in deathtrap confinement at Dover), looked on the ghastly spectacle in early September with a more tragic eye. Walking from Borough on the south side of the Thames to St James’s was “a dismal passage and dangerous to see so many coffins exposed in the streets, now thin of people; the shops shut up, and all in mournful silence, as not knowing whose turn might be next”.
Even in a statistically minded age (both were fellows of the newly founded Royal Society), Pepys and Evelyn knew that the vanishing act they were witnessing could not just be measured by the body count of the Mortality Bills. It was the city itself that was perishing, deprived of the oxygen of sociability.
Pepys took it hard when one of his favourite taverns, The Angell on Tower Hill, in common with many others, closed. He and many like him exemplified Aristotle’s conviction that humans are, above all else, social animals; and that the vital energy of cities in particular comes from gatherings — in public squares, theatres, sports stadiums — where, through some collective elixir of attentive enthusiasm, individuals are lifted by the (not invariably) benign excitement of the crowd.
Take that away and what you were left with were buildings and the fearfully confined inside them. And what Pepys, in his reckless way, was determined to hold on to was that other basic cell of community, beyond individuals and family — friendship.
A succession of writers from antiquity onwards celebrated friendship as the most life-enhancing social relationship of all.
The poet Horace’s friendship with his wealthy patron Maecenas was the wellspring of some of his most affecting verse. Cicero was at pains to distinguish the real thing — voluntary and entered into for nothing other than its own intrinsic pleasure — from sensuality that could wither along with the exhaustion of lust, or connections based on utility.
Acts of friendship were and are among the most painful casualties of epidemics
The great essayist Michel de Montaigne went into deep grief at the loss of his friend Étienne de la Boétie and lamented in an essay on friendship that there was “no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him”.
And because, according to these champions of amity, disinterested friendship was intrinsically virtuous, it was the primary building block of strong societies; the place where personal pleasure and the common good nourished each other.
Acts of friendship were and are among the most painful casualties of epidemics. The earliest and most gripping account of plague, given by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, describes “dejection of mind” as its greatest misery, brought on by the fracturing of friendship. Those who visited the sick knew they were inviting a death sentence on themselves. But those who had no visitors “died forlorn”.
Our generation of the plagued is more fortunate. For once, the grotesque debasement of what it means to be befriended on social media has something going for it. FaceTime, Skype, Instagram and Zoom allow comforting visits to the sick and distressed in ways denied to Thucydides’ stricken Athenians or Pepys’ Londoners walled in, as they were, behind the red cross daubed on their doors.
Since the appearance of a whole slew of books on the subject, beginning with Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice and History (read at college half a century ago), William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, it’s become a commonplace that epidemics are the great re-setters of history, more formative even than wars or revolutions. The lack of immunity of indigenous American peoples to the lethal diseases brought by European conquistadors in the 16th century was unquestionably decisive in their defeat and subjugation.
But the pandemic of 1918, horrifying as it was, did little to affect political and social alterations already made by the war. And some things remained constant before, during and after the plague, notably the starkly differing experiences of rich and poor.
A standard feature of the “Dances of Death” imagery that became popular after the arrival of the Black Death in Europe in 1348 was the indifference of the plague to rank, wealth and authority, indiscriminately mowing down popes and emperors at the height of their powers, along with peasants and beggars.
But it’s equally true that if you had the means to escape the urban hotspots of infection, you had a much better chance of survival than if you were stuck in the urban swarm. The ancestors of today’s escapees to New York summer homes were panic-stricken passengers in coaches and private carriages jamming the exits from the city when the first big wave of cholera struck in 1832.
While the epidemics differ in their origins, virulence and duration, and while the understanding of how they arise and in what form they are carried has changed dramatically over the centuries, to a remarkable degree the social danse macabre following the shock of impact has stayed much the same. It’s a square dance along a quadrilateral formed by political power, economic desperation, religious fervour and medical understanding. Each of those institutional communities does what it can to minimise the damage to their authority. But what happens when they interact is less predictable.
The first reaction of western rulers whose best-laid plans are frustrated by epidemic has been, almost invariably, to blame Asians and to adopt the blustery vocabulary of war. There is, in fact, a dramatic founding history behind this militarisation of medical crisis. In 1346, Genoese merchants and soldiers had locked themselves inside the Crimean fortress city of Caffa (now Feodosia) to defend themselves against a siege by the Mongol army of Jani Beg.
Scapegoating was always going to be a predictable response of plague-beleaguered powers
Before they could press their advantage of numbers, the besiegers were struck down by a brutal wave of bubonic plague, a contagion which had been endemic along the Silk Road for at least 20 years.
According to Gabriele de Mussi of Piacenza, who probably wrote his account two years later, “the dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster . . . ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside”. What seemed like “mountains of dead” were thrown into the city.
This was the earliest documented act of biological warfare and, according to de Mussi’s narrative, the Black Death subsequently travelled to Christian Europe through survivors of the siege. In fact, it was likelier that the Genoese carried the disease in the hold of their ships, where fleas living on the bodies of black rats were the carriers of the fatal bacillus. But the history established the notion, still current in the Trumpian branding of coronavirus as “Wuhan” or “Chinese”, that somehow the epidemic is a tool of ruthless oriental strategy.
The hitherto unknown strain of cholera that ravaged the world in the 19th century originated in British-controlled Bengal in 1817, and may have been carried west on European steam shipping. By the end of that century, however, it was not uncommon to refer to cholera as an Asiatic act of revenge for the humiliations of imperial domination.
If scapegoating was always going to be a predictable response of plague-beleaguered powers, the inevitable target of blame was the Jews. At the time of the Black Death, they were accused in some places of poisoning wells; in others it was said that they had introduced the disease out of sheer malevolence towards Christians.
The consequences, even by the standards of persecution endemic in the medieval Christian world, were horrific. From Spain to the Rhineland, in Switzerland and Bavaria, Jews were the victims of massacre and, very often, burnings alive. In Strasbourg, 2,000 were slaughtered; in Basel, 130 children were separated from their parents before 600 adults were burnt. In the single village of Tàrrega in Catalonia, virtually the entire community of 300 Jews were killed by assault or burning.
Other times, other epidemics, found other victims. Outbreaks of cholera in American cities such as Boston and New York were blamed on the immigrants, most often Irish, who of necessity were packed together in insanitary conditions. The nativist Know-Nothing movement was fired up by attacking Irish migrants as a double threat to Protestant Anglo-America; as the carriers of both popery and disease.
John Pintard, one of the founders of the New-York Historical Society, who remained in the city through the 1832 epidemic, believed the infection would of itself purify the population and act as a prophylactic against future outbreaks harming the better sort of people. “Those sickened must be cured or die off,” he wrote, “and being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch, the sooner the malady will cease.”
The pious and the powerful often, but not invariably, held up their hands in horror. Pope Clement VI forbade attacks on Jews and insisted that since they had suffered at least equally if not more seriously than Christians from the plague, why would they be responsible for their own suffering? But it suited other authorities to let popular hatred run its course along with the infection; just as the better off and the better educated were sometimes prepared to endorse the idea that immigrants were, by the very fact of their arrival and lodging in crowded quarters, tantamount to an invasion force armed with disease. Better that outsiders should be blamed.
Nonetheless, the powerful did not escape blame for the calamity. If the plague was commonly believed to be God’s punishment for the sins of egregious wealth, debauchery and overweening pride, popular preaching held the stewards of both church and state to be complicit in these transgressions. Humility and self-mortification were needed. Processions of flagellants, hundreds in number, made their way through cities including Florence, thrashing their bodies with metal-studded flails, in bloody reproof of bishops and abbots.
Painting and tomb sculpture brought the warnings of the dead into the world of the living. “Transi” tombs placed sculptures of decaying cadavers lying immediately beneath the grander likenesses of the deceased. In the Campo Santo cemetery at Pisa, Francesco Traini’s terrifying “Triumph of Death” (painted before 1348), in which grandly dressed types beheld open coffins containing corpses in various states of decomposition, took on freshly urgent meaning.
In the midst of calamity, economics was always at loggerheads with the interests of public health. Even though, until there was an understanding of germ-borne diseases, the plague was mostly attributed to “foul air” and noxious vapours said to arise from stagnant or polluted marshes, there was nonetheless a sense that the very commercial arteries that had generated prosperity were now transformed into vectors of poison.
But when quarantines were proposed or imposed (an invention of the same northern Italian towns and ports that have suffered most brutally from our own pandemic), those who stood to lose most, merchants and in some places artisans and workers, from the stoppage of markets, fairs and trade, put up stiff resistance.
Must the economy die so that it could be resurrected in robust good health? Yes, said the guardians of public health, who became part of urban life in Europe from the 15th century onwards.
When the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe appeared in Marseille in 1720, the regent, Philippe of Orleans, not renowned for his public-spiritedness, appointed one of his generals, Charles de Langeron, to take command of the emergency, put a quarter of the royal army at his disposal, established a “Council of Health” in Provence, and shut down travel and trade between the port and towns like Aix, Montpellier and Arles.
Not all of the prophylactic remedies were of much avail. Plague walls were built to prevent the entry of travellers to provincial towns such as Aix and Arles, but the disease penetrated the cities nonetheless. The crew of the ship thought to have brought the plague were confined to a lazaretto offshore, more or less guaranteeing mass mortality. And a general massacre of cats and dogs was no help at all. But de Langeron was praised for being publicly conspicuous in the hotspots, “on his horse from morning till night . . . scornful of danger, to remedy ills that seemed insurmountable”, and compared to the most virtuous consuls of antiquity.
In the long term, the idea that state and local governments should, as part of their brief, become specialised institutions for public health, which in times of pestilence would gather reliable information on the source of infection and be able to map its spread as a precondition of remedial policy, was a crucial legacy.
Which is not to say that empirical science always has its way in its toils with piety, profit and power. Even though the physician John Snow conclusively traced back the cholera infection of 1854 to those who had used a single water fountain at Broad Street in Soho, and established that the water company servicing that pump had been using dangerously tainted water from the sewage-riddled gunk of the Thames, his principal argument that the disease was conveyed in faecally polluted water took a while to be accepted.
For some time now, the cult of the individual and the hollowing out of government, the better to strip away any impediments to the optimisation of profit, has been riding high. The global trauma of the pandemic may well move things in the opposite direction, towards a greater acceptance of government intervention, a trend which can either become baleful — as it already has in the illiberal authoritarianism just instituted in Hungary — or benign, with policy, both preventive and reactive, based on the authority of knowledge.
And there is something else, evident in much of the public response in this time of profound distress, which may yet arise from the ashes of our complacency, and that is the quality most important to Adam Smith (sometimes misunderstood as the high priest of individualism), which in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he called “sympathy”.
However selfish man be supposed, he wrote, “there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others . . . That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane . . . The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”
In the pit of our common trepidation, we must hope he is right.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor
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