The side panels are from a manuscript image of the earliest known depictions of the Bubonic Plague. From 1349 the images reveal people carrying coffins of those who died of the illness in Tournai, a city in what is now Belgium. I added the center image as a continuation of the ‘Black Death’ throughout history. The center image is a young Black woman protesting in Minneapolis in response to the murder of #GeorgeFloyd. Center image courtesy: Obi Onyeader @thenewmalcom at unsplash.

“Black Death” Matters: A Modern Take on a Medieval Pandemic

(A condensed version of this essay is also available at the Historianspeaks.org blog here)

trying to understand our present day and the world that will come out of COVID-19, many people are drawing parallels between this current pandemic and the Black Death (also known as the Bubonic Plague) that began in the mid-1300s in Asia and peaked in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa from 1347 to 1351.[1] According to medical geneticist Professor Mark Achtman, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis “evolved in or near China” and transmission depended on flea vectors to carry and transmit the infectious pathogen into other living organisms. Symptoms of the disease included fever, headaches, joint pain, nausea, vomiting and general feelings of malaise, but the appearance of large buboes in the groin, neck, and armpits gave us the name Bubonic Plague. In Europe, the 14th-century plague pandemic had many names such as ‘the Great Death’, ‘the Pestilence’ or ‘Mortality’ (in Latin the epidemic was referred to as pestis or pestilential, epidemia or mortalitas). Contemporary sources didn’t specifically refer to the pandemic as the “black” death in any European language, and it wasn’t until the mid-18th century when the English began using the term “Black Death”, quite possibly mistranslating the Latin word “atra” which means both ‘terrible’ and ‘black’. By 1755, a retrospective Danish reference to the pandemic described it as “den sorte død” (literally “Black Death”).

As a literary historian, potential parallels between the Bubonic Plague and COVID-19 have been on my mind, not just to understand how the pandemic worked its way across the world but to examine our human responses. Many have reflected on the late medieval plague and come to false conclusions about how the pandemic ended “feudalism” or ushered in the glorious cultural revival of the Renaissance. These claims rely on a misunderstanding of the medieval period, its social and political structures, and the impact of the Plague. As historians, we know that — by the time the first plague-bearing fleas arrived — medieval European society had long ago started leaving behind a social model dependent both politically and economically on personal relationships and land holdings leased to serfs in exchange for their services or labor. Early capitalism had spread to Europeans long before the Bubonic Plague. The Plague did not usher in or end feudalism. Similarly, many of the masterpieces in art and architecture of the early modern period were well under way during the 13th and 14th centuries; this brings into question our understanding of time and periodization. More recently, people writing about COVID-19 have pointed to the Plague to argue that COVID-19 may marshal in a new economic model. Basing this idea on a false sense of history is problematic enough but there is also something more sinister at play: these false narratives of plague-born social change ignore that one of the biggest social changes that the Bubonic Plague did cause was a rise in racial violence.

Writing about history is not as simple as understanding the past. Antiracist activist and scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi says that as an academic and historian he doesn’t write about history to just understand the past; rather, he writes about history so people can “understand our present and to orient our future.” We can look to the past and speak about issues that draw parallels that highlight racial and social justice issues today. In my academic circles, there is prolific discussion around COVID-19 and the Bubonic Plague. The medievalist community has taken this opportunity to discuss the history of pandemics and to highlight that the Plague’s impact was more global than the usual Euro-centric focus that generally dominates discussions. In recent years, scholars of genetics, bioarchaeology, epidemiology, and medical history have begun to work more closely together to better understand the Bubonic Plague and earlier pandemics. Historian of Medicine and Health Professor Monica Green has trail-blazed a path in medieval studies with her interdisciplinary research deepening our understanding of the roots of the Plague and introducing us to ways to teach about the Bubonic Plague as humanists. All of this research is important and useful, but something absent in this discussion is the consideration of racial violence that often goes along with these pandemics.

An image from a history book written in the 1350s by French chronicler and poet Gilles li Muisis. This scene depicts residents of a town stricken by the Plague burning Jews. Image from the Royal Library of Belgium.

This is where we in the humanities, particularly literary scholars and historians, are failing. Almost as soon as it was announced [erroneously] that the Coronavirus most likely began in China, there was an immediate uptick in xenophobic and Sinophobic attacks around the globe. Similarly, Europeans in the fourteenth century sought a scapegoat for the Plague and singled out Jews, foreigners, pilgrims, Romani, lepers, and the poor as possible causes for the pandemic. Leaders such as the Czech-born Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV (1316–1368) gave anti-Semitic mobs immunity to attack Jewish communities in advance and relinquished Jewish property to local authorities after death, increasing Christians’ financial incentive to kill more Jews. One has to wonder how much we have changed given increased anti-Asian hostility, and the majority of casualties of this pandemic being working-class or low-income, many of whom are Black, Indigenous and People of Color BIPOC (see also here, here, here, here, and here).

What medievalists have at their disposal are ways to understand past human response to viruses and pandemics. Our written records provide evidence of the toll previous pandemics take on the human mind, leading to both coping mechanisms, and scapegoats. I am struck that my field either has a disconnect or a general lack of discussion between the heightened racial discrimination during COVID-19 and the targets of discrimination during the Plague of the 14th century. What is worse though is that we are largely ignoring that this crisis has laid the greatest burden at the feet of the BIPOC community. English professor and author, Kiese Laymon recently explained how Black workers, particularly in the American South, are expendable. Yes, Black and Brown bodies are both essential and expendable, and this is not just an issue in America, but one countries around the globe must contend with. As the middle and upper classes begin to protest for us all to get back to work, what they really desire is for us to get back to work to serve them. The death count across America and other countries like Great Britain, Brazil, and even Sweden illuminates how the death burden is not equal. Additionally, countries like France have doctors trying to flex their flaccid, colonial muscles on former colonized African nations, envisioning that these nations might serve the globe as guinea pigs to test possible Coronavirus vaccines.

A black man looking off to the left and wearing a face mask.
A black man looking off to the left and wearing a face mask.
Black man in a face mask. Photo by Tai’s Captures @taiscaptures, courtesy of unsplash photos

One thing I have come to realize as a historian and as a person of color is that we are truly expendable in every way. This current pandemic has ravaged the Black and Latinx communities, where numbers of deaths in both groups far outnumber any other racial group in the US and beyond. This is not because these communities have not tried to protect themselves. The virus does not make distinctions between race and class, but we do and that ends up costing lives. This pandemic has exposed the underbelly of racism, particularly, but not exclusively, in the West. What scholars in my predominantly white field have largely failed to see as humanists devoted to understanding the value and agency of humans is that this pandemic has exposed a racial crisis that the world has generally refused to acknowledge.

When we have discussed the current pandemic, medievalists have, for example, framed the narrative around patriotism or acts of love. My question is, a love of whom? Yes, we should be wearing face masks and yes, we should be following social distancing rules, but when we see this pandemic in national terms, we lose sight of the bigger, global picture. Professor Laymon has queried “what would [US] patriotism look like if people really loved and appreciated the labor and the people who have made the US what it is?” This would involve recognizing and admitting that whatever “greatness” America has achieved has been on the backs of Black men and women for its entire history as a nation. Truth is often uncomfortable. Author and political activist Arundhati Roy gives us a broader view and urges us to think with a more global lens. “When we think of America [as outsiders] and we see the death numbers, people often assume it is white people, but the death toll tells a different story. There is a hierarchy we often dismiss.” Not understanding, at its core, how capitalism is wedded to white supremacy allows a predominantly white and entitled western population to carry on with business as usual during a pandemic.

This pandemic is being white-washed. Many of Africa’s successes so far at handling the crisis have gone virtually unreported. We have taken the “pan” out of “pandemic” in our discussions, just like as medievalists, we had taken the “pan” out of pandemic-narratives about the Plague that ravaged beyond Europe in the 14th century. This is how we have white-washed history repeatedly, and this is how we have neglected to draw closer human parallels between the 14th-century Plague and Covid-19. This lack of discussion in our scholarly community reveals how much white America (and beyond) is not ready to discuss how they regard BIPOC as nothing more than dispensable commodities. As medievalists we have long preferred the white-washed Plague-narratives around social restructuring or economic transitioning with nary a thought of how marginalized communities are often scapegoats for crises. We have refused in our courses, research, and public-facing work to examine who the targets of this racial violence are. We are neglecting to confront whom the targets of these crises are now, whether it be COVID-19 or the Bubonic Plague, and we have not acknowledged the correlation between modern capitalism and white supremacy.

On the heels of the murders of #AhmaudArbery, #BreonnaTaylor, #RegisKorchinsiki-Paquet, #BellyMujinga, #TonyMcDade, #GeorgeFloyd and now #DavidMcAtee this pandemic is uncovering the ugly truths about the sickness of white supremacy and its malevolent grip on the world. While we have been trying to social distance and stay home to stay safe, Black people and their allies have taken to the streets in America, risking their lives not just for racial justice but to shed light on how they are necessary but unappreciated tools of capitalism. The tremors have reverberated and marches are being held on the ground around the globe with additional support flooding social media. While critics decry looting and destroyed property, they willingly refuse to name and acknowledge the Black men and women being murdered in cold blood with the world as witness. These uprisings are purposeful. For hundreds of years, it has been made apparent that Black lives did not matter in society. Now we are willing to protest amidst a pandemic because we cannot run. We cannot bird-watch. We cannot drive. We cannot sit. We cannot sleep. We cannot breathe. While the Plague of the 14th century may not have been a Black Death in a literal sense, we must face the horrendous truth that COVID-19 most certainly is one.

A black hand holds up a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter!”
A black hand holds up a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter!”
Black Lives Matter poster held up by a protester. Photo by Maria Oswalt @mcoswalt courtesy of unsplash photos

*My thanks to Dr. Erik Wade for his feedback on this post. Additional thanks to Dr. Stephen Hall for allowing me to post an abbreviated version of this on www.historianspeaks.org’s blog.

[1] This particular pandemic resurfaced with subsequent outbreaks in 1360–1363; 1374; 1400; 1438–1439; 1456–1457; 1464–1466; 1481–1485; 1500–1503; 1518–1531; 1544–1548; 1563–1566; 1573–1588; 1596–1599; 1602–1611; 1623–1640; 1644–1654; and 1664–1667. It not only ravaged Europe but the Middle East and Northern Africa as well.

Literary Historian. Palaeographer. Antiracist Activist. Dual Citizen. WoC. Resident of the 5th Circle of Hell. Lover of 80s cartoons. Twitter: @isasaxonists

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