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

M. Rambaran-Olm

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

In 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…

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M. Rambaran-Olm

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