As we await a new contagion, the legacy of the Black Death is worth remembering

As we await a new contagion, the legacy of the Black Death is worth remembering, by Ed West.

As the year went on, dark stories of contagion grew more common and more terrifying: it was heard that Marseilles and then Paris were overrun by the deadly disease. There was no doubt that London’s time would come, and so on June 23, Saint John’s Eve — a traditional midsummer festival where young women might flirt and dance with men before settling down to a backbreaking life of repeated, dangerous pregnancies — a ship turned up in Melcombe in Dorset, most likely from Calais. On board were rats infected with Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague-carrying bacterium. By the time the illness had burned out, between a third and half of England’s people were dead.

There had never been a terror like it, and the “Great Mortality” as it was known — and much later, the “Black Death” — has seared itself in the European imagination. …

Epidemics have been around as long as civilization. Plaga — from the Greek for ‘strike’ or ‘hit’ — devastated classical Athens in the 5th century BC, when the historian Thucydides nursed sufferers; the Antonine Plague — probably smallpox or measles — killed as many as five million Romans at the empire’s peak. Far more deadly was the Plague of Justinian in the sixth century, which had a toll of 25 million and emptied whole regions of the eastern (Byzantine) Empire. Only in the 21st century did researchers confirm that this was the same illness that would appear eight centuries later — the Bubonic Plague.

Empires were particularly affected by these horrific epidemics, because empires are a form of globalisation — bringing different people into contact with each other and, more dangerously, into contact with other mammals, who act as disease vectors. …

The first sign of the dreaded illness was bad breath. Sufferers would then feel lightheaded and nauseous, before experiencing pain in the groin and the terrifying appearance of the bubos, a lump the size of an apple, either on the neck, groin or armpit. By this stage, the victim would be vomiting blood; six in ten of those infected died. …

Now in late 1348 the illness spread across England, averaging a mile a day, and the death rates were apocalyptic in parts: 80% were killed in Jarrow in County Durham. At one point, 200 a day were dying in London, a toll proportionately equivalent to 20,000 a day today. …

Almost everywhere in Europe suffered death rates of between one-third and a half, although pockets of Bohemia and Poland escaped; Italy perhaps suffered the worst, with up to 60% dead. Venice lost as many as three-quarters.

In contrast, Milan perhaps had higher survival rates, because its rulers, the ruthless Visconti family, ordered that any house where the plague was identified be boarded up and its inhabitants left to starve. In a later outbreak the city of Dubrovnik, now in Croatia, initiated the rule that all ships stay anchored for 40 days — quaranta — a sensible measure that appreciated the potential length of incubation periods. …

Plague returned from time to time but eventually died out in Europe, the Marseilles outbreak of 1722 being the last. Most likely the pestilence-carrying black rat was driven out by its cousin the brown rat. …

There have been other pandemics, the worst of all being smallpox, which has killed hundreds of millions. Even in the 20th century, it cost far more lives than all wars combined. There is also influenza — first named in the 14th century but only really a problem since the 16th — which has produced various deadly strains. …

Most recently the Spanish Flu of 1919 killed as many as 100 million. Yet like the previous strain, it barely made any impact on the public consciousness, perhaps because it followed such a traumatic war.

Only the Black Death seared itself into the public consciousness, partly because of the social impact it had. In Paris a chronicler recorded that “those who were left drank, fornicated or skulked in the cellars according to their inclinations”. In Florence people were terrorised by the becchini, grave diggers whose motto was “Those who live in fear die” and drank and stole with abandon. In Venice criminals roamed the street because their jailors were all dead; everywhere crime increased, as did pregnancies. …

The disease had broken down normal restraints and barriers, and had even led to a breakdown in authority where the aristocracy had fled. By being able to leave cities, aristocrats had much lower death rates, one-quarter dying compared to half of peasants. And so an English ploughman’s wage went up from 2 shillings to 10 shillings by 1350, when craftsmen’s real incomes were three times what they were in 1300.

Coronavirus is obviously not going to be as bad as the black death, but nor is it as mild as influenza.

Modern politics:

It may spark more irritation with the sort of complacent, high-status, FT-reading brahmins who comprise our modern clergy, the sort of people who like to explain how the world is divided into open vs. closed — because they’re the least vulnerable to open systems.

Their complacency on this issue arguably echoes their complacency about globalism generally, and an inability to see what really matters. From the time the virus first emerged, we’ve heard the same sort of platitudes we’re told about everything else: how the biggest danger facing us is ‘prejudice’ — not the actual fatal disease — and that the coronavirus “knows no borders”.

By contrast, those on the outside Right have noted how open societies seem especially vulnerable to a disease of globalisation, and the political alignment of a worldwide pandemic becomes obvious. …

There is a theory that xenophobia is an evolutionary response to pathogens, since strangers are more likely to carry diseases that the in-group has no immunity to, and that’s why conservatives respond more strongly to disgust and value purity and cleanliness.

If the disease spreads, due to a failure to take measures quickly enough, then it will only increase people’s problem with globalisation.

Alternatively, the lesson might be, as with aircraft safety, that well-co-ordinated international groups of experts are pretty effective at dealing with major problems, and should therefore be given more power.

Close the borders, Mr Morrison. The ship responsible for bringing in the plague to England in 1349 is still  remembered seven centuries later. Will that be your legacy Mr Morrison, the leader who should have stopped the coronavirus in Australia but was too complacent?

Reminder from Nassim Taleeb:

When paranoid, you can be wrong 1000 times & you will survive. If non-paranoid; wrong once, and you, your genes, & the rest of your group are done. …

My VC & Wall St trader friends are prepping like mad.

My friends who work for bureaucracies just sort of shrug, waiting for someone else to tell them what to do.

hat-tip Stephen Neil