Times of Plague
As I have been writing about past and present epidemics I have noticed that I repeatedly use the phrase “times of plague.” In one sense, this choice is minor, a reflexive translation from the Italian expression tempi di peste, often found in my primary sources. But I have begun to wonder if this phrase itself contains an important lesson that historians can offer during this extended pandemic moment: the importance of understanding individual events within long timescales.
In medieval and early modern Europe, outbreaks of plague predictably triggered economic catastrophes. Public health measures, such as maintaining hospitals or quarantine houses, entailed huge expenses. Quarantines— as we have recently relearned first-hand— halted commerce and travel, leading to the local collapse of entire industries. There were also huge profit losses when trade goods from infected regions were burned. We know now that textiles themselves did not spread plague, but the fleas and rats traveling with these goods certainly did. Some cities, like Venice, were unable to provide sufficient food for their populations without trade, and quarantines led to mass starvation in addition to deaths from disease. A tragic account of Venice’s 1576 plague by the poet Borgaruccio Borgarucci claimed that as many people died of hunger in that year as from disease. The death totals for Venice in 1576-77 were greater than 50,000—a third of the city’s total population. As always, the working class and poor suffered the economic consequences of disease most severely.
Some economic historians have pointed out that the portion of European society that survived the Black Death did end up enjoying an improved standard of living. Wages increased, as did social mobility. However, we also know that whole towns disappeared after the Black Death, and new research has shown that the ecology along the Nile Delta was fundamentally altered when the plague killed vast numbers of the agricultural laborers who had maintained the region’s irrigation systems for millennia.
These changes were epochal. Over the course of centuries the Mediterranean world had to adjust to new patterns of life, travel, and commerce, which in some areas included small outbreaks of plague every few years and devastating epidemics every few decades. In our current era of global transit and ever-increasing population, it seems likely that regular outbreaks of new diseases will become a feature of our human experience. As in the past, we know that this current crisis will take a disproportionate toll on the health and economic standing of the poor, the marginalized, the disabled, and the elderly members of our communities. Clearly, it already has.
As a historian, it strikes me that through this pandemic, the world is entering a new era. We are living in a moment of rapid transition framed by a global crisis, and we need to bring the historian’s sense of time—decades or even centuries, not days— to the decisions we make now for our collective future. This moment of transition is an opportunity to face the past and the future. We are living in a time of plague. And COVID-19 has shown us categorically that we no longer have the luxury of indulging in thinking about our political and economic systems solely in the short term.
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Marcus, Hannah, "Times of Plague" (2020). Plagues, Pandemics, and Pedagogy Roundtable. 1.