Chaos and Order in Times of Plague


Chaos and Order in Times of Plague



Historians are obviously interested in epidemics and pandemics. As disruptions to societies’ ordinary processes, episodes of mass illness and other natural, or human, disasters offer the chance to test the stability and weaknesses of communities, organizations and institutions. For much of the last few generations of historiography, historical focus has been on “collapsology,” to borrow a term from Lee Mordechai and Merle Eisenberg. In their recent piece in Past and Present they note that academic consensus around the Justinianic plagues is driven by interest in the momentous and catastrophic, paralleling a broader cultural moment in which disaster and apocalypticism loom large in film and fiction. The result, not just for the Justinianic plagues but for the early modern bubonic plagues and smallpox, is a wide knowledge of their disordering and destructive impact and assumptions that these were momentous events in the history of societies. Indeed, I made the 1630-31 outbreak of bubonic plague the central character in my recent book about a rise in homicide rates in north Italy in the seventeenth century.

That a plague disrupts and incurs major shifts is doubtless true. Ruth Mackay has also pointed out recently that plague was part and parcel of early modern life, and that societies expected it, had practiced protocols for it, and didn’t dwell on it overly in their collective memories. Despite mounting death tolls, mass starvation and a breakdown of commercial and communication networks, life went on. Taxes still needed collecting, even if at reduced rates; walls needed to be maintained; people needed to be fed; families needed comfort and the dead needed burying. Even as the world turned upside down people worked hard to stay on their feet.

It’s easy to read historical parallels between past outbreaks of disease and their reverberations, and our modern pandemic and its effects on our lives. That’s not necessarily a bad path to follow. We are historians in order to understand the present through the past. But, in many ways, in our understanding of both past and present we see what we seek. If we generally understand our world to be well-ordered, stable, and just, we will see stabilizing elements at work during unstable moments. If we see chaos lurking beneath superficial order, we will watch its eruptions with fear and uncertainty. Both these perspectives may be defensible. It is, perhaps, in the eye, mind and heart of the beholder.

I think what is true is that pandemics emphasize the general conditions of a society and lay bare their strengths and deficiencies. The historian’s gaze can only shape the object to a certain extent. Comparing the COVID-19 experiences of, say, Germany and the United States demonstrates fundamental differences in the social and political cultures in those places. Places where collectivism is the basis of political culture have, broadly, been more successful at “flattening the curve” than areas where individualism reigns. In pandemic times, we see the best and worst of societies in sharper focus than we normally would. Chaos and order clammer for our attention, and where we bestow it reveals much about our own perspectives and priorities as historians.

Presentation Date

Fall 11-13-2020




plague, COVID-19, bubonic plague, Early Modern Spatial Humanities


European History | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Medieval History | Medieval Studies | Renaissance Studies

Chaos and Order in Times of Plague