Going Medieval: Historical Comparisons of Plague and Pandemic

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a great number of comparisons made between this and other outbreaks. Sometimes, the 1918 flu gets top billing, other times is is cholera or typhus. But the benchmark for plague, in history and in popular imagination, still tends to be the Black Death, particularly the outbreaks in the 14th century. Today, Editor Brandy Schillace speaks to historian Dr. Eleanor Janega about whether these comparisons really work–and what history can teach us.


Dr Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian specialising in sexuality, propaganda, and apocalypticism in the medieval period generally and Central Europe in particular. She teaches at the London School of Economics, blogs at www.going-medieval.com, and tweets at @GoingMedieval. Her first book for general audiences: The Middle Ages: A Graphic History is out next spring and available for pre-order now.


BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello and welcome back to the Medical Humanities podcast. I’m Brandy Schillace, Editor-in-Chief. And today I have with me Dr. Eleanor Janega, who’s a medieval historian who specializes in sexuality, propaganda, and apocalypticism.


SCHILLACE: Eleanor, can you tell us a little bit more about apocalypticism?

JANEGA: OK! So, one of the things that when one will insist on being a medieval historian, right. And I am a Europeanist. And so, that means that I spend a lot of time thinking about Christians and what we would call Catholics now more specifically. And the thing about medieval Europeans and their obsession with Christianity is that they really believe it all the way. The way that we tend to think about Christianity now is a lot more kind of pick and choose, like a buffet style. So, people kind of like take a little belief they like or another one. For medieval Europeans, they’re really kind of living steeped in a Christian environment. And one of the things that people kind of forget about Christianity is it’s what we call a linear religion, right? So, it posits that the universe has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And one of the things that it’s actually really big on, if you sit down and read the Bible, is the idea that the world is going to end at any moment. So, it’s going to be the end of the universe at any point in time now. Because the middle was when Jesus came, and we’re supposed to be expecting Jesus to come back at any moment now.


JANEGA: So, as a result of this, medieval people spent a lot of their time just kind of looking out for signs that that is, in fact, coming. So, they see apocalypticism in all sorts of different events. And also—you know, I’m kind of more of an expert in the later medieval period in particular—when you’ve got stuff like, for example, the Black Death around, it could be really easy to understand why you would think that maybe the world was gonna end, you know?

SCHILLACE: Right, exactly.

JANEGA: [laughs]

SCHILLACE: And I’ve done some research on, I’m a medical historian myself, and so I’ve done some research on the Black Death. And I’ve been interested to see just how much of that era has suddenly cropped up in the age of COVID.

JANEGA: Mmhmm.

SCHILLACE: Even though the plagues are not necessarily comparable and the time periods are certainly not comparable, there’s certain connections that people are making.

JANEGA: Mmhmm.

SCHILLACE: And certainly right now from the right, I think more so than the left, there is a kind of strange Apocalypse Now, we’re heading to the end times rhetoric that I’ve seen. And I just was hoping you might be able to share with us a little bit from your own research. Are these time periods comparable? Are we seeing some of the same kinds of things?

JANEGA: I mean, the thing about history is that if you’re looking for patterns, they always kind of emerge, don’t, they?! And it’s one of those funny things, because obviously, the pandemic that we’re living through now is nowhere near as virulent as the Black Death was. When I say the Black Death here, to be clear, what we mean by that is the bubonic plague that erupted specifically in the 14th century. So, we think that we had it before, for example, in the Justinian plague that hits kind of Byzantium in the late 19th period. And it crops up. It comes back again and again and again. So, the 17th-century plague, which is like the one where we have all the great records for London and that sort of a thing, all of that is bubonic plague. But it’s not the Black Death. The Black Death is only the one that happens in the 14th century.

SCHILLACE: Right, okay.

JANEGA: So, and with that, that’s like one of the really big virulent outbreaks, if not the first. And it kills so many people worldwide. I mean, essentially on the continent of Eurasia and Northern Africa as well, we see as much as kind of like we think overall, in terms of worldwide population, a quarter of everybody died. In various places in Europe, that is 50 percent of the population died.


JANEGA: So, interestingly, it varies place to place. So, for example, one of my areas of specialty, like I work very specifically and am an expert on Prague. And in Prague, they didn’t really get the plague at all. It’s really weird. [laughs] I don’t know why, but they kind of like had come through a lot of the 14th century unscathed by it. But then you compare and contrast that with places, for example, like Florence, who have up to 60 percent of the population die.


JANEGA: And so, that’s how you get the kind of 25 percent. So, in places where it does hit, it hits so hard that you can really understand why people would be like, “Well, I guess this is it. This is the end of the world.”


JANEGA: What we’re kind of seeing now, and what’s interesting and what I do think is quite medieval in its thinking, is this sort of like almost desire on the part of certain individuals to say, “Okay. Well, this is it. This is the apocalypse. These are signs of the end times,” and a kind of like almost accelerationist desire there.

SCHILLACE: Mmhmm, mmhmm.

JANEGA: Because you can see that with people who kind of preach apocalypticism or think about the apocalypse in the medieval period. Sometimes you kind of get the feeling that they’re licking their lips, right? They’re saying, “Oh yeah, I don’t want Antichrist to come. It would be bad if it’s the end of the world. We wouldn’t like any of that.” But at the same time, it’s like you can tell that they really see themselves as the elect who are going to go to heaven. And to be fair, if you are a Christian and you really do think you are doing the right thing, the end of the world isn’t necessarily a bad thing for you.


JANEGA: And unfortunately, especially in America and things like that, some strands and flavors of evangelicalism, they state that. So, for example, one of the reasons why— And this is a stated things. So, Mike Pence is specifically interested in the American support for Israel because there’s an apocalyptic thing behind that. Which is that the Antichrist, when he comes back, is going to rule in Jerusalem. He’s going to fool all the Jewish people into thinking that he is the Christ. They’re all going to follow him. It’s all nice and anti-Semitic.

SCHILLACE: [chuckling] Right!

JANEGA: And then he’s going to be defeated by quote-unquote “the spirit of Christ’s mouth.” And then the Antichrist will be defeated. All of the Jewish people will convert to Christianity, and then the final judgment will take place. And Mike Pence says that. He’s like, we have to make sure that we support this project because of the apocalypse. So, when you have people like this in control of the government, it’s really hard not to see that, if they’re saying it’s true. [chuckles]

SCHILLACE: Right, right. Well, exactly. And I think you make a good point that if you are looking forward to the—it’s really not that you’re necessarily looking forward, that they’re looking forward, to the tragedies of the end times—but they have this beyond tragedy, beyond 10 times focus that we’re all going to heaven, etc. But what I wanna talk about, too, and this goes back to some of your work on the Black Death, is there was a kind of odd laissez faire attitude towards death that emerges out of this. Because it was sort of a eat and drink, because tomorrow we die. The dance macabre.

And I know that we’ve talked about this before and that you certainly have kind of some views on this. And I just wonder if we can say something about the strange heroism of, or I don’t know if heroism is even the right word, but this elevating that I am standing, intentionally walking into the apocalypse on purpose.

JANEGA: Yeah. So, for me, there’s a couple things going on there. There’s this kind of like attitude where it’s just like there’s nothing that can be done. There’s this disease going on, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to enjoy myself regardless. And we certainly see that, for example, in America, if we think about like the Sturgis rally, for example. Where it’s like, oh, well. There’s just a bunch of playground anyway. No one’s going to stop me from riding my Harley to Sturgis, you know.


JANEGA: And a part and parcel of that, I think, as well, is this kind of reference to masculinity that is very similar to the sort of medieval conception thereof. And this idea that, in order to be concerned about your health or to worry about one’s health is inherently feminine and weak. And that if you are truly strong, if you’re truly masculine, then nothing like a little disease is going to kill you. So, there’s absolutely no point in in doing anything about it, right?

And so, from a medieval standpoint, we do know that this is a specific thing about masculinity, right? So, for basic humoral theory, the idea is that men are hot and dry versus women who are cold and wet. And there is this conception that disease is, in general, about your body perhaps becoming too cold, or it’s got basically some malign humors that are coming in. Now, because men have a hotter constitution, the idea there is that their constitution will simply burn up these things that are attacking them. So, if you have something go wrong in your immune system, the heat from being a man just burns it up. And you’ll be fine. It’ll be OK. And it’s just women or insufficiently masculine men that therefore suffer from disease. And indeed, that’s also a part of the idea that older people are more susceptible to disease, because the older we get, it’s conceptualized, the colder we get as well. So, we become cold people in the later age, and we can’t burn off diseases. And that’s why we die.

So, I think that we do really see things. You know, there were multiple people relating to, for example, when Donald Trump got COVID being like, oh, well, he’s just so masculine. You know, he’s a real man, so he’ll just come through it. The implication here being that the only people who die of a disease are not real men. [chuckles] You know, they’re fake men somehow. And that just bravado or the very performance of masculinity is something that shields you from the malign effects of disease. So, on the one hand, we have that. It’s just like, oh, well, I’m simply so manly that I will come through a really hideous disease, and it won’t actually affect me or influence me in any way. So, that’s on one hand.

And then on the other hand, you do also see kind of people, I think, where there is a little bit of fatalism. So, for example, telling people, certain government here, I’m in the UK, certain governments kind of saying, well, you can go out to work, but that’s it. You can’t go have fun, or you can’t see your loved ones or any things like that. Kind of like the pushback against that is sort of like the Dance Macabre stuff where it’s like, oh, no. Well, if there’s going to be no joy, if my life is going to be completely governed by the idea that I’m just going to work or whatever, I choose not to do that. I choose to do these fun things, although it might result in my death. But to a certain extent there, there’s just a kind of fatalism. And that’s really disappointing because from a medieval standpoint, yeah, they didn’t know what the Black Death was, right?


JANEGA: Which is fair enough because it’s a bug called Yersinia pestis, and why would they know that? They knew it’s catching. They had the concept of contagion. So, they were like, well, we’re pretty sure you get it from being by other people who are sick, but we don’t know where it came from in the first place. And we also don’t know what to do to stop it. So, it’s sort of fair enough in those circumstances to understand why people might be interested in partying and just saying, well, never mind. I’m going to go have the best life possible. But now, when we do know specifically how communicable a disease is, people who kind of choose to be a little less rigorous, shall we say, are a little less understandable. Although we’re all trying to do our best in a really difficult circumstance. So, I do give people the benefit of the doubt there.

SCHILLACE: Right, right. Well, I just, I think one of the things that is interesting to me is how we very often look back in history for methods, models, even comfort to know how we’ve come through something in the past. And a lot of people have relied on, for instance, comparing it to the flu epidemic that hit in 1918.

JANEGA: Mmhmm.

SCHILLACE: Others have compared it to the various cholera outbreaks. There were six big ones in the Victorian period, and many, many people died. And the deaths were actually quite sudden. What I think is interesting here is that we are faced with a pandemic that does not actually immediately kill you.


SCHILLACE: And in fact, you can have it without producing symptoms that are apparent. And so, you end up with a situation where apparently, Donald Trump didn’t have a condition that, his didn’t deteriorate into such a degree that he needed to be extensively, hospitalized, etc.


SCHILLACE: And yet, you have perfectly healthy young people who are either dying from COVID or having some of the strange permutations where, for instance, I have a colleague who died of a heart condition related to having contracted COVID, though never having heart problems before. So, it seems to be striking people in such a disproportionate way. And I think sometimes we look back and we go, “Oh, so it’s like the pandemic flu. Oh, it’s like cholera.” But in fact, maybe there is a reason to compare it a little bit more to the bubonic plague. Because as I understand, during the Black Death, wasn’t there actually different sort of permutations? Wasn’t there one that was kind of the bubo and the other was sort of airborne?

JANEGA: Yeah. So, I mean, what we tend to say when we look at the descriptions that people have of the plague is sometimes, we kind of divide it into two permutations. So, the pneumonic plague on the one hand and the bubonic on the other. And the pneumonic plague, when people describe it, they kind of say that, well, what it does is it attacks your lungs really quickly. Your breathing becomes really difficult, and then you’re basically dead within four days or so. The bubonic plague, they say, is related to that. And sometimes they’re comorbid; you can have the symptoms of both. And the bubonic one, the one that we’re commonly thinking of, is the one with, your bog-standard black death. So, basically, your lymph nodes swell up really huge, and they turn slightly black, I understand. And they kill you in a very slow and painful way. And so, it’s interesting because there is like the way they speak about it or think about it, it seems like it might be two things.

And there is a kind of vogue. Some people like to go back in time and try to diagnose what this is. And sometimes, for example, I’ve seen people say, “Oh, well, actually, it was anthrax. That’s what the pneumonic plague is,” and all these things. And I mean, I’m not, of course, I’m but a simple historian. I’m not someone who works with pathogens. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily important. [laughing] I think the important thing is that something came through here and killed a lot of people!


JANEGA: That’s what I’m concerned about, is not necessarily what did it. But I think that you’re absolutely right. Because one of the things that’s going on here is that you do either see this really lingering, slow, terrible thing that happens, that kills people, and in the case of bubonic plague, which is more like what we’re seeing.

I mean, I think one of our other things in terms of people really looking for other diseases to kind of liken this to, they’re kind of casting about trying to look at other pandemics to see what this is like, is there’s this sort of desire for comfort, right? And that I would almost say is a kind of survivor’s bias, right? Because by virtue of all of us being here, the people that we were related to directly made it through, right? [laughs]

SCHILLACE: Right. Of course, yes.

JANEGA: So, somewhere along the way, somebody made it through. But that’s also kind of like throwing a lot of people under the bus who did die and for whom it was very serious. But what people want is they want some hope to say, OK, well, there’s been worse things than this, and people do come through it. But you know, it also…. And that’s true. That’s absolutely true. But the fact of the matter is, not all of us make it through into the future. And I’m really unwilling to kind of take that particular tack or rely on things in that particular way. Because, I mean, it’s saying that I accept that there’s going to be this certain percentage of loss, and this is the thing that I find acceptable. And I just don’t find any of it acceptable, you know? [chuckles]

SCHILLACE: Right, right.

JANEGA:  I’m kind of like team the Hippocratic Oath! Like we need to save the most people as we possibly can here. I don’t want to just throw up my hands and say, “Oh. Well, there’s nothing that can be done. Oh, look at all these other pandemics that have come through,” you know? And I think that when we look at things like the cholera epidemics, so, for example, like the cholera epidemic here in London. When those broke out, and John Snow eventually traced it all down and we did something about the water, it’s not like, oh, well. Screw it. Eventually it all became fine in the end. It became fine in the end because we did something, you know.


JANEGA: There were interventions and people really trying to fix it. So, I think that it’s not helpful to immediately reach to the past for lessons if all you want to do is be positive. Like if the only thing that you want out of this is to hear, “Oh, well, don’t worry. It’ll be all right. It was bad for other people, but it’ll be OK for you,” I don’t think the past is the place to do that because, yeah, sure, it was all right for some people, but there’s a lot of people for whom it really wasn’t, you know?

SCHILLACE: Right. It reminds me a bit of the bumper stickers that went around for a while where people said, “We survived eight years of Bush. You can survive eight years of Obama.” And one of my friends who is a researcher and also a previous military person was like, “Some of my friends didn’t survive eight years of that administration because of the wars that were fought and the various military deployments that happened.” And so, there is a way in which a bumper sticker that I casually were like, oh, that’s clever. It’s not clever. In fact, it’s overlooking the fact that administrative changes and policy changes and whether we do or do not choose to act to save lives is not something that is really bumper sticker-able, you know.


SCHILLACE: It’s actually really important. And if we overlook it in that way, it can be very dangerous. So, let me ask, because we’re sort of closing in on our time, let me ask you. I know, because we’re both historians, we’re going to tend to think historians have a role to play. But what does history help us do as a populace as we face these situations?

JANEGA: So, I mean, on the one hand, I was just like, well, don’t go rushing to learn lessons from the past in these ways. But I think that there are things that we can learn. And some actually really great things sort of come out of terrible things of the past, and a lot of them have to do with kind of communities getting together to do the right thing and help each other out. So, I would be shocked, for example, if you went back in time to the medieval period and you explain to them exactly what bubonic plague was and what they had to do in order to fight it, they would all be like, “Great. Thank you. [laughs] I’ll take that. I would like to do that. Yes, please. I would like to solve this thing that’s killing everyone.” And I think we certainly see that, for example, there is stuff like the king of France. When the bubonic plague first breaks out, he commissions, for example, the Paris medical faculty at the University of Paris to explain how this happened. They come back to him with a very complicated thing about astronomy and how conjunctions of certain planets have released a poisonous vapor that’s poisoning everyone.

But what we do see there is that there is, even in the medieval period when we’re talking about a king, there is this kind of interest in explaining what is going on for his people, explaining how it is that this came to be and what can be done. He’s still interested enough to say, “Well, what is happening here, and can I do anything in order to alleviate this or ameliorate this?” And so, I mean, I think that that is really helpful and hopeful, because even in these circumstances where it’s a profoundly unequal society there, there’s still people who are just trying to do the right thing.

We can also look at places like here—this is not the bubonic plague. This is just your regular garden variety plague—but here in England, there is this nice example from the 17th century plague of the town of Eyam up in Derbyshire. And they basically ended up getting, I think, a shipment of wool up from London that had fleas in it with plague, and they got plague. And what they decided to do was close in their town completely, so a kind of nobody in, nobody out situation. And they bargained with some people to come drop provisions and food off from them out on the town limits, and they would go pick them up. And basically said, “Well, as a community, this is the thing we’re going to band together. We’re going to make sure that nobody else gets this. We’ll take care of each other as best we can in this situation. But we’re going to make sure that this stops here and stops with us.” And I think that’s a brilliant and wonderful lesson for us is, you know, there’s all these ways of, I mean, that’s a particularly bleak [laughs] example. But a lot of people did come through, and a lot of people did survive that. But what it does show us is the kind of value of community organizing and working together within these circumstances to get through things.

I also really want to push back on ideas like, one of the quite twee things that people say it’s like, “Oh, well, after the Black Death happened, the Renaissance happened.” [laughs] And I really hate that when I see people say that. Because I know that what they’re trying to say is like, oh, there are hopeful things after the Black Death. But I mean, “the Renaissance” quote-unquote happens like 200 years [laughing] after the Black Death.

SCHILLACE: Right. It’s not an immediate consequence.

JANEGA: It’s not like one of these, you know, no one who had to put up with the Black Death was quote-unquote “enjoying the Renaissance.” And moreover, the Renaissance is largely just an art movement that happened to rich people. Your average person didn’t really enjoy anything.

SCHILLACE: And isn’t that a lesson from history as well, which is what we want to come back from COVID, once we have the vaccines and we’ve managed however long it takes to push back the pandemic, what we don’t want is a world that’s just better for 2 or 3 percent of the population. And we’ve had several interviews previously of disability activists like Alice Wong, who has said things that I think are quite important, that the norm before the plague was not good for most people.


SCHILLACE: And what we really want is to build back a society that isn’t just going to be better for a select few who can afford it or who are in other ways privileged either by birth or location, etc., economics to take advantage of these things. And so, I think that that’s another lesson perhaps that historians can, that we can make sure that we’re bringing to the fore is not just to look at, yes, this has happened before. Yes, we’ve been able to survive such things. But also to say what kind of a world do we actually want to have? Because it’s a little bit hard to get where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

JANEGA: Mmhmm.

SCHILLACE: So, I think that that might be the one real key thing about historical overviews, looking comparatively, looking comparatively between the current situation and our past situations, is to see that we can do better. We can do better.

JANEGA: Absolutely.

SCHILLACE: And historians can kind of help us see that.

Thank you so much for being with us today. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with as we sign off for the podcast?

JANEGA: Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. I just want to big up the concept of medieval history generally. If you are interested in more of my takes on things like this, I write really extensively over at my blog, which is going-medieval.com. And I’m also on Twitter at @GoingMedieval. But basically, I do the same sort of thing that Brandy and I were just doing here, where I think about the kind of overlap between medieval history and our current society and what that can teach us. So, if you’re interested in that, come check my stuff out. I’d really appreciate it.

SCHILLACE: Wonderful. Thanks again, Eleanor. And to all of our listeners, thank you for joining in. Don’t forget that we provide transcripts of our blog posts, I’m sorry, transcripts of our podcast that will appear in our blog posts. And we’re really happy, as always, to have you be part of our conversation.



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