Epidemics mess things up for historians, because suddenly people stop being the agent of history. Such is the claim put forward by global historian William H. McNeill in his 1976 ground-breaking work “Plagues and Peoples,” on the influence of plagues on human history.
According to McNeill, human history proceeds along paths of balance and imbalance between microorganisms (like bacteria) and macro-organisms (human beings).
Hundreds of years earlier, the Mongol invasion linked the West with the East and created the epidemiological backdrop for the Black Death. According to McNeill, the population of the Roman Empire – precisely because it was so enormous – suffered from imported viruses that ultimately led to the downfall of the empire in the West and to the ascendance of a new religion, Christianity, which offered an all-encompassing explanation and a chance to find personal comfort in the face of the arbitrariness of disease.
Nowadays we are proud of scientific and medical achievements that come up with new vaccines all the time. Few ever consider that it is actually modern imperialism’s desire for conquest that is, to a great degree, responsible for progress in medical research.
In the 19th century, when it became clear to the white man that huge swaths of Africa were off-limits to him because of diseases to which he was not immune (the American lesson had been learned), huge sums were invested in developing drugs. The project was successful. The development of medicines that we all benefit from proceeded apace – along with the brutal conquest of the Dark Continent.
Sometimes it also worked the other way: The black slaves in Haiti succeeded in their rebellion against France because Napoleon was fearful of yellow fever, which black people were immune to, while white people were not. There are those that argue that such concerns were the reason that in 1803, France agreed to sell the territory of Louisiana to the United States, which doubled the size of the young republic.
Diseases like cholera and tuberculosis were generally transmitted through channels of poverty and want. There is a direct link between socioeconomic circumstances and the spread of epidemics, which is why there is a persistent concern about their spread in Africa, which is relatively weak.
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The understanding that there’s such a thing called “bacteria” (we forget how relatively recent that knowledge is), whose dissemination is expedited by conditions of poverty and filth, led to tuberculosis being identified with poverty. That added a touch of shame to the disease, as if the sick were to blame for contracting it.
When tuberculosis reached the upper social classes during the 18th century, it acquired an aura of romanticism that combined blood, love and death. But Europe’s poor could only dream of the expensive sanitariums that are described in literature.
Today, with globalization, the coronavirus epidemic is hitting everyone and we haven’t yet developed an approach to comprehending it, other than to recognize our need for mutual responsibility in society.
An epidemic can shake up society and its values to the core. During the Black Plague period in Europe (1347-51), between one-third and one-half of the inhabitants of the Continent perished. But the demographic drop also led to a decrease in the price of land, to a rise in the value of individual farmers, to the disappearance of tenant farming, to improvement in the standard of living and to the development of technologies that reduced the need for manpower.
The plague also had environmental ramifications. Europe was nearly bare of forests and uncultivated land in the year 1200, but after the mid-14th century, nature recovered and resumed control in many regions. Only when the European population began to recover and grow did oppression and exploitation of the masses make a serious comeback. Nevertheless, new ideas emerged and economic conditions changed. There are even those who argue that if the Black Plague hadn’t occurred, we wouldn’t have experienced the Renaissance.
Skeletons and mortals
During an epidemic, culture and religion also suffer upheavals. In the 1957 film “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergman, the Scandinavian knight who has returned from a Crusade plays chess with Death, who is harvesting the dead from the Black Plague with his scythe. The tone in literature and art waxes morbid and the danse macabre (with which “The Seventh Seal” ends), where skeletons dance with mortals, was a common motif.
Fear and suspicion create a need to find culprits, and sometimes they were the Jews – the enemies of civilization, who were accused of poisoning the wells during the Black Plague. In Strasbourg, for example, 2,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities were wiped out.
In today’s situation, it probably won’t be too long before we hear one rabbi or another blame it on “the people” who don’t observe their religion properly, or before various and sundry apocalyptic explanations are put forward for the coronavirus.
The biggest concern during such an epidemic is of social and moral disintegration. The Athenian historian Thucydides himself took ill during a raging epidemic in Athens, when the entire population was concentrated in that city during the war against Sparta (431 B.C.E.).
Thucydides lived in the era of Hippocratic medicine, which stressed the value of observation and an accurate description of reality. It would be worthwhile to read his description in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” (Book 2, 48-53), but I will quote only from its end, which describes the “lawless extravagance” that originated in the plague:
“Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches alike as things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful.
“Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.”
Irad Malkin is professor emeritus of ancient Greek history at Tel Aviv University, and a visiting professor at Oxford University. He is the laureate of the 2014 Israel Prize for History.