Seeing current contagion mitigation approach might give ancestors déjà vu, history professor says

The people of Norwich slowly filed in to White Chapel and took seats in the pews, keeping a careful and somewhat suspicious distance from one another. They had difficult decisions to make regarding the pestilence that was spreading rapidly through other towns and may have already arrived in Norwich.

Nobody was entirely sure what — or who — was causing the sickness. Was it miasma, the bad-smelling rotten vapors in the air that everyone knows were the root of most diseases? Had somebody gone from place to place poisoning the water supply? Perhaps God was punishing Norwich for unknown sins? Or was it all the result of the unfavorable conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn? Whatever the cause, a plan had to be made to isolate the infected and stamp out the disease before the Grim Reaper claimed everyone in Norwich as his victim.

I do not believe that history repeats itself but, as Mark Twain has noted, history often rhymes. I have noticed many echoes of the past in the COVID-19 crisis.

When the students in my Fall 2018 History of Civilizations class played through this role-immersion activity set at the cusp of the Black Death in 14th century Norwich, England, none of us had any idea that Norwich University and the broader world would soon be facing a different, very real global pandemic. The students, in their roles as butchers, priests, stonemasons and other medieval townspeople, negotiated a social and political response to a historical plague in class each day then walked out of White Chapel together, putting the simulated crisis on hold until the next class period and returning to the real world of Norwich University campus and the fresh, clean late fall air.

Dr. Emily Fisher Gray

It would be so nice to put our current pandemic on hold for a few days, meet friends for lunch in the chow hall and think about what fun events to attend over the weekend rather than worrying about the health of our loved ones and the state of the global economy. Unfortunately, we are not living a simulation. This is the real thing.

I do not believe that history repeats itself but, as Mark Twain has noted, history often rhymes. I have noticed many echoes of the past in the COVID-19 crisis. While journalists and politicians talk about our situation as “unforeseen” and “unprecedented,” historical perspective suggests that we are experiencing events and responding to them in ways our ancestors might find familiar. Including being taken completely by surprise by an emergent calamity.

Like COVID-19, the bubonic plague or Black Death of 1348-49 was shocking and unexpected because nobody had experienced an outbreak of disease on that scale in living memory. After the fall of the Roman Empire, European society had shrunk to the scale of rural towns and villages that were largely self-sufficient and rarely encountered outsiders who might carry disease along with trade goods. The Black Death was the product of newly emerging globalization; the plague spread via bacteria carried in the intestinal tracts of fleas, who lived on rats, who made their way to Europe on grain shipments from central Asia via the Bosporus Strait to ports on the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The rapid and expansive spread of the bubonic plague in medieval Europe was one unfortunate result of an interconnected world, much like the virus from eastern China that has now reached all the way into the Green Mountains of Vermont.

After the Black Death, the world experienced plagues regularly, many of which were nearly as devastating. Smallpox and salmonella carried by European conquerors nearly wiped out indigenous populations in the sixteenth century Americas. Growing European cities experienced a devastating series of plagues in the same century that killed tens of thousands of residents. Cholera, yellow fever and influenza pandemics recurred throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Though the germ theory of disease did not receive widespread acceptance until the 1890s, people understood that places with greater population density experienced more devastating effects, so they responded to the threat of plague by social isolation.

A legacy of lockdowns

The stay-home, lockdown orders that have shocked the world in 2020 were regular occurrences in early modern Europe and colonial America. As pandemics and pestilence came through, those with the means to isolate themselves at home did so. Tales of these isolation periods are legendary. William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while holed up in London away from his family during a bubonic plague outbreak in 1606, which may explain some of the play’s bleakness. Sir Isaac Newton discovered calculus during a reoccurrence of the plague in 1665. I wonder what feats of intellectual or artistic genius will emerge from our current period of pandemic lockdown, as boredom gives way to creativity.

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The essay’s author in a mask ancestors might have used to stave off disease stench and scare off evil spirits during a pandemic. (Photo courtesy Dr. Emily Fisher Gray.)

Aside from social distancing, there was no way for a person to protect himself or herself from diseases whose cause and spread nobody understood. Rudimentary PPE (personal protective equipment) may have emerged as early as the Black Death with beaked “plague doctor” masks sewn of leather and sealed with wax. These masks served two protective functions. The long nose of the mask could be stuffed with flowers or perfumed cloth to protect against miasma, the bad smells widely assumed to be the carriers of illness. And the terrifying appearance of a person in the mask would frighten away devils and evil spirits complicit in the spread of the disease. Our current pandemic’s home-sewn cotton cloth masks with cheerful patterns of polka dots or pickles or Pokémon figures are much less scary, but also serve less effectively to signal the need to maintain distance and block the droplets of infected breath that pass the COVID-19 virus from person to person.

I am grateful to live in the 21st century with scientific advancements, improved hygiene, widespread vaccination and public health programs that have limited the spread of deadly diseases, even if these improvements led us to be underprepared and overcomplacent in advance of COVID-19. I am hopeful that health professionals, scientists and leaders in government, business and education can get us back to normal life soon.

I want freshmen to come back to Norwich University in the fall and take my World Civilizations course, so that global pandemics can again become nothing more than a historical simulation game that we can play in White Chapel then put on hold until the next class period, freeing us to go outside in the sunshine with friends and classmates while we make our way to offices, barracks and a chow hall full of people. I think we will not take these simple things for granted in the future.

Dr. Emily Fisher Gray is an associate professor of history at Norwich University.

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