I was asked to contribute to a blog post on how medievalists are doing in these troubled times. Here’s what I came up with:
Medievalists, particularly American medievalists, are usually starved for attention. They must work very hard to convince other people that their subject is relevant. So when the country is under coronavirus quarantine, they naturally bring up parallels with the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which can provide illuminating insights or at least comic relief. A friend claimed that he and his family were hunkered down, “telling a story a day to each other,” like the characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Another jokingly announced:
Hmm, just got a thing from a local church. They’re organizing a large group of Christians to publicly pray for mercy and strike themselves with belts and other things to show that they mean it. If it goes well locally, they plan on organizing a march of penance to other towns and cities.
But presumably this neo-Flagellant group is not going to proceed to a local Jewish neighborhood and beat up the inhabitants there, for allegedly poisoning the wells. Because, let’s be honest: a study of history often makes one very grateful to be living in the time and place that one does. We know that this pestilence is caused by a virus, and we know how it spreads; we can even come up with vaccines against it, which eventually we will. No more messing around with astrology, humorism, or aromatherapy, as the poor medievals did. We might study the Middle Ages, but I doubt any one of us actually wants to return to them.
Although, if there is one interesting parallel between Yersinia Pestis and SARS-CoV-2, it is how the spread of both microbes was abetted by international trade. The Black Death got to Europe over the Silk Road; our outsourcing of most manufacturing to China has given us lots of cheap stuff to buy, but it is also the means by which a local outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan became an international sensation. This is an unintended price of globalism – and a good reason to consider bringing home some of the things we’ve outsourced to China.