Permit me, if you will, a slightly rambling introduction: we are all, still, in the midst of a pandemic, and coping as best we can in whatever ways we can. Here in the UK our “government” has us on a sort of partial social distancing thing. So, if you can work from home, you are supposed to, and there are no restaurants open, and we have to line up to get groceries. One of the bright spots (other than booze – shout out to my legendary friend!) that we have in the slurry of same same days is that we are allowed out of the house for exercise. This makes a lot of sense! It is in the interest of public health generally, and in maintaining a stretched to breaking point and under assault from our ruling party. Tra la la.
Anyway, I, a person trying my best to live was enjoying my evening walk – keeping up my health and all that while maintaining social distance from others – on Wednesday evening when a woman yelled at me from her car demanding to know why I wasn’t at home. I, of course, informed her that I was taking my government allowed exercise and asked her why she was being, in my own words “such a fucking cop”, and then was amused to watch her almost drive into a pedestrian calmer in the middle of the road.
And all of this is, of course, a lot like some medieval responses to the Black Death.
No, I assure you, it is.
Now, I am in no way saying that this pandemic is as deadly or dangerous as the Black Death. Obviously, we have done that already, and don’t need to retread it. However, we are still talking about pandemics, and one of the reasons why the study of social history is important and illuminating is it shows us how people react to situations so we can understand them when they happen to us. I have always maintained that one of the reasons why studying the Black Death is important, even thought it was such a shift from the “normal” day to day of the medieval world, is that we truly understand the core beliefs of a society when you put them in a catastrophic situation. So, if we can understand late medieval beliefs and feelings by looking at their response to an awful pandemic, we can understand ours as well in response to a smaller one.
One of the big overlaps between late medieval society and ours in a pandemic is that we absolutely love to assign blame to individuals for something which is a systemic issue.
Now there were sophisticated medical explanations for the plague, blaming miasma and conjunctions of the planets, which I have already yelled about before. But that was a super high-falutin way of explain the disease. The most common (not to say popular) explanation for plague was that you – yes you – and everyone you know were big old sinners and God was mad at you so he was gonna kill everyone.
Now there were a lot of different ways that you being a sinner was causing the Black Death. Maybe you brought the plague on the world because you, a lady, dressed up like a dude at a tournament and then head a bunch of sex. (We have all been there.) The chronicler Henry Knighton bravely called out the cool bitches having fun doing just that saying:
“…whenever and wherever tournaments were held a troop of ladies would turn up dressed in a variety of extraordinary male clothing, as if taking part in a play. There were sometimes as many as forty or fifty of them, representing the showiest and most beautiful (but not the most virtuous) women of the whole realm. They were dressed in particoloured tunics with short hoods and liripipes like strings wound around the head, and wore belts thickly studded with gold and silver slung across their hips, below the navel, with knives called daggers in pouches suspended from them. Dressed thus, and mounted on chargers or on other horses with elaborate trappings, they rode to the tournament ground. In this way they spent and wasted their goods, and (according to the common report) abused their bodies in wantonness and scurrilous licentiousness.“
Yes, I know they sound extremely cool and you want to be friends with them, but it turns out that causes death. Sorry.
Maybe you were just dressing sexy while not at tournaments and thinking you were not causing death. No no, that was also an issue. John of Reading reported in his Westminster Chronicle that:
“[The people] have abandoned the old, decent style of long, full garments for clothes which are short, tight, impractical, slashed, every part laced, strapped or buttoned up, with the sleeves of the gowns and the tippets of the hoods hanging down to absurd lengths, so that, if the truth be told, their clothes and footwear make them look more like torturers, or even demons, than men. … Women flowed with the tides of fashion in this and other things even more eagerly, wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down inside their skirts at the back, to hide their arses. The sin of pride manifested in this way must surely bring down misfortune in the future.”
Maybe though, you went further than dressing up and were having not OK sex. Bishop Thomas Brinton in Rochester was concerned about sexy clothes, for sure, but also about all the sex he was very very sure everyone was having outside of wedlock. He scolded his flock that
“…it is undoubtedly for that reason that there exists in the kingdom of England so marked a diminution of fruitfulness, so cruel a pestilence, so much injustice, so many illegitimate children – for there is on every side so much lechery and adultery that few men are contented with their own wives, but each man lusts after the wife of his neighbour, or keeps a stinking concubine in addition to his wife, however beautiful and honest she might be; behaviour which merits a horrible and wretched death.“
Just to be clear, Thomas Brinton has a whole legion of problems with you people. Having sex was just one. He also thought you were all lazy, didn’t give enough to charity and didn’t pray enough. Anyway, one way or another he was absolute sure that God was right to be killing everyone.
While the general public were, of course, to be blamed for the plague, there was also a sub-set of Black Death complaints that claimed it was the clergy in particular who were sinful, thus damning everyone. Take for example, an anonymous poem written in England, The Sins of the Times:
“See how England mourns, drenched in tears. The people, stained by sin, quake with grief. Plague is killing men and beasts. Why? Because vices rule unchallenged here.
The brave warriors of Christ have now retreated; the satellites of Satan have overturned the temple. They have lost the wounded and sickly sheep. Cuckoos intrude into the monastic nest.
Alas! rectors and vicars have changed their ways, they’re hirelings now, not true shepherds, and their works are motivated by the desire for money. Such workers deserve to come to grief.
Such men prefer furs to hair shirts; they stuff their bellies with dainties and then abandon themselves to limitless depravity. Buttressed by riches, they live contrary to right.
While chapels are lavishly rebuilt the Church – the Bride of Christ – is stripped naked. Untended, the vine is blighted by sin, and usurers dig it up like rooting pigs.
The priests of God are unchaste; their deeds not matching their name. They should be teaching and administering the sacraments, but they behave in ways inappropriate to their order.
Their names should be written with blood in heaven, but are to be read instead in the records of this world. Old sins should be purged with fire, but theirs weigh them down and now rule them. “
While this is extremely chill and good, it is also quite funny to think about. You have Thomas Brinton up there yelling about how your sex life is ruining everything, but anonymous poets are like, “Yeah no, glass houses, mate.”
Anyway, the point of all of these complaints is largely the same – the actions of individuals has damned the whole to a painful death. Thing is, that was not true. The only thing that stops bubonic plague is antimicrobials and vaccines if you can get your hands on them, which medieval people could not. Doesn’t matter if they all wore sacks and never boned again, they would still get the plague if they weren’t quarantined away from each other.
Now blaming individuals for being sinful is not the same thing as getting mad at people going for a walk, obviously, but the fact of the matter remains that in both cases it is a way of blaming individuals when the thing that is necessary is a generalised public health response. We have a real half arsed one here in the UK, which is why our death rate is so extremely high. Be that as it may, most of us are trying to do our best and stick to government guidelines in order to curb things, myself included. (I mean actually, I am following the WHO guidelines instead of ones from the UK government because no one in the WHO managed to give themselves Covid 19 in order to own the left or whatever, but I digress.) Yelling at people that their clothes were too sexy did not stop the Black Death. Yelling at people who are having a walk and observing social distance will not stop Covid 19.
However, medieval people were primed to yell about the sinful behavior of others because they lived in a world that saw everyone as being essential parts in the whole that was Christendom. They were a contiguous group whose overall moral rectitude was needed in order to assure the safety of the whole. This idea that sinful individuals were to blame for the suffering of the whole was encouraged by the Church who was tasked with the salvation of the Christian world, and nevertheless was seeing its flock destroyed around it. It was to their advantage to blame individuals rather than have the blame turned back on them, the people meant to be responsible for societal morality. The yelling was therefore an expression of their understanding of the place of the individual in society.
It’s the same for us, but on an even larger scale. Sure, we know about germ theory, in principle. (In practice I am noticing that … a lot of you seem to not quite grasp it, but whatever.) What we definitely know about in a neoliberal society, on the other hand, is that there is no society (thanks Margret Thatcher) and individuals are responsible for their own experiences. This atomised approach to looking at an epidemic means you can blame individual people you see on the street for something happening at a global level. It is also in the interests of a government which has failed in its duty of care to encourage people to see the pandemic as the fault of individual actors, rather than something that needed to be tackled systematically. The yelling is therefore an expression of our understanding of the individual as the only “real” form of society.
What yelling at our neighbours does in both these cases is make people who are frightened and living in a difficult time feel better, as though they are somehow contributing to the slow of the spread of disease. It also allows them to treat a disease as something which happens because of and to other people. Yell enough at people and you yourself will be safe because you have a moral high ground.
Sadly, it does not work that way. If yelling stopped COVID you would find your girl outside every EDL member in the country’s house having a big old scream. This is one thing I learned from the Black Death that we can apply here. Just be nice to other people, we are all going through it.
 J. R. Lumby (ed), Chronicon Henrici Knighton vel Cnitthon monachi Leycestrensis, 2 vols, Rolls Series, 1889-95, II, pp. 57-8, in, Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 130
 James Tait (ed), Chronica Johannis de Reading et Anonymi Cantuariensis 1346- 1367, Manchester, 1914, pp. 88-9, in, Ibid, p. 131.
 Sister Mary Aquinas Devlin (ed), The Sermons of Thomas Brinton, 2 vols, Camden Society, third series LXXXV-VI, 1954, I no 48, in, Ibid., p. 141.
 Thomas Wright (ed), Political Poems and Songs I, Rolls Series, 1859, pp. 279- 81, in, Ibid, pp. 126-127.
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For more on medieval medicine, see:
On masculinity and disease
On collapsing time, or, not everyone will be taken into the future
Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
Not every pandemic is the Black Death
On the plague, sex, and rebellion
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, the Myth of Progress, and Textbooks, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism