Plague Police round up, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace

Look it is hot here in London. The sort of hot that London is not supposed to be and was also not built for. Your girl doesn’t like or function well in the heat. As a result, my brain is very tired and slow. Also, petty. So, this week despite the fact that this blog has called for the abolition of the police, I am back on my Plague Police bullshit. This is because we all live in hell, and as a result are dealing with the generalised basics who are still, still, still, even now going around saying stupid things about the plague. Presumably this is just to wind me up when I am already in a bad mood about the heat.

Well congrats, bitches. Here’s a rant about how you are wrong and I hate you.

First up we have LA Mayor Eric Garcetti who is here to annoy me not just with his city’s inadequate response to a deadly pandemic, but also with this gem of a phrase on a Washington Post podcast:

“I read history and in pandemics, they usually throw everybody out and often kill them — at least in medieval Europe whenever there were pandemics — so things are, I think, a little bit better than that”.

First off, sorry chief but I think we are gonna have to disagree on the fact that you “read history”. Second off, I am comfortable making this assertion because well, literally no. That is not a thing.

This is such a complete myth and misreading of what happened in medieval Europe during the Black Death that I struggle to even know where to begin because I am confused about where he got this information from. It would appear that the honourable (?) Mayor here might be actually honest to god referring to Monty Python and the Holy Grail as … history? That is really the only place I can think of people killing individuals with the plague or “throw[ing] everybody out”.

This is a “comedy” not a documentary, Eric.

Instead, medieval Europeans were, you know, people who were actually in many ways more connected to and worried about their communities that we are. Medieval Europeans, as we have discussed before, used to offer free health care to sick people at hospitals run by monks and nuns. They all did a valiant job attempting to keep people with the plague alive, or at least alleviate their suffering.

Yeah sure, the only thing that really works on plague is antimicrobials so nothing medieval people could do really had an impact in terms of stopping infection. But guess what? We don’t have a cure for the COVID 19 virus right now and we still use whatever we have at our disposal to keep people alive or comfort them if they have it. At least we do in places with socialised healthcare where we think people staying alive shouldn’t depend on whether or not they can pay for treatment. (I am looking at you American. Right. At. You.)

St Francis and his brothers treating lepers, La Franceschina, Perugia, Biblioteca Augusta, MS 1238 f. 223r

So, given an American “system” where people only have access to healthcare if they can pay inflated prices for it, versus a medieval system where it is seen as a holy obligation to care for people, which is the more cruel approach?

In fact, care for people who had plague didn’t stop in medieval Europe even when they died. You may be aware that as a result of the brutal death toll of the Black Death at times it was necessary for survivors to bury people in mass graves rather than individual ones. We now informally refer to these as “plague pits” and they crop up with alarming frequency here in Europe when you need to dig a hole near a city. Anyway, even in mass graves we see evidence of careful treatment of dead bodies even as they were accumulating with an alarming speed.

An excellent example of this survives here in London’s Spitalfields. The name “Spitalfields” actually is a clue about what was going down there. It is not, in fact, a reference to spit, but a contraction from “Hospital Fields”. More specifically the name is a reference to the hospital that was at the Priory of Blessed Mary without Bishopsgate. St Mary Spital, as it was more commonly called, was an Augustinian house set up by a bunch of rich people in the twelfth century (which was very much the style at the time). By the fourteenth century the Augustinians had a nice little hospital going, which we also know because of records that some of servants from rich houses would be sent there for treatment as and when they were unlucky enough to fall ill with, well, whatever.

A sixteenth-century view of St Mary’s from Wyngaerde’s view of London 

Anyway fast-forward to 1999 and the forces of global capitalism decided that a new big old building needed to be built by Liverpool Street station. Off they went to dig a hole and BAM they find the St Mary’s charnel house (the place where people’s bones would often be put to rest, as opposed to a grave as churchyards were often oversubscribed), but also a number of plague pits.

Our archeologist friends got into the pits and found in all about 2750 bodies arranged in pits containing up to fifty or so bodies. Rather than being tossed in and forgotten about, however, the excavators found that the bodies were carefully arranged side by side in layers. They were laid out with crossed arms in a clear demonstration that even despite the terrible circumstances people were still looking out for each other. Communities still saw themselves as charged with the care of their members. Bodies still had to be buried and treated with dignity.

Excavations of the charnel house in the aughts.

No one was being “kicked out” or “killed” here because they had the plague, and trying to imagine a brutal medieval world where that happens in order to let yourself off the hook for not housing your city’s homeless population in the middle of a global pandemic is pathetic. It is also exactly what I expect of people who throw the word “medieval” around like this. So congrats on being a heartless monster, bad at your job, and also a weirdo who lies about reading medieval history, I guess, Mr. Garcetti.

Second up on the petty docket is the goddamn New York Post who have this to say for themselves:

First off: I like the wine window. Nice. I will take five, thanks. Second: Medieval, huh? Can you elaborate on that, Hanna Sparks, author of this article?  Sure, she can:

Soooo, seventeenth century huh? And, therefore, like by absolutely no definition of anyone in the entire world medieval, then? Cool.

One more time for the basics at the back – the term “medieval” means “middle time”, indicating a placement between the ancient world, and the modern world. European historians tend to define the end of the ancient world as the fall of Rome in 476. We don’t have a hard end date for the dawning of the Early Modern period and it can depend who you ask. Some people say the beginning of the Columbian exchange in 1492. Some people (who are very cool and also correct) point to the end of the Hussite wars in 1434 as Europe then had an established non-Catholic kingdom. Other people talk about Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 because they are boring and too lazy to learn Czech.

Disagreements on an exact year aside, absolutely everyone can agree on one thing: by the time you hit the seventeenth century and it’s plague outbreaks and fun Dr Beaky masks you are absolutely, firmly, and irrevocably in the Early Modern period.

The reason why the designation of the seventeenth century as medieval winds me up, weapons-grade pedantry aside, is that the same people who go around announcing that the seventeenth century plague is a medieval phenomenon are also the first to start wanking about how the Renaissance took us all out of the terrible torpor of the Dark Ages or some such nonsense. For those keeping track, the Italian Renaissance is generally talked about as lasting from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. So, which is it? Is the Renaissance a real thing that definitively changed all of Europe and issued in an age of reason, (Spoiler: absolutely fucking not.), or were there medieval wine windows in the sixteenth century Italian lands? Pick one.

Side complaint: The Black Death definitely did come through Europe in the late medieval period, and it is the bubonic plague. BUT not all bubonic plague is the Black Death. The Black Death specifically, and only, relates to the fourteenth-century iteration of bubonic plague. Everything thereafter is just sparkling death.

Anyway, the wine windows can stay, but Hanna has to go. She hasn’t earned them.

I have. Please cease your nonsense, and I’ll have a bicicletta, thanks.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on the Black Death, see:
On collapsing time, or, not everyone will be taken into the future
Chatting about plague for HistFest
A Black Death reading list
On individual blame for global crisis
Not every pandemic is the Black Death
On the plague, sex, and rebellion

For more on myths about the medieval period, see:
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right.
How to win friends and influence people in medieval Europe on History Hit
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

3 thoughts on “Plague Police round up, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace”

  1. “Disagreements on an exact year aside, absolutely everyone can agree on one thing: by the time you hit the seventeenth century and it’s plague outbreaks and fun Dr Beaky masks you are absolutely, firmly, and irrevocably in the Early Modern period.”

    Jacques Le Goff would like a word…
    Even though you very much make the same point, that the early Modern was a lot more “medieval” or that the Late MA was a lot more “modern” that subsequent historians (and current popular culture) gives it credit for.


  2. It’s so wonderful reading something that puts into words all the feelings I have when I read those articles. They make me too tired to even respond. I would just note that there’s evidence of our fun Dr Beaky masks in the 15th c., which, as a late medievalist, I’d like to contend is medieval (unless we’re talking witch hunts, which the early moderns can have and stop trying to foist off onto us medievalists).


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