I assure you, the Black Death was actually bad

I cannot believe I am about to write this, after a year and change of saying that we really don’t need to keep comparing COVID to the Black Death, which was by all estimates the worst pandemic the world has ever seen, but yesterday I saw a take so hostile in its stupidity that I have been forced to counter it today.

To whit:

The right are starting to get better at comedy, etc.

For those blissfully unaware, Lee Hurst is a right-wing “comedian”, and so that is why he really thinks he is doing something here. However, the fact remains that some people have this attitude so we are going to take just a minute to break this down.

First of all, the Black Death killed a quarter of the world’s population. So jot that down. That is, in my opinion, a very bad and scary thing. Moreover, the virulence of the Black Death and mortality rates were actually a lot higher than that statistic would lead you to believe. The Black Death didn’t make it to the Americas or Australia, so that is the world’s death toll just from Asia, Africa, and Europe. That means mortality rates in areas with plague are actually much higher. In Florence, for example about sixty percent of the population died. That is bad.

But you do not have to take my word that it was bad, because medieval people also thought that the Black Death was very bad. Instead I thought today we would let medieval people use their own words to describe the horrors of living through the plague.

Let’s start with Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron:

“In the face of its [the plague’s] onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing. Large quantities of refuse were cleared out of the city by officials specially appointed for the purpose, all sick persons were forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. Nor were the countless petitions humbly directed to God by the pious, whether by means of formal processions or in any other guise, any less effectual. For in the early spring of the year [1348] we have mentioned, the plague began, in a terrifying and extraordinary manner, to make its disastrous effects apparent. ….Against these maladies it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing … But what made this pestilence even more severe was that whenever those suffering from it mixed with people who were still unaffected, it would rush upon these with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances that happened to be placed within its reach. …

These things…caused various fears and fantasies to take root in the minds of those who were still alive and well. Almost without exception, they took a single and very inhuman precaution, namely to avoid or run away from the sick and their belongings, but which means they all thought that their own health would be preserved. …. In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city [Florence]. For like everybody else, those ministers and executors of the laws who were not either dead or ill were left with so few subordinates that they were unable to discharge any of their duties.

Florence during the plague from a manuscript of the Decameron, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français MS 239, f.1 r.

…As for the common people and a large proportion of the bourgeoisie they presented a much more pathetic spectacle, for the majority of them were constrained, either by their poverty or the hope of survival, to remain in their houses. Being confined to their own parts of the city, they fell ill daily in their thousands, and since they had no one to assist the, or attend their needs, they inevitably perished almost without exception. Many dropped dead in the open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses drew their neighbours’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means. And what with these, and the others who were dying all over the city, bodies were here, there and everywhere.

… Such was the multitude of corpses (of which further consignments were arriving every day and almost by the hour at each of the churches), that there was not sufficient consecrated ground for them to be buried in, especially if each was to have its own plot in accordance with long-established custom. So when all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed upon tier like a ships’ cargo, each layer of corpses being covered over with a thin layer of coil till the trench was filled to the top. …What more remains to be said, except that the cruelty of heaven (and possibly, in some measure also that of man) was so immense and so devastating that between March and July of the year in question, what with the fury of the pestilence and the fact that so many of the sick were inadequately cared for or abandoned in their hour of need because the healthy were too terrified to approach them, it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence.”[1]

So that’s fine to you, is it Lee? You would sign up for this experience. This, to you, is a good thing that is no big deal and you would put up with in order to avoid getting a shot. OK.

Well is seems like the monks from Neuberg monastery in what is now Austria disagree with you there, I’m afraid. They describe the experience thusly:

“…a cruel pestilence which first broke out in countries across the sea and killed everyone in various horrifying ways. … Those who escaped carried the pestilence with them, and infected all the places to which they brought their merchandise – including Greece, Italy, and Rome – and the neighbouring regions through which they travelled. As a result the inhabitents, frantic with terror, ordered that no foreigners should stayin the inns, and that the merchants by whom the pestilence was being spread should be compelled to leave the area immediately. The deadly plague reigned everywhere, and once populous cities, because of the death of their inhabitants, now kept their gates firmly shut so that no one could break in and steal the possessions of the dead. In Venice the death toll was so heavy that scarcely a quarter of the people remained alive. The pestilence thrust forward through Carinthia and then brutally took possession of Styria, driving men almost to despair. ….

Flagellants, from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

Accordingly people began to make public demonstrations of their penitence, in the hope that God would look mercifully upon the human race. Men gathered together from cities and towns and went devoutly in procession from church to church walking two by two, totally naked except for a white cloth covering them from their loins to their ankles, singing beautiful hymns in honour of the Passion in the mother tongue and beating themselves so hard with knotted whips that drops of blood spattered the roadway. … Because of this great and widespread devestation flocks wandered shepherdless in the fields, for no one was prepared to risk his life to gather them in … The goods and chattel bequeathed by the dead were given a wide berth by all, as if they too were infected. … The contagious plague came in due course to Vienna and all its territories, and as a result countless people died and scarcely a third of the population remained alive. Because of the stench and the horror of the corpses they were not allowed to be buried in the churchyards, but as soon as life was extinct they had to be taken to a communal burial ground in God’s Field outside the city, where in a short time five big deep pits were filled to the brim with bodies.”[2]

Sounds like a nice little time they were having, does it Lee? Don’t see any issues with this, do you? This, to you, is fine, and you would deal with this without any problems it it? Because the thing that is scary is having two (2) vaccines. That is what you, a grown adult, think.

But in case we need an English example (can’t imagine why I think my man here might not considered other people’s accounts worthwhile) how about the chronicle from Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire:

“The pestilence held such sway in England at the time that there were hardly enough people left alive to bury the dead, or enough burial grounds to hold them. During that time two closes or crofts were consecrated for the burial of the dead in London, and two monasteries were afterwards founded in them….The pestilence grew so strong that men and women dropped dead while walking in the streets, and in innumerable households and in many villages not one person was left alive.  … The shortage of labourers and of workers in every kind of craft and occupation was then so acute that more than a third of the land throughout the whole kingdom remained uncultivated…”[3]

People attempting to bury the plague dead in 1349, from the Annales of Gilles de Muisit, Brussels, Royal Library.

But the entire human race didn’t go extinct so everything was fine, actually, right Lee? That’s just a nice little night out in London. Couple of pints, maybe go to a show, cheeky kebab on the way home and watching people fall over dead in the street. Something that we are all prepared to put up with so that Lee doesn’t have to have a sad time and get a shot.  Provided there are enough people still alive to continue to reproduce absolutely nothing else matters! Massive trauma and terror? Fine! An inability to feed the people remaining left alive? A minor set-back! A very small price to pay so that a grown man doesn’t have to get a shot.

Now, granted this is a stupid take from a stupid person being performatively stupid, but the terror and horror that people in the Middle Ages experienced as a result of the Black Death is actually important to remember. These people went through something so horrifying that they thought the entire world was ending. Seeing some flippant rich guy who hasn’t been funny in decades make light of this because he is scared of getting a vaccine is hateful.

If you told the people beating themselves bloody in the streets in order to stop the plague that they could just have a little shot and they and their loved ones, and everyone they had ever seen would likely not die, they would have absolutely had the stupid vaccine. They would have done anything to stop the plague, and some dude who has never faced a problem bigger than the fact  that he can’t get work because he isn’t funny is now saying that what they went through is no biggie. It’s a nonsense.

Anyway TL/DR the Black Death was extremely bad, actually, and I think we need a higher bar for who gets to call themselves a comedian these days.

[1] Giovanni Boccacio, Decameron, In, Rosemary Horrox (ed.), The Black Death ( Machester: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 27-34
[2] Continuatio Novimontensis, in, Ibid., pp. 59-61
[3] Chronicon Monasterii de Melsa, pp. 67-69

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

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

7 thoughts on “I assure you, the Black Death was actually bad”

  1. You’d know there was a pandemic if you were one of the 150,000 people who’ve died in the UK. Or if you worked in healthcare. And the vaccines were only experimental when brave people volunteered to take part in trials so the rest of us can benefit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, as always so it really bothers me to be the pedantic italian, but you’re the best (ok, amongst the best) and deserve that no post of yours is marred by stupid typos. It’s Boccaccio!


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