The pandemic that changed the world

Looking at the past, enabled by the Black Death, resulted in the revival of all that was good

By Author KSS Seshan   |   Published: 1st Apr 2021   12:07 am

The present pandemic, declared on March 11, 2020, by the World Health Organization (WHO) is often termed unprecedented. But history is replete with a number of instances when endemics, epidemics and pandemics occurred at various periods in the past.

Pandemics and famines have some similarities. Their outbreak causes immense miseries to individuals, society and governments at large. But unlike famines, pandemics are levellers. Pandemics will bring a billionaire in a mansion and a poor man in a hut on to the same page. Pandemics thus tell us of the sufferings of the people the world over from the very dawn of civilisation.

Growing with Humanity

Viruses are as old as history itself. Diseases and pandemics have bothered humanity from the earliest days. When man started to have a settled life, after the ‘hunting-gathering phase’, in communities and with agriculture as the main avocation, viruses must have descended from then on. Therefore, for the past several thousand years, these viruses must be taking on humanity the world over. The scale, speed and the spread of these diseases increased drastically over a period of time.

Further, widespread trade created new opportunities for human interactions cutting across the confines of nations. The more civilised humans became with large cities and with international trade routes proliferating, viruses became more frequent, more severe and more widespread. Throughout history, disease outbreaks have ravaged humanity and even changed the course of history. We had, and still have, viruses like malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, smallpox, cowpox, measles, cholera, plague, and in recent years, SARS, MERS, Eloba, AIDS, swine flu, bird flu, etc.

The first recorded pandemic in ancient history is that of the Justinian plague that occurred in the 6th century. It was named after the Roman emperor, Justinian, the great lawgiver. He ruled the Roman Empire from 527 to 565 AD. The plague affected the entire Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantium, for which Constantinople was then the capital.

Major Pandemic

But a major pandemic that erupted in the Middle Ages with far-reaching socioeconomic consequences in Europe was the Black Death (1347-54). It is considered the most devastating of all the known pandemics in human history. Some estimates tell that half of the European population perished during this Black Death.

Like many viruses before and after, the Black Death also had its origin in China, moved towards Central Asia through the Silk Route — East Africa to Egypt to the Mediterranean and then to Crimea, and by 1347 AD, it reached Constantinople and ravaged Europe for seven long years. In Constantinople, the Eastern Roman emperor, John VI’s 13-year-old son died of it. It is said that the merchants of Genoa in Italy engaged in trade brought the disease through their ships.

The Black Death was of bubonic plague and it was caused by fleas on the infected rodents. The disease caused large boils known as buboes from which the word ‘bubonic’ is derived. The buboes were black and hence the name, Black Death. The Black Death affected Eurasia, West Africa and entire Europe.

With so many deaths, labour became scarce and the value of the working class increased. Better wages were offered to those labourers who survived. Better living conditions with better food at cheaper rates were available for the poor. As many landed gentry became victims of the disease, land values went down 30-40%. Serfs and the poor started to own lands. For the poor, it was a real windfall. Surviving landlords and nobles faced severe losses. The once rich and powerful lords now lined up before the serfs for services. The Black Death proved a death knell for feudalism, the socio, economic and political system that dominated the entire Middle Ages.

The pandemic
Illustration by Guru G

Renaissance was Born

Fear of death due to the pandemic made people dwell more on life and death and they became more inwardly. The superrich merchants of Genoa and Venice now became more philanthropic as they never knew what to do with the amassed wealth. These ‘merchant–princes’, as they were euphemistically called, liberally doled out support and patronised men of letters and artists. As a result, new trends started to emerge in music, painting, sculpture, architecture and in every sphere of art, thought and literature. The merchant-princes played a decisive role in the birth of the Renaissance movement in Italy.

Dante, the Italian poet who wrote ‘Divine Comedy’, with humanism in the backdrop, became an example for English writers and poets like Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Renaissance had an indelible impression on every other country in Europe and thus the movement spread far and wide. The Black Death provided an effective backdrop. Giovanni Boccaccio, a great Renaissance writer, wrote ‘Decameron’, a story on the Black Death. The people with the uncertainty of the future started living more in the present, resigning to an epicurean philosophy that advocated, ‘eat, drink and be happy, for nothing is certain about tomorrow.’

Unlike the later French writers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and others, who laid a clear map for the future of nations in matters of polity and society, the Renaissance writers under the shadow of the Black Death were afraid of looking at the future but were empathetic to the past. This looking at the past, resulted in the revival of all that was good and secular in the ancient times which, in turn, resulted in the dawn of a new Age, the modern, a blessing in disguise.

(The author is a retired Professor of History, University of Hyderabad)

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