In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Canton, The Black Death in 1348 was likely bubonic plague and anthrax coming from fleas on the back of rats and cattle.

While confined to home during this bio-medical disaster, I suspect many of us decide to clear out shelves and cupboards. Amongst old resources gathered for my 2002 Oxford Medanthro Masters I found a thought-provoking book, ’In the Wake of The Plague, by US historian Norman Cantor, (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Though reviews usually concern contemporary books, this is worthy of a reprise. It is more readable than a scholarly history and prompts us to count our blessings.

When Cantor’s book was written twenty years ago, terrorism was feared more than disease. And although Bill Gates warned of potential global epidemics, few governments prepared for one. Now we ordinary folk see Covid-19 dramatically changing our social habits and we have time to reflect on the simpler things in life, like family and freedom. We should also be grateful we were not the poor in medieval Europe during the plague, which had profound social, political and religious consequences.

In 1348, one third of the world population died. The Black Death (so named in the 1800s) was likely bubonic plague and anthrax, the former coming via fleas on the back of seafaring black rats, the latter from cattle. But unlike then, we do have advantages.

One, we’re better nourished which helps us fight against infections. In the run-up to the 1348-49 Plague, crops failed aftercooler, wetter weather, and prolonged dust clouds from massive Indonesian volcanic eruptions. Two, we have modern medicine. Though lacking a curative drug for this minuscule 23-gene corona upstart, we understand physiology and can give life-support care.

Medieval medicine relied on faith or ancient Greek ideas. You could pray. Or if you had money for a physician, undergo a cure of your ‘imbalance of humours‘ by enema purging (as if you weren’t feeling bad enough) or bloodletting by leeches or vein cutting. The mega-rich might have received amethyst amulets and powdered emerald, or scarce Theriac, a sticky 'treacle' made from cooked snake, best if a year old (its smell isn’t recorded). Handily, it was also thought ‘morally’ curative: plague came from ‘sin entering your soul.’ Communities publicly paraded saint’s relics, and those saints not ‘saving’ enough souls, were abandoned, while those coming up trumps, like Margaret of Antioch, spawned new churches. With Poor Law welfare two centuries away, most serfs died. Incidentally, medieval diagnostics only involved observing urine colour. At least we have Covid-19 tests.

Some things haven’t changed. As infection spread, the rich fled to country estates (not holiday homes). Sufferers were quarantined. Conspiracy theories thrive. Scapegoats were sought amongst strangers or anyone ‘different.' Jewish ghettos and communities in Poland and Ukraine date back to the plague. Jews engendered suspicion as fewer of them died, probably due to high hygiene standards with fewer rats (or cattle as banned from farming). Today, Mumbai Nepalis are attacked for ‘looking’ Chinese, and the Tablighi Jamaat Muslims are hunted for spreading COVID by their festival. Even Indian nurses entering slums have been injured and doctors evicted from accommodation. Fear and ignorance breed anger and unrest. Rejoice that we have knowledgeable doctors. 1350 Paris University professors attributed plague to ‘Saturn being in the house of Jupiter.’

Hoarding isn’t new: medieval poems refer to it, sans toilet rolls. But thankfully, ‘staying smelly’ isn’t fashionable now. In plague times washing meant dangerous exposure of skin 'pores' to the surrounding infectious ‘miasma.’ Napoleon still agreed, apparently.

Our aftermath is unpredictable, but post-plague there were sweeping social changes. Farming labour shortages caused increased workers’ demands. A Peasant’s Revolt followed (1381). Gentry deaths caused a raft of property and inheritance laws still in use. Academics consider the plague gave rise to capitalism. A new yeoman class formed with spending power. Digs show more expensive metal pots, not ceramic. Social mobility became possible. Women started commercially weaving and brewing.

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Author bio

Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.