Plague and COVID–Analogies

The striking analogies between the Plague and the COVID

Today the most affected regions by the virus are Lombardy, Veneto, but also England, Spain, and France on a wider horizon (the USA was not on the map yet!); they are symbols of an overwhelming historical-epidemic memory, devastated by the plague. 

The plague that struck Europe between 1347 and 1351 was the worst and most famous epidemic in history. That was an extremely precarious hygienic-sanitary context, to which poverty and ignorance overlapped in a worrying way, but the facts seem to repeat themselves, with several elements of affinity.

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The Plague

Plague is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium present in fleas hosted by animals such as mice and rabbits and has been one of the most dangerous and catastrophic scourges that have affected humanity.

In the Middle Ages, thousands of people fell ill and died in the space of a few days or a few hours. The enemy—like today—was invisible and manifested itself through devastating symptoms.

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Ancient Fake News

In the eyes of the men of the fourteenth century, the aggression came from God, who wanted to punish humanity for their sins. In 1348 the Pope (Clement VI) called for an extraordinary pilgrimage to Rome. Collective prayers and processions to appease divine wrath multiplied in the cities of Europe; all extraordinarily effective ways to spread the contagion.

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Not God but China

The epidemic came to Europe through trade routes with China. It was at this time that intensified European trade with Asia became the vehicle of propagation of the epidemic.

Genoese ships returning to Europe from trade with the East transported the plague first to the port of Constantinople and then to Messina (Sicily). Genoa refused to accept its infected ships, which fell back on Marseille (France), spreading the infection in all the main ports of the Mediterranean Sea.

Climate Change in Europe

The plague found Europe already in difficulty. Numerous famines struck Europe following a sudden drop in temperatures in the 14th century. Malnutrition led to a demographic decline and a weakening of people, which together with poor hygiene conditions led to the rapid spread of the epidemic.

At the beginning of 1348, the plague reached the hinterland and cities like Paris and London. Mortality was very high and at least one-third of the European population died.

The most obvious remedy was to immediately leave the area affected by the infection: we find evidence of this in Boccaccio’s Decameron in which a group of young men and women from Florence went to the countryside to avoid the infectious disease.

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Avoiding contact with the dead and plague sufferers and their objects was essential: strict health regulations were enacted in all cities and the bodies and possessions of the sick were buried or burned.

Notable was the depopulation of villages, castles, and cities. Areas less suitable for agricultural exploitation were abandoned, and in many regions, the uncultivated grassland and forest experienced significant expansion. 

However, the diet of the population, now less numerous, could significantly improve. In the cities of municipal Italy, the effects of the tragedy were more evident and almost spectacular. Florence went from around 120,000 inhabitants in the first fourteenth century to 37,000 from the early fifteenth century. 

This is also well described in Ken Follet’s book  World Without End (2007). It focuses on the destinies of a handful of people as their lives are devastated by the Black Death, the plague that swept Europe from the middle of the 14th century.  

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In Germany and central Europe, countries characterized by a lower presence of urban centers, the consequences of the disease were less serious. Major urban centers such as Prague, Nuremberg, and Würzburg were not invested. 

The sharp demographic drop created frightening voids within certain social classes and professional categories. 

The colonists, who had become few and therefore precious, dealt the final blows to the structures of the rural lordship, further weakened by the drop in the price suffered by foodstuffs. A part of the impoverished aristocracy then devoted itself to street banditry, contributing to the uncertainty and weakening of trade. 

The bargaining power of workers grew both in the countryside and in the city. This translated into new expressions of discontent which sometimes took the form of attempts to subvert the social order. 

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A “Sort-of” Brexit

This is what also happened in the rural areas of north-central France (1358), the long conflict against England, contributed to igniting hatred towards the feudal nobility. Cross-channel the imposition of a poll tax (1381) provoked rebellions of the peasants partly led by members of the clergy who were preaching unprecedented forms of communism of goods and social justice. 

The Italian cities experienced forms of the emancipation of workers employed above all in textile manufacturing. Here, in fact, riots of a certain consistency were generated in Lucca (1369), Siena (1371), Genoa (1383 and 1399), Verona (1390). 

The decrease in the population may have favored, in principle, the growth of per capita income. Furthermore, in the main cities of municipal Italy, the contraction in artisanal production was partially offset by the increase in quality, especially as regards the important textile sector. 

More than a crisis, the plague brought about a transformation, which affected not only the demographic consistency and the basis of the economy but also the evolution of state structures and the dynamics of different social structures. 

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I lived the most part of my life in Washington DC, now in Italy getting to know again my country. Plenty of surprises, for good and bad, and lots of nostalgia for DC.

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