The Terrors of the Time: Lessons from historic plagues

Coronavirus isn't the first pandemic to sweep the world. Typhoid and flu killed millions. But history's really big killer was the bubonic plague. Three historians discuss what we can learn from the history of plagues of the past.

How we treat each other during a pandemic is what we remember most, says historian

A family lies dead and dying in the street while a cart carries away corpses of those who have already succumbed to the plague that hit London in 1665. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

History may not repeat itself, but it is not without parallels.

As we enter our fifth week of isolation, we're witnessing remarkable similarities to plagues of the past. Whether it's U.S. President Donald Trump referring to himself as a "wartime" president fighting the "invisible enemy" of coronavirus, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reference to "tracking" the virus, the language is all too familiar to historians.

"There's a constant theme in the media characterizing it as the invisible enemy, which is precisely the same type of label which is used in [the] medieval and early modern period. This sort of metaphor of a battle against this enemy, which nobody can see," John Henderson told IDEAS, historian and author of Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City.

"It's just simply also based on fear and fear of the unknown, and fear of the so-called invisible enemy, which we see today as we saw in the past."

A medieval Latin inscription on the wall of St. Mary's Church in Ashwell, UK dating back to the time of the Black Death of 1361. It describes the ravages of the plague on the Hertfordshire village. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As this latest battle rages on, historians are looking at similarities in individual and collective response. Regardless of our modern understanding of disease and its spread, historians point to the need to find blame.

During every pandemic, a group has been assigned the scapegoat role, the poor, the landless, and infamously during the Black Plague — the Jews. 

"One of things we haven't mentioned is the acute enhanced persecution of Jewish communities in continental Europe in the age of plague, possibly because of their slight separation," says Vanessa Harding, a specialist in the history of London.

"Jews may have experienced a lower plague mortality rate or a lower level of infection, which, of course, makes them stand out and can be seen as being the enemy within or the potential cause ... for something that you are able to perceive as being external to yourself and the cause and dangers to yourself."

As we come to understand the "dangers to ourselves" during the coronavirus, we look to our leaders for guidance and protection. Just like officials during the great pandemics of the past, quarantine was introduced to protect the public.

Similarly, there were those that followed orders and in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, Manzoni's The Beloved — a stalwart of pandemic literature inspired by the plague during the 1600's — the different degrees of response is noted.

"Obviously, one has to take into account that they are fictional accounts," Henderson begins.

"But more importantly, he talks about the dissolution of society and he makes a distinction between those people who basically are enjoying themselves, mapping wild parties and the other people who are sort of penitential and taking it, sort of seeing it as a divine punishment.

"And I suspect that society did divide into those categories."

Key lessons for us now

Regardless of poetic license taken in past ages, all three historians in this IDEAS episode agree that the true story of this pandemic will be told from the perspective of how we treat one another today.

"I'm not using this as an occasion to enhance the divisions in society. I do think that when we read about plagues in the past, we end up thinking how well they behaved," Harding says.

"When we look back at these historic plagues, one of the things that we are looking for is the humanity, the behaviour of people."

And Henderson's advice?

"Say calm and carry on — realize it's going to come to an end."


Guests in this episode are three historians from Birkbeck College in London:

  • John Henderson has written a book about the plague in Italy called, Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City.
  • Vanessa Harding is a specialist in the history of London.
  • Aaron Columbus is a doctoral student examining how the London plague affected the poor in society. 


* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Nahlah Ayed.