From medieval Black Death, a warning: Pandemics can unleash the ugliest in human nature

The Europe of the Renaissance, founded on reason and scepticism of religious belief, was in many ways birthed by the Black Death. But the murderous impulses that marked its course — genocide, the brutal suppression of heresy, the insistence that disease is divine retribution — are still with us.

Praveen Swami March 22, 2020 11:04:25 IST
From medieval Black Death, a warning: Pandemics can unleash the ugliest in human nature

Artemis, goddess of the hunt, appears as a vagina mounted on a horse, armed with bow-and-arrow; penises dressed in pilgrims’ robes carry a crowned vulva in ceremonial procession; a pudendum spit-roasting a penis over a vagina-shaped grease trap: Lewd, humorous and utterly bizarre, the tin badges first dredged out of the mud of the Sienne in 1848, by the archaeologist Arthur Forgeais, soon began turning up in digs across Europe — from England to the Netherlands. The strange thing was this: the lead-and-tin badges were made not for bawdy revellers, but for pious pilgrims.

In 1347, the Black Death had begun to wash over Europe, a great tide of death that would claim over half the continent’s population. Lacking any other explanation, the population turned to an ancient belief: that the disease was transmitted by the Evil Eye, the gaze of the diseased or the malign. The little badges were meant to draw the Evil Eye away from the pilgrim, and be transfixed on the obscene.

Faced with the prospect of annihilation, societies have, throughout history, struggled to make sense of their predicament, and to escape it. The pilgrims’ badges were just a small part of a desperate effort to avoid death — an effort which included the unleashing of genocidal violence.

“The death came from the sunset and went towards the [direction of] the sunrise,” the Bern chronicler Konrad Justinger wrote as the plague approached Bern in 1348, sweeping inexorably westward. Faced with a terror they had no means to understand, Europeans turned on those their faith had long taught them to hate: Jews, rumours had it, were engaged in a gargantuan plot to poison wells and fountains. Local town authorities soon began extracting confessions — under torture.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, picturesque La Toru de Peilz — historian Albert Winkler’s authoritative work on the pogroms records — burned its Jews alive on 13 October 1348; the town of Solothurn soon followed. The killings arced from west to east: Bern, Zofingen, Zurich and St. Gall. In Basel, a special house was built on a sandbar in the Rhine, which was set afire after the town’s Jews were packed into it. “Some were dancing, others were singing psalms, and some were crying when they went to the flames,” one medieval chronicle recounts.

From medieval Black Death a warning Pandemics can unleash the ugliest in human nature

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt. The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Swaber, Strasbourg’s mayor, sought to protect the Jews in the town — but was overthrown in an uprising led by the butcher’s guild, who had long complained their Jewish competitors undercut their prices. The new rulers built a wooden house in Strasbourg’s Jewish cemetery, to serve as a pyre for the community.

As they were marched into this incinerator, Jews were stripped naked and searched for valuables; attractive women and some children plucked out, and converted. “All the rest were burned alive, and the many, who jumped out of the flames, were also killed,” the chronicler Mathias von Neuenburg recorded.

The plague arrived in Strasbourg soon after the massacre of 14 February 1349 — Valentine’s Day. “Death went from one end of the earth to the other,” one chronicle of the city records. There were ghoulish scenes: ships found “on the sea laden with wares; the crew had all died”. The Pope was forced to consecrate the entire Rhone river, for there were no longer enough people alive to dig mass graves.

Europe’s Jews weren’t the only victims of the Black Death: from the mid-1400s, the historian Nachman Ben Yehuda tells us, killings of supposed witches and heretics escalated, claiming the lives of between 2,00,000-5,00,000 people, 85 percent of them women. “That these executions and the accompanying demonological theories enjoyed widespread and popular acceptance,” he notes, “can be explained through the anomie which permeated society at that time” — anomie brought about by the catastrophic impacts of Black Death.

Zealots determined to excoriate sin from their souls with the metal-pronged whip, led flourishing flagellant movements. Emulating Christ’s sacrifice, their theology had it, would usher in a new Emperor and church that would enforce God’s law and usher in the End of Times. From the historian Norman Cohn’s masterwork on millenarian movements, we know these movements overran entire cities, until they were ruthlessly repressed by the Pope.

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There were those, of course, who stood against the tide. Lisan Ibn-al-Khatib, the great physician and philosopher, angered theologians by dismissing the idea the plague was caused by God. “It becomes clear to anyone who has diagnosed or treated the disease,” he noted “that most of the individuals who have had contact with a plague victim will die, whereas the man who has had no exposure will remain healthy. Many people remained in good health who kept themselves in isolation from the outside world.”

Konard von Megenberg, a contemporary historian who recorded the massacres of Jews, critiqued claims that they had poisoned wells — noting, among other things, that the community lost so many lives in Vienna that it found it necessary to enlarge their grave yard a great deal. Pope Clement VI himself condemned the killings of Jews, and issued decrees refuting the poisoning-libels that sparked off the pogroms.

Fear, though, utterly drowned reason — for reasons it isn’t hard to understand. Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian chronicler of the Black Death, famously noted that victims of the plague “had breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestors”.

Even the church chose prudence. In the 1520s, as the second wave of the plague began to wash over Europe, someone carved the image of a woman drinking from a phallus-shaped glass into the misericord — just in case the icons of saints and crucifixes failed to deter the gaze of evil.

Like all great catastrophes, the Black Death reshaped the world. The historian James Thompson has noted that the mortality meant “clerks became merchants, former workmen became employers and contractors, farm labourers became gentlemen-farmers. The old nobility of Europe, which derived its lineage from the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, largely passed away, leaving their titles and their lands to the kings who gave them out to new favourites, so that a new noblesse arose”.

The Europe of the Renaissance, founded on reason and scepticism of religious belief, was in many ways birthed by the Black Death. But the murderous impulses that marked its course — genocide, the brutal suppression of heresy, the insistence that disease is divine retribution — are still with us.

For millennia, the scholars Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth have shown, the toxic impacts of the Black Plague pogroms have lived on: “Pogroms during the Black Death are a strong and robust predictor of violence against Jews in the 1920s, and of votes for the Nazi Party”.

Lethal pandemics have seen paranoia explode into violence often since: the Italians blamed the English and French for spreading the Milan epidemic of 1630; Hindu nationalists accused imperial England of spreading the plague of 1896; China charged the United States of conducting bacteriological warfare in 1956.

From AIDS to Ebola, the same script has played out: death is inflicted on us, our cities, our nations, by an outside source, be it god, religious minorities or foreigners; the disease is a punishment for which we must seek remedy through self-correction or extermination.

Like in the past, the collapse of reason in the face of terror is evident: Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra asserts that mass death is the fated outcome of ghor kalyug; union minister Ramdas Athvale shouts slogans against the coronavirus; Shi’a devout lick holy relics in Iran; Christian fundamentalists claim the pandemic is the outcome of sin.

There’s little reason to think the coronavirus will have impacts on a similar scale as the Black Death: medical science, and the existence of relatively well-resourced governments, have made human beings more resilient against disease than ever in history.

From the history of the Black Death, though, we must beware this fact: the pandemic now sweeping across our world also has the power to unleash the ugliest in human nature. Long after the pestilence is past, the darkness it unleashed still survives.

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