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The word “unprecedented” has become commonplace in conversations about the City during the Coronavirus crisis.
Even the wisest and oldest heads in the firms and businesses that make up the Square Mile are struggling to think of a time when the normally busy streets have been so completely abandoned. Their usual inhabitants are instead crouched over kitchen tables or sat in home offices balancing children in one hand and conference calls in the other.
The City is not entirely empty. Curious tourists still wander around accompanied by bikes, a lot of bikes, which appear to have taken over as the primary way of getting around. Some areas still seem like a normal city – albeit one having an off-day – but as you reach the deepest darkest part of the Square Mile things change very quickly. The normally busy offices and sandwich bars feel abandoned.
Many people will question whether the way we did business six short months ago can ever really return. The City has, however, survived tumultuous periods – emerging different but not diminished – many times.
My daily exercise last week was not spent on the rowing machine, but instead dragging my old 1957 film camera around the empty streets of London considering some of its more unusual historical landmarks.(Credit: Own Work).
Smithfield Market and the Peasants’ Revolt
Central London’s trade came under threat on 13 June 1381, in the fields outside the City walls, the Smith Fields.
A significant section of the population, frustrated at a social system that was actively prejudiced against them, broke into London and began running amok.
The reasons for the Peasants’ Revolt are multifaceted. They range from the socio-economic impacts of one of the worst global pandemics in history (the Black Death killed an estimated 50 percent of England’s population) to war, over taxation, perceived government mismanagement of various crises, and frustration at the system of serfdom that kept those subjected to it in poverty.
In the past few months more than a billion people have been forced to rise to an extraordinary challenge. But it is important to remember that humans have experienced pandemics before. In this documentary Dan Snow explores some of these previous pandemics and what they can teach us about Covid-19.Watch Now
The rebels had lists of people they wanted fourteen-year-old King Richard II to hand over for execution. They wandered the streets looking to enact vengeance where they could. Clerkenwell Priory was destroyed. Temple was attacked and its contents burned.
Most audaciously, the rebels waited until the King had left to negotiate with their leaders at Mile End before entering the Tower of London. There they found key members of the King’s entourage, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer, and beheaded them.
Smithfield Market (Credit: Own Work).
By this point, the King had agreed to many of the rebels’ demands and was disappointed that they had refused to disperse. He met the rebels and their leader, Wat Tyler, outside of the City walls, at Smithfield, to protest at the fact they were still plaguing the City.
The exact details of the events here are somewhat patchy but it seems that Tyler was over familiar with the King. He asked for water and then (in what always seems a somewhat incredibly bullish move):
“rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face”.
There was a scuffle and the Lord Mayor of London stabbed Tyler before another of the King’s servants joined in on the act. Tyler was severely injured but, in the general commotion, ended up in a hospital for the poor before being dragged back to Smithfield and beheaded.
What kind of England did Richard inherit? Why was John of Gaunt so influential? How significant was the 'Peasant's Revolt'? How did Richard's death contrast with his reign? Medieval historian Helen Carr answers key questions about King Richard II.Watch Now
The King remarkably managed to defuse the situation and persuade the rebels to disperse. Without their leader, the movement quickly fell apart. King Richard then quickly clamped down on the rising, reversed his promises and rounded up and executed the key leaders of the revolt.
The historiography of the revolt is particularly rich. Some claim that it was a proto-Marxist movement. Others have suggested that it had lasting significance in changing the practice of serfdom and more still have stated that it did very little indeed.
Whatever the historical truth, it is still remembered in the small square in front of St Barts. A plaque there features a particularly poignant quote from John Ball, a priest in the leadership of the rising who would later be hung, drawn and quartered in front of the King:
“Things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will, until everything shall be in common when there shall neither be vassal or Lord and all distinctions levelled.”
Plaque commemorating the Revolt at St Barts (Credit: Own Work).
The parallels between this event and our current time are so obvious that it’s almost trite to draw them. A major biological catastrophe changing our daily lives, government advisers that spend more time in castles than serving the people and an important part of our society so disenfranchised by the establishment that they seek to topple pillars that maintain the social order.
Some things do not change, although perhaps they ought to.
Regardless, the City has endured, despite the bloodshed of those few days in June. It was eerie to stand in the middle of the normally bustling Smithfield area with only the shadows of the past for company.
Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commerical litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.
Uprisings after pandemics have happened before – just look at the English Peasant Revolt of 1381
In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels. Credit: The British Library
As a professor of medieval Europe, I've taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.
The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.
"Where people are broke, and there doesn't appear to be any assistance, there's no leadership, there's no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness," African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told the New York Times.
Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren't tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society's lowest tiers.
And like today, the majority of wealth was held by an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population. When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked the pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country's leaders refused to listen.
Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.
Clamoring for higher wages
Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it's estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.
The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.
The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.
Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.
Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn't increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.
The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd's death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.
Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates, 30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king. The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named Wat Tyler and an itinerant, radical preacher named John Ball.
Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.
With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.
To quell the violence, Edward's successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be "of free condition," which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.
While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn't end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard's men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.
For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was drawn and quartered. On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void. The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.
American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income.
The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don't return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.
It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism—where the richest 1% now own more than half of the world's wealth – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.
When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we're seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Capitalism’s plague nightmare
Today, capitalism faces its own plague nightmare. Though the COVID-19 virus may kill between 1 percent and 4 percent of those who catch it, it is about to have an impact on a much more complex economy than the one that existed back in the 1340s – one with a much more fragile geopolitical order, and on a society already gripped with foreboding over climate change.
Let us consider the massive changes the pandemic has already forced.
First, the partial shutdown of daily life in large parts of China, India, most of Europe and numerous states in America.
Second, significant damage to the reputations of governments and political elites who either denied the seriousness of the crisis, or in the initial stages proved incapable of mobilising their healthcare systems to meet it.
Third, an immediate slump in consumer spending across all major economies which is certain to provoke the deepest recession in living memory: share prices have already collapsed and this, in turn, hurts middle-class families whose pension funds have to invest in shares. Meanwhile, the solvency of airlines, airports and hotel chains is in doubt.
In response, states have launched economic rescue packages so massive that most people have not yet got their heads around the implications. The US government will inject two trillion dollars into the economy – through a mixture of direct payments to citizens and loans to business – more than half of what it collects in taxes in a year.
Meanwhile, the central banks have switched to a new and aggressive form of quantitative easing. Just as after the last global financial crisis in 2008, they will create new money to buy up government debt – but this time, it is not going to be gradual, or focused on the safest government bonds. Introduced as a panic measure in 2008, it seems quantitative easing could be with us for decades.
Politicians are busy reassuring voters that it will be a “ V-shaped recession ” – a sharp slump followed by a bounce-back, because the “real economy”, they claim, is sound.
COVID-19: Humanities scholars offer insights for the future by looking at the history of pandemics
The global COVID-19 pandemic affected us all and demands us all to work toward mitigating its effects. The Purdue College of Liberal Arts intellectual community is ready to step up to the plate. Our scholars are well equipped to propose humanistic responses to the tribulations associated with the pandemic. They are particularly well-positioned to explain how the pandemic challenged “common wisdom” assumptions about “normal” life. They can propose socio-cultural strategies tested by time that may help us make value-driven choices or adopt anxiety coping mechanisms.
We asked two of our leading humanities scholars to help us untangle some of the dilemmas brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Professor of Medieval English Literature and the Head of the English Department, and Dr. Paula Leverage, Associate Professor of French and Medieval Studies and the Director of the Center for Neurohumanities. They have studied and have a solid understanding of the Great Plague, which killed between one third and half of the European population between 1347-1350. Their knowledge might help us better understand and respond to the human cultural and social challenges of the pandemic.
The interview was conducted by Dr. Sorin Adam Matei, Professor of Communication and the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education.
Dr. Matei: Epidemics tap into some of our deeper fears that go beyond personal harm. They threaten those that are close to us, the livelihood of our community, and ultimately the social support network that makes our lives possible. How did medieval people deal with these fears? What can we learn from their coping mechanisms?
Dr. Armstrong: One thing that is striking about human reactions both then and now is how people tend to freak out in strikingly similar ways. In the Middle Ages, responses to the Black Death ran the whole gamut. Some people turned to religion, hoping to appease God and quell his wrath. The most extreme example of this was the Flagellant movement these people traveled from town to town, scourging their own flesh with whips and flails in a public display of bodily humiliation and punishment. Their hopes were to save the soul by punishing the flesh, and also to inspire others make similar acts of atonement. Other people, having decided that the end of the world was literally at hand, decided to party away their remaining time on earth, and gave in to licentiousness and debauchery. And although there was no theory of germ transmission, medieval people were smart enough to observe that crowded cities were where the plague spread the quickest, so those who could decamped to the countryside.
Dr. Leverage: Recently, I have been re-reading the work of a fourteenth-century anchorite who survived eight outbreaks of the plague in England. This is the nun Julian of Norwich. Julian comes to mind in answering this question for two reasons. First, as an anchorite quite literally walled into a cell attached to the side of a church, which opened on one side to the public and on the other to the church, Julian counselled local people from a small window overlooking the street. I like to think of her in modern terms as a cross between a spiritual advisor and therapist. In the late 1340s when Julian was a young girl, the plague killed approximately three quarters of the 25, 000 strong population of Norwich. No doubt, the people of Norwich had good reason to come to her with prayer requests and to talk.
The second reason is that Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is stunningly iconoclastic, and revisionist in her theology, describing not only a God who is a mother, but one who is not vengeful, angry and punishing. Throughout her writing there are messages of hope and comfort, many of which have become well-known, circulating even unattached to their author’s name. For example, in the 16th Revelation, Julian writes, “He said not: ‘You will not be caught up in storms, you will not be overstretched, you will not be made to suffer’ but he said : ‘You will not be overcome.’ ” So, in summary, from Julian, the medieval therapist and mystic, I think we can learn that people need people to talk to, and sometimes quiet time to reflect.
Quite coincidentally, I grew up in Norwich and went to a high school which was within short walking distance of Julian’s cell and church.
Dr. Matei: The Black Death pandemic (1347-1350), which culled between one third to a full half of the European population, brought with it many social changes. Only a few, such early forms of social distancing, at times imposed brutally by shuttering houses or blocks, were of medical importance. Can you recount some of the non-medical social changes created by medieval epidemics? How did they change the face of Europe?
Dr. Armstrong: For one thing, the rigid, hierarchical social structure known as the Three Estates (those who fight—the nobles—those who pray—the clergy—and those who work—everyone else) began to break down. Prior to the outbreak of plague, there was a serious land-crunch, and peasants (about 90 percent of the population) were bound to the manor on which they lived and worked and the lord who ruled it. After the Black Death, there was a labor shortage. Nobles started having to pay cash wages to laborers, and labor was in such high demand, that peasants could simply leave and go on down the road to a nobleman who was willing to offer a better deal. Almost everyone who made it to 1353 was better off financially and in terms of land/assets–except the nobility. For the first time, the nobles married down into the merchant class, which actually had money the merchants were thrilled to have their children marry UP in society and gain titles. This resulted in greater social mobility and opportunities for advancement among the lower classes. For a time the upper classes tried to hold on their power and status—freezing wages at pre-plague levels, limiting movement through the countryside, etc—but a number of revolts against these laws (most notably the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381) proved that there was no going back to the way things were.
Dr. Leverage: Obviously the depopulation of Europe impacted the workforce significantly, and created a situation which one might expect to benefit the lowest wage earners. But the medieval manorial system, supported by the guilds, controlled workers through legislation which permitted fixing wages, and restricting movement. The consequence of the enforcement of this legislation led to widespread peasant revolt. More generally, we see a questioning and challenging of institutional authority, whether ecclesiastical, or secular, which by the end of the Middle Ages culminates in rent-paying tenants replacing peasant labor, women mystics raising independent voices from anchorages, and ultimately the Reformation.
Dr. Matei: Can we expect any societal changes of the same kind coming out of the COVID-19 crisis?
Dr. Armstrong: What this pandemic has made clearer than ever is that the people who make our society function—grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, sanitation workers, etc—have not been treated as they should. I hope that in the future people in these positions will get living wages, hazard pay, paid sick leave, etc. Also, I hope this drives home to people the need in this country for universal health care, brings the idea of a universal basic income into the mainstream political discussion, and teaches us to be better prepared.
Dr. Leverage: I think we are already seeing changes. Locally, a COVID-19 Mutual Aid Response group is operating via social media to enable connections within the community which match need with supply. People across the country are supporting local business when they can by buying gift vouchers for services and goods they might not be able to use immediately. As Dr. Rieux states at the end The Plague, “we learn in a time of pestilence [:] that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Dr. Matei: One of the inadvertent products of the Black Death was Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353). This is a collection of at times light-hearted stories, with more than one accent of ribaldry, written as a form of literary consolation to the Black Death pandemic. At the same time, the religious establishment of the time focused on the opposite message, Memento Mori, or Live Your Life Saintly While You Can. Pandemics seem to induce an oscillation between “rejoice” and “repent.” Should we expect anything like it in contemporary popular culture?
Dr. Armstrong: I think we are already seeing a remarkable amount of artistic expression/response to this pandemic, and much of it may be characterized as an attempt to comfort, to entertain, and to connect with one another. The difference now is we get to see it more quickly, thanks to multiple media platforms, wifi connectivity, etc.
Dr. Leverage: I think it’s also useful to mention the Dance of Death, or the danse macabre tradition, which uncomfortably brings together the rejoicing with the less cheerful emotions. Thinking, too, about the popularity of different forms of art with different parts of society, the danse macabre is fascinating because it dramatizes Death leading figures from all stations of life into the dance of death. So, this tradition, represented in church murals, breaks down any possible perception that there is a divide between commoners and elite in their ultimate resistance to death.
Moving into the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957) about the plague in medieval Sweden features an interesting scene set in a church during which Jons, the protagonist’s squire, strikes up a conversation with a painter decorating the walls with images of the Dance of Death. There follows a discussion about the purpose of art, the degree to which it should be realistic, and if it should aim to please. While Jons fears that the stark realism will frighten, anger, and render unhappy anyone looking at it, the painter insists that it will make people think.
Turning to contemporary popular culture, and COVID-19, three recent works have caught my attention: two by the British street artist Banksy (“Game Changer” in Southampton General Hospital and “Cupid with slingshot of roses”) in Bristol, and one by French artist Saype or Guillaume Legros (“Beyond Crisis”) in the Swiss Alps. Each of these works features a young child at play: in the first, a boy chooses a nurse superhero over more conventional superheroes from his toy box, in the second, a young girl launches a splatter of roses from a slingshot, and in the third, a girl sits holding hands in a circle of chalked stick figures. The earliest work of these three is the second, which appeared on February 14th. Immediately the disposition of the roses on the wall was compared to the coronavirus in its shape, and now retrospectively it would also appear to suggest airborne contagion. While the second has been read with the menace inherent in the emerging global crisis in February, the first and second appear to offer hope.
Dr. Matei: In times of crisis, such as this, the study or even the lessons of literature, art, or humanities, seem like luxuries, not necessities. However, the possibility of a global pandemic and its devastating effects was explored in movies, art, and literature almost to exhaustion in the last decades. In view of this, literature and film might not be the pursuit of imagining Things That Do Not Exist, but a very useful method to preemptively imagine that which Could Very Well Be. Literature and film might not be the esthetically distorting mirrors, but very effective forms of precognition (as in the movie Minority Report). How should we interpret the long series of pandemic movies, such as Virus, Pademic, World War Z, Outbreak, and so on, in view of this idea?
Dr. Armstrong: I think what most of those movies are about is less the actual pandemic than how people try to maintain or rebuild a society in the face of it. That’s what I find most interesting about them—what elements of civilization do we hold on to? Which ones do we let go or sacrifice? And obviously, different people have different priorities. Some people want to make sure that we protect one another and give our frontline medical workers time to get on top of the wave, and are willing to self-isolate for as long as necessary. Other people want to get back to normal and get a haircut. The whole spectrum of human behavior—from the utterly selfless to the extremely selfish—is on display.
Dr. Leverage: There are two perspectives on the question of literature and film at this time of crisis which we might usefully consider under the shorthand “reading the present through the past” and “reading the future through the past.”
The first informs the premise of the course I have been teaching this semester during the pandemic, The Middle Ages on Film. The directors of the films we analyze explore, through the lens of the Middle Ages, issues contemporary with the film’s production, such as AIDS / HIV, Muslim / Christian relations in the wake of 9/11, nuclear proliferation, the rise of fascism in Europe in the first part of the twentieth century, propaganda and censorship, etc. At the time when Purdue broke for Spring break, simultaneously with the announcement that we would return to online teaching, I had been discussing Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with my students in a section on the plague. Bergman’s film is ostensibly a “medieval” film since it engages with crusaders and plagues and flagellants, but it is more fundamentally a film about a quest for meaning at a time of existentialist crisis, with the protagonist Antonius Block desperately searching for evidence of the existence of God, and when he does not find that, he searches for one final act to give his life meaning before death. He finds this in helping the family of travelling players to escape.
When I adjusted the syllabus in response to the lockdown, I replaced the final exam with a project I called, “COVID-19 and the Middle Ages: The Director’s Project” which asked the undergraduates to consider the pandemic through the lens of the Middle Ages. As a director, how would they create meaning from this contemporary history through situating its representation in the Middle Ages? The final product could be an essay, a film, a film script, a short story, etc. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to see if they could apply their understanding of the concepts of the course to the historical circumstances through which they are living. The projects submitted by the students amazed me, and it was clear that it had been a useful exercise to think through their current experiences from the safe distance of the Middle Ages.
Credit: Christina Pansino, College of Liberal Arts / FVS Major. Project for LC333 The Middle Ages on Film (Spring 2020, Professor Leverage)
The second perspective, “reading the future through the past” is also one I can approach through recent teaching experience. In a Cornerstone course, I had already assigned reading from Albert Camus. After the pandemic came to town, I added Camus’s novel The Plague to the reading list, along with a project which asking the students to compare the psychological and institutional responses to the plague in the novel and COVID-19. Almost universally the response was incredulity that such a work could have been written which so accurately describes what we are experiencing, and that history repeats itself. Of course, Camus’s novel relates an outbreak of the plague in Oran, French Algeria in ….” and not the Middle Ages, and has been read as an indictment of “la peste brune” or the rise of fascism in Europe. But what the students were recognizing was less the disease and contagion than the expression of human experience, as Camus describes in the book: “But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after day, on the illusive solace of their memories. For in their aimless walks they kept on coming back to the same streets and usually, owing to the smallness of the town, these were streets in which, in happier days, they had walked with those who now were absent. Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.”
Dr. Matei: Any other thoughts about the drama of our pandemic experience?
Dr. Leverage: The relationship between the individual and community has sometimes been represented broadly as weighted more heavily towards community in the Middle Ages, with development towards an awareness of individual consciousness in the centuries that follow, and culminating in a contemporary Western society sometimes considered egocentric. COVID-19 has created circumstances in which recognizing the symbiosis of individual and community has become a critical public health issue. Masks and staying home symbolize self-serving altruism.
Dr. Armstrong: Just that I would really like to get off this ride now.
Can the Covid-19 pandemic help us fix our technology problem?
The world has a technology problem. By that, I mean that we currently lack the technology to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t have a cheap, easy, self-administered test. We lack effective medicines. Above all, we don’t have a vaccine.
But I also mean something vaguer and more diffuse. We have a technology problem in the sense that scientific and technological progress has been sputtering for a while. That is evident in the data.
The 2010-19 decade of productivity growth in the UK was the lowest for the past couple of centuries, and coronavirus can take no blame for that.
If productivity statistics do not speak to your poetic soul, go into your kitchen and look around. You’ll see little there that you couldn’t have seen 50 years ago. The same could not be said of, say, the 50 years between 1920 and 1970. Or ponder air travel, if you can remember what that is like.
Between 1920 and 1970, we went from aviator goggles and fabric-covered biplanes to the Boeing 747 and Concorde. Not only have we failed to surge forward since then, one could even argue that we’ve gone backward.
Given how much we keep being told about the disruptive pace of innovation and the boundless creativity of Silicon Valley, the reality is both surprising and disappointing.
After several years pondering the history of inventions and inventors, I wondered whether these two problems might shed light on each other – what can we learn from the pandemic about technology, and what does the history of technology teach us about the pandemic?
Get the incentives right
In 1795, the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs for inventing a method of preserving food. Napoleon Bonaparte was an ambitious general when the prize was announced. By the time it was awarded, he was France’s emperor, and two years away from his disastrous invasion of Russia.
Napoleon may or may not have said: “An army marches on its stomach,” but he was keen to broaden his soldiers’ provisions from smoked and salted meat.
One of the hopefuls who tried his hand at winning the prize was Nicolas Appert, a Parisian grocer and confectioner credited with the development of the stock cube and – less plausibly – the recipe for chicken Kiev.
Through trial and error, Appert found if you put cooked food in a glass jar, plunged the jar into boiling water and then sealed it with wax, the food would keep - all this was before Louis Pasteur was born. Having solved the problem, Monsieur Appert duly claimed his reward.
This is by no means the only example of an innovation prize, a policy tool that has waxed and waned over the years. The most famous was the 1714 Longitude Prize, for solving the problem of how far east or west a ship was.
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the RSA, also awarded prizes on a frequent basis, often for safety measures that were regarded as unprofitable but socially valuable.
Anton Howes, author of Arts and Minds, a history of the RSA, reckons that the society awarded more than 2,000 innovation prizes between the mid-1700s and the mid-1800s. Some were “bounties”, ad hoc recognition for good ideas many, however, were classic innovation prizes like that awarded to Appert, which pose an important problem and promise to reward the person who solves it.
Out of fashion
Nowadays such prizes are out of fashion. Governments tend to favour a combination of direct support for researchers and the award of an intellectual monopoly, in the form of a patent, to those who develop original ideas. But just like the innovations the RSA rewarded, rapid vaccines can be unprofitable but socially valuable.
So a group of the world’s leading economists believes that if we are to maximise the chances of producing that vital coronavirus vaccine at the speed and scale that is required, we need to bring innovation prizes back in a big way.
This team, known as “Accelerating Health Technologies”, includes Susan Athey, the first woman to win the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, and Michael Kremer, a Nobel laureate.
“Whoever discovers the vaccine first is going to get such a big hug,” joked the Financial Times cartoonist Banx. It’s safe to say that they would get much more than that, but would they get enough? Major pharmaceutical companies have been scarred by earlier experiences, where they sank money into vaccines for diseases such as Zika or Sars, or in 2009 rushed to fulfil large orders for flu vaccines, only to find that demand had ebbed.
The problem is that most vaccine research programmes do not produce successful vaccines, and so companies – understandably – try to keep a lid on their spending until one is proven to work.
Anthony Fauci, director of the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, lamented the problem in February: “Companies that have the skill to be able to do it are not going to just sit around and have a warm facility, ready to go for when you need it,” he told an Aspen Institute panel.
Ultimately be wasted
We need the leading vaccine contenders to invest vastly more in trials and production than they normally would, even though much of that investment will ultimately be wasted. And of course, they already are investing more - up to a point. That is partly an act of good corporate citizenship and partly in response to subsidies from governments or the Gates Foundation. But it may not be sufficient.
After all, the cost of failure will be borne mainly by the companies involved, while the benefits of success will be enjoyed by all of us: the IMF estimates the benefits are more than $10 billion (€8.8 billion) for every day that widespread vaccine delivery is hastened.
Any inducement the rest of us can offer might be money well spent. So Athey, Kremer and their colleagues have proposed a kind of prize called an “advanced market commitment”, a promise to buy hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine for a premium price.
This is not an untried idea. In 2004, Kremer and Rachel Glennerster, the current chief economist of the UK’s Department for International Development, proposed the concept of an advanced market commitment (AMC). In 2010, donors promised $1.5 billionn as an AMC for a pneumococcal vaccine for low-income countries this dramatically accelerated the rollout of successful vaccines and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the AMC is really just a sophisticated variant on the innovation prizes of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the one claimed by Nicolas Appert.
Incentives are not the only thing that matter - but matter they do. If we want a solution that badly, we shouldn’t hesitate to commit to rewarding those who produce it. It is not such a leap from food preservation to a vaccine.
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Don’t overlook what seems simple
On August 4th, 1945, as the US and USSR were manoeuvring for position in a postwar world, a group of boys from the Young Pioneer Organisation of the Soviet Union made a charming gesture of friendship. At the US embassy in Moscow, they presented a large, hand-carved ceremonial seal of the United States of America to Averell Harriman, the US ambassador. It was later to become known simply as “the Thing”.
Harriman’s office checked the heavy wooden ornament for signs of a bug, but concluded that, with neither wires nor batteries, it could do no harm. Harriman mounted the Thing proudly on the wall of his study. From there, it betrayed his private conversations for the next seven years.
Eventually, a British radio operator stumbled upon the US ambassador’s conversations being broadcast over the airwaves. These broadcasts were unpredictable: scan the embassy for radio emissions, and no bug was in evidence. It took yet more time to discover the secret. The listening device was inside the Thing. And it was so subtle, so simple, as to have proved almost undetectable.
The Thing had been designed - under duress in a Soviet prison camp - by none other than Léon Theremin, famous even then for his eponymous musical instrument. Inside it was little more than an antenna attached to a cavity with a silver diaphragm over it, serving as a microphone. There were no batteries or any other source of power. The Thing didn’t need them.
It was activated by radio waves beamed at the US embassy by the Soviets, at which point it would broadcast back, using the energy of the incoming signal. Switch off that signal, and it would go silent.
The US agents who examined the Thing for bugs did not understand its potential to do them harm. It seemed too simple, too primitive, to matter. And I worry that we often make the same mistake.
When we think about technology, we think of the flashy, sophisticated stuff. We overlook the cheap and the simple. We celebrate the printing press that produced the Gutenberg Bibles, but not the paper that many of those Bibles were printed on. Alongside paper and the RFID tag, place the brick, the postage stamp and, for that matter, the humble tin can: inventions that are transformative not because they are complicated but because they are simple.
We should remember the same lesson when it comes to the innovations that fuel public health.
The simplest technologies – such as soap and gloves, and, it seems increasingly likely, cloth masks – have proved invaluable, and are much-missed when in short supply.
Resilient retail supply chain
And those are just the obvious technologies. The UK and the US stumbled in their efforts to scale up testing in the crucial early weeks of the epidemic. It will take post-pandemic inquiries to establish exactly why – and incompetence is clearly one explanation – but reporters highlighted a shortage of the chemical reagents necessary to conduct the test, the protective gear needed to shield the medical staff and even something as simple as cotton swabs.
Even now, it is too easy to dismiss the potential of truly cheap and simple testing. The economist Paul Romer, another Nobel memorial prize winner, argues that if everyone in a country could be tested twice a month – the equivalent, in the UK, of more than four million tests a day – that should provide enough information to suppress the virus whenever there was an outbreak.
That is a vast leap beyond our current testing capacity – but the benefits could be enormous. Imagine a reliable test that was cheap and self-administered, like a pregnancy test or a thermometer. Highly sophisticated is good, but being cheap has a sophistication of its own.
Contact tracing is another simple but vital approach. An age-old idea that requires little more than a phone, a notebook and a small army of persistent and diplomatic people, it was abandoned in the UK for the three gravest months of the crisis, apparently on the basis that the army had yet to be recruited and so the tracing system could cope with no more than five new cases a week. Since the lockdown was eased, we have well over a thousand a day.
Then there are the everyday logistical miracles made possible by other simple inventions, the barcode and the shipping container. Nobody cares about logistics until things go wrong.
It has been remarkable to see how resilient retail supply chains have been in the face of the most extraordinary disruption. At a time when much of the world’s population was told not to venture beyond their own front doors, we saw little more than a brief awkwardness in sourcing flour, pasta and toilet paper.
But it has not been so straightforward to duplicate this feat when it comes to testing. Embarrassed by the early deficiency, the UK government set ambitious targets. Ministers then claimed to hit them, first by including testing kits that had merely been posted out, and then by bragging about “capacity”.
Meanwhile, the government simply stopped reporting how many people had been tested at all. The logistics of conducting, or even counting, the tests proved challenging enough that for the purposes of meeting targets, logistical problems were simply assumed away.
In our desperation to develop high-tech solutions such as drugs or contact-tracing apps, there is a risk that we ignore the simple technologies that can achieve a lot. As Averell Harriman discovered, it is a mistake to overlook technologies that seem too simple to matter.
Manufacturing matters too
There is more to innovation than a good idea. The food-preserving “Appertisation” technology did not stay in France for long – it migrated across the Channel to seek London’s entrepreneurialism and venture capital, allowing production to scale up. (This was a time when the British were, evidently, not too proud to borrow a good idea from the French.) Appert himself was also trying to expand his operations. He invested his prize money in a food-preservation factory, only to see it destroyed by invading Prussian and Austrian armies. Ideas matter, but factories matter too.
Factories are likely to prove equally fateful for vaccine production. Developing a successful vaccine is far more than just a manufacturing problem, but manufacturing is undoubtedly the kind of challenge that keeps experts awake at night.
The candidate vaccines are sufficiently different from each other that it is unfeasible to build an all-purpose production line that would work for any of them, so we need to build several in parallel.
“Imagine that your life depended on completing a home construction project on time,” Susan Athey told the . “Anyone who’s ever done a construction project knows that none of them had ever been completed on time. . . literally, if your life depended on it, you might try to build five houses.”
Or to put it another way, if your life depends on a letter being delivered on time, send multiple copies of the letter by as many methods as you can find.
In the case of a coronavirus vaccine, setting up multiple redundant production lines costs money – tens of billions of dollars. But remember that an accelerated vaccine is worth more than $10 billionn a day.
Any reasonable subsidy would be value for money, assuming it increased the probability of quick success. Some subsidies are already available – for example, as part of the US “Warp Speed” project, and from the Gates Foundation. But Michael Kremer wants to see more international co-ordination and more ambition. “We think the scale of the problem and the risks associated with each candidate warrant pursuing a substantially larger number of candidates,” he told me.
Alex Tabarrok, another member of the team, added: “Bill Gates is doing the right thing but even Gates can’t do it all. Governments are acting too slowly. Every week that we delay a vaccine costs us billions.”
Take for granted
Athey, Kremer, Tabarrok and the rest of the team behind the Advanced Market Commitment proposal want to supplement it with generous 85 per cent subsidies for the immediate construction of vaccine factories.
The calculation here is that firms are the best judges of their own prospects. A firm with a marginal vaccine will not build much capacity, even with an 85 per cent subsidy. But anyone with a decent chance at producing a vaccine will see the prize on offer, and the subsidies, and start building factories at once.
On the principle of not overlooking what seems simple, even the most sophisticated vaccines rely on ingredients that are all too easy to take for granted. Consider the supply of glass vials.
Several doses can be included in a single vial, but that still suggests a demand for hundreds of millions of them if a successful vaccine is made. The vaccine industry is used to operating at scale, but this would be something new: vaccines simply aren’t given to everyone in the world all at once.
Or perhaps the hold-up won’t be the glass, but something else. James Robinson, a vaccine manufacturing expert, told the science writer Maggie Koerth: “A vaccine manufacture . . . might source several thousand ingredients to make a vaccine. But each material is coming from factories with hundreds of sources, and those sources have sources.”
For example, GlaxoSmithKline uses an extract from the soap-bark tree to produce a vaccine-enhancing ingredient called an adjuvant for some of the vaccines now in development, the adjuvant may enhance their effectiveness or make a certain quantity stretch to more doses.
As Koerth noted, however, the bark is harvested in Peru, Chile and Bolivia during the summer months of the southern hemisphere. Last year’s crop was harvested before the coronavirus had become a household name this year’s harvest will not begin until November.
Disruption can help
It hasn’t just been the past few decades in which apparently remarkable technologies have made an underwhelming impression on the productivity figures. Consider the history of electrification in American factories. In the 1890s, the potential for electricity seemed clear.
Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan independently invented usable lightbulbs in the late 1870s. In 1881, Edison built electricity-generating stations at Pearl Street in Manhattan and Holborn in London. Things moved quickly: within a year, he was selling electricity as a commodity a year later, the first electric motors were used to drive manufacturing machinery.
Yet by 1900, less than 5 per cent of mechanical drive power in US factories was coming from electric motors. Most factories were still in the age of steam. This was because when manufacturers replaced large steam engines with large electric motors, they were disappointed with the results.
I’ve written about the work of economic historian Paul David before. He argued it wasn’t enough merely to replace steam engines with electric motors. The capabilities of those new motors could only be used fully if the factories were redesigned.
While replacing a large steam engine with a large electric motor had achieved very little, electric motors could be efficient at a smaller scale. That meant that each worker could have a small motor at their bench. Wires could replace driveshafts factories could spread out into lighter, airier spaces the flow of product could be optimised, rather than being constrained by proximity to the power source.
But a fascinating part of David’s argument is that all this was catalysed by a crisis. After 1914, workers became more expensive thanks to a series of new laws that limited immigration into the US from a war-torn Europe. Manufacturing wages soared and hiring workers became more about quality, and less about quantity.
It was worth investing in training – and better trained workers were better placed to use the autonomy that electricity gave them. The recruitment problem sparked by the immigration restrictions helped to spark new thinking about the design of the American factory floor.
Learning about resilience
Some of the modern parallels are obvious. We have had email, internet and affordable computers for years - and more recently, video-conferencing. Yet until the crisis hit, we had been slow to explore online education, virtual meetings or telemedicine. 3D printing and other agile manufacturing techniques have moved from being curiosities to life-saving ways to meet the new demand for medical equipment.
We are quickly learning new ways to work from a distance because suddenly we have had no choice. And we are learning about resilience.
There is no guarantee that a crisis always brings fresh ideas sometimes a catastrophe is just a catastrophe. Still, there is no shortage of examples for when necessity proved the mother of invention, sometimes many times over.
The Economist points to the case of Karl von Drais, who invented an early model of the bicycle in the shadow of “the year without a summer” – when in 1816 European harvests were devastated by the after-effects of the gargantuan eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Horses were starved of oats von Drais’s “mechanical horse” needed no food.
It is a good example. But one might equally point to infant formula and beef extract, both developed by Justus von Liebig in response to the horrifying hunger he had witnessed in Germany as a teenager in 1816.
Or, if we are to recognise art as well as science, there is Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, written that same rainy summer beside Lake Geneva the creature’s isolation mirrors that of the starving peasants she saw, begging for food. One crisis may lead to many creative responses.
The same may be true of this pandemic. Disruptions - even calamitous ones - have a way of bulldozing vested interests and tearing up cosy assumptions, jolting people and organisations out of the status quo.
It is just possible that future generations will point to 2020 as the year the innovation slowdown ended. Even economists need to be able to hope. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020
The Covid-19 Pandemic Helps Tell the True Story of Thanksgiving
Plymouth, Mass., had planned for a big party this year to mark its 400th anniversary. The replica Mayflower II, a gift to the U.S. from Britain in 1957 and now grandly restored for more than $11 million, was readied to sail ceremoniously into the harbor as tens of thousands cheered.
The last big anniversary of Plymouth&rsquos founding, the 300th in 1920, was a huge event that held the nation&rsquos attention. Nearly 1,400 citizen-actors took part in a historical pageant with a finale by Robert Frost. Even Plymouth Rock had a speaking role. Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge delivered an address declaring that &ldquoPlymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end. It marks a revelation &hellip shining through eternity.&rdquo The Pilgrims were the pride of America.
The pandemic has interfered with the 400th anniversary, and that disruption actually tells the true story of Plymouth. On Dec. 20, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore where they did because an epidemic had cleared the way. Plymouth is founded on an epidemic.
The Pilgrims, as we call these religious separatists, dissenters from the Church of England, had a rough crossing. Landing first on Cape Cod, they stole the Wampanoags&rsquo stored corn, entered their houses, taking the &ldquobest things,&rdquo and robbed a few graves, taking &ldquosundry of the prettiest things away with us.&rdquo They wrote all this down. But they were still unsure where to settle.
They chose Patuxet, a Wampanoag village they named Plymouth, knowing it was not occupied, though they would soon see that the Wampanoags still returned there to fish. The fields &mdash &ldquomuch corn ground&rdquo &mdash were long cleared, as if for the taking.
The Pilgrims, and the Puritans 10 years after them, had not come to a &ldquowaste and howling wilderness,&rdquo as one Puritan minister wrote in a 1651 poem. Over thousands of years, the Wampanoag people had cultivated a prosperous and bountiful land. Thriving villages were connected by a network of trails that ran through the forest and fields. Along the trails, they had dug small holes about a foot deep that were story-markers, reminders of the stories to be told at that spot. They grew corn, beans, squash and melons, hunted deer and other animals, gathered acorns, berries and roots, and fished by building weirs in the rivers and along the seacoast, where they also harvested crabs, oysters, scallops and clams.
With the many &ldquogardens and corn fields . the greatness of the timber growing on them, the greatness of the fish &hellip this is a most excellent place, both for health and fertility,&rdquo wrote the English explorer John Smith in 1616, advertising the region to prospective investors and settlers.
But at the time the Pilgrims landed, the Wampanoags and their neighbors had been tested by the years they called the Great Dying. An epidemic from 1616 to 1619 &mdash which may have been smallpox (there are other theories) &mdash had killed as many as 9 out of 10 coastal Indians.
&ldquoA whole village might have two survivors, and those two survivors were not just like any two people,&rdquo says historian Jill Lepore. &ldquoThey were two people who had seen everyone they know die miserable, wretched, painful &mdash excruciatingly painful &mdash deaths.&rdquo The Pilgrims found fields of bones lying above ground.
&ldquoThere hath, by God&rsquos visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, the utter destruction, devastation, and depopulation of that whole territory, so as there is not left any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein,&rdquo wrote King James I, granting the New England Charter and dismissing the thousands of Native Americans who remained. God had cleared the way for the English. Vacant land could be seized &mdash vacuum domicilium in English law.
The Wampanoags, much depleted, were exposed to attack from their rivals to the south, the Narragansetts, who had been spared the epidemic. They were looking for allies. The sachem the English called Massasoit decided to reach out to the Pilgrims. (His name was Ousamequin. &ldquoMassasoit&rdquo is an honorific meaning roughly the &ldquohighest chief who speaks on behalf,&rdquo or Great Sachem.) He set in motion an alliance that would ensure the Pilgrims&rsquo survival.
The 400 years that have followed are summed up by Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag who for years was the associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at the living history museum then called Plimoth Plantation and now Plimouth Patuxet. Visitors to the re-created village would often ask her, &ldquoWeren&rsquot you glad when the Pilgrims came?&rdquo Answer: &ldquoNo.&rdquo
&ldquoWe had lived for 10[,000] or 12,000 years, by the archeological record, with the world as our creator had made it,&rdquo says Coombs. &ldquoAnd then in less than 400 years we&rsquore at the brink of destruction with our &lsquoadvanced&rsquo technological and industrial society.&rdquo
The current pandemic is nowhere as virulent as the Great Dying, but it has tested us. Our plague year is also an opportunity. Let&rsquos use our adversity to help us see, at last, one of the hidden truths of our nation&rsquos founding: the great suffering of the Native people. Plymouth is built on an epidemic our Thanksgiving is built on the bones of the Great Dying. The coronavirus is a fitting memorial for Plymouth&rsquos 400th anniversary.
‘Quarantines can work. Fear mongering, scapegoating do not’
KINGSTON, R.I. – April 22, 2020 – Following is a short question-and-answer piece with the University of Rhode Island Department of History’s Joëlle Rollo-Koster, professor of medieval history. She discusses the Black Death, a devastating global pandemic that swept across Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages. She also discusses similarities between it and today’s global pandemic, COVID-19, and what can be learned from history.
What are the similarities between the Black Death and what we are experiencing now?
Like COVID-19, the Black Death was insidious, unpalatable, and invisible, and it came from the East. Of course, the pathogen is totally different today, we are dealing today with a virus versus a bacterium in the past. There were three forms of yersinia pestis, bubonic (the most common), pneumonic, and septicemic. You could survive the first, you died quickly in the second and third cases. They called the disease the “mortality” in the Latin of the time, mortalitas.
The disease surrounded humans who were at a loss to identify where it came from … somewhat like today. Folks presumed it was God’s wrath, or bad air (miasma) caused by volcanoes, or the conjunction of certain stars. Some others thought that people like beggars, lepers or Jews had willingly and purposefully poisoned the area.
The idea that it was in the air circulated at a time when the concept of “infection” and “infectious diseases” did not exist. People made masks with good smelling herbs/flowers that they kept under their nose in order to ward off the disease similar to the “masks” of today.
However, unlike today’s COVID-19, those in the Middle Ages did not know that it had moved from animals to humans.
To a large measure we encounter the same overreaction and scapegoating. Today, it is the “fault of the Chinese” versus the fault of any “others” in the past. The disease spread like wildfire through a society that had already suffered malnutrition due to food shortages and famines of the 1310s and 1320s as a result of climate change. Like COVID-19, the Black Death affected concentrated populations in cities and towns and followed the course of international trade. In 1348 it affected the young, old, and poor.
How did society recover from these outbreaks? What were the lasting repercussions?
In the short term there was profound psychological uncertainty. Life was seen as cheap. Extreme attitudes on either end of the spectrum were adopted by some – ranging from hedonism to asceticism, including groups of flagellants circulating through cities. And of course, many looked for scapegoats.
In the longer term, the repercussions were staggering. There was an enormous loss in population, some villages had 100% death rates. On average one-third to one-half of the population was lost. Demographic changes caused upheavals in economic and social structures and signaled the end of “manorialism” and feudalism. People stopped working the land of lords in exchange for protection and started getting paid for working. So, this was birth of wage labor. Monarchies like England fought the change, but it happened.
Wages increased as did a high demand for luxury goods. Some aristocrats became impoverished as result of lost rents. They sometimes overreacted and tried to increase pressures on the peasantry, who, in turn, rebelled. Examples of this include the French Jacquerie, a peasant revolt of 1358. Urban revolts like the Ciompi in Florence, in 1378, wanted political representation for the working poor, and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, demanded the end of servitude and feudalism. All revolts were crushed violently.
Family structure also changed. Men began to marry younger. There was also a gendering of the workplace which led to women losing jobs they used to do, for example bread and beer making, to men.
Following the plague, a general obsession with death also developed – or as it became known, Ars moriendi, the art of dying well. Society became more human/people centered rather than otherworldly. The allegorical concept, La Danse Macabre, or the dance of death, saw the universality of death as something that united rich and poor, old and young – it was a great leveler.
What can we learn from these previous experiences in terms of what was handled well and what wasn’t?
Quarantines can work. They were used in the Middle Ages. Fear mongering and scapegoating do not.
If history is any guide, how do you see the United States (or the world) getting through this? What should we be prepared for?
Be ready for social changes, and a call for a leveling of social stratifications. These calls will be quickly forgotten once a vaccine is developed – until the next one. The rich always survive better than the poor. So, knowing that, try to change the state of things.
What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now
Disease changed the course of the war, and shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would destroy Athenian democracy.
About the author: Katherine Kelaidis is a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum and a visiting assistant professor in Classical Studies at Loyola University Chicago.
This is not the right time for a pandemic. Not that there is a right time for a pandemic, but some times are definitely the wrong one. And no time is worse than when a nation is already in crisis, when trust in its leaders and itself is already low. A time when international relations are strained and internal strife widespread. Basically, if the social and moral fiber of a society are already being tested, the widespread fear of death at the hands of an invisible killer makes everything exponentially worse. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately it is very hard to tell at this point), history offers us a number of examples of when a plague arrived at the wrong time.
And none of these examples is better than the Great Plague of Athens. This deadly epidemic swept through the city in 430 B.C., the second year of the Peloponnesian War, claiming perhaps 100,000 lives and revealing in stark contrast the fissures and fractures in Athenian life and politics. The disease, largely believed by modern scholars to have been either typhus or typhoid, even killed the great Athenian general and statesman Pericles, his wife, and their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. It was a disaster of epic proportions that altered not only the Peloponnesian War, but the whole of Greek, and consequently world, history. While the war would not end for nearly 26 years after the first wave of sickness, there is little doubt that the Great Plague changed the course of the war (being at least in part responsible for Athens’s defeat) and significantly shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would weaken and then destroy Athenian democracy.
The best ancient account of the Great Plague, as for all of the Peloponnesian War, can be found in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general exiled from Athens after being blamed for a disastrous defeat. In exile, he was able to travel freely in a way few could at the time, and so provides a unique firsthand account of this tumultuous period. He also fell victim to the Plague, though managed to survive, making his narration of the disease’s symptoms and sensations not only reliable, but quite visceral. Thucydides has been called the “father of political realism,” and his assessment of the Plague and its consequences bears out the honor. As few others have before or since, Thucydides understood the ways in which fear and self-interest, when they are submitted to, guide individual motives, and consequently the fate of nations.
Thus, in his account of the Great Plague, Thucydides looks frankly at the practical and moral weaknesses that the disease was able to exploit. He sharply notes how crowding in Athens, along with inadequate housing and sanitation, helped the disease spread more quickly and added to the number of casualties. He is aware that a lack of attention to important public-health and safety measures allowed the Plague to take root and made its effects much worse than they would have otherwise been.
But Thucydides is not concerned just with the ways in which poor urban planning caused the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. He is as much a moral critic as a political one. In his narration of the Plague’s devastation, he takes careful tally of instances of selflessness and courage, and those of selfishness and cowardice. It is clear that, for Thucydides at least, the death and suffering of a great epidemic (just like war) test the moral health of individuals and of societies. And a people who are not morally strong, when they become afraid, quickly slip into lawlessness and sacrilege: “For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.” What is also clear is that Thucydides does not think this collapse into immorality is simply a result of the Plague rather, “Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder.” To paraphrase Michelle Obama, pandemics don’t make your character they reveal your character.
This is truly the danger, then, both for Athens and for us. And the consequences could not be greater. There is an argument, and a rather good one at that, that Athenian democracy was the great casualty of the Peloponnesian War. After Athens surrendered, a pro-Spartan oligarchy, known as the Thirty Tyrants, took control of the city. Though they were later ejected in a coup lead by Thrasybulus (a pro-democracy veteran of the Peloponnesian War who did not accept that the defeat of Athens meant the end of its democracy), Athenian democracy would never again recover its self-confidence and flirted with its own demise. This was the Athens that executed Socrates (whose own relationship with democracy and democratic principles was complicated). It was also the world in which Plato would write The Republic, the political treatise that became the template for totalitarianism for millennia. And when the end did eventually come for democracy in Athens, it was through the conquest of the Macedonian King Alexander (the Great, if you are curious), and Athens had provided him with his tutor, Aristotle, a man who had transmitted to his royal pupil his own anxieties around the excesses of democracy, particularly those born as a result of moral shortcomings among the people.
In the panic of the Great Plague, Athenians had experienced something about their world they could never purge and revealed something about themselves they could never forget. Gone were the days when they could comfortably see themselves in the words Pericles spoke in his famed funeral oration at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, before the Plague carried him off to a less-than-glorious death: “We are not suspicious of one another … a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws.”
The Great Plague tested this Athenian self-conception and found it wanting. Who people collectively believe they are is of the utmost importance, particularly in a democracy where the people are tasked with the grave responsibility of government. Self-government requires self-confidence. A democracy is unlikely to survive when the people have grown unsure of themselves and their leaders, laws, and institutions.
For nearly four years, the United States has experienced its own crisis of identity. Donald Trump’s presidency has been not just a series of political missteps and upheavals, an endless succession of low-burning fires, but a serious test (arguably the most serious test since the Civil War) of the foundational values and institutions that prop up the American experiment. But the appearance of the coronavirus is something altogether different. To begin with, the virus touches us all in a way that most of the Trump administration’s failures, for better or worse, do not. No amount of privilege or lack of interest can protect you from a pandemic. This is, by the way, something Thucydides noted: Diseases carry away both rich and poor, pious and impious. Tom Hanks is just as susceptible as you are. Literally no one can ignore this.
But perhaps more important, the virus has no mind. The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan was absolutely right when she noted that being careless is only a problem if you run into another careless person that is, when you have an accident. President Trump has been substantially aided by the fact that he has not run into anyone quite as careless as he is. His most disastrous actions have been mitigated in no small part by other, cooler (or at least less volatile) heads. But a virus has no head. It is not just without reason, but without motive. It is truly only half alive. It has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. No sense of itself. No desire to live, something animals and even certain planets possess. This is why diseases and the threats they bring lay us all so bare. The only soul in the equation is our own. It is the ultimate test.
It is a test that thus far, Donald Trump and his administration are, unsurprisingly, failing. What remains to be seen is how the rest of us will do at this exam. The people of ancient Athens failed. Already in a time of war and upheaval, when people started to die from a disease they had never seen before, they abandoned the values that had been at the heart of their ability to govern themselves. They failed in their responsibility to one another because they no longer believed that it mattered. Everything that had come before the crisis and everything that happened during it conspired to give them this belief.
And this is what we must resist. The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy, but we do not need to accept its fate. The best thing about the past is that it can be our instructor, even if we seldom allow it to be. The ancient Greeks, by and large, believed that virtue was something you practiced. Like most everyone who lived before the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thucydides and his contemporaries did not believe that we are born good. We become good by choosing to do good. We become brave by choosing courage. We overcome the twin vices of self-interest and fear by actively rejecting them. The ancient Athenians failed to do this in the face of a plague and lost their democracy. Now the same choice is ours.
Plague of Cyprian, 250-270 CESt. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage ( 200-258 CE)
The Plague of Cyprian erupted in Ethiopia around Easter of 250 CE. It reached Rome in the following year eventually spreading to Greece and further east to Syria. The plague lasted nearly 20 years and, at its height, reportedly killed as many as 5,000 people per day in Rome. Contributing to the rapid spread of sickness and death was the constant warfare confronting the empire due to a series of attacks on the frontiers: Germanic tribes invading Gaul and Parthians attacking Mesopotamia. Periods of drought, floods and famine exhausted the populations while the emperorship was rocked with turmoil. St. Cyprian bishop of Carthage, remarked that it appeared as if the world was at an end. The outbreak was named after Cyprian as his first-hand observations of the illness largely form the basis for what the world would come to know about the crisis. He wrote about the incident in stark detail in his work De Mortalitate (&ldquoOn Mortality&rdquo).
Plague of Cyprian, 250-270 CEDionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 265 CE)
Dionysius, during the second great epidemic around 260 CE, [writes]: &ldquoMost of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another&hellip nursing and curing others.&rdquo Later in the letter, he described that those without this kind of care fared much worst. He writes that, &ldquoat the first onset of the disease, [the healthy] pushed the sick away and fled from their dearest&helliphoping to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.&rdquo
The Black Death, Italy, 1348Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
Catherine of Siena was born in 1347. That year, according to writer Charles L. Mee, Jr., &ldquoin all likelihood, a flea riding on the hide of a black rat entered the Italian port of Messina.&hellip The flea had a gut full of the bacillus Yersinia pestis .&rdquo With that rat, flea, and bacillus, came the most feared plague on record. In just three years, 1348 to 1350, the Black Death killed more than one-third of the entire population between Iceland and India. Remarkably, the young Catherine survived the onslaught. Catherine of Siena lived&mdashand helped others&mdashduring the most devastating plague in human history.
The Black Death, England, 1348Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)
Julian of Norwich lived in a tumultuous time, the Black Death was raging in Europe. The first such plague occurred when she was only six years old. The road beside Saint Julian's Church was used to remove the bodies of the dead from subsequent plagues, and she probably heard the carts rumble by. The Hundred Years' War between England and France had begun in 1337, as did the papal schism in which two popes each suspected the other of being the Antichrist. Famine and cattle disease contributed to the forces that caused the Peasants' Revolt, and John Wycliff and his followers, the Lollards, were declared heretics. Some were burned and buried near Julian's church cell. She must have been aware of the suffering of the time. In such tumultuous time, Julian saw visions from God and recorded them as his message to her fellow Christians.
Zwingli was on a mineral-springs vacation in August, 1519, when the Black Death broke out in Zurich. Though weak already from exhausting work, he hurried back to his city to minister to victims. Before long he himself caught the disease and seemed likely to perish. But his work not yet done Zwingli recovered. His famous &ldquoplague hymn&rdquo recounts his sense of trust and then his joy at regaining health.
The Black Death, Wittenberg, 1527Martin Luther (1483-1546)
In August of 1527 the plague struck Wittenberg and numerous people fled in fear of their lives. Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, who was pregnant at the time, remained in their beloved city in order to treat the infected. Despite the calls for him to flee Wittenberg with his family, Luther&rsquos mind was set on helping the infected. He inevitably came to the conclusion that it was not inherently wrong for one to so value their life that they did not remain, but only so long as the sick had someone of greater faith than they to care for them.
During this time of immense challenge and uncertainty, Luther wrote a letter to Johann Hess and his fellow Christians in Breslau, titled "Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague." Visit here to view the full translation of the letter.
The Black Death, Geneva, 1542John Calvin (1509-1564)
During Calvin&rsquos ministry, Geneva was terrorized by the plague on five occasions. During the first outbreak, in 1542, Calvin personally led visitations into plague-infected homes. Knowing that this effort likely carried a death sentence, the city fathers intervened to stop him because of their conviction that his leadership was indispensable. The pastors continued this heroic effort under Calvin&rsquos guidance, and they recounted the joy of multiple conversions. Many pastors lost their lives in this cause. Unknown to many, Calvin privately continued his own pastoral care in Geneva and other cities where the plague raged.
Smallpox Epidemic, Princeton, New Jersey, 1758Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Jonathan Edwards, among his first acts as President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), preached a New Year&rsquos Sermon in 1758 on Jeremiah 28:16 ("This year thou shalt die"), while Princeton, New Jersey was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. He later received an inoculation, which led to his death two months later. Once Edwards had spoken in his sermon titled, "The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It" (1734): "Time ought to be esteemed by us very precious, because we are uncertain of its continuance. We know that it is very short, but we know not how short. "
Cholera, London, 1854Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
As a young village preacher, Charles Spurgeon admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. In [the] fall [of] 1854, the newly called pastor of London&rsquos New Park Street Chapel pastored the congregation amid a major cholera outbreak in the Broad Street neighborhood just across the river. How did Spurgeon respond? 1) He prioritized local ministry. 2) He adjusted his meetings, but continued meeting. 3) He cared for the sick. 4) He was open to new evangelistic opportunities. 5) He entrusted his life to God.
For the autobiography of C. H. Spurgeon, visit this website.
The Flu Epidemic in 1918-1919Christian Reformed Church in North America
During this epidemic in which the state prohibited social and religious gatherings, Christian Reformed Church's magazine The Banner called its readers to &ldquopray earnestly that the scourge may soon be removed&rdquo so that churches could reopen. It also suggested &ldquolessons from this appointment of Providence&rdquo to learn:
- &ldquothe value of our church privileges,&rdquo as we really understand what blessing they are when they are withheld,
- &ldquothe value of fellowshipping with God&rsquos people,&rdquo &ldquothe communion of the saints,&rdquo which might lead to a renewal of devotion in the church, and
- &ldquoto appreciate religious literature more than we have done,&rdquo as that is what people turn when they cannot come to church.
Mass Hysteria regarding the Threat of Nuclear WarC. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
In 1948, C. S. Lewis. wrote an essay titled, "On Living in an Atomic Age." In it, he talks about the anxiety that the majority of people in his day had regarding the threat of nuclear war. It was a serious, legitimate concern [in his time]. Lewis wrote:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. "How are we to live in an atomic age?" I am tempted to reply: "Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents." In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things&mdashpraying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts&mdashnot huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
Ebola, 2015Orthodox Church of Sierra Leone
During the global outbreak of Ebola in 2015, Archimandrite Themistocles Adamopoulos was among his people in Sierra Leon, a epicenter of the outbreak. In this report he writes: "People from abroad constantly call me and ask me: 'Father, why don&rsquot you leave and save yourself from a potential infection and even death?' The answer is very simple. For the present time God has placed me here in West Africa. As the shepherd of the flock in Sierra Leone, it is my duty to stay with them, to care for them, to instruct them, to console them, to guide them and to protect them from an evil that kills without pity. Furthermore our Lord Jesus Christ instructs the Christian shepherd not to abandon the sheep when danger comes. It is only the hireling who abandons the sheep in moments of crisis (John 10:12-13). We are relying on Christ&rsquos protection.
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Church serving as hospital
"From Pandemic Then Grew Rebellion": Considering the 1381 Revolt of the English Peasantry
Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different sites. He is also a contributing editor at the History News Network. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.
Richard II meeting the rebels of 1381, Jean Froissart, Bibliothèque nationale de France (public domain)
On July 13 th in 1381, a garrison of rebelling peasants from Norfolk, Essex, and Kent marched into London, the gates of the city left open either out of sympathy for the cause of this army or out of fear regarding their strength. Many of the rebels had a bit of land to their names, but were still constrained by the strictures of an increasingly draconian feudalism. At the same time, these workers had ironically found themselves increasingly able to move between social classes and professions in a manner that would have been impossible only a few decades before. The dissatisfaction of the leaders of the Peasant&rsquos Revolt, men with names like Wat Tyler, Jack Straw, and the radical priest John Ball, was in part gestated within that incongruous space between new possibilities and restricted rights. The striking and marching workers demanded a new covenant with both Church and state, God and King. What could have theoretically begun as a relatively moderate call to overturn decades-old legislation instead took on more revolutionary aims. As the Peasant&rsquos Revolt built towards the crescendo of marching on London, Ball would preach an open-air sermon south of Greenwich wherein he did &ldquoexhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.&rdquo
An important biographical fact to know about a man like Ball, and there is a dearth of facts about the men who led the rebellion, is that he was around 10 years old when the Black Death swept through England in 1347. Many of the peasants had living memory of those dark years when perhaps 50% or more of their fellow subjects perished from the bubonic plague, or they at least certainly knew people who had survived those years. Being able to draw direct correlations between that pandemic and subsequent social, cultural, and religious changes is difficult. But in a direct manner, it&rsquos fair to say that the Peasant&rsquos Revolt was shaped by the death and destruction from a few decades before. Samuel K. Cohn Jr. and Douglas Aiton note in Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns that as concerns insurrections, &ldquonothing of note appears in the English chronicles until after the Black Death.&rdquo The Parliamentary legislation which was the locus of the revolt&rsquos anger &ndash laws which fixed wages and made it impossible to refuse to labor &ndash was passed because of the plague&rsquos reduction of the workforce. Concurrently, in a perhaps more intangible manner, the indiscriminate horror of the plague had upended the religious and political expectations of the Medieval world, inculcating new doubts but also new possibilities.
From pandemic then grew rebellion. Something to keep in mind in the uncertainty of our own moment, are the ways the Black Death both altered material circumstances and shook the faith which people had in dominant ideologies. We&rsquore already seeing immediate and welcome labor radicalization considering both the federal government and private enterprises&rsquo shameful response to the pandemic. Joshua Freeman at Jacobin explains that &ldquomany employers treat their workers&rsquo health and their very lives with contempt, failing to provide employees with needed protective equipment, insisting that they work in close quarters, not sending workers with flu-like symptoms home, not disinfecting contaminated spaces&hellip and not offering any or decent extra compensation for life-threatening work&rdquo so that consequently &ldquomore and more workers have been speaking up and taking action.&rdquo Frontline workers who&rsquove been denied the most basic of protective equipment have asserted their rights, from sanitation workers in Pittsburgh to Amazon warehouse employees on Staten Island.
Rebecca L. Spang, writing in an article in The Atlantic evocatively titled &ldquoThe Revolution is Under Way Already,&rdquo observes the perception that &ldquowe are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious.&rdquo In a shockingly short period of time social distancing has forced us to redefine the workday, redefine the relationship of the employed to employer, and opened the possibility for reforms as radical as Universal Basic Income. At the same time, reactionary forces have become even more entrenched in their advocacy for supply-side panaceas, to the point that only a few weeks ago Republican apologists (not least of all the President of the United States) were advocating a return to work which epidemiologists warned could result in millions of deaths. Coronavirus has already had calamitous economic effects, as more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March, the reality of a looming depression clear in all but name. Spang argues that the &ldquoUnited States of America can implode under external pressure and its own grave contradictions, or it can be reimagined and repurposed.&rdquo Will we see an increasing consolidation of the far-right&rsquos international hegemony, or will there be a resurgence of a genuine workers&rsquo movement? What happens next is unclear for all of us &ndash Spang writes that &ldquoeverything is up for grabs.&rdquo
Perhaps one of the most fascinating potential results of the coronavirus pandemic will be the ways in which it challenges the dominant faith of our era. An outcome of the plague in England was the proliferation of new theologies, such as that of Lollardy associated with the Oxford professor John Wycliff, who condemned ecclesiastical excess and promoted more egalitarian social arrangements, and has been seen by some historians as an influence on Ball. It was Wycliff who, in the prologue to his vernacular Bible translation, envisioned a reordering of the English state on behalf &ldquoof the People, by the People, and for the People.&rdquo Lollardy in some ways anticipated the Reformation which was still more than a century off, but its concerns were very much with the economic and social situation of the Middle Ages, and it was in part a direct outgrowth of the radical changes that had been ushered in by the Black Death. As the plague made all unexamined truths dissipate, challenging both the authority of monarchy and Church, so too does the coronavirus force us to confront the current &ldquoreligion&rdquo of our world &ndash unfettered capitalist excess.
Whatever we wish to call it &ndash capitalism, libertarianism, supply-side orthodoxy, Randianism, or that much ballyhooed phrase neo-liberalism, that our economic system represents a religion as much as the Medieval Church did in its own context shouldn&rsquot be doubted. If anything, the cavalier offer from conservative columnists of sacrificing millions of Americans to the god of the Market confirms the contention that capitalism has become its own dark faith. Eugene McCarraher writes in his brilliant book Enchantments of Mammon that capitalism is its own &ldquoregime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic and inveterate longing for divinity,&rdquo so that Wall Street&rsquos defenders see nothing grotesque in demanding the lives of the innocent to continue the full operation of the market (and the enrichment of those who profit from it). In some ways there is a benefit to the confessions of those who admit such obscenity &ndash they&rsquove finally said their thoughts out loud. Now there is no need to rationalize their ethics now we can reject their god, as surely as the conditions around the Peasant&rsquos Revolt led those who took part to reject their oppression.
There are encouraging signs that something similar is happening now Freeman notes that the &ldquocults of privatization, government downsizing, and&hellip production and distribution have proved disastrous&hellip Already, across the country, ordinary people have been stepping into the breach, producing masks and gowns, helping neighbors, unretiring to the front lines.&rdquo There is a sentiment of mutual affection and reciprocity that is emerging from the pandemic there is also the corollary of authority demanding the sacrifice of those whom both business and government are refusing to support as those essential workers do the necessary work of keeping society functioning through the pandemic. That the coronavirus is compelling a new world to be born is clear &ndash but whether or not the world which exists on the other side of the approaching chasm will be any better waits to be seen. As a warning, there is something to keep in mind from the Peasant&rsquos Revolt &ndash Tyler, Straw, and Ball all ultimately failed, and were executed. There was a brief moment in 1381 when a better world struggled to be born, but the promise of that moment was deferred. It remains deferred.