Double Feature

May 2020 - The current pandemic has me thinking not about movies, but about literature. Specifically, I've been thinking about Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Masque of the Red Death," and about The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. Both works revolve around people fleeing from a plague. In Poe's story, they fail. The storytellers in Boccaccio's epic, as I recall, fared much better.

Both literary works have been turned into films. B-movie king Roger Corman enlisted Vincent Price to play Prince Prospero in his 1964 re-telling of Poe's tale. The Decameron was made into a movie in 1971 by an Italian director who later tackled The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. I have not seen either film.

I have, however, read both works. I've also read a non-fiction book titled The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 by John Aberth. I met John more than 30 years ago when we were both studying at the University of Leeds. John went on to become a medieval historian, and I read The Black Death back in 2008, which is when I wrote the bulk of the review below. It seems the plague of the Middle Ages has much in common with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In the book, John provides what he calls "a brief history with documents" of the plague that swept through Europe in the mid-14th Century. Seven chapters cover topics ranging from the origins of the plague to its influence on the art world. Each chapter includes an overview of the topic along with supporting excerpts from contemporary writings.

To summarize, the Black Death seems to have originated somewhere in Asia, possibly China, Mongolia, or maybe even India. It spread into Europe and northern Africa, carried by fleas that infested the clothing and other goods that traders took from place to place. John argues that the Black Death was most likely what we today refer to as the plague. He then asserts that, based on the symptoms described in contemporary writings, it was likely that all three forms of plague (bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic) swept through Asia and Europe, though most cases were probably bubonic or pneumonic.

Contemporary writings, i.e. the supporting documents, make it seem as though pretty much anyone who contracted the Black Death was doomed to die. The medieval medical community seemed to realize that the plague originated in Asia, but they generally viewed it as a punishment from God or blamed its rise on some terrible alignment of planets or maybe an earthquake. As for treatments, they tried blood-letting (which was best done when the moon was in a certain position) and all manner of concoctions, none of which seemed to be very effective. To their credit, however, they kept trying, and many doctors themselves died from the plague. In short, the medieval medics seemed to be of the belief that only God could provide any relief.

As for the societal and economic impact, based on the supporting documents, which include a lengthy except from the introduction to The Decameron, people responded to the plague in different ways. Some tried to flee to plague-free environs and did their best to stay healthy. Others partied like it was 1399, figuring they might as well live it up while they were still alive. Those people who were still alive had the problem of dealing with all the sick and the dead. Mass graves came into fashion. The workers who dug those graves - in fact, anyone involved with the business of tending to the dead and dying - demanded higher wages for their services. Once the plague subsided, several communities passed laws that reset wages to pre-plague levels.

The response of the religious communities to the Black Death was interesting. According to John, death rolls reveal that many priests died from the plague, indicating that many of them did their best to minister to the sick and dying. Yet, the situation was such that many of these priests demanded higher fees for their services in much the same fashion as the grave diggers mentioned above. Leaders of the Catholic church eventually decreed that this practice must stop, but they did grant what amounted to a salary advance in exchange.

The Catholic church also found itself contending with other effects of the plague, namely attacks on Jews and the appearance of the flagellants. The flagellants were Catholic radicals who, over a period of 18 months or so, travelled from town to town, picking up converts along the way. They were something of a spectacle, namely because they carried thorny whips and did their painful penance in public. They also contradicted some of the direct teachings of the church. For this reason, the Pope and at least one king quashed the movement by threatening the towns with punishment if the flagellants were not expelled.

As for the attacks on the Jews, these so-called pogroms came about because of the belief by some Christians that Jews spread the plague by poisoning the water supply. As a result, some Jews were rounded up, tortured until they confessed, and then executed, often by being burned at the stake. Again, the Pope ultimately had to step in and issue an order protecting the Jews.

The Black Death also touched the Muslim world. The tenets of Islam prompted people to gather to pray to Allah for an end to the plague. However, John's selection of documents includes one from a Muslim scholar and physician who realized that the plague was spread by person-to-person contact. His belief put him in a tough position. He was scheduled to go on trial for heresy in the 1370s but was lynched in prison before the trial began.

I read this book after reading another of John's works, A Knight at the Movies. That book examines the portrayal of medieval history on film and includes an interesting chapter on the Black Death. However, reading this particular work took about six weeks, much longer than I expected for a book that totals just 180 pages. I'm not sure why it went so slowly. Generally, the overviews written by John are interesting, but the supporting documents are uneven in length and in the number associated with each chapter. I would have liked more of John and less of the documents.

Another issue may be that, in this modern day and age, the theories and treatments expressed in the supporting documents seem ridiculous. However, many of the documents were written by the leading medical men of their day. Who's to say that, years from now, our descendants won't look back and say something like "THAT'S how they tried to deal with COVID-19???"