Many would say the Covid-19 outbreak may change forever the world as we have known it till now. Power structures may be shifted, economic systems remodeled, along with significant changes in the way we touch, behave, and breathe. With the number of cases continuing to surge and the prospect of a vaccine still distant, we are yet to see the impact that the virus will play out in times ahead. Lessons from the past though can provide some insight into what lies ahead.
In this five-part series, Indianexpress.com will chart out how major epidemics of the past have altered the course of history in the world. Each of these began as a biological phenomenon, but soon turned into economic, social, or political ones. Loss of lives and livelihoods had followed, distress and despair experienced, and yet despite the scale of devastation, the human race made peace with its surroundings and came out victorious. The message was, and still remains the same- there is hope!
In autumn of 1347 CE, when a fleet of 12 ships reached the docks of a Sicilian port, people gathered there were horrified to meet with a pile of corpses. Most of the sailors in the ships were brought dead, and those alive were a shocking sight, all covered in boils dripping blood. While the ships were immediately moved out of the harbour, the demon of a disease it brought aboard was there to stay, claiming the lives of nearly one-third of the European population in the next three years.
The ‘Black death’ as it came to be called later, spread out from Italy to most parts of Southern Europe. By 1348 CE, it had reached England, France and Spain, and by1349 CE, it made an appearance in the Scandinavian countries while making its way to more remote countries like Iceland and Greenland. It also hit the great Arab cities of Alexandria, Cairo, and Tunis. The plague caused by Yersinia Pestis, the same bacterium that caused the Justinian Plague in the sixth century, played out as the biggest human tragedy of medieval Europe.
The scholar, Ibn Khaldun, who was a contemporary witness to the plague, wrote of its magnitude: “Civilisations both in the East and West were visited by a destructive plague which devastated nations and caused populations to vanish… the entire inhabited world changed.”
In Europe though, the catastrophic plague eventually played out to be a boon for some — the serfs who were legally committed to providing labour to landlords in exchange for allowing them to live and work in their lands. The impact of the plague was such that it put an end to the feudal system of economy that persisted in Europe for centuries, allowing the serfs to move up the social and economic ladder.
Between the second and fifteenth centuries of the Common Era, a network of land and sea routes connecting the East and West, known as the ‘Silk route’ was the prime source of economic, cultural and religious interactions between communities. The route carried everything from spices to languages, and is believed to have been the one carrying the disastrous plague as well.
The rise in trading activities during the medieval era is known to have been one of the foremost reasons for the widespread impact of the plague. Flea infected rodents travelled along with freight to China, India, the Middle East, and Europe.
“To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful creator,” writes historian John Kelly, in his book ‘The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time’. “To many others, the only credible explanation for death on so vast a scale was human malfeasance,” he adds.
In its most common form, the Bubonic plague showed itself on people when egg-shaped swellings appeared on their bodies. Bruise Like purplish splotches often appeared on the chest, back, or neck, and were referred to as ‘God’s tokens’. These tokens became inspiration for the popular children’s rhyme that remains common till today- ‘Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes (hemorrhages), we all fall down’. A stench from the body and delirium were other symptoms associated with the disease.
The 14th century Italian chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, wrote what he saw of the plague. “And the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in their groins, and fall over while talking… And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead.”
Extremes of human behaviour resulted. While on one hand there were those who blamed and murdered Jews for the outbreak of the disease, there were also those who put their lives at stake to take care of the plague victims.
Close to 25 million people are believed to have been wiped out by the early 1350s, which was approximately one-third of the European continent. The plague lingered on for centuries, manifesting itself in recurrent outbreaks. One of the measures adopted for checking its spread was to hold arriving sailors on their ships for 30 or 40 days before allowing them to move around- the practise which was the origin of the term ‘quarantine’.
The strongest impact of the plague though was in the way it overturned the economic structure prevalent in Europe. Europe in the 14th century was a feudal society, with the king at the apex, and peasant labourers at the lowest rung of the social ladder. In the middle were the landlords, on whose land the peasants were given the right to live and work. In return the peasants were expected to pay part of their harvest produce to the landlords as rent. It meant that the landlords could survive on the service and produce of the peasants, while for the latter it resulted in never-ending cycles of unpaid work and no hope to rise up the social ladder.
The drastic reduction in the population of the continent after the plague resulted in dire shortage of labourers to work the lands. The economic historian Walter Scheidel notes in his book: “Such a shortage of labourers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent for triple wages.”
The unprecedented sharp rise in wages became a cause of worry to the landlords who requested the monarchy to intervene. In June 1349, the Crown in England passed the Ordinance of Labourers, mandating that all those who do not own lands and are not involved in trade practices be obliged to take up employment offered and accept wages as applicable five or six years ago. The Ordinance also prohibited any landlord from offering higher wages.
Despite the order though, wages continued to show an upward trend, resulting in the Crown passing a second ordinance in 1351.
Each of these measures failed to contain the new found economic freedom of the serfs. The contemporary ecclesiastical historian, Henry Knighton wrote of the situation in his chronicles: “The workers were so above themselves and so bloody-minded that they took no notice of the king’s command. If anyone wished to hire them, he had to submit to their demands, for either his fruit and standing corn would be lost or he had to pander to the arrogance and greed of the worker.”
“For all its severity, the initial wave of the Black Death alone would not have been sufficient to cause urban real wages to double and to sustain this increase for several generations,” writes Scheidel. He goes on to note repeated plague visitations well into the late medieval period, ensuring that wages remained high. There were about 15 in England alone between the 1370s and 1480s, 15 in the Netherlands between 1360 and 1494, and 14 in Spain between 1391 and 1457.
Consequently, feudalism in Europe came to an end by the 15th century. As Scheidel rightly described in his work: “Society experienced a wholesale reversal of the earlier trend that had made the landlord class stronger and richer and most people poorer: now it was the other way around.”
Further reading- ‘The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century’, by Walter Scheidel; The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time; by John Kelly; In the wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the world it made, by Norman F. Cantor