I'm watching a series of lectures on Amazon Prime called The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague, given by Dorsey Armstrong, professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University. I'd recommend the course only to those who are really into this sort of thing. While Armstrong is obviously well-versed in her subject, the material is very historical, extremely detailed, and somewhat repetitive.
Nevertheless, for whatever reason, every day for the last week or so I've found myself falling down the rabbit hole of the 14th century, when the bubonic plague was creeping across Asia and Europe. The Great Mortality, as it came to be called, killed some 100 million people or roughly half the world's population.
|A danse macabre|
The silver lining to the period was a blossoming of certain types of art. For example, the ghoulish art form of danse macabre, showing people meeting up with their skeletal counterparts, came out of this period. There was also memento mori -- "remember you must die" -- which involved tomb art depicting the decayed corpse of the diseased. And you might already know that The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales were written in this era -- both collections of tales told by people on a journey to escape the plague.
But what impressed me most about the presentation was a letter written by Louis Heyligen, a Flemish monk in the Papal Court in Avignon. (In case you don't remember from high-school history, for a time during the 1300s the Papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, France.) Heyligen sent his letter back home, where the plague had yet to hit in full force, giving advice to friends and family.
"I am writing to you most dearly beloved so that you should know in what peril we are now living. If you wish to preserve yourself the best advice is that a man should eat and drink moderately and avoid getting cold and refrain from any excess -- and above all mix little with people unless it be with a few who have healthy breath. But it is best to stay at home until the epidemic has passed, as it is to be feared that in the end it will encircle the whole world . . . "
I found this a curiously personal reminder that we are not the first, and we won't be the last, to suffer from a great pandemic. In fact, while the Black Death was at its most virulent when it first showed up in 1347, there were recurring outbreaks for another 200 years.
And so if you're not disposed to heed the cautious advice about Corona from Governor Cuomo or Governor Wolf or Governor Brown, maybe you'll pay attention to the counsel sent out so long ago by the forlorn friar from Flanders.