Blessings, Bloodletting and Treacle

Distractions help us cope with Covid confinement. Clearing out can be therapeutic. Today, tidying my messy study I found distracting old photos and nostalgic toys – and a book I’d never read, a legacy from my 2002 Oxford anthropology sabbatical. ’In the Wake of The Plague by US historian Norman Cantor, sounds inappropriate currently, but is fascinating and made me count my blessings.

At its time of writing twenty years ago, terrorism was feared more than disease. And despite Bill Gates warning of potential global epidemics, few governments prepared for our current crisis. But as we ordinary folk see Covid-19 dramatically changing our social habits, we have time to reflect on the simpler things in life, like family and freedom. And be grateful we were not the poor souls in medieval Europe suffering plague. Its social, political and religious changes were profound.

In 1348, one third of the world population died.  The Black Death (so named in the 1800s)  was likely bubonic plague and anthrax, the former coming via fleas on the back of seafaring black rats, the latter from cattle. But unlike then, we do have advantages.

One, we’re better nourished which helps us fight against infections. In the run up to the 1348-49 epidemic, crops failed with cooler, wetter weather and prolonged dust clouds from massive Indonesian volcanic eruptions. Two, we have modern medicine. Though lacking a curative drug for this miniscule 23-gene corona upstart, we understand physiology and can give life-support care.

Medieval medicine relied on faith or ancient Greek ideas. You could pray. Or if you’d money for a physician, you would receive a cure of your ‘imbalance of humours‘ by enema purging (as if you weren’t feeling bad enough) or bloodletting by way of leech or vein cutting. The very rich might have obtained scarce Theriac, a sticky ‘treacle’ made from cooked snake, apparently best if at least a year old (its smell isn’t recorded). Handily, they thought it also ‘morally’ curative. Disease came when ‘sin had entered your soul.’ Amethyst amulets and powdered emerald were also used. Communities paraded saint’s relics through the streets. One not ‘saving’ enough souls, would be abandoned. One coming up trumps, like Margaret of Antioch, spawned many new churches in their name. With Poor Law welfare two centuries away, most serfs died. Incidentally, medieval diagnostics only involved observation of urine colour. At least we have Covid-19 tests.

Some things haven’t changed. As infection spread, the rich fled to country estates. Now? Holiday homes. Affected individuals were quarantined. Conspiracy theories thrived, and scapegoats were sought amongst strangers or anyone ‘different.’ Jewish ghettos and communities in Poland and Ukraine date back to the mid 1300s. Jews engendered suspicion as fewer of them died, probably due to high hygiene standards and fewer rats (or cattle as banned from farming). Today, Indian Nepalis are attacked in Mumbai for ‘looking’ Chinese and bringing corona, as are Muslims in Delhi after cases came from their Tablighi Jamaat festival. Even nurses entering slums are being attacked and doctors evicted from their accommodation: fear and ignorance breed anger and unrest. Rejoice that we have doctors to help. Paris University professors in 1350 attributed plague to ‘Saturn being in the house of Jupiter!’

Hoarding isn’t new: medieval poems refer to it (though not toilet rolls!) But thankfully, being smelly is no longer a virtue. In plague times washing meant dangerous exposure of skin ‘pores’ to the surrounding infectious ‘miasm.’(Even Napoleon didn’t wash!)

Our aftermath is unpredictable, but post-plague there were sweeping social changes. Farming labour shortages caused increased workers’ demands. A Peasant’s Revolt followed (1381). Gentry deaths caused a raft of property and inheritance laws still in use. The plague is said to have allowed the rise of capitalism, with unrestrained greed becoming the norm. A new yeoman class formed, and social mobility became possible. Women commercially started weaving and brewing.

Buildings became less elaborate. Private bedrooms became popular. It’s said adultery became easier- gentry women wore no undergarments and men had easily removable codpieces… But dowry-poor girls still ended up in convents, where curiously, greyhound breeding flourished! The rich started endowing charities and chapels. Spirituality blossomed, with Mass celebrated daily.

Life was never the same again.

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