Present Plagues of the Past: Lessons from Medieval & Early Modern Literature and Visual Art
As we all learn to adjust to the rapidly changing conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic, this set of readings and activities offers you a means to process current trends by looking to the past—to one of the most deadly, disrupting, and world-changing global disasters in history.
Anon., The Danse macabre, 16th c.
The Danse macabre was a common motif in the Middle Ages—the conjoining of the living and the dead as a reminder of the fate that none of us can avoid. After the 14th c. Plague pandemic, images like this proliferated all over Europe.
As we all learn to adjust to the rapidly changing conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic, this set of readings and activities offers you a means to process current trends by looking to the past—to one of the most deadly, disrupting, and world-changing global disasters in history. The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death and the Great Mortality in the West and as the Great Annihilation in the East, was a pandemic caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It ravaged Africa, China, the Middle East, and Europe, most devastatingly between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Unfortunately, contemporary historians have tended to focus their attention on the Plague in Europe and the Middle East. Until recently, the Plague in China and Africa had been distressingly understudied in Western scholarship. However, medievalist historians and historians of disease are currently reframing the Plague as it truly was: a global pandemic. We’ll point you to some resources to explore this aspect of the Plague. In contrast, the global reach of the current pandemic has been stressed from the very beginning in our public spaces.
Our goal is to emphasize the continuities and discontinuities of representations of pandemics then and now. We should note that, alas, if women ever wrote first-person narratives of the Plague in the medieval period, we have yet to identify them. In contrast, in 2020, we are hearing, and chronicling, diverse voices from all over the world.
The cascading effects of human-made or natural disasters have had historically much more calamitous consequences for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, women, and those in precarious economic straits: we are currently witnessing, and experiencing, this phenomenon.
With these points in mind, you are invited to examine, discuss, and write about a small selection of narratives and visual artifacts from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Visual images and eyewitness accounts are quite capable of powerfully conveying the unspeakable, comforting the anxious and inconsolable, and shining light on the invisible. We also offer you an opportunity to talk back to Shakespeare in the context of Covid-19 as a way to bridge the gap between then and now—and perhaps to find comfort, solace, and clarity.
Pre-modern plague images, often compelling, are also frightening. How do they compare with how Covid-19 is being chronicled visually now? Consider the representations of Covid-19 in maps and graphs. It is frightening to watch the map go red with outbreaks and to behold the number of deaths spike on a chart.
Images are an important way for humans to store memories. Pre-modern people visually looked back to earlier plagues in order to understand and process their own predicaments. As part of this module, we ask you to compare images related to how people all over the world processed the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death. And, finally, we ask you to consider what images we are bequeathing to future generations: how will they remember us?
Allow yourself to really spend time with a few of the pre-modern images that catch your eye. They can sometimes be more challenging to dig into because most people are not used to art that looks like this. But it’s also an incredibly rewarding feeling to see a picture open up like a flower and reveal intricacies you might never have noticed without spending time with it. Here are some suggestions to help these pictures come alive for you.
How To Look At Pre-Modern Images
Begin by opening up this Image Gallery with examples from pre-modern and contemporary visual reactions to these health crises.
- Pick a medieval or early modern image that catches your eye. Click on it to make it larger.
- What attracted you first to the image? Pictures have multiple depths to them -start by thinking about that eye-catching surface and write down your thoughts.
- Now take a deeper look. What story is being told? Jot that down! What is happening in the foreground or the background? Everything in a work of art is a choice; even photographs are the product of composition and perspective choices, photoshop manipulation, and publishing choices. Spend 3-5 minutes writing down everything you see. How do these details contribute to the story?
- Knowing that, you might start asking questions about why something appears the way it does, and not some other, perhaps more expected way. What effect does that choice have? How does that choice create the story being told? Spend 3-5 minutes writing down everything that comes to mind when you think about the specific way something appears and how it affects the story told.
A picture can speak a thousand words –but it speaks most eloquently to those who know how to read it. Is that picture on the home page of the giant skeleton standing on coffins supposed to be scary, or could it be funny? What could the metal badge showing a pudendum carried by three penises possibly have to do with the plague? Since the decision about what to depict, how to depict it, and what material to depict it on is influenced by the culture in which an art object is produced, a viewer’s ability to understand and appreciate the artists’ choices is always deepened by additional information. We have provided some context above each image to give you a sense of how scholars think pre-modern people would have responded to or used these images.
- Podcast: Plague with Rebecca Rideal
- Video: Disease, Inequality, and Resilience in Sixteenth-Century Mexico
- Select two pictures to compare and contrast. One should be a plague image and the other a COVID -19 pandemic image from the selections provided. (You may use a different COVID-19 image, if you’d like). Do the five steps in “How To Look At Pre-Modern Images” above for BOTH pictures. Consider where you find points of comparison. You might consider the following: subject matter, gender, race, clothing, body positions and emotion, activity, geometric shapes, color, part that attracts your eye first, emotional tone (including humor).
- Trade picture pairs with your classmate, and repeat the activity with your partner’s images. Have a conversation with each other about what you both noticed. What do our pandemic images share with pre-modern plague ones? How are ours different? Return to the question near the start of this page and discuss with your partner: how do you think future generations will remember us?
- Reading: “Bubonic Plague: The First Pandemic,” The Science Museum of London
- Webinar: The Mother of All Pandemics: The State of Black Death Research in the Era of COVID-19 (This portion of the webinar begins at 3:58 and ends at 21:50.).
- Reading: Giovanni Bocaccio
- Reading: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Description of the Plague from the Pardoner’s Tale
- Reading: Guy De Chauliac
- Reading: Abū Ḥafs Zayn al-Dīn ʻUmar ibn al-Muẓaffar Ibn al-Wardī
- Reading: Francesco Petrarca
- Assignment Narrative
What is Pandemic Shakespeare?
This section invites you to join a worldwide conversation using the common language of the early modern playwright William Shakespeare to discuss your experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. You have the opportunity to read several different plays and make comments, and respond to other comments, on passages you find useful in thinking about your present experiences. No prior Shakespeare experience is necessary to participate! Consider annotating in just the first few scenes if you find you are working through Shakespearean language slowly. Annotations at all levels of inquiry are encouraged. If you haven’t read the play before, you may want to look over the synopsi to get a basis sense of the plot.
William Shakespeare & the Bubonic Plague
Shakespeare’s entire life and his writing were shaped by plague, beginning with his survival of an outbreak as a three month old baby in 1564. Two of his siblings died of it. Major outbreaks occurred again during Shakespeare’s lifetime in 1578, 1593, and 1603. The bard began publishing works we know of today around 1593 until his death in 1616 –meaning that much of his literary work was composed while England suffered tremendous human losses. For a further quick overview, listen to or read this article National Public Radio article featuring Columbia University English professor James Shapiro on Shakespeare & the plague outbreaks.
Shakespeare’s Plays & the Plague
Strangely, Shakespeare never wrote explicitly about the plague outbreaks, though references sometimes surface. The most famous of these are Mercutio’s repeated dying lines in Romeo & Juliet, a play written during the 1593 outbreak: “A plague o’ both your houses!” The character Mercutio takes the terrifying experience of the plague and connects it to a violent experience in his life that has, on its surface, nothing to do with plagues. Caught in the fray between two warring families, Mercutio’s subsequent death may remind us of the innocent lives lost by the recklessness of others, and of how wealth and power may shield some people from disaster. You will not find lines referring directly to pandemics in the PandemicShakespeare.com plays, but you are invited to do the same thing as Mercutio: find connections between your plague experiences and the experiences and language of the characters in the plays.
Please join in the international conversation and affirm our human interconnectedness –across time, cultures, and nations—as a strength at a time when physical connectedness may compromise our health.
- Website: Pandemic Shakespeare
- John Aberth, The Great Mortality of 1348-1349: A brief History with Documents (2005)
Early Modern (chronological)
- Women’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England
- William E. A. Axon, Documents Relating to the Plague in Manchester (1605)
- Gideon Harvey, The City Remembrancer (1665)
- Samuel Pepys, Diary (1660-69)
- Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
- Rebecca Carol Noel and Totaro,The Plague in Print : Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558-1603.
Scholarly (Literary Studies and History)
- Gauvin A. Bailey, et al. Hope and Healing : Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800 (2005)
- Christine M. Boeckl, Images of Plague and Pestilence: Iconography and Iconology (2000)
- Michael Dols, The Black Death in the Middle East (1977)
- Ernest B. Gilman, Carol Noel, & Totaro, Rebecca, Representing the Plague in Early Modern England (2011)
- Monica Green, ed. Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death (2015)
- Monica H. Green, “Putting Africa on the Black Death Map: Narratives From Genetics and History,” Afriques (2018)
- John Kelly, The Great Mortality, An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2005)
- Kathleen Coyne Kelly, “Flea and ANT: Mapping the Mobility of the Plague, 1330s-1350s.” postmedieval 4.2 (2013): 219-32.
- “Mapping Contagion and Disease, Catastrophe and Destruction: Computer Modeling in Disaster Films.” With Douglas Whittington. Prime Time: Mathematics and Popular Culture. Ed. Elizabeth Sklar and Jessica Sklar. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland. 2012. 55-70.
- Michael McCormick, “Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward an Ecological History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History xxxiv (2003): 1-25.
- Rebecca Rideal, 1666 : Plague, War and Hellfire (2016)
- Rae Ellen Bichell, “Iconic Plague Images Are Often Not What They Seem,” NPR (18 August 2017)
- Helen Carr, “Black Death quarantine: how did we try to contain the most deadly disease in history?,” History Extra (BBC) (30 March 2020)
- Jason Daley, “Research Reveals More Complete Picture of the Devastation Wrought by the Black Death,” The Smithsonian (25 May 2016)
- John Dugdale, “Plague fiction – why authors love to write about pandemics,” The Guardian (1 August 2014)
- Beit Hatfutsot, “700 years before Coronavirus: Jewish life during the black death plague,” Museum of the Jewish People
- Jill Lapore, “What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About,” New Yorker, 30 March 2020
- Antoni Virgili, “Fast and lethal, the Black Death spread more than a mile per day,” National Geographic (23 April 2020)
- David Roberts, “Coronavirus: Defoe’s account of the Great Plague of 1665 has startling parallels with today,” The Conversation
- Greig Watson, “Coronavirus: What can the ‘plague village’ of Eyam teach us,” BBC News (22 April 2020)
- Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa (Historical Review),” Emerging Infectious Diseases 8.9 (2002): 971-75.
- Claire Cornelius, et al, “Protective Immunity against Plague,” Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 603 (2003): 415-24.
- Lester K. Little, “Plague Historians in Lab Coats,” Past and Present 2013.1 (2012): 267-90.
- Guy Trebay, “The Hidden Language of Masks,” NYT (15 May 2020)
- Ryan P. Smith, “How Smithsonian Curators Are Rising to the Challenge of Covid-19,” Smithsonian Magazine (15 April 2020)
- “Fighting the Black Death,” Museum of Artifacts
Historical Fiction and Film
- Michael Flynn, Eifelheim (2006)
- Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink (2017)
- James Meeks, To Calais, in Ordinary Time (2020)
- Edgar Allen Poe, “Masque of the Red Death” (1842)
- Vincent Ward [film] The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)
- Connie Willis, The Domesday Book 1992
- Video: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Bring Out Your Dead”
The Plague Today in the US (a sample)
- “Plague Awareness,” Idaho Central District Health (2018)
Do You Have a Story to Tell?
Associate Professor of English; Graduate Program Director
Erika Boeckeler’s work spans multiple genres and disciplines: Shakespeare, early modern poetry, History of the Book, sixteenth century German art history, early Slavic print culture. Her book, Playful Letters: A Study in Early Modern Alphabetics (Uni…