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Posts Tagged ‘Black Death

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

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A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century

 

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius

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As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

Al+Ghazali+2 source

 

Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables”*…

 

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The Plague of Florence as Described by Boccaccio, an etching (ca. early 19th century) by Luigi Sabatelli of a plague-struck Florence in 1348, as described by Petrarch’s friend Giovanni Boccaccio — Source.

 

The Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch [see almanac entry here] lived through the most deadly pandemic in recorded history, the Black Death of the 14th century, which saw up to 200 million die from plague across Eurasia and North Africa. Through the unique record of letters and other writings Petrarch left us, Paula Findlen explores how he chronicled, commemorated, and mourned his many loved ones who succumbed, and what he might be able to teach us today…

Love, death, and friendship in a time of pandemic: “Petrarch’s Plague.”

* Petrarch, from a 1347 letter to his brother, who lived in a monastery in Montrieux

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As we learn from history, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that the British government banned the slaughter and movement of lambs in parts of Cumbria, Scotland and Wales; heavy rainfall in those areas had showered fallout from the Cernobyl nuclear disaster onto farms there.  (The transfer of radionuclides to sheep and goat products is greater than to cattle.)  As the ban lifted, animals’ radiation levels were monitored before they were allowed to be sold at market. The number of failing animals peaked in 1992, but some still recorded higher levels of caesium as recently as 2011.

Sheep and Lambs source

 

Written by LW

June 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“When it was in the extremity there was no such thing as communication with one another, as before”*…

 

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The island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, shown here, was one of the isles where the city of Venice quarantined plague-stricken individuals in the 15th century

 

Just beyond the shores of Venice proper—a city comprised of dozens of islands—lie two uninhabited isles with a rich history. Today these landmasses are landscapes of grasses, trees, and worn stone buildings. But once they were among the most important gateways to this storied trading city.

The islands, known as Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, are now yielding fascinating insights into Venice’s response to one of the most famous pandemics in history. In the mid-14th century, Venice was struck by the bubonic plague, part of an outbreak, known as the Black Death, that may have killed up to 25 million people, or one-third of the population, in Europe. This spread was just one of several waves of the plague to strike Northern Italy in the centuries that followed.

Venice, as a trading center, was especially vulnerable. “They saw that the only solution was to separate people, to take away the sick people, or suspected sick people,” says Francesca Malagnini, of the University for Foreigners, Perugia, who is herself a Venetian, linguist, and member of an interdisciplinary team researching Lazzaretto Nuovo. “This was the only way to protect everyone’s health and allow the economy to continue.”

Beginning in the early 15th century, the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was designated for isolating and treating plague-stricken Venetians. Later, Lazzaretto Nuovo became a spot where ships coming from places experiencing the plague, or those with suspected sick passengers or crew, anchored. There, people and goods spent a period of quarantine before being allowed into the heart of the city. (We owe the English word “quarantine” to the Italian term for 40 days, quaranta giorni.)…

Archaeological research is unearthing Venice’s quarantine history to illuminate how the Italian city created a vast public health response 700 years ago and helped lay the modern foundation for coping with pandemics: “Venice’s Black Death and the Dawn of Quarantine.”

See also: “How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History (and what that can teach us about the coronavirus’ potential to do the same).”

* Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

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As we stay safe, we might spare a thought for Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran; he died on this date in 1922.  A physician and public health and infectious disease researcher, he served as Chair of Military Diseases and Epidemics at the École de Val-de-Grâce, then joined the Pasteur Institute, then founded the Société de Pathologie Exotique; through his career, he published over 600 papers, journal articles, and books on infectious diseases and their agents.  In 1907 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of parasitic protozoans as causative agents of diseases like malaria and trypanosomiasis.

220px-Charles_Laveran_nobel source

 

Written by LW

May 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“A map is the greatest of all epic poems”*…

 

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A marmot hiding in plain sight in the Swiss Alps

 

Errors—both accidental and deliberate—are not uncommon in maps (17th-century California as an island, the omission of Seattle in a 1960s AAA map). Military censors have long transformed nuclear bunkers into nondescript warehouses and routinely pixelate satellite images of sensitive sites. Many maps also contain intentional errors to trap would-be copyright violators. The work of recording reality is particularly vulnerable to plagiarism: if a cartographer is suspected of copying another’s work, he can simply claim to be duplicating the real world— ideally, the two should be the same. Mapmakers often rely on fictitious streets, typically no longer than a block, to differentiate their accounts of the truth (Oxygen Street in Edinburgh, for example).

But there is another, less institutional reason to hide something in a map. According to Lorenz Hurni, professor of cartography at ETH Zurich, these illustrations are part inside joke, part coping mechanism. Cartographers are “quite meticulous, really high-precision people,” he says. Their entire professional life is spent at the magnification level of a postage stamp. To sustain this kind of concentration, Hurni suspects that they eventually “look for something to break out of their daily routine.” The satisfaction of these illustrations comes from their transgressive nature— the labor and secrecy required to conceal one of these visual puns…

Slipping one past one of the most rigorous map-making institutions in the world: “For Decades, Cartographers Have Been Hiding Covert Illustrations Inside of Switzerland’s Official Maps.”

* Gilbert H. Grosvenor (President of the National Geographic Society, first editor of the magazine, and champion of cartography [and photojournalism])

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As we hide Easter eggs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1345– according to 14th century scholars at the University of Paris– the Black Death was created… from what they called “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius, occurring on the 20th of March, 1345.”

AKA the Pestilence, the Great Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague, the Plague, or less commonly the Great Mortality or Black Plague, the Black Death was actually transmitted by fleas who had fed on diseased rats.  It killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

More on “the greatest catastrophe ever.”

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Spread of the Black Death in Europe and the Near East (1346–1353)

source

 

Written by LW

March 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

Don’t know much about history…

Readers may know that there has accumulated on YouTube quite a collection of “adaptations” of pop hits turned to the teaching of history…  e.g., “William the Conqueror” (to Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback”), “Joan of Arc” (“Seven Nation Army” by White Stripes), “The French Revolution” (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”), “The Spanish Inquisition” (The Human League, “[Keep Feeling] Fascination”), and dozens of others…  The work of Honolulu-based “historyteachers” (“Mrs. B” and “Mr. H”– “history teachers, duh”), the videos are both amusing and illuminating…

But surely their masterpiece– and equally surely their most profoundly strange piece of work– is a little ditty devoted to Genghis Khan’s gift to Europe (via the Genoese at Kaffa)…

 

As we tap our toes, we might recall that it was on this date that Schindler’s List opened in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto; it went on to gross $96.1 million in the United States, over $321.2 million worldwide, and to win seven Academy Awards– including director Steven Spielberg’s first.

source

 

 

 

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