Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green and today, I’ll be reviewing historical outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague, because, you know, I want to keep it light and fun around here.
The other day, in the midst of a global disease pandemic, I called my pharmacy to refill my Mirtazapine prescription. Mirtazapine is a tetracyclic antidepressant medication that is also used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, and in my case, it is pretty mission critical. So anyway, I called my pharmacy only to learn that my pharmacy had closed. So then I called a different pharmacy, and a very sympathetic woman answered. When I explained the situation, she told me that everything would be fine, but they did need to call my doctors’ office before refilling the prescription. She asked when I needed to pick up the medication, and I answered, “Well, I guess in a perfect world, I’d pick it up this afternoon.”
And there was a pause on the other end of the line, before finally, stifling a laugh, the woman said, “Well, hon, this ain’t a perfect world.” And then she put me on hold while talking to the pharmacist, except she didn’t really put me on hold; she just put the phone down. And I heard her say to her colleague, “He said--get this--he said ‘in a perfect world’ he’d pick it up today.”
Anyway, in the end I was able to pick up the prescription the following afternoon, and when I did so, the woman behind the counter pointed at me and said, “It’s the perfect world guy.”
And so here I am, the perfect world guy, back to regale you with a tale of the Anthropocene, the best of all possible geologic ages in this, the best of all possible worlds. It’s a story about the human capacity for cruelty, but also for sacrifice and compassion.
It’s a plague story. At the moment I can’t tell any other kind.
In the past three months, I’ve read about almost nothing except for pandemics. We often hear that we live in unprecedented times. But what worries me is that these times feel quite precedented. For humans, being in uncharted territory is often good news, because our charted territory is so riddled with disease, and injustice, and violence. And maybe I’ve been reading about all that charted territory because I’m scared of going back to it, and looking for ways to avoid it.
Between the years of 1347 and 1351, perhaps half of all humans living in Europe died of the related diseases bubonic and pneumonic plague--bacterial infections spread by fleas and also in some cases from one person to another. What was then usually called “the mortality” or “the pestilence” is now known as the Black Death, and this torrent of plague also devastated Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. The Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi wrote that the pestilence “did not distinguish between one region and another.”
al-Maqrizi’s hometown of Cairo was the world’s largest city outside of China in 1340, with a population of around 600,000. But at least a third of Cairo’s residents died in an eight-month period beginning in the summer of 1348. The famous world traveler Ibn Battuta reported that at the height of the pestilence in the city of Damascus, 2,400 people died every day.
To many, it felt like the end of humanity had arrived. The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that it felt “as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for oblivion.” In Christian communities, the devastation was seen as more final and total than even the Great Flood. The chroniclers of Padua wrote that at least “in the days of Noah God did not destroy all living souls and it was possible for the human race to recover.”
The statistics truly boggle the mind: Cities from Paris to London to Hamburg saw most of their residents die from the Plague and resulting systemic collapses. In Dubrovnik, the death was so unrelenting that the government ordered every citizen to fill out a will. In Florence, a city of over 100,000 people, one recent estimate concluded that about 80% of the city’s population died in a four-month period. In Ireland, a monk named John Clynn described life as “waiting amid death for death to come.”
Near the end of his plague journal, Clynn wrote, “So that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave [extra] parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future.” Beneath that paragraph, a brief coda appears in different handwriting: “Here, it seems, the author died.” In Florence, Giovanni Villani wrote of the pestilence, “Many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted until…” and then he left a blank space that was never filled in, because he died of the plague before the plague ended.
To read about the Black Death is to glimpse how it may end with our species--in longing and despair and also ineradicable hope, the kind of hope that makes you leave sentences unfinished and extra parchment in your book, in case anyone should still be alive in the future. As William Faulkner once put it, “It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure; that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.” Faulkner went on to argue that humans will not merely endure but will prevail, but these days that feels a little bit ambitious to me. I, for one, would be delighted merely to endure.
The historian Rosemary Horrox wrote of the Black Death, “The very enormity of the disaster drove chroniclers to take refuge in cliches. The same comments appear in chronicle after chronicle,” and indeed, around the plague world, the stories do become repetitive. We read, for instance, that the corpses lay in the streets of Florence and overwhelmed the graveyards of France and choked the Nile River in Egypt. Chroniclers also focus on the suddenness of it all: One day, a single nun is sick; within a week, her whole community is dead. And much attention was also paid to how the rituals around death changed. The bells are no longer tolled for the dead, because they would toll without ceasing. And anyway, as one writer put it, “the sick hated to hear them and it discouraged the healthy as well.”
But for me, the most gutting repetition in plague accounts is the abandonment of the ill, who were often left to die alone due to fear of contagion. Many centuries later, C.S. Lewis would write after his wife died, “Nobody ever told me grief felt so like fear.” But to grieve in a pandemic is to both grieve and fear. “For fear of infection,” one writer noted, “no doctor will visit the sick, nor will the father visit the son, the mother the daughter, [or] the brother the brother. … And thus an unaccountable number of people died without any mark of affection, piety, or charity.” In the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, Demetrios Kydones wrote, “Fathers do not dare to bury their own sons.”
And so in fear of death and hope of survival, many left the ill to die alone. To do otherwise was to risk your own life, and the lives of whatever loved ones you had left. The Black Death was vastly, incalculably different from our current pandemic--it was orders of magnitude deadlier and far less understood. But infectious disease continues to separate us in our most vulnerable moments. Too many of us, sick and healthy, are alone. Too many are dying apart from those they love, saying goodbye over video chat or a telephone line. In the New England Journal of Medicine, one physician wrote of a wife watching her husband die over FaceTime.
And I think maybe that is the real reason I cannot stop reading about pandemics at the moment: I am haunted by that separation.
When I was sixteen, a friend of mine died. And they died alone, which I found very difficult. I couldn’t stop thinking about those last minutes, those lonely and helpless minutes. I still often have nightmares about this--where I can see this person and see the fear in their eyes but I cannot get to them before they die. And at a time when we are separated from each other, and especially where the sick must be separated from the healthy to prevent disease transmission, so many people are dying, and grieving, while separated. I know that being with someone as they die doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain, and in some cases can amplify it, but still, my mind keeps circling, vulture-like, around the extensively precedented tragedy of not being able to hold the hand of your beloved and say goodbye.
Just a few years after my friend died, I was 21 years old and working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. I was just a kid myself, really--so skinny that in my powder-blue chaplain coat I looked like a boy wearing his dad’s suit jacket. Those months of chaplaincy are the axis mundi around which my life spins. I loved the work but also found it impossible--too much suffering that I could do nothing to alleviate. But now looking back on it, I realize that I did sometimes help, if only by holding someone’s hand who otherwise would’ve been alone. And that time left me permanently grateful to all those who do what they can to make sure that the dying are accompanied for as long as possible on that last journey we’re sure of.
During the Black Death, there were many such people--monks and nuns and physicians and nurses who stayed, offering prayers and comfort to the sick even though they knew that such work was beyond dangerous. Almost all of those people’s names are lost to history--not least because chroniclers then as now were more concerned with the cruelties than with the kindness--but among the accompaniers was the surgeon Guy de Chauliac, who stayed in Avignon as the plague raged even as his boss, Pope Clement VI, fled. It is true that our current horrors are precedented. But so is our determination, and our commitment to others.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the glory and shame of our response to plague. But first, here’s an advertisement that won’t feel at all like a tonal shift.
The 18th century historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr once wrote, “Times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.” Infectious disease outbreaks have long been blamed on marginalized people and outsiders. Amanda Thomas notes in her book Cholera that in 19th century England, “blame for the spread of the disease was commonly attributed to Irish immigrants.” And in the U.S., cholera was blamed both on recent immigrants and also Black people.
More recently, the president of the United States has been among those referring to Covid-19 in racist terms--calling it both “the China virus” and the “Kung Flu,” even though Covid came to the United States primarily via Europe.
During the Black Death, the pestilence in Europe was widely blamed on Jewish people. Wild conspiracy theories emerged that Jewish people were poisoning wells or rivers, and after confessions were drawn out through atrociously cruel torture, many thousands of Jewish people were murdered. Entire communities were burned to death, and the emotionless, matter-of-fact accounts of these murders are chilling. Heinrich Truchess wrote, “First Jews were killed or burnt in Solden in November, then in Zofingen they were seized and some put on the wheel, then in Stuttgart they were all burnt. The same thing happened during November in Lansberg.” And it goes on like that, for paragraphs.
Now, many Christians Europe did recognize that it was utterly impossible for a vast Jewish conspiracy to spread the plague via well-poisoning. But facts still don’t slow down conspiracy theories, and the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe predisposed people to believing in even the most absurd stories of poisoning. Pope Clement VI pointed out, “It cannot be true that the Jews … are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague … afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.” Still, the torture and murder continued, and anti-Semitic ideas about secret international conspiracies proliferated.
And that is part of the human story --that we have not just blamed marginalized people, we have killed them. This compounds the injustice of pandemics, which almost always disproportionately sicken and kill the poor and the vulnerable. In England, one chronicler wrote, “virtually none of the lords and great men died in this pestilence.” Disease only treats humans equally when our social orders treat humans equally.
But to say that times of plague only bring out the bestial and diabolical sides of human nature is, I think, untrue. Amid the terrors of the Black Death, Ibn Battuta tells us a story of people coming together in the city of Damascus. He says that people fasted for three consecutive days, then “assembled in the Great mosque until it was filled to overflowing … and spent the night there in prayers. … After the dawn prayers the next morning, they all went out together on foot, holding Qurans in their hands, and the amirs barefoot. The procession was joined by the entire population of the town, men and women, small and large; the Jews came with their Book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, all of them with their women and children. The whole concourse, weeping and seeking the favor of God through His books and His prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. Then they returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction.”
And so in Ibn Battuta’s story, even the powerful went barefoot in a statement of equality, and all the people came together in prayer and supplication. Of course, whether or not this mass gathering really slowed the spread of the plague in Damascus is not clear--but we see in this account that crisis does not always bring out the horrible sides of human nature. It can also push us toward sharing our pain and hope and prayers, and treating each other as equally human. And when we respond that way, perhaps the affliction is lightened.
And then there is the story of Eyam. Waves of plague continued to roll over Afroeurasia for centuries. London saw outbreaks in 1563, 1592, and 1603, among others. And then in June of 1665, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “To my great trouble, hear that plague is come into the City.” It would come to be called the Great Plague of London. An estimated 100,000 Londoners--a quarter of the city’s population--would die. Again, there were stories of the dead in the streets, and the sick abandoned. Again, the plague pits were dug to deal with the overflow of corpses. And again, the poor were disproportionately affected.
The village of Eyam is over a hundred miles north of London, in the East Midlands region. Late that summer of 1665, some cloth arrived in the village from London. Perhaps the cloth contained fleas, or maybe a rat had made the journey inside the cloth. Regardless, the tailor’s assistant who unpacked that material, a man named George Viccars, soon fell ill, and died on September 7th. By the end of the month, five more residents of Eyam had died.
In response, the local minister, the Reverend William Mompesson, worked with Thomas Stanley, the town’s popular former minister--who’d been ejected for Puritanism--on a plan to contain the spread of the plague by self-isolating the entire village.
A 19th century chronicler of Eyam’s history wrote that Mompesson “was certain that he could prevail on his suffering and hourly diminishing flock to confine themselves within the precincts of the village if they could be supplied with victuals and other necessary articles and thereby prevent the pestilence from spreading.”
Now, before enacting this plan to isolate the village, some people did leave Eyam, and others--including Mompesson and his wife Catherine--sent their children away to escape the plague. But under Mompesson’s leadership, the village did eventually decide to cordon itself off from the rest of the world. They also agreed to hold church services outdoors to retain some measure of social distancing, and they decided that each family when possible would bury their own dead.
A stone boundary marker, which can still be seen, marked the line that villagers would not cross. Eyam residents would leave coins in holes bored into that marker to pay for food and other supplies, which would then be left around the marker by people from nearby communities.
Eyam’s self-quarantine held to a remarkable extent for fourteen months, preventing the spread of the mortality to any nearby towns. Of the 700 residents living in Eyam when the quarantine began, 257 died, including the minister’s wife, Catherine Mompesson. The historian William Wood tells us that one woman, Elizabeth Hancock, “dug the graves for, and buried with her own hands, her husband and six children.” The poet Mary Howitt wrote a poem called “The Desolation of Eyam” imagining the plague’s march through the village: “No skill its wrath could tame; / It grew, it raged, it spread; like a devouring flame.”
And still no one fled, and the blaze never spread beyond Eyam. By holding this quarantine so stringently for so long, many lives were saved. The residents of Eyam and Damascus left us with models for how to live in this precedented now. As the poet Robert Frost put it, “The only way out is through.” And from Eyam to Damascus, we can see that the only good way through is together. Even when circumstances separate us--in fact, especially when they do--the way through is together.
These days, Eyam is home to just under 1,000 human souls. Every year, on the last Sunday of August, the townspeople come together to commemorate the shared commitment of the village during those fourteen months of devouring flame. This year, the commemoration was cancelled, of course. But it will return. It will. My seven-year-old daughter recently observed that when it’s winter, you think it will never again be warm, and when it’s summer, you think it will never again be cold. But the seasons go on changing anyway, and nothing that we know of is forever--not even this.
Plague is a one star phenomenon, but our response to it need not be.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. Joe Plourde is our technical director and Hannis Brown makes the music. I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped make this podcast over the last three years, and to everyone who has listened. We’ll be taking a break for a while to work on among other things The Anthropocene Reviewed book, which will be published on May 18th. I think we’ll be back with some new reviews before then, but in the meantime, thank you for being here with us. I think it was Leonard Cohen who told us to forget the idea of a perfect offering, and just to ring the bells that still will ring. So we leave you today with the bells ringing.