The Plague, in the Plague: Have Black Death Comparisons Taught us Anything?Historians in the News
tags: Black Death, medieval history, plague, pandemics
Peter Manseau is Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History and the author of the novel The Maiden of All Our Desires.
It’s a boom time for the Black Death. Interest in the bubonic plague that burned through Europe and Asia in the 14th century, and then returned in waves of outbreaks for three centuries afterward, has been rekindled during the COVID-19 era. For two years now, hot takes about the worst pandemic in history have rolled through the media landscape with the grim persistence of a Monty Python corpse collector calling out, “Bring out your dead.”
Plague most recently struck the New York Times in February (“In Medieval Europe, a Pandemic Changed Work Forever. Can It Happen Again?”). In January, Vice (“What the Black Death’s Labor Shortage Can Tell Us About Our Own”). December of last year brought coverage of the Black Death and conspiracy theories from Salon, as well as the plague and economics in both Insider and Investors’ Chronicle. In November, a pair of quantitative social scientists explained in Politico “What the 14th Century Plague Tells Us About How COVID Will Change Politics.” And lest anyone think contemporary uses of the Black Death are all doom and gloom, the stage-blood-spewing, latex-monster-costumed metal band Gwar just announced its upcoming “Black Death Rager World Tour.”
As a novelist who has spent much of the past two years afflicting fictional characters with the pestilence in question, I would like to believe the recent ubiquity of the Black Death signals a resurgence of medieval interest like the one that made Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose a publishing phenomenon a generation ago. The more likely explanation is bleaker: Death on a mass scale cries out for precedent. Today we are interested in that bygone plague mainly because we hope it will shed light on our own.
Yet the world in which the bacterium Yersinia pestis led to the deaths of tens of millions from 1346–53 was very different from the one brought to a standstill by coronavirus 2019. Facile comparisons between the two risk obscuring the facts of each, all in the name of illumination.
“There are a lot of what I call ‘rainbow connections’ that are being made in popular media,” historian Matthew Gabriele said in a Medieval Academy webinar early in the pandemic. “This tendency to try to leap from the moment now back to some moment in the past, skipping over anything in between, and see some kind of direct causal connection between then and now.”
A professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, Gabriele is the author, with David M. Perry, of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. He first began using the phrase rainbow connection in 2017 when describing efforts to view terror attacks through the lens of the Crusades. He sees the tendency to draw these arcing lines as even more prevalent today.
“The idea is really simple,” he told me. “A ‘rainbow connection’ is an attempt to draw a line directly from today to some moment of the past, but to leave out, jump over, all the events and ideas that occurred between now and then that complicate the picture. It’s a way of sanitizing the past in order to make a specific contemporary political or cultural point, to leave out the contingency and debate within history and by historians to make a moral argument.
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