In​ the middle of February 1348, King Edward III held a royal tournament in Reading. He probably held another one that month in Bury St Edmunds. He held another on 20 April in Lincoln, and three more in May, in Lichfield, Windsor and Eltham. He liked a tournament. His victory over France at Crécy two years earlier and England’s seizure of Calais were still fresh memories for him and the aristocratic chums who’d fought beside him. Now they replayed their battles, stripped of the plebeian foot archers who actually won them, in the mêlées of the jousting field. The tournaments were expensive, lurid and boastful, teeming, jostling social occasions that were, as Richard Barber put it in Edward III and the Triumph of England, part Roman triumph, part circus. The last royal tournament of 1348 was held on 14 July, in Canterbury. ‘The costumes for the entry into the city,’ Barber writes, ‘required eight pounds of Cyprus gold thread, five pounds of scarlet silk and three thousand gold leaves.’ After Canterbury, there wasn’t another tournament until April the following year. By that time, half or more of the people in the crowds who came to bask in Edward’s martial afterglow were dead.

It seems likely the king already knew, by the time the Canterbury event was staged, that the epidemic later known as the Black Death – aka the pestilence, pest, plague, qualm, ‘the death’ or (the term used by contemporary writers, to distinguish it from later, lesser outbreaks) ‘first death’ – had reached England. It had already stormed through Italy and France. It probably infected its first victims in Melcombe Regis in Dorset, now known as Weymouth, in May, showed itself clearly in June and by July was raging along the coast. Only two weeks after Edward’s Canterbury lance-fest the archbishop of York, William Zouche, wrote to his priests: ‘There can be no one who does not know, since it is now public knowledge, how great a mortality, pestilence and infection of the air are now threatening various parts of the world, and especially England.’

Did Edward and his counsellors shut down the tournament season as part of a counter-epidemic strategy to limit large public gatherings? Probably not, though it might have seemed bad taste to have continued these extravaganzas when tens of thousands of people were dying every day. The main national plan, in so far as the country had one, was set out by clerics like Zouche and involved as many large gatherings as possible, specifically masses and devotional processions, to beg the forgiveness of the deity who, as the priesthood explained to its parishioners, had had enough of their wickedness.

Citizens of Tournai burying plague victims, from a manuscript of 1349.

In almost every obvious way the plague of the late 1340s, the worst natural calamity in recorded history, is different from the Covid-19 pandemic of the early 2020s. Disagreement persists about the true nature of the Black Death. Recent suggestions have included a multitude of illnesses from anthrax to a form of Ebola. According to the older scholarly mainstream, championed by the Norwegian historian Ole Benedictow, although the plague, like Covid-19, probably began with transmission from animal to human in Asia (most likely in Eurasia, north of the Caucasus mountains) and struck Italy particularly hard before it reached other parts of Europe, it came as a bacterium, not a virus. A flea from a species that normally lives on black rats bit a plague-infected animal. The relatively hefty plague bacterium blocked the flea’s digestive system, meaning that when it next tried to feed on rat’s blood, it threw the blood up again, now mixed with plague bacteria, straight back into the bite. The rat bitten by the flea eventually died of plague; the flea, starving because it couldn’t eat, then bit another rat. This continued until all the rats in any population were dead and a mass of starving, bacteria-stuffed rat fleas went seeking blood in the closest available animal, which was often human. In people, the bacteria usually proliferated in the lymph node nearest the bite, leading to the characteristic hard, dark swellings in the groin, armpit or neck known as ‘buboes’ – hence ‘bubonic plague’. Sometimes the same bacteria entered the bloodstream, which led to rapid death from bacteraemic plague, or the lungs, causing pneumonic plague. Occasionally, the coughing of pneumonic plague victims infected other people. It seemed, in other words, to be several diseases; the final confusing twist was that, unlike other infectious diseases, it was more virulent in the countryside than in crowded towns, because in the villages, where most medieval Europeans lived, the proportion of rats to people was higher than in the cities.

Covid-19 disproportionately affects the elderly, and kills, on current estimates, anything between 0.25 and 4 per cent of those it infects – more when healthcare systems are swamped. But the plague of the 14th century killed young and old alike, with a death rate not just in the infected but in the population as a whole of between 0.5 and 60 per cent. And in the Europe of 1348, of course, there was no healthcare system, no concept of public health as we understand it, save a preoccupation with ‘corrupted air’ and an interest in how best to suppress bad smells, and little grasp of the principles of the spread of epidemics. In 1349 a doctor in Montpellier explained that plague vapours could be spread simply by a sick person catching the eye of a healthy one.

Once the epidemic began, Gloucester sealed itself off from the rest of the country in an effort to prevent infection, ignorant of the disease’s rat flea couriers. Months before the plague reached England, when King Edward and his courtiers were still luxuriating in their military triumph over the French – believing, perhaps, that the disease wouldn’t cross the sea – the authorities of plague-wracked Pistoia locked the city down; nobody was allowed to go to or come from nearby Pisa or Lucca without permission, on pain of fines. Pistoia banned the import of second-hand cloth and ordered corpses to be sealed in coffins before they were moved, and restricted attendance at funerals. Perhaps these measures, among many others more obscure, made some difference, but they looked back to Galenic and Hippocratic medicine, rather than forward to modern ideas of hygiene.

Despite the lack of healthcare and public health measures as we understand them – and we will never know how many plague victims died of neglect, hunger and thirst, or of secondary infections – the plague in medieval England, and Western Europe as a whole, was mediated by a system of research, intellectual authority and technical countermeasures. But that system was religious, based on the Christian church’s management of the passage of souls from this earth to the next world. The forerunner of the modern emergency vehicle was the bell of the priest’s attendants, advising the dying that relief was at hand, in the form of an expert trained and qualified to take confession and administer the other sacraments that would ensure safe passage, if not to heaven, at least to purgatory. The dividing line between rich and poor wasn’t so much access to drugs or the best doctors as to post-mortem religious services: the prayers, candles, masses and chantries that were meant to speed the dead to a better hereafter. The technical emergencies the authorities faced weren’t shortages of hospital beds and doctors but of candle wax and confessors. Priests were not immune to the plague.

‘Emergency’, or its Latin equivalent, was the word used by the bishop of Bath and Wells in January 1349, six months after the plague began in England, when he broadcast an urgent message to his flock via the surviving parish priests in his diocese. ‘We understand,’ he wrote, ‘that many people are dying without the sacrament of penance, because they do not know what they ought to do in such an emergency and believe that even in an emergency confession of their sins is no use or worth unless made to [an ordained] priest.’ What they had to do, he told them, was ‘make confession of their sins, according to the teaching of the apostle, to any lay person, even to a woman if a man is not available.’

Unlike Boccaccio and Petrarch, who experienced and documented the plague as adults, Chaucer was seven or eight when it came to England. Plague didn’t leave an obvious shadow on his work, although its vitality and richness might be imagined as a reaction to that horror. The 14th century was used to death on a large scale, used to most children dying before they were adults. When the plague struck there were many who remembered the famine of a generation earlier. ‘Neither Chaucer nor his age show remarkable pessimism,’ according to Derek Brewer.

They knew things were bad, complained a great deal, and thought that things in this world would get worse … but they also had built into their culture, independent of vagaries of personal belief, a concept not only of the terrors of judgment after death and the possibility of an eternity of just punishment, but also of the hope of heaven … Life could, therefore, never become meaningless.

And yet there is a temptation to confuse fatalism and serenity. Chaucer’s slightly older contemporary William Langland, the presumed author of Piers Plowman, about whom far less is known, may even have been a father by the time the plague hit. He was certainly old enough to be one in 1361, when the illness returned in an epidemic marked by high mortality among the very young. Amid the strangeness to us of Langland’s great narrative poem, with its hopping between Middle English and Latin, its stern morality and its rebuke to greedy, sensual materialists who ignore the punitive divine message of the plague, is a jarring moment that’s hard to read as anything other than a sudden anger towards God: ‘For God is deaf nowadays and deigneth not us to hear/That girls [children] for their guilts [sins] he forgrint [destroys] them all.’ It is as if for an instant the medieval mask of stoicism and acceptance, the confidence that life is never meaningless, slips, and Langland speaks to us across six and a half centuries, from epidemic to epidemic, to say that it doesn’t make sense to him either.

This dislocation, not from the fabric of reality, but from its representation – the meaningfulness embedded in habits and belief structures and social norms that turns out, when those habits and structures and norms are taken away, not to be so meaningful after all – is where the plague and the virus overlap. The medieval European human existed within a dense, familiar pattern of Christian faith and pagan superstition, a calendar spangled with feasts and fasts and seasonal tasks, a gender landscape in which a woman was a deficient man, a fantastically complex economic matrix of fiefs and fines and partial ownership and rents in kind, and a class system that, for all its diversity, boiled down to the trinity of peasant, landholder and priest. When the plague killed more than half the people in this society, much of the pattern was exposed, at least temporarily, as simply habitual behaviour, as opposed to an expression of some fundamental identity.

Now that we are locking down and self-isolating, we are bound to experience the same sense of disorientation: the same sense of the meaninglessness of large-scale arbitrary death, but also a new perspective on the significance of the repetitive actions of our collective social lives as those actions fall away. In so many concrete ways we have better lives than our ancestors, but the pattern within which they existed at least had the virtue that its pattern-like nature was evident. The plague may have heightened awareness among the peasantry that communicating with God through a priest and doing their manorial lord’s work for free was something they acquiesced to, rather than the natural state of things, but these were customs and rituals linked directly to essential matters, eternal life and bread.

With us, it is the reverse. Our practices, lost not as a direct result of epidemic mortality but the frantic effort to prevent it, seemed when we had access to them to be merely things we did, but can now be seen as substitutes for existential meaning: the office, the pub, the restaurant, the foreign holiday, the cruise. When you aren’t going anywhere, the danger is that you might start seeing the way things are going. Just as medieval peasants wondered whether the world would end if they refused to give their lord their labour for free, we might find ourselves wondering why, if the world is capable of mustering so much financial and material firepower to fight Covid-19 and save businesses from going under, it can’t muster it for other purposes.

This year or next, the epidemic will be brought under control, populations will re-emerge and some version of the old life will resume, perhaps seeming not to have changed all that much. If the Black Death is anything to go by, history will bifurcate: in one version the epidemic will have changed everything – social histories – and in the other it will be an awkward sidenote interrupting a narrative of wars, national rivalries, rulers and dynasties. Edward III lost his baby son William and his 14-year-old daughter Joan to the plague in 1348. ‘No fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are human too,’ he wrote to the Castilian royal family, which Joan had been about to marry into. Three months later, with the epidemic in London at its height, the king was back in armour, fighting the French at the gates of Calais.

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