Pandemic Literature: Revisiting Accounts of the Black Plague in the COVID-19 Era

Written by Elakkiya Prabaharan
Illustrated by Tammy Lee
When COVID-19 began to spread rapidly across the world, forcing nation after nation to go into lockdown, one thing became startlingly clear: despite our living in the most technologically and medically advanced civilization in human history, many countries were highly unprepared to deal with the novel virus. The very small upside to a global pandemic could be that collective society is slowly becoming aware of the many injustices that exist in the world, spotlighting issues like inadequate healthcare, racial injustice, poverty, and class and political divisions. It’s not that we didn’t know these issues existed before the pandemic—it’s just that the widespread fear of COVID-19 provided the backdrop necessary to bring them to the forefront. But why were we so unprepared for this event? Surely, we should have learned something from past pandemics, especially from the most recent ones like the SARS, influenza, and HIV/AIDS pandemics. Even still, as I read some of the accounts of the bubonic plague (also known as “the Black Death”) which occurred centuries ago, they are eerily similar to the accounts we hear in today’s daily news.

The genre of pandemic/plague literature is not a new one; people have been writing of these devastating events for most of human history. One of the most famous pieces of literature written about the bubonic plague is “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe. It was published in 1722 as a “historical account” of the bubonic plague which besieged London in 1665. I put quotations around the phrase, ‘historical account,’ because it became known almost 60 years after its publication that Defoe made up the story, rather convincingly, using research he collected about the events of the plague. Defoe gifts HF, the journal’s mysterious narrator, with narrative abilities that establish a sense of realism that speaks to our current fears inspired by COVID-19. In an article for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore picked out some of Defoe’s most harrowing descriptions of the plague. Lepore writes,

When the plague came to London in 1665, Londoners lost their wits. They consulted astrologers, quacks, and the Bible. They searched their bodies for signs, tokens of the disease: lumps, blisters, black spots… In 1665, the skittish fled to the country, and alike the wise, and those who tarried had reason for remorse: by the time they decided to leave, “there was hardly a Horse to be bought or hired in the whole City,” Defoe recounted, and, in the event, the gates had been shut, and all were trapped. Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst: having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies. “This Necessity of going out of our Houses to buy Provisions, was in a great Measure the Ruin of the whole City,” Defoe wrote. One in five Londoners died, notwithstanding the precautions taken by merchants. The butcher refused to hand the cook a cut of meat; she had to take it off the hook herself. And he wouldn’t touch her money; she had to drop her coins into a bucket of vinegar.

The visceral fear that the people of London felt during this time is not unlike the fear we currently feel during our own pandemic. Lacking knowledge about the virus sweeping our world, people responded by emptying the shelves of their local grocery store, stocking up on items like toilet paper, bottled water, and sanitizer. Businesses now display the same “precautions taken by merchants” in 1655 London: our temperatures are taken before we enter a room, the surfaces of every doorknob and tabletop are sanitized almost obsessively, and we wear masks and gloves to avoid touching each other. Yet, the number of COVID-19 cases seems to be escalating every day, despite strict government restrictions in place. In an article for The Conversation, David Roberts points out Defoe’s rationalization for this phenomenon:

Throughout the journal, HF tells us he hopes his experiences and advice might be useful to us. There’s one thing in particular governments might learn from the book – and it’s tough. The most dangerous time, he reports, was when people thought it was safe to go out. That was when the plague flared up all over again.

I mentioned before that pandemic literature is an extensive genre; another work we can draw lessons from is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Set during the bubonic plague of 1348, Boccaccio’s account of the Black Death in the city of Florence provided some of the first examples of the use of the word ‘quarantine. Many parallels can be drawn between Boccaccio’s account and the pandemic today. In the introduction of The Decameron, he describes in vivid detail the way Florentine society collapsed in the wake of the plague. When the disease first arrived in Florence, the “advice of doctors and the power of medicine appeared useless and unavailing.” So, people became divided in their approaches to the disease itself, even amongst friends and family. Boccaccio wrote, “some people were of the opinion that living moderately… would really help them resist the disease. They, therefore, formed themselves into companies and lived in isolation from everyone else.” Even still, “others, holding the contrary opinion, maintained that the surest medicine for such an evil disease was to drink heavily, enjoy life’s pleasures, and go about singing and having fun… while laughing at everything and turning whatever happened into a joke.” But of all the accounts of the plague mentioned in The Decameron, one hits close to home for me most personally: “For people did not just die with people around them, but many departed this life without anyone at all as a witness, and very few of them were accorded the pious lamentations and bitter tears of their families.” My uncle has passed away a few months into the pandemic, and his funeral, also, was attended by as few people as possible in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

One could argue that we shouldn’t compare the bubonic plague with COVID-19; after all, the case-mortality rate for the bubonic plague is 30-60%, while the case-mortality rate for COVID-19 in the United Kingdom is 5.1%. The bubonic plague was transmitted to humans through flea bites, while COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person. Furthermore, the symptoms of the bubonic plague, as described by Bocaccio, are nothing like the symptoms of COVID-19: “in men and women alike, certain swellings would develop in the groin or under the armpits, some of which would grow like an ordinary apple and others like an egg, some smaller and larger… many people discovered black or livid blotches on their arms, thighs, and every other part of their bodies… these spots were a most certain sign of impending death.” Yet, despite these differences, I want to argue that there is still some insight to be gained from the medical knowledge used to stop the spread of the plague. First, the concept of quarantining oneself emerged from the 11th-century epidemic of the plague. In fact, the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian phrase “quaranta giorni”, for the 40 days that merchants and sailors had to isolate themselves aboard a ship before anchoring at their destination. In this way, the city of Ragusa, located in Sicily, was able to significantly reduce the spread of the plague to the city’s native population. While 40 days seems a bit extreme in today’s context, self-quarantining is still one of the best ways to stop the spread of the virus (although I will explore some of the problems with quarantining in the next paragraph). In addition to this, the general distrust of scientists and medicinal quackery seems to have persisted throughout past pandemics and rears its head even today. “Holding garlic in the mouth” or “swishing vinegar” would no more stop the spread of the plague than ingesting chlorine bleach (*cough* thanks, Trump *cough*).

During the plague, it was common knowledge that people who were already poor and sick were the most susceptible to the disease. Biological anthropologists from the University of South Carolina excavated the bones of 14th-century victims of the Black Death, and it was discovered that most of these bones belonged to the malnourished, elderly, and diseased populations. We can see that the social inequalities that led to this phenomenon are also applicable today. In the COVID-19 era, Indigenous and Black communities– the most economically impoverished communities in Canada and the U.S.– have some of the highest infection and mortality rates. Boccaccio himself said that the rich often fled to the country to wait out the disease, a luxury that the poor couldn’t afford then and can’t afford now. I believe that to better prepare for the eventual spread of an unknown virus, North American governments should have been learning and anticipating the effect the virus would have on deepening the inequalities among social and ethnic classes.

After reading many different pandemic texts, both older and more recent, I wanted to revisit the question of whether we should have expected the things that would happen in the event of a global pandemic. If the patterns of history have anything to show in this regard, I would say that hypothetically accepting the end of the world as we know it is far easier said than done. Defoe’s and Boccaccio’s books remain some of the greatest inspirations for literature regarding global pandemics, spawning many variations over time. I highly recommend anyone to spend some time reading other pandemic accounts, both fictional and non-fictional (conveniently listed in this article by Open Culture).


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