While reflecting on our plight in the current pandemic, CNN’s Brian Stelter recently lamented, “We’ve never lived through something quite like this. We have nothing to compare this with!” It is true; we have never lived through a pandemic like this, but others have. Many writers have documented the devastating plagues of the past and observed that, in almost every measurable way, this novel coronavirus is just a passing blip on the screen in comparison with the major epidemics of history.
But less has been written about our society’s response in comparison to the responses of our ancestors who went through worse epidemics. As I read through premodern histories that record the effects of epidemics much worse than our present crisis, and compare them with our cultural reaction to the coronavirus today, I am struck by how our ancestors seemed to take them all in stride.
I wonder what our medieval predecessors would think of our societal reaction to this virus. In short, they would marvel at our fear and melancholy.
How Did Our Ancestors Handle Epidemics?
About AD 523, the Roman nobleman and former Consul Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius sat in isolation in the north of Italy. Although he had served honorably under the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric, Boethius was now imprisoned by this same emperor on trumped-up charges of treason. From his cell, he awaited his inevitable execution, which took place the following year, when he was only 44.
From this same cell, he also composed his final and greatest treatise, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” which went on to become a medieval classic. The book is written as a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who visits Boethius in his incarceration to give him true medicine, including both encouragement and admonition.
In Book 2 of “Consolation,” Lady Philosophy confronts Boethius in his self-pity. She says he doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the ways of Fortune (also personified). Fortune has turned on him. Well, guess what? That’s what Fortune does.
Boethius sure enjoyed life when Fortune smiled on him. He had even attacked Fortune with philosophical arguments, all while taking pleasure in her false happiness. Then Philosophy addresses Boethius in Fortune’s own voice: “I supported you, and … even pampered you with my wealth, and over-indulgently spoiled you — which is precisely why you are now so angry with me.” Good fortune had spoiled him, leaving him unprepared for subsequent bad fortune.
It is common wisdom: Years or a lifetime of ease can make one soft. What Boethius experienced on an individual level, we are now experiencing on a societal and global level. Conditions, particularly health and economic conditions, have worsened. How are we holding up, especially in comparison to our ancestors? What would medieval time-travelers see in us?
Upon arrival, they would no doubt initially be impressed by our medical technology. Then they would just as certainly be amazed at our fear and hysteria. The low infection fatality rates and our sophisticated technology should mitigate our fear, but they haven’t. The medieval time travelers, once they got past all the shiny and superficial stuff, would realize we are a comparatively weak people.
This is, of course, to paint in the broadest of strokes. I have the highest respect for, and would never intend to denigrate, the tremendous fortitude of frontline medical workers, especially those in the hot spots. Nor do I mean to dismiss the grief and pain so many thousands of families are enduring, some of whom have lost multiple relatives to the disease. As a public health concern, our pandemic is significant.
What I am talking about is the general fear that so quickly and easily overtook our politicians, media, and then citizens at large, resulting in an overreaction of total lockdown and now, presumably, a permanent health emergency. All of this led to the unnecessary wrecking of the economy and need for trillions of dollars in government funding — and all of this for a virus with an infection fatality rate that is probably under 1 percent.
There Are Things Worse than Physical Death
Imagine how a premodern person might judge this reaction. We have shut down life. We reassert our faith in “science” and big government at every turn. We saddle our children with even more crippling debt. We forbid church but keep the marijuana flowing. We release criminals but threaten or actually arrest people for enjoying the outdoors. The health crisis is not unprecedented; our reaction to it is. Others have lived through health crises much worse. How did they respond?
One example of the typical medieval approach is the Venerable Bede (circa 673–735) in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.” As a matter of course, Bede recounts a few destructive famines and plagues. He mentions a “bitter plague” in the fifth century that killed so many people so quickly, there weren’t enough survivors to bury all the dead.
Another terrible plague came to England in 664. It began in the south and worked its way north through Scotland and then over to Ireland. It broke out sporadically over the next 25 years and, according to Bede, swept away a “great multitude” of people.
The disease struck young and old alike. Bede tells of a 3-year-old boy who died and another “little boy” of uncertain age who succumbed. Monks and nuns in the monasteries were dying daily. When he was about 13 years old, Bede survived an outbreak in the Jarrow monastery. He and the abbot were the only survivors in the monastery who could still recite the psalms antiphonally and keep the daily prayers going.
Bede’s main historical interest in the plague is not to give a physical or scientific description of how the victims died, although he details a few of the symptoms. He focuses instead on their emotional and spiritual state. In sum, they died with great courage. The slow, agonizing death afforded an opportunity for reflection, repentance, and consideration of what is most important in life and in death. This is what premodern Christians called “the art of dying.” It is now a lost art in a culture that seeks to repress the inevitability of death at all costs.
Yes, the fear of death was real back then, too. The extent of the plague’s devastation tempted some of the new Christians to return to paganism in their desperate search for relief. But Bede’s eyewitness account is dominated not by fear but by courage. Bede and his contemporaries knew there are things worse than physical death, which is why their fear was not paralyzing.
Humans Need Faith in Hardships
In addition to the courage displayed in the face of a plague, another striking characteristic of Bede’s narrative is the overall attitude of joy. Right in the middle of what some persist in calling the “Dark Ages,” Bede reports that five years into this unfortunate epidemic was also a time of peace and increased learning. He claims there was never a time “more happy” since the Angles had arrived in Britain.
It wasn’t that life was easy. Their great joy was the result of a trust in something more powerful and enduring than the disaster of the moment and the temporality of human life.
That faith has long been superseded in our public discourse, so the joy and courage that faith instills have likewise diminished. The hardships most of us are enduring — cabin fever and boring Zoom meetings — pale in comparison to the suffering people like Bede knew, yet our reactions are, well, more childish. The more significant suffering of job loss and the economic and social effects we will endure for the foreseeable future are mostly unnecessary results of living in a society that is fearful in the face of a sickness that, at least for now, cannot be easily conquered, but has conquered us in more ways than one.
As Boethius observed from prison, his good fortune had spoiled him. It has done the same to us, leaving us woefully unprepared to confront challenges that should be familiar to the human race. Fortune has turned, and only slightly so far, but enough to expose our emotional and spiritual fragility in the face of adversity.
We should hear the wake-up call to steel ourselves, individually and corporately, for what may be harder times to come. What’s more, perhaps we need to reclaim a more stirring vision of ultimate reality, one that will inspire more courage and joy for facing the present crisis.