Ask A Historian: People & Plague–Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. By Lawrence G. Duggan.


Two of the most famous descriptions of human responses to the ”plague” (aka the “Black Death”), arguably the most devastating of all forms of epidemic, are literary. A celebrated depiction of the Great Plague of London of 1665 was published in 1722 by Daniel Defoe; although fictional, it seemed eerily accurate, then and now. The other was composed by an eyewitness of the outbreak of plague in Florence in 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio, in his Decameron. The long introduction (c. 25 pages) not only describes in detail the onset of this seemingly unprecedented catastrophe and its death-toll (30+%), but also the range of responses to it. Although Boccaccio acknowledges that some people (both clerical and lay) came forth to help their friends and neighbors, the picture he paints is otherwise unrelentingly gloomy, in which the plague brought out the worst in most people, especially their selfishness and greed. This prologue provides the setting for the book, the telling of one-hundred amusing and often bawdy stories by ten young rich Florentines, who wait out the course of the plague by progressing each day from one villa to another outside the city, passing the time in storytelling while the poorer urban population is decimated. Significantly, Boccaccio does not provide a full picture of European reactions to the plague, for in much of northern Europe there occurred widespread scapegoating and slaughters of the Jews, blamed for introducing and spreading this novel disease, the culmination of 250 years of vilification of the Jews from the First Crusade onward, resulting in their killing, pillaging, mulcting, and expulsion. Little of this happened in Italy, and so Boccaccio says nothing about it. He is, however, typical of chroniclers and historians across the ages in strongly emphasizing mostly negative human reactions to epidemics, even if there are few patterns across the board. The blaming of the Jews for the plague in the 14th century occurred in much, but not all, of Europe, and in fact is somewhat unusual in the annals of epidemics. Thus, the Jews weren’t blamed for the influenza of 1918-19, but they most certainly were for Germany’s defeat in WWI, which led to their systematic extermination in the Holocaust a few decades later.
Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. Epidemics can and do prompt these and other forms of bad, sometimes even evil behavior, as well as self-absorption and greed (time to review the list of seven deadly sins!). But in this history there are no clear patterns, much less repetition, and this is hardly the full picture in any event. Nevertheless, in presenting the ‘news’ of today and of yesterday, we tend altogether too readily to emphasize the negative. It is this tendency among historians that recently prompted Samuel K. Cohn, Jr, a distinguished historian of the plague in late medieval and early modern Europe, to publish a riposte to all this negativity in his Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford, 2018), in which he argues that human beings have also responded with great compassion and selflessness to such catastrophes across the ages, along with scapegoating of Jews in the 14th century and of gays and drug-users during the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. In the present crisis, while there is plenty of stupid behavior (with potentially ghastly consequences), it is worth stressing is that, perhaps more than ever, we see again and again people reacting compassionately at many levels. Why? Partly because, a century after 1918-19, we have a vastly superior array of knowledge and weapons with which to fight such epidemics (as discussed in the first blog) and allay our primal fears; but it is also partly because of the internet itself, which instantaneously communicates across the world not only epidemiological knowledge, but also awareness of great, loving responses of fellow human beings, which impels others to compassionate action as well. In short, knowledge of divers sorts is helping us live up to the better angels of our human nature in this present crisis, even if many of us in the end neglect our knowing and choose to behave badly anyway. (The following useful maxim has recently been offered online: Imagine that you might be carrying this virus, and behave accordingly toward everyone else.)
P.S. Speaking of good behavior, Oxford University Press, publisher of Sam Cohn’s book, has this week been prevailed upon to slash the price of his book from around $140 to $30. Get it while there are still copies!


I’ve known the author for over forty years–and he has said some very memorable and fascinating things over these decades. I asked him to share some of his insights with readers of this blog. This is the first of three posts.
Lawrence G. Duggan is professor of history at the University of Delaware. He teaches and works on later medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, and church history. He received his A.B. from the College of the Holy Cross (like Anthony Fauci) and his Ph.D. from Harvard.

2 thoughts on “Ask A Historian: People & Plague–Fear of the unknown profoundly derails people, individually and collectively, and easily leads to anger and a wish to vent. By Lawrence G. Duggan.

  1. This is brilliant and true–The effect of the internet is really quite positive now in this time of fear and paranoia, drawing us into a commonality and sense of connection that could not happen if we were simply sequestered in our homes without contact. thanks as ever Miriam

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