Historian draws lessons from medieval plague

“The plague created great catastrophe, but it also created cohesion”

By Nancy George

The last time SMU historian Bianca Lopez met with her “Medieval Family” class in person, the students were discussing the “Black Death,” the bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. Thanks to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, they are now experiencing a very contemporary version of what those families experienced as long as 700 years ago.

Painting courtesy of WorldHistory.us

“The plague caused great catastrophe,” says Lopez, assistant professor of Medieval and Renaissance studies. “But it also created cohesion. We brainstormed in that class before spring break how the plague affected the medieval family and the differences in how a pandemic would affect our own families,” she said.

Lopez finds that lessons from the plague, which wiped out one-third of the population of Europe and Asia, are applicable today.

Many medieval families isolated themselves from others during the Black Death pandemic, believing that the disease was caused by “bad air,” or astrological events, she says. Others chose to host parties and gather socially, facing criticism for behavior that sounds familiar in 2020, even though it is documented in 700-year-old handwritten papers in Italy.

Medieval families knew nothing of the airborne and animal-carried bacteria that infected them with the plague, nor did they have the ability to stay connected via technology, Lopez says. But they suffered from the same sense of loss of control and grief that are constants in the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, drew together as families.

Now, with the advantage of 700 years of hindsight, Lopez understands the tragedy the plague pandemic brought to medieval families and society, but she also cites other changes that Europe experienced after emerging from a pandemic.

Society emerged from the plague with a greater sense of social equality and a quest for permanence, she says. Architecture, painting, literature and sculpture flourished after the plague. This is the era that produced literature such as The Canterbury Tales, published in 1392, architecture such as the Greco-Roman revival reconstruction of Rome and sculpture such as the Gates of Paradise, the bronze doors to Florence’s Cathedral Baptistry.

It also produced a new religious devotion, in particular to the Virgin Mary, says Lopez, whose forthcoming book is titled Queen of Sorrows: Local Grief and State Power at a Marian Shrine after the Black Death. “My research of a community outside of Ancona, Italy, demonstrates a steep rise in donations and bequests to the shrine Santa Maria di Loreto as individuals attempted to prevent plague, cope with surviving it and petition on behalf of their family members.

Lopez sees similar patterns of devotion emerge from England to Poland as the plague struck  medieval Europe.

“There is a tendency for historians to downplay the effects of the Black Death on society,” she says. “But I disagree. Trauma has a huge impact on society.”

In spite of today’s medical knowledge and technology, today’s families are reacting emotionally to COVID-19, Lopez says. “They are drawing together.”

“We too can get through this if we work together,” she says. “We need to step away from our short attention spans and help each other. I’m optimistic.”