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Lessons from the Black Death: beware of scapegoating, succumbing to fear

Lessons from the Black Death: beware of scapegoating, succumbing to fear

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Lessons from the Black Death: beware of scapegoating, succumbing to fear

At the height of the Swine Flu panic, a curious connection began to emerge: a rhetorical line was drawn between the outbreak of flu and illegal immigrants.  An interesting article in the Minnesota Independent has outlined the connection well, and is worth the read.  And it wasn't just professional media hysterics like Michael Savage or Glenn Beck who were leading the charge; according to the article in the Independent, a Democrat from New York, Rep. Eric Massa, began pushing to have the borders with Mexico closed.

We all remember that in the days after September 11, 2001, it became physically dangerous to be, or even to appear to be, a Muslim in this country.  Such prejudices, once publicly unleashed and given some modicum of respectability or reasonableness, become very hard to reverse.  (I would welcome comments from Muslims and Arabs in this country, or anyone else who even appears to be possibly of Middle Eastern descent, in terms of how much the situation has improved or not since 2001.)

The panic over swine flu seems to be abating, but we all know that it's only a matter of time before Something Else Dreadful captures the media and public attention.  One of the very few advantages to having spent years of my life studying medieval culture is that sometimes it does give me a much-needed sense of perspective.  No matter how bad things get, for most of us life as we know it is immeasurably easier than it was in centuries past.  Early last week I reached a saturation point with bad news--economic crisis, climate crisis, swine flu crisis, and so on--and decided that I needed a reality check.  So I went back to dip into an old favorite, Barbara W. Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

The chapter on the Plague, entitled "'This is the End of the World': The Black Death," is especially instructive.  An outbreak of bubonic plague (also known as Black Plague, Black Death or just the Plague) essentially devoured Europe at a time when it was already suffering from prolonged war and widespread economic instability, as well as a series of frightening natural disasters.  Tuchman describes it as "the peak of successive calamities."

That might sound all too familiar, but in truth no modern pandemic has even begun to compare to the chaos and destruction that swept through much of the world, "from India to Iceland," between 1347 to 1349.  Whole families, villages, and even monasteries were wiped out, and it is entirely possible that at least one third of the population succumbed to the vile disease (a scourge made exponentially more infectious for having both airborne and bloodborne variants spreading simultaneously).  Deaths were mostly quick but nonetheless hideously painful and grotesque; Tuchman writes that the symptoms included

strange black swellings about the size of an egg...[they] oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding.  The sick suffered severe pain...Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms, and before the end 'death is seen seated on the face.'

And I'm leaving out some of the ickier stuff, in case anyone is still reading.

This was a time when even rational and well-educated people could be forgiven for believing that the world was coming to an end (many compared the Plague to the Biblical flood and thought it was caused by "a divine anger so great that it contemplated the extermination of man").  In comparison, our own current crises begin to feel manageable.  We do not have streets filled with rotting corpses because all the graveyards as well as the "common pits" are already full.  And thank goodness for it!

And yet many of us found ourselves feeling a little jumpy about the recent flu outbreak, and in some larger way our capacity for bad news may feel stressed to its breaking point.  It can seem like life is just one darn thing after another.  In a syndrome similar to compassion fatigue, we might rather easily develop something like "crisis fatigue."   Really, can our frayed nerves take one more calamity?

At any rate, there are a few lessons I learned from considering the way people responded to the calamitous 14th century:

1. The less we understand the problem, the more frightening it seems. "The mystery of the contagion was 'the most terrible of all the terrors,'" Tuchman writes.  While God's wrath was often cited as the ultimate source of the Plague, the physical means of transmission were entirely mysterious.  Astrological influences, humors, transference by sight, a demonic Pest Maiden and even an earthquake were all blamed for the spread of the disease.  Lack of accurate information intensified reactions to an already terrible situation; to use Tuchman's words, "Ignorance of the cause augmented the sense of horror."  We should be glad of the scientific and technological advances of recent decades, even as we have to be careful about communications "advances" that sometimes spread misinformation and fear too quickly.

2. While some people will engage in courageous acts of mercy in a crisis, others will use it as an excuse for rather wretched misbehavior. Although there was no cure or even reliable treatment, certain groups and individuals did put themselves at great risk to care for the sick and the dying.  Those who did often died for their trouble, so that mortality rates were higher than average for doctors and the clergy.  In general, however, "lawlessness and debauchery accompanied the plague."  It seems that many people's capacity for empathy shut down in the face of such massive suffering.  In Siena, "where more than half the inhabitants died of the plague...fear of contagion froze every other instinct."   Reports from around Europe spread of doctors who would not tend the sick, priests who would not hear confessions or give last rites, and even parents who deserted children, leaving them to die alone, afraid, and in pain.

3.  Some people will turn to religion for solace, but others will throng to bizarre fringe groups or reject any form of authority whatsoever. Both can be dangerous. Penitential practices (including massive penitential processions, which probably helped spread the Plague) gained in popularity.  As the epidemic wore on, though, it "accelerated discontent with the Church at the very moment when people felt a greater need of spiritual reassurance."  The atrocious behavior of some clergy didn't help.  Perhaps the strangest mass movement that developed was that of the flagellants, groups of people who "saw themselves as redeemers who, by re-enacting the scourging of Christ upon their own bodies and making the blood flow, would atone for human wickedness."  As this movement grew in popularity, it also grew in arrogance and antagonism to the Church.  Lest one is tempted to lionize the flagellants as proletarian revolutionaries, we should note that they also grew increasingly violent and extreme in their persecution of the Jews.  Which leads to my final point...

4.  In times of crisis, scapegoating is a real and present danger, and it takes strong moral leadership to combat it. Flagellants fomented anti-Jewish hysteria in what was already a hostile cultural, religious, and legal environment.  Jews were already seen as "infidels" and "enemies of Christendom" and were subject to all sorts of scurrilous lies about their supposed hatred of Christians (a horrible example of projection).  Then came the accusations that they were responsible for spreading the Plague, and wholesale persecution began in earnest.  Barbara Tuchman makes the very important point that there were economic forces at work as well, and that "the persecutions of the [time of the] Black Death were not all spontaneous outbursts but action seriously discussed beforehand."  Church leaders were not innocent in this regard, but rather were a serious part of the problem.  However, the frenzied mob killings of Jewish communities that grew out of the flagellant movement may have shocked even the most anti-Semitic of clerics.  Pope Clement VI himself finally tried to put a stop to the "furious onslaught" of murders, but by then the Jewish population had been decimated.  Not only were they dying of the Plague like everyone else, but Jews throughout Europe were hunted down, rounded up, and burned either at the stake or in their own homes.  The time of the Plague could have been merely a tragic episode in our collective past, instead it became also one of the most shameful epochs in Christian history.

Phew.  It makes for depressing reading. On the other hand, I do think that a clear historical perspective can keep us from falling into the modern-day versions of these same errors.  We must always seek the most accurate and least inflammatory information available, and try hard to understand the true causes of things that distress us rather than seeking out scapegoats and victimizing them.  It is true both that the Swine Flu is a far cry from the Black Death, and that the anti-immigrant rhetoric in this country is still a long way off from the murderous hatred unleashed on Jews in the Middle Ages.  But understanding how the related processes of fear-mongering and scapegoating work can help us be vigilant in our responses to these stressful times.

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