What can we learn from a great catastrophe

It has never been the way it is - why historical comparisons to the Corona crisis are misleading

The corona pandemic is changing our lives in unprecedented ways. And again historical parallels are sought. But what can you really learn from them?

Epidemics are a regularly recurring phenomenon, so a so-called "constant" in history. But, irritatingly, constants tend to be accompanied by variables and thereby significantly changed. The vernacular summarized this in a deep truth that historians have not yet adequately considered: every comparison is limp. Or as an old Greek philosopher said with his own grandeur: We never step into the same river.

That means: every time is different, also every epidemic time. Precisely for this reason, a comparison is worthwhile, not to draw lessons from it that cannot be given due to the very different time relationships and time sensitivities, but rather to soberly juxtapose: This is how it used to be, so it is now. The waiver of moral evaluations, which must go hand in hand with this, does not forbid the creation of a point system according to the pattern: one plus for the past or one for the present.

Once, that is the year 1348, in which the bubonic plague began to roll in Europe from the south. When the “black death” ended its fatal migration five years later, according to current calculations, around a third of the population fell victim to the epidemic; even the most pessimistic prognoses of apocalypse-loving virologists are not predicting anything of the kind at the moment. The people of the 14th century did not know where the evil was lurking - the plague bacterium or the plague bacillus was only identified at the very end of the 19th century by the western Swiss researcher Alexandre Yersin and was named Yersinia pestis in his honor.

God or the devil

That also means once again: the advantage of the present, which at least knows what it is dealing with, in complete contrast to the doctors of the 14th century. Their prevailing opinion was that deadly fumes oozed from the bowels of the earth, a theory that has been preserved in the term "malaria" - bad air - to this day. But that was by no means the final explanation for the people of the 14th century: Why were these murderous skies released right now, who and what was behind it?

According to the offer to explain the world at that time, in Europe only God was the most likely cause of the mass extinction, at most the devil, to whom heaven gave a free hand in his extermination campaign. This brought the theologians into play as chief interpreters, the worst of all solutions. Because as an interpretation scheme they had little more to offer than the concept of God's punishment: The people had sinned so badly that they were now rightly chastised.

In doing so, they also offered effective remedies: In order to appease and perhaps even reconcile the angry gentleman, the sinners had to make forgiveness, ideally in large processions, marching close together or huddled together like a single body in church rooms. For the fleas that transmitted the pathogen according to later knowledge, that was in the truest sense of the word found food.

Of course, the strangers

The explanation by the punishing heaven, however, had far more dramatic consequences. Humans never feel guilty as individuals and therefore strive to shift the guilt on to others - by the mid-14th century these were suspicious strangers of all kinds who were alleged to have been identified as agents of evil, and especially the Jewish communities whose members were slandered as Christ murderers and deniers of truth and were now exposed to the worst pogroms.

In honor of Pope Clement VI, who was reigning in those years, a hedonistic man of the world of stature, it should be added that he expressly forbade the murders and looting of this fanatical mob, as well as the flagellant movement that was rampant at the time, as a result of which thousands were scourged wandered the streets in hand and hit their backs bloody, which often gave rise to violence against scapegoats.

Nowadays, self-proclaimed epidemic givers fortunately spare us with their absurd theories, recipes and discrimination against groups of people, at least in public space. The fact that adventurous conspiracy rumors proliferate on the web and that xenophobic tones are occasionally struck is regrettable, but no equivalent to 1348. Thus, it is now five to zero for the 21st century.

Everyone was next to himself

An essential difference is of course the speed of spreading. In the 14th century, the epidemic, in line with the reduced travel speed of people and the much lower degree of globalization of that time, moved slowly, month after month, so to speak. This allowed the rich and beautiful to flee, such as the elegant young ladies and gentlemen who, in the framework of Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of novels “Decamerone”, move into their posh villas in the country, seal themselves off from the outside world and tell themselves more or less suggestive stories.

That is undoubtedly a plus for the past. Those who had neither the necessary leisure nor the indispensable change were poor, again in the truest sense of the word. In the larger cities in particular, public life was not gradually reduced as it is today, but collapsed completely. The few representatives of public order - a "state" in our understanding did not yet exist at the time - either ran away or were also killed.

The result was the same in both cases: anarchy under the sign of stark survival egoism. Social relationships thinned out, everyone was close to himself, those who were infected were usually hopelessly isolated and died a lonely death. Today, the well-organized welfare and pension state effectively counteracts this - as pessimists still believe. It is no coincidence that the main fear of our days is that his services could be overwhelmed, that there is no possible healing and that a serial death deprived of all dignity occurs - 1348 reverberates here. Nevertheless, for the time being it is said here: the advantage of the present.

The new powerful

At the height of the infestation in 1348, there was an uncanny equality among those who had not fled - after all, before serial death, everyone was equal. And some even equal than the same: the few who survived the epidemic and who often came from the lower classes were now the new powerful, who made their aid dearly paid for. Here we come up against ideological limits in our rating system: For advocates of a social revolution on the extreme left, this is undoubtedly a plus for the 14th century, as the dominance of the exploiters came to an end for a while.

So let's leave it undecided in this case; Such an assessment is all the more appropriate as after the epidemic had subsided, a large redistribution of wealth was due - instead of the extinct main lines of large families, distant heirs, i.e. obscure parvenus in the eyes of well-born contemporaries, were now very often the turn. However, it also has a bearing on the fact that the common people who had survived the disaster now gained higher wages and thus better living conditions due to the sharp reduction in labor; So it's six to two for us now.

In conclusion, there is one last aspect to consider, namely the cultural consequences of the epidemic. For a long time, researchers believed that after experiencing a catastrophe, people in the 14th century had become more “death-conscious”, that is, more thoughtful and pious. One saw this new "post-traumatic" attitude reflected, for example, in the frescoes of the old cemetery in Pisa, where the inevitability and ugliness of death is impressively depicted and death triumphs everywhere.

A hymn to life

But that was better thought than history takes place: Today we know that these pictures were taken before the great plague. Conversely, it becomes historical truth: a generation after the first major epidemic, Donatello carved his David and St. George, and Masaccio painted the first three-dimensional frescoes. These were works that show people in a whole new size, dignity and uniqueness, even though the plague had kept coming back in the meantime - with the result that Florence now had 37,000 instead of over a hundred thousand inhabitants.

In other words: the artistic and intellectual elite turned the epidemic into a hymn to life and enjoyment of life. This and the associated serenity should embrace the present despite its clear victory on points and, with all reasonable caution, should also imitate the coronavirus.

Volker Reinhardt is Professor of General and Swiss Modern History at the University of Freiburg i. Ü. In 2019 C. H. Beck published his book «The Power of Beauty. Cultural history of Italy ».