Pandemics through the centuries
Pandemics through the centuries

They may seem almost a different species to us with their tyrannical monarchs, all-powerful popes and public burnings of heretics, but those long-departed people who traversed Europe’s late Middle Ages struggled mightily — and mortally — with a scourge that touches us still: The pandemic, or, as burned into our historical consciousness, “the plague.”

The story of medieval pandemic disease, of similar pandemics that recurred in subsequent centuries, of their repeated eruptions of fear and scapegoating, their power to test the virtue of religiosity and their influence on the destruction and creation of worlds, is the subject of a new honors course devised and taught by Tricia Ross, PhD, resident assistant professor in the honors program at Creighton University.

Titled, “Poxes, Plagues, and Pandemics,” the course was planned shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, Ross says, as part of her work teaching the history of science and medicine. But when COVID hit, it gained added meaning.

“When Creighton decided to close campus (in March 2020) I was teaching a class on the history of medieval science and medicine, and we had just reached the bubonic plague,” she says. “It was a quite shocking, unanticipated conjunction of events.”

Although Ross’ course covers several centuries and multiple pandemics, it begins with the early Renaissance, which is to say, with the Black Death of the 14th century that between 1346 and 1353 wiped out a third of Europe’s population. That plague pandemic, she says, may be the one most seared in the modern historical consciousness.

“It has shaped our cultural sense of what a pandemic is,” she says. “When we talk about a pandemic we call it a ‘plague’ because we use that name as shorthand for any kind of pandemic. It has shaped our cultural sense.

“It was sudden, and it had sweeping social and economic effects. There was mass hysteria, scapegoating, racism, and these are all things that we have experienced in our own pandemic. Students have been shocked to find out how many of our responses are not new.”

Jumping forward five centuries, for example, to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 when germ theory and microbiology had hugely advanced understanding of the pathology of pandemic disease, even then protests arose, Ross says.

“There were anti-mask protests, and there were even arrests of people who refused to wear masks,” she says. “There was also skepticism about vaccines from the first attempts to inoculate and then vaccinate for smallpox. There were huge debates about it. And that goes back to even before Edward Jenner, who created the first vaccine from cowpox. Almost immediately there were anti-vaccination campaigns against him and the cowpox vaccine throughout the 19th century. So, we see cycles that keep recurring.”

Other aspects of subsequent pandemics and diseases that would ring familiar to our ancestors include disproportionate impact on the poor, challenges to religiosity and a fundamental reordering of society, Ross says.

The well-to-do, in bygone centuries, fled the cities during pandemics and sought refuge in country houses far from the centers of outbreak, she said, whereas no such option was available to less privileged city dwellers who, consequently, bore the brunt of the disease. Similarly, today’s well-to-do work from home in their houses and condominiums, she said, while the less privileged confront danger while working at grocery stores or other public services deemed essential. 

Religious conviction is often tested during times of disease, Ross says, as during the early AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when some felt inspired to serve the afflicted while others dwelt on blame and implications of divine judgement.

“There has always been the choice between choosing to serve or choosing to stigmatize,” she says. “We have examples of both — from religious people labeling disease the result of sin to others devoting their lives to service and medical care because they are impelled by faith. In that way, pandemics test and bring the character of an individual’s and a community’s faith into sharp relief.”

As the world begins to emerge from the COVID pandemic, and faces a future that might well be reshaped by the experience, Ross says the lessons of history have rarely been more important.

“Overall, the ‘Poxes, Plagues, and Pandemics’ class emphasizes parallels between past and present,” she says. “There’s some hope for us, as we watch previous generations come to the other side of disease outbreaks.

“But there’s also caution and regular reminders that we should be humble. Though we see socioeconomic chasms and stigmatizing and scapegoating and conspiracy theories in every century and every pandemic, this does not mean we’re doomed to repeat these cycles forever.

“It does mean we have to take historical examples very seriously and consciously choose ways to avoid repeating them. We have to think about ways we can apply these lessons and how we can encourage better responses in our communities.