How Plagues Change Souls

With all the talk about the coronavirus, now would be a good time to call Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron to mind. It was set in Florence during the famous outbreak of the bubonic plague. Though Boccaccio wrote in the 1370s, history shows that the plague did indeed break out in Florence in the middle of the fourteenth century. Reports from the fourteenth century tell of cities like Florence full of corpses, a shortage of graves, and a foul stench permeating the air for months at a time.

Along with the Crusades and the founding of the universities, the plague was a major factor in ushering in the historical period after the medieval era. Some call it the Renaissance, others simply dub it the early modern era. Whatever term we use, we have to acknowledge that a mysterious disease that decimated a large percentage of Europe’s population had a massive transformative effect on the continent. It could not have brought the middle ages to a close all on its own. But in a sense two other major trends, in combination with the plague, did change the continent so thoroughly that historians have to define the transition from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries as a world-historical and epochal shift.

The Crusades brought about such a sustained, tumultuous conflict with a sizable non-Christian population that it jolted Europeans’ perspectives while it also brought about enormous changes in the continent’s political organization and economic systems.

The universities were arguably hatched in early form as part of Charlemagne’s ninth-century project of a theologically consistent Christendom. As the centuries progressed they fostered so much intellectual ferment; by the fifteenth century, when the printing press emerged, Europe had an intellectual class that felt brotherhood with thinkers from antiquity and pictured human life in new and broader ways.

The Crusades and the universities played a huge role. But the plague, an ominous and unforeseen force of nature that Europeans could not understand, and which they found difficult to cope with, was integral in a different way.

When we read Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, we see clearly how the plague forced people to reconsider every part of their life.

Interestingly, Boccaccio was the first professional Dante scholar, writing only a few generations after the author of The Divine Comedy. But whereas the Divine Comedy sought to organize its narrative into a mathematically balanced system of morality, punishment, and reward, Boccaccio’s Decameron drew readers into a chaos of moral doubt. The ethical freefall of Boccaccio’s one hundred short stories allows for a broad range of emotions–from the tragedy of a girl whose lover’s head is buried in a pot of basil, to the suspenseful tale of a Parisian scholar’s shrewd revenge upon a trifling Florentine beauty named Elena, to the bawdy spoof of a rogue monk who seduces a naïve girl named Alibech. The stories are each told by one of ten Florentine people who have removed themselves from the pestilential stench of Florence for ten days while the plague runs its course. They go to a country estate outside the city and each tell a story for ten days.

Much of the Decameron could be classed as scandalously irreligious, as it depicts a host of shrewd adulterous women, shameless seducers, and dishonest priests. One story tells of a handyman who ends up falling behind the walls of a nunnery and becoming a plaything for the degenerate sisterhood. Another introduces the concept of homosexuality and relates how a closeted sodomite finds his wife in flagrante delicto with a handsome young man, only to bring peace to his household by sharing the young man with the lady of the house.

Yet the plague of the fourteenth century occasioned precisely this breakdown of strictures. With such a high death toll, people came to doubt the value of foregoing pleasures in this life when death might come without warning at any minute. Many people had to nurse loved ones and saw their parents naked, helpless, and pained. It shattered the sense of prestige and high esteem that the rich and powerful might have held in prior times. Certainly the code of chivalry felt almost laughably ridiculous in the midst of an epidemic, where there was no time for modesty and the people of high station were revealed as being just as helpless and vulnerable as the poor in the face of natural disasters.

In Millennium, Ian Mortimer emphasizes that the fourteenth century was largely defined by the plague because of how deeply it shook people’s sense of themselves and their understanding of life’s purpose. The Crusades had brought Europeans into contact with exotic faraway lands, in addition to the marvelous goods brought back by Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century. The universities had placed some Europeans into contact with the ghosts of the classical past. And the plague forced Europeans to look face-to-face into an even more mysterious realm: the afterlife, the realm of death, the spiritual plane.

The plague brought about the best and worst in Europeans. In the fifteenth century, as the effects of the plague still lingered, the newfound interest in all the details of the naked human body, no doubt an outgrowth of surviving a time when people saw life and death in naked cycles before their very eyes, gave rise to a boom in art and scholarly inquiry. With the inventions of the clock and the mirror, mankind had a more lucid conception of himself as others saw him, as well as a sudden confidence in measuring and therefore having some control over time.

The plague also led to outbursts of outrage and persecution. In Scapegoat, Rene Girard excerpts documents from thirteenth-century France where Jews were slaughtered en masse, largely because people blamed them for the disease. In Spain, the Jews were suddenly subjected to violent massacres after having existed alongside Muslims and Christians for several centuries. Scholar Cecil Roth chronicles the massacres that swept Spain in 1391, paving the way for the eventual Spanish Inquisition that ramped up a century later.

These historical precedents might help us think of the coronavirus as a potential driver of historical change. Even if the disease turns out to be less destructive than the doomsday predictions that circulate now (and I am unsure whether the reality of the virus might end up being worse than we imagine), the world-historical impacts are starting to be felt. As a result of this virus the New York Stock Exchange had its two largest drops in history, with a staggering fall of 2,013 points happening today. The global panic is unprecedented.

And how might the coronavirus affect these generations living in the Pax Americana? We have seen signs of the Pax Americana ending for quite some time. Coincidentally (or maybe not), key signs seem to mirror the general types of changes that rocked Europe out of the medieval era. They had their Crusades and we have our cultural clash with the Islamic world, not only through wars and rivalry over petroleum. We also struggle over the challenges to our national cultural coherence as Muslim immigrants and refugees pour into Western cities in large numbers. The middle ages dealt with the changes to universities. Here too we see the changes wrought by universities signaling that something has deeply changed in the world.

I suspect that all three of the CUP changes (crusades, universities, plague) are working to end the postmodern era by shifting our worldviews in the opposite directions. The medieval crusades brought European Christians into contact with the Muslim world and forced them to reconsider who they were as Christians. My generation was born into an America that took multiculturalism and pluralism as its assumed starting point. Now as Muslims come in large numbers into our nation, we find ourselves questioning whether we are truly as suited for multiculturalism or as tolerant of pluralism as we always seemed to consider ourselves.

The universities like Aquinas’s Sorbonne brought classical and philosophical ideas to a Christian Europe that had found all its operational stability in the sacraments of the church. But universities today are churning out ideologies that reject classicism, liberal arts, or philosophical debate. They do this for a population that hasn’t considered church sacraments central to their lives for a very long time.

Today’s universities are forcing more and more illiberal dogma that requires the squelching of debate–even outright censorship and retaliation–to maintain its hold on people’s psyches. By inflicting so much onerous debt on young people, universities have created a new class hierarchy based on indebtedness and educational pedigree, while stoking the flames of resentment and revolutionary rage. See the rise of the Bernie Bros.

Into these perplexing shifts, which seem the reverse negative of the trends that ushered in the post-medieval Renaissance, comes the coronavirus.

The Coronavirus may challenge our political categories

As with the reversals in the impact of the crusades and universities, the effect of today’s pandemic will, I suspect, be opposite of the effects brought about by the fourteenth-century plagues. Whereas the plagues caused Boccaccio’s generation to flirt with moral chaos and drift away from ordered stricture, the plagues of the twenty-first century may likely drive our postmodern generations away from the loose liberalism of our origins, toward a more fundamentalist view on life.

Most of our present-day political divides are labeled according to left and right. Both left and right, in political terms, contain their peculiar forms of liberalism. The right defines itself by the free market and small government, one kind of liberalism. The left defines itself by permissiveness in human movement and behavior, exemplified most powerfully in the left’s embrace of open-border migration and the sexual revolution.

Even when the right and left mainstreams argue in today’s West, they do so with shared investment in the basic liberal concepts of relativism and value-neutrality. The right believes that no state or institution can dictate to the markets what goods are more valuable than others. The left believes that nobody can force their cultural heritage or sexual mores on the nation as a whole, which is why leftists side so quickly with: immigrants of any kind, women who want abortions, homosexuals, transgenders, and promiscuous daters.

But let’s say that the coronavirus is only the first of many pandemics that will sweep across the globe with increasing destructiveness and unpredictability. I remember the AIDS epidemic vividly because I was in the gay community at the time. It shook homosexuals to the very core and imprinted on the gay community a nervousness and survivor guilt. But AIDS was localized on specific populations and its relative difficulty in transmission made it a remote disease to most people who had no direct involvement with it. The long incubation period made it so that people with AIDS often had time to camouflage their illness as a general decline in health; obituaries in the 1980s and 1990s often danced around the role of AIDS in people’s deaths, as if it never really happened.

The coronaviruses will be quite a different story, because they spread rapidly and indiscriminately. If this pandemic becomes as severe as some fear, many people will confront the deaths caused by it up close and personal. Even if this coronavirus proves less lethal than experts predict, more strains of unpredictable disease will overwhelm our societies in waves.

Both right and left will be forced to question their own belief systems. It is hard to suggest that free-market solutions will present themselves to hyper-contagious epidemics. The right-wing ideal of small government and laissez-faire economics may not survive intact as people make peace with the reality that communities have to work collaboratively in matters of public health. Governments need extraordinary powers over human behavior to slow the spread of pandemics and deal with their damage. It takes massive coordination of resources to research new vaccines and antidotes, organize relief efforts for stricken communities, and prevent further outbreaks.

At the same time, the left will have to face the unsustainable nature of their dreams about open borders and the sexual revolution. With lethal viruses speeding around the globe, it can no longer be a tenable position to have unmanned, wide-open frontiers between large nation-states. Nor will it make any sense to insist that nations grant indiscriminate residency rights to large numbers of people coming from all around the globe. The human body is simply not suited to the epidemiological shocks of so many biomes converging on populations that do not have time to develop immunities to new diseases. Up until now, disease seemed like a far-fetched talking point in the debates about immigration. But the left has to grapple with the fact that it isn’t far-fetched at all.

Lastly, the left’s faith in the sexual revolution has hinged for decades on two basic things: condoms and abortions. Since these two things prevent or stop pregnancy, and prevent the sexual diseases that previously terrorized humanity, the left got lulled into the delusion that free, easy sex could be sustainable over the long term. Flus, colds, viruses, and bacterial infections don’t care about condoms or abortion. They spread through close intimate contact. Kissing, caressing, petting, and copulating with a condom have all been treated as recreational pursuits–but now, with things like coronavirus, the left will have to revisit its expectations about sexual liberation. Intimate contact is high-stakes and dangerous if it happens casually with many people, even if you can stop HIV or gonorrhea, and even if you can prevent getting pregnant.

Tinder and Grindr will probably go out of style quickly if we find the world overwhelmed by a series of pandemics. As they should be.

What will plague-ridden politics look like? My guess is that with death and human frailty front and center in people’s minds, the divisive issues that separated left and right will matter less and less. People will reflect profoundly on who they are and what matters.

Both left and right will become less liberal in a plague-ridden world because pandemics will crush the parts of the right that are liberal (free market and small government) and the parts of the left that are liberal (open borders and sexual revolution). They will come to look less different, perhaps.

There is always the strong possibility that the pandemics will be part of God’s plan. Maybe the medieval world drifted farther from God as their plagues forced them to question the promises of the Church and the certainty of belief in an all-powerful and just Deity. If the pandemics proliferate, I think the end of postmodernism will look completely different from that. To a world that has pleasured itself and rejected the notion of a punishing, strict God who demands holiness, the pandemics will probably feel like a rude awakening. God is still on His throne. All the things of this world can be taken from us overnight.