Monday, May 18, 2020

In Which My Colleague And I Read Classic Pandemic Literature

When the lockdown started, my colleague Doreen Fraser and I were both seized by the same impulse: to read classic historical pandemic literature.

Doreen, seeking a sense of historical perspective that is absent from panicked news stories, picked up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe's book was written in 1721 when the plague was spreading across Europe, but describes the earlier 1665 outbreak. Defoe was only five years old when that happened; he wrote the Journal as fiction intended to be historically accurate -- and written as a warning and practical guide to preparations for Londoners.

For myself, I'd happened to read a think-piece that mentioned Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, a 19th-century classic of Italian literature that takes place in the early 1600s as the Great Plague of Milan plague swept through the Lombardy region. I had read The Betrothed years ago, and while I had remembered that the plot involved a man and a woman who want to marry and encounter endless obstacles, I had forgotten about the plague. Like Defoe, Manzoni drew on primary sources for accuracy; he also isn't shy about inserting his opinions about the massive failures of information and planning that made things so much worse than they had to be -- and resulted in the death of 25% of the population.

Doreen and I were struck by commonalities of practical advice, fascinated by other parallels, and amused by peculiar philosophical takes. So we wrote this piece together.

Commonalities of practical advice:

While these events took place well before the development of the germ theory of disease, everyone knew that people in proximity spread the plague. Doreen says that we learn from Defoe that the best thing to do to preserve your family from the distemper was to lay in as many provisions as you could and lock yourself up in your abode. Defoe warns his readers that the "necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted."

In London, self-isolation was initially practiced by merchants from the Netherlands, who had experienced the plague there the previous year. Defoe reports that more than ten thousand people shut themselves up in their ships on the Thames. He describes (presumably based on his uncle's journals) how he himself bought two sacks of meal for baking bread and "laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese." And crucially: "I bought malt and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks." No flesh-meat, "for the plague raged so violently among the butchers and slaughterhouses on the other side of our street … that it was not advisable so much as to go over the street among them." (Which has an echo in the current pandemic.)

The Great Plague of 1665-1666 in London from the National Archives

Manzoni also talks about the importance of shutting yourself up. Also, he talks about how rich people went out to their country houses, travelers were required to quarantine themselves on arrival in a new place, and plague survivors went around acting like they had immunity passports. As in our own society, poorer people were much more adversely affected: they could not afford to escape plague-ridden areas, they often had to work and could not self-isolate, and they were seen as dirty and dangerous by wealthier people. The inequality of horrible pandemic effects isn't a new or unforeseen happening.

On a lighter, more practical note, while we moderns tend to think we're so clever, both books describe 17th-century food practices that would be very familiar to us. Defoe talks about how when you bought your joint of meat from the butcher, you would take it directly from the hooks and you would put your money directly in the butcher's jar of vinegar. When Renzo, the hero of The Betrothed, went to a bakery, "The baker signed to him not to come in, and held out a small dish filled with water and vinegar on the blade of shovel, telling him to drop the money in there. Then he passed the two loaves over to Renzo one after the other, with a pair of tongs." I thought: this is just like when I go for take-out and they have a table set out with the food and a sign saying "no cash please."

I was also touched by many small details. Manzoni talks about how all the men ended up with weird long hair and beards, and how friends would greet one another from across the road to chat. When two old friends met up after a long absence, one said to the other, "Now let's go find an open space, out of doors, where we can talk comfortably, without any danger." This made me feel the Lombardians of 1630 were like my old friends. Plague people: they're just like us!

Other interesting parallels:

Doreen noticed that the people of London were watching the numbers as closely as we are and that statistics were the same source of obsession and uncertainty for citizens of 1665 as they are for us. In particular, everyone carefully attended to the weekly bills of mortality. These bills listed the number of burials in each parish broken down by cause of death. This allowed Londoners to gauge which parts of the city and suburbs were currently worst affected. Increases in the numbers occasioned fear and sometimes "inexpressible confusion"; when the numbers decreased people were greatly relieved.

As we are seeing right now, effective counting became challenging and maybe impossible. Defoe says that initially, deaths due to plague were underreported by individuals due to the stigma attached, as we also see now. However, numbers of dead significantly higher than average indicated the presence of the plague anyway, as we suspect today. At the height of the plague in the city, a prodigious number of deaths were recorded in the bills, but the true extent of the devastation was still underreported. The accounting system broke down under the strain -- drivers of the dead-carts either died or fled before their dead were buried, the drivers did not trouble themselves to keep account of the numbers because they were too busy clearing the streets, the parish statisticians died, or entire households perished and the bodies were not found until later.

Bills of mortality, from History Today

The modern day JHU tracker

Meanwhile, we learn from Manzoni that the citizens of Milan had the same problems that we do with plague-deniers, a desire to confer blame, and bizarre conspiracy theories. I couldn't help but think about modern scapegoating and 5G conspiracy theories when I read about the Lombardians' belief in the "anointers." The belief had taken hold in Milan that the plague was being intentionally spread by evil-doers who would spread onto surfaces some substance that would cause the illness.

While the theory was completely false and absolutely without evidence, the desire to blame was so strong that gangs of people would attack and kill anyone suspected of being an anointer. Manzoni describes a case of an old man who wiped off a church bench before kneeling on it. And then "all the people in church (in church, I repeat!) dashed at the old man, seized him by the hair, white as it was, and loaded him with blows and kicks. Some pushing, some pulling, they hustled him to the door. If they spared his life for the moment, it was only so that they could drag him in that battered state to prison, to judgement, to the torture." Manzoni describes his amazement that even the most educated and most skeptical people believed in the anointers: the most they could bring themselves to say was that their role was minimal compared to the effect of the actual plague.

Accusing the Anointers in the Great Plague of Milan

Manzoni vividly describes his dismay at the mistreatment of the officials who were acting to prevent the spread of the plague. They had the best information and actual plans to prevent the spread of disease, but because of misinformation and misplaced blame, were seen as the source of the problem itself. As Monzoni puts it, these people who "saw a terrible catastrophe coming nearer and nearer, and did everything they could to avert it; and at the same time encountered obstacles where they looked for help, became the butt of popular indignation and were regarded as enemies of their country -- 'pro patriae hostibus' in the words of Ripamonti."

Peculiar philosophical takes:

Alongside the belief in the anointers, Manzoni describes a deep and widespread reluctance to believe that the plague was the plague. People wanted to think that the illness was some other kind of illness, or that people were exaggerating, or that it was all a big scam. Educated people saw the cause of the sickness in a comet that appeared in 1628, together with a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter.

Philosophically-minded scholars, always eager to play their part, contributed to these efforts by proving by syllogism that the plague could not exist. The man of letters Don Ferrante goes about it this way: "'In the nature of things,' he would say, 'there are only two kinds of entity -- substances and accidents. If I prove that contagion cannot be either the one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist, that it is a mirage. And here I am to do that very thing.'" To his critics, Don Ferrante says "I'd like to hear them deny that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter!" Insert your own jokes about philosophy making progress or not.

The end of the story:

Overall, the ending of the Journal was satisfying. (The plague ends!) But there is also a disappointing deus ex machina. Throughout the book, Defoe is scathing in his criticism of miraculous cures, quackery, and charlatans. He offers a sustained defense of the plague having natural causes. (With the tremendous effectiveness of transmission by contact and through the air, why would God need to resort to supernatural means?) But Defoe attributes the lifting of the plague to God’s intervention: "when the condition of the city of London was truly calamitous, just then it pleased God, as it were, by His immediate hand." However, it is worth noting that this view was not universally shared. (No prize for guessing who the contrarians were!) According to Defoe, physicians acknowledged that a natural account of the end of the outbreak could not be given, but the philosophers were hung up on searching for natural causes.

As for Manzoni, you won't be surprised to hear that the story has a happy ending. Well -- obviously not for the massive number of people who died of the plague, but definitely for betrothed themselves, who do finally get to get married and live happily ever after. Interestingly, the chief obstacle that sets the plot in motion is that a rich and corrupt nobleman, Don Rodrigo, is doing everything he can to prevent the marriage because he wants Renzo's bride Lucia for himself. So in addition to being a plague book, The Betrothed is also a #metoo book, showing again how the problems of modern life are often the same problems of everyone.

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