I’m Ali Griswold, a reporter for Quartz in London. I’m here to tell you about some of the great art, film, and literature that emerged from one of the worst epidemics in history: the bubonic plague.
Much of what I know about the cultural effects of epidemics comes from Yale history professor Frank Snowden’s “Epidemics in Western Society Since 1600,” a class I had the pleasure of taking as an undergraduate that is also available in full online. Beyond introducing me to myriad terrifying diseases, the coursework led me to And the Band Played On, a gripping history of the AIDS epidemic in the US in the 1980s by investigative journalist Randy Shilts. If you want a deep dive on contact tracing, this is the book for you.
Snowden’s class surveys the societal impact of major diseases from the bubonic plague to malaria to the 21st-century outbreaks of SARS, avian flu, and swine flu. What seemed like a nice academic exercise in college feels a lot more topical today, which is exactly why it’s worth revisiting. Scary as these times are, it’s helpful to be reminded of epidemics that humanity overcame in the past. It also can’t help but make you wonder what high art and cultural touchstones will emerge from the coronavirus era. Maybe one day our #sourdough Instagrams and hand-washing TikTok videos will also earn a place in history books and museums.
A classic start. There’s a lot of pandemic fiction out there, but if you’re going to go down that road, why not start with a classic?
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, first published in 1722, is an account of the 1665 Great Plague of London, the last major episode of bubonic plague to hit England. The story is told by H.F., a fictional narrator, but widely regarded as a valuable and reliable account of the Great Plague. Defoe, an English journalist and author most famous for Robinson Crusoe, built the account around records of the time and anchored it with detailed descriptions of London itself. I checked both Defoe and Albert Camus’s The Plague out of a London library for some light reading shortly before lockdown and now, with libraries closed and fines and due dates suspended, I guess I have them forever.
The bubonic plague, sometimes also called the Black Death, was brutal and gruesome. It was highly virulent, killing 50% to 70% of those infected. Symptoms included a carbuncle surrounded by red marks—the infamous “ring a ring o’ roses”—fever, shivering, nausea, and ultimately the characteristic “bubo,” a painful swelling that would appear somewhere on the body.
A particular obsession of H.F. in Defoe’s novel is the “shutting up of the house,” or quarantines enforced on the ill and anyone known to have visited them. “The Misery of those Families is not to be express’d, and it was generally in such Houses that we heard the most dismal Shrieks and Out-cries of the poor People terrified, and even frighted to Death, by the Sight of the Condition of their dearest Relations, and by the Terror of being imprisoned as they were,” Defoe writes.
Really puts that Netflix-and-Zoom lifestyle in perspective, doesn’t it?
A deathly dance. The most famous film about the bubonic plague is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, a 1957 Swedish historical fantasy that tells the story of a medieval knight who plays chess with the personification of Death (he looks a bit like Voldemort). Who doesn’t like a good metaphor?
A key motif in the film is the danse macabre—literally, the dance of death. In European Art, the danse macabre dates to the early 1400s and usually portrays death as a skeleton, often playing a musical instrument, pulling people of all ages to him in his spirited dance. (Incidentally, without this dance, we might never have had Tom Hanks as David Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live.) The final scene in Bergman’s film depicts the knight and his companions being led away, arms linked, in the dance of death.
A new art form. Plague years also gave rise to vanitas, a 16th- and 17th-century style of European art intended to evoke the fragility of life, and inevitability of death. Vanitas still lifes aren’t exactly subtle, often featuring skulls and extinguished candles, but also things like wine and musical instruments to comment on our fleeting worldly indulgences.
Vanitas paintings and their close relatives, pronkstilleven, were Instagram before Instagram: art that reflected aspirations, consumerism, and moral judgment all at once. Our #stayhome ‘grams might be a bit less macabre, but they still capture the unsettling sense of people grasping to enjoy the present amid a very uncertain future.
On a lighter note. I know, the Black Death is heavy stuff! For an uplifting twist on the post-apocalyptic genre, I recommend checking out either The Dog Stars by Peter Heller or Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Both books find hope, beauty, and humanity in worlds torn apart by catastrophe.
I first read Exit West years ago but recently checked it out from the library as an audiobook to listen to during my socially distanced wanders around London. Hamid does the reading himself, which adds another layer to an already rich novel.
Have a happy and healthy weekend,
It’s been about a month since cities including New York, London, and Los Angeles issued stay-at-home orders, changing the shape of our lives. I know we’re all trying to stay positive, but how are you doing really? Through the grapevine, we’ve heard of kids refusing to go outdoors, partners insisting on yelling to their Zoom compatriots even though the laptop is 10 inches away, and blind rage at the new ranks of sourdough-bros hoarding all the flour. (Okay all those were us.) For next week, we’re drawing up a safe space to air such grievances, however petty or embarrassing.