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The plague of Florence in 1348

The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli

Counterfire authors explore what we can learn about our current crisis from crises in fiction

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (c.1353)

Boccaccio’s Decameron is famous for his eye-witness account of the arrival of the Black Death in Florence in March 1348. His description of different responses to the plague, ranging from those who ‘shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine … passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures’ to those who ‘thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves’ has a familiar ring when we’re all getting to grips with social distancing. The real value of Boccaccio’s work, however, lies in what it reveals about the nature of elite society. 

The Decameron is a long work (nearly 700 pages in my edition) and only the first fifteen deal directly with the plague. These set up the framing for the book, where ten lords and ladies decide to leave Florence to ‘go and live virtuously in our country houses, of which each of us possesses several.’ Living virtuously here meant eating a lot of ‘delicately cooked food’, drinking ‘exquisite wines’ and telling each other stories, which then make up the bulk of the work. 

The stories are eye-opening for medieval history students for how pornographic many of them are. What also comes over is their cynicism. People deceive and swindle each other, using tricks to get what they want, and members of the Church, who are supposed to be a moral authority, are the worst of all. As Boccaccio says in his conclusion about friars, who were supposed to be vowed to poverty and chastity: ‘the friars are good men who avoid poverty for the love of God and do good service to the ladies’. 

Boccaccio highlights in his description of the plague how the sick were left to their fate. 

'One citizen avoided the other, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other … brother abandoned brother … fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.' 

This was not, as you might think, because Florentine aristocratic society had collapsed. It’s notable that the government of Florence continued to function throughout the six months of the plague. Rather, it represents the logical response to a deadly epidemic of a society constructed around the values shown in Boccaccio’s stories. The Florentine response to the plague was not even as hard-hearted as that of some other Italian cities. In Milan, when the first plague cases were identified, they and their entire households were walled up in their houses to die. 

We are not facing a pandemic of anything like the Black Death’s severity: the overall mortality rate in Europe was about 30% of the population, with around half of the population of Florence dying between March and September 1348. Boccaccio’s Decameron does however have some valid lessons for us. It is solidarity and class politics that will get us through this, not withdrawing to our many country houses with porn.  EGL

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

As with most of Defoe’s works, A Journal of the Plague Year boasts a grand and rambling title page: Being Observations or Memorials, Of the most Remarkable Occurrences, As well Publick as Private, Which happened in London During the last Great Visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London.  Never made publick before.  The visitation in question is Britain’s last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665-6, which killed over 100,000 people.  But that citizen who stayed all the while in London is unclear, as Defoe was only five years old during the ‘plague year’. The acronymous narrator of the Journal, ‘H.F.’, provides a clue: it’s probable that Defoe’s major source material for this work were the diaries of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in Whitechapel. 

Defying standard classification, Defoe’s ficto-documentary of the Black Death is a bewildering and discursive read: a study in disorientation.  Tables detailing the number of deaths in various parts of London sit alongside feverish descriptions of plague-induced hallucinations. H.F. wanders the streets of a London increasingly less familiar than it once was: whole streets are deserted; houses are boarded up for quarantine purposes, with all their inhabitants left to die inside; and mysterious screams emanate from alleyways.  

Notably, Defoe’s narrator is also attuned to the economic effects of the epidemic, no less than disease as a class issue:

'All kinds of handicrafts in the city, &c., tradesmen and mechanics, were … out of employ; and this occasioned the putting off and dismissing an innumerable number of journeymen and workmen of all sorts, seeing nothing was done relating to such trades, but what might be said to be absolutely necessary [key workers?].

This caused the multitude of single people in London to be unprovided for … I say, this reduced them to extreme misery.'

By contrast, at the beginning of the plague, ‘a vast many people fled … yet they were chiefly from the west end of the town; and from that we call the heart of the City, that is to say, among the wealthiest of the people’.  From the plague through the Blitz and beyond, the true history of London is the one made by ordinary people. MD

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley's The Last Man is set in a republican, though not egalitarian, late 21st century England. It reflects her own day, but there are many present-day similarities.

In a Greco-Turkish war the plague becomes rampant and those returning to Europe spread it further. In England, the government first tries to conceal it, then presents it as not serious, cannot decide what to do, then decides too late.  The economy is affected, the ‘necessaries of life’ become scarce. Some communities organise groups to help, others hoard food. There are conflicts and even an Irish invasion. After three hard winters, Adrian, the hero, leads survivors to Europe, only to find a worse situation. Groups split up. Four years later, the plague burns itself out, but it is too late. Adrian, the narrator and his niece sail to Greece, but the boat is lost in a storm. The narrator is the sole survivor — the last man. 

Mary Shelley saw herself as ‘the last man’. Only 26, she had outlived the poets Shelley (her husband) and Byron, on whom she based the characters of Adrian and Raymond.  JM

Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

Albert Camus’ The Plague is the disease novel par excellence because it isn’t really about disease. It’s about resistance. The plague strikes a Mediterranean sea-port with familiar consequences. No-one believes the doctor who first diagnoses it, authorities dither and delay, officials downplay danger, deaths multiply, and fatalists resign themselves to what will be. But some are determined to resist. Drawing on his experiences in the French resistance, Camus’ plague represents the ‘brown plague’ of Nazism and his novel is an extended allegory about resistance to it. Against the fatalists, his characters offer ‘their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down’. Against the possibility that success may not endure, they argue that this is ‘no reason for giving up the struggle.’ Against over-inflated Hollywood-style heroism, they offer us the modest, ordinary heroism of real life, motivated by ‘common decency’ and ‘human love’. Here is the heroism of today’s health workers, and the language of resistance everywhere. DP

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain (1969)

‘A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots – a blend of facts noted and facts ignored’ wrote Michael Crichton in this 1969 techno thriller. The story focuses on a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona. The power of Crichton’s storytelling here is that the fictional events of the novel are interwoven with non-fictional accounts of real events, creating a sense that this is something which actually happened. What also makes this such a thriller is not just the threat posed by the virus itself. As suggested above, the fixed mindset of the main characters often hinders them from grasping quickly enough the nature of the crisis unfolding in front of them. As with some of Crichton’s other novels, the story takes place in a deeply scientific context, but ultimately tells a story of human personalities dealing with a very human crisis. Perhaps there are parallels between Crichton’s warnings and our current situation, as Covid-19 increasingly throws light on to our deeply alienated society and the sheer unsustainability of modern capitalism. DM

Stephen King, The Stand (1978)

With the complete and uncut edition racking up an almost obscene 1,421 pages, the sheer size alone of Stephen King’s The Stand qualifies it for a place in every lockdown reading list. The story begins in 1970s rural America (of course), where a virus called Captain Tripps has infected and killed 99.9% of the world’s population. At its heart, the book is a classic tale of good vs. evil, as the forces of darkness and light assemble in Las Vegas and Colorado, guided by enigmatic figures that visit them in their dreams. But what makes the book is the detailed examination of what happens to human society when all systems of government, modes of oppression, and any semblance of normality is wiped out in the blink of an eye. Pleasantly surprisingly for a novel which is all about good and evil, King challenges the notion that humans are inherently one or the other; capitalism and ideology are put under as much of a microscope as individuals. 

As well as evaluating the faults of the past, King’s characters are locked into a battle for a new society; will they bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, or simply instate someone to rule over the ruins? This struggle is beautifully told through chapters detailing grand people’s assemblies and town planning committees, something which would be tremendously boring from any other author, but which King somehow imbues with as much excitement as the climactic moments of the story. 

People with mental illnesses and learning disabilities are treated with surprising depth and respect for a book released in 1978, and women, LGBT people and people of colour have leading roles throughout; a welcome change from authors writing at similar times, who were inventive enough to create new worlds and galaxies, but not to imagine them without white men in charge. 

For a captivating, timely, and truly epic story to see you through lockdown, The Stand is simply unbeatable. EB

William S. Burroughs, Cities of the Red Night (1981)

William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, the first in a loose trilogy of novels, perhaps represents the apex of the writer’s exploration of themes that had been present in his work for a couple of decades: control; language-as-virus; humanity-as-virus; immortality; heroin as the prime capitalist commodity; the relationship of diminished freedoms to the rise of capitalism; gay sex as transmitter of knowledge across time and space. Though no Malthusian, for our purposes it is his concentration on viruses as population controls that is most prescient.

This novel sees Virus B23 originate in an imaginary Egyptian past, resurface again in the early 18th century opium trade of seafaring explorers in the New World, and return in the 1970s via a series of bizarre hanging rituals. What links these eras and manifestations is the virus’s relationship to class and control: the perps are all rich aristocrats and capitalists. Burroughs connects these loathsome characters to their equivalents in the other eras via the metanarrative of control. This is resisted by our gay heroes in the pre-industrial first decade of the 1700s, which Burroughs suggests was the last time that you could ‘live where you want, with companions of your own choosing, under laws to which you agree’. Despite this, the book is suffused with optimism and the possibility of resistance.  MH

The Walking Dead (AMC; 2010-present)

Much like the current crisis, every zombie film begins with an illness that even while rapidly spreading, is not seen as too big a deal. In political terms the zombie film would appear to be somewhat of a dead-end for the left, either characterising the masses as brainless consumers as in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, or as the racialised horde threatening to breach the walls of Western civilization as in Marc Forster’s World War Z.

The TV series The Walking Dead, however, bucks this trend, in a reality in which both the world and capitalism have come to an end. This show is about world building, as a band of survivors roams a ravaged North America encountering countless nascent societies operating through varying combinations of mutual aid, brutal hierarchy and utopian imaginary. One character, Nick, says of this new world: ‘I’ve never known where I was going, it’s just like the rest of the world caught up.’ It is in this state of catching up, and being able to pause and question, that many of us may now find ourselves. Unlike the modes of social organisation presented in The Walking Dead, coloured as they are by visions of a ‘state of nature’ and innate selfishness, the world that we might build as our current one dissolves, can be something more.  ESJ

Contagion, dir. Stephen Soderbergh (2011) 

Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion concerns a pandemic caused by a virus created by the interaction of a pig and a bat. Via an ensemble cast, the film shows the search for patient zero and a vaccine, in the context of MEV-1, as it is assigned, having a mortality rate of 25-30%. What is of particular interest is the slow speed of reaction in the various parts of the federal US, and the inability of the government at national level initially to exercise appropriate control over reactions to the various outbreaks. An attendant reaction is that of a conspiracy theorist, who spends his time posting videos asserting various crank positions, and faking that he is ill and has been cured by a homeopathic remedy. He is arrested by the end and charged. A vaccine is developed and rolled out based on a lottery system.

The film is not afraid to present world authorities as venal and corrupt; for example, after a Chinese government official kidnaps the scientist who developed the vaccine in order to get it for his village, the WHO gives them a placebo in exchange for her release. Laying bare the effects of environmental destruction, the film ends with a flashback of a bulldozer knocking down a tree in Asia, which disturbs some bats, who drop a piece of banana over a pig sty, which is then ingested by a pig, which is then eaten in the Macau casino, where patient zero shakes hand with the chef.  MH

120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), dir. Robin Campillo (2017). French with subtitles

It’s not often you come across a film that shows what it’s really like to be an activist: many of the scenes are set in a borrowed classroom where HIV/AIDS campaigners in the Paris chapter of ACT UP meet in the evening and discuss, argue and fall out over tactics.  Perhaps it feels so truthful because the director himself was an ACT UP activist. Set in the early 1990s, the activists refuse to be victims; they are empowered by standing up to the toxic mixture of homophobia and pharmaceutical companies that put their profits before people’s lives.  This urgent struggle is intercut with moments of defiant, life-affirming escapism: the pounding beats of the clubs, sex, one last visit to the seaside. It’s a beautiful and inspiring film — and, without giving anything away, it has a perfect, radical finale. KC

Contributors: Elaine Graham-Leigh; Morgan Daniels; Jacqueline Mulhallen; Dragan Plavšić; David McAllister; Elly Badcock; Martin Hall; Evan Sedgwick-Jell; Kate Connelly.

Tagged under: History Health Covid19