The flea-driven plague, also known as the “Great Mortality,” overran Eurasia and North Africa from 1347 to 1353, killing tens of millions of people and wiping out half of Europe’s population.
“During the Black Death, what was really terrifying about that is they really had no idea at all what it was,” [English professor Dorsey] Armstrong said. “They had no good science to help them figure out how to cope with it.”
Still, there are some unsettling similarities between societal responses to the plague and COVID-19. In both cases, some officials tried to downplay the severity of the outbreak and the far-reaching economic and social effects. In Florence, Italy, for instance, members of the elite ruling class, decimated by the plague, faced a rebellion from the newly powerful working class, Armstrong said.
Many people, from ordinary peasants to local religious leaders, took the plague seriously and tried to carry out their normal duties. Clergy members were called to the homes of the ill to provide last rites, often contracting the disease in the process. Others, however, ignored the calamity, turning to hedonism and debauchery.
“What I would say is that people are the same then as now,” Armstrong observed. “Humans, when they’re together in a large group, often do dumb things. And it’s frustrating that so many people don’t seem to be learning lessons from the past.”