Life in the Black Death (a transcription of Elizabeth Bruenig)

Below is my personal, selective, paratranscription of Liz Bruenig’s wonderful podcast episode on life, love, politics, and culture during and after the Bubonic Plague. I think it is one of the most inspiring and grounding pieces of art/analysis to come out of the pandemic few people thought they’d live during.

Far from being thoughtless simpletons, the medieval people had the kind of philosophical grounding that feels almost overstated today, though of course we also have our unexamined maps for things.

At any rate, for these people, there was a general one-ness of things, which Charles Taylor identifies as “enchantment.” But all that means is that the order of society, the order of nature, the order of the cosmos: it was all one thing animated by one thing. If you’ve ever read Dante’s Paradiso, he says something along the lines of: “and then I could almost glimpse this oneness of it all, this love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

I’ve always thought that was really beautiful, and—to me—that sort of sums up the idea of medieval enchantment: that there is this love in the universe and it is of course the love of God and it moves not only the sun and the stars, and creates the music of the spheres, but it also animates society. Its various hierarchies and human relations and so forth.

And I mean I understand we’re not a huge fan of the feudal system as this point and I’m not saying that it’s God-ordained but I’m saying that’s how they saw the world, and the way that they saw it is that in its right functioning it was very orderly, and very beautiful.

And that’s precisely what the Black Death upset. Henry Knighton, a contemporary English Augustinian canon (basically a monk), wrote “the pope granted plenary remission of all sins to all receiving absolution at the point of death, and granted that this power should last until the following Easter, and that everyone should chose his own confessor at will, and that there was a great cheapness of all things for fear of death. For very few took any account of riches or possessions of any kind. Sheep and oxen strayed through the fields and among the crops, and there was none to drive them off or collect them. But they perished in uncounted numbers in all districts, for there was such a shortage of servants and laborers.”

One prayer from a 12th century incantation recovered from an english manuscript to “holy Goddess earth, parent of nature, who dost generate and regenerate the earth, thou guardian of heaven and sea in hopes of healing. Those were, of course, pre-plague days but not by a terribly long shot. It’s not difficult to imagine these pagan impulses still very much alive in those years as it seems god may have abandoned his people altogether. So a pretty grim picture.

And it’s hard to blame people in modernity trying to depict this period, for focusing on the horror of it. But, I think the zombie apocalypse structure has unfortunately dictated a lot of how we now think about how we not think this whole calamity. I’m thinking of movies like the 2010 shitshow “The Black Death.” And while I certainly understand the impulse, the fact is that the millions of people who died in the great mortality weren’t brainless zombies clamoring for flesh or whatever. They were human beings who were sick. and they were suffering from something they didn’t understand. And they were trying to overcome it. …

Yes, millions upon millions of people died during the Black Death. But even more of them lived. And I don’t mean they survived, I mean they lived. While the flagellants were doing their weirdo shit and encouraging pogroms and the church was momentarily enriched by a windfall of bequests, there were also selfless priests, nuns, and monks who did their best to comfort and care for the sick and dying, although they knew perfectly well that they themselves would very likely get sick and die.

According to one estimate, only 27% of aristocratic and wealthy England died in the Mortality (that 1 in 3 number), as opposed to 42-45% of the country’s parish priests. So these are just ordinary priests out in the community doing their daily thing.

This estimate was produced by counting vacancies in bishop’s records during the plague, which indeed seem to reflect that parish priests were indeed to the best of their abilities still trying to administer last rites to the sick and dying, and that they died at higher than average rates for their efforts. Recent tests carried out on the bodies of nuns who were buried during the plague have found that entire orders were wiped out by the black death due to their commitment to offering whatever comfort they could to the sick.

Meanwhile, the workers who lived quickly realized a couple of things:

  1. While they may have been bound to their feudal lords’ lands like chattel before, they certainly weren’t now. I mean who was gonna enforce it?
  2. They were so few in number compared to pre-plague years that they could charge pretty much whatever they wanted for their labor. This so freaked out the aristrocracy that you begin to see in post-plague legal codes english authorities laying out laws preventing workers from bargaining their wages up, and leaving their prior estates. So that’s kinda fun.

But these shitty labor laws just proved that the jig was up. Whatever mystical bond has existed between the peasantry and the landed gentry and the feudal system had collapsed, entirely. Everybody could see right through it.

From there it was just a skip, hop, and a jump to what Ellen Meiskins Wood called agrarian capitalism, which then gives rise to industrial capitalism, and eventually to socialism. And it’s no surprise that romanic Christian socialists in the 19th century tended to idealize the medieval era, because it was—especially in the wake of the Black Death—in its way, a period of class awakening.

[This is all proof that], even among all the horror and the death, people lived. They loved. They had sex. They gave birth. They raised children. They looked at the absolute wreckage of society around them and said, we’re gonna make it somehow. And whether they knew it or not (and they almost certainly didn’t), they made that decision in the enormous bequest to the remainder of human history. Much for our sake.

And we owe a lot to them, I think, especially now, when we’re looking for ways to carry on.