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Lessons From the Black Death

The 1984 book by Norman Cantor entitled “In the Wake of the Plague” is a surprisingly good read about the bubonic plague (also known as the black death or the pestilence) in the mid-fourteenth century.  It is not a long book, but it is densely written.  There was some interesting data, such as the estimate that a staggering 30-50% of all Europeans died.  Also, there are questions as to how many people died from bubonic plague and how many died from anthrax.  Early symptoms are similar and easily confused.  Later symptoms for plague victims include many ugly and painful welts in the groin and armpits.  That distinction between the plague and anthrax was not known at the time, and people thought both were bubonic plague.  The epidemic of anthrax was masked by the pandemic of plague, which makes me wonder about the possibility that covid-19 might be masking some other problem?

The book went into detail on European history of the Dark Ages.  At first, I didn’t understand the purpose.  As an example, why do I care that the English king wanted his daughter to marry the son of the Spanish king?  If that happened, the axis of England-Spain would have been a major power-player.  Sadly, she got the plague and died on her way to Spain.  After a few historical incidents like this, I realized the point was that the plague changed history and greatly impacted the lives of survivors.

Cantor says:  “The pestilence deeply affected individual and family behavior and consciousness.  It put severe strains on the social, political, and economic systems.  It threatened the stability and visibility of civilization.  It was as if a neutron bomb had been detonated.”  We learned that the plague changed political alliances.  We learned that the plague advanced women’s rights (much better survivorship), and we learned that it improved wages and living conditions of surviving peasants (reduced supply).  It changed the world in both big ways and small.

With thanks to modern science, we are better defended against the coronavirus pandemic today than the plague in the middle ages. Still, there will be great change, in restaurants, in schools, on airplanes, and anywhere people congregate.  Those changes will be expensive but well-worth-it!

Will government stimulus continue to help big business instead of small business?  Does automation become more important since workers have the pesky tendency to die?  Will our retail world become boxed in lucite?  How high will airfares go, to cover reduced passenger loads?  Does American optimism become ground-down by the unrelenting fear of the invisible enemy?