Plague, War, Famine, and Death: The Greatest of These is Plague

Questions I've heard recently, and questions I've asked myself:

"Why do I feel tired all the time?"
"Why is is harder to write? Why do I feel uncreative?"
"Why is communication more difficult?

After listening politely to a long and rambling story, my father would sometimes say, "That story reminds me of the parable of the boy and the dolphin."
"Oh? How so?" the storyteller would ask.
"It was really fucking boring," my father would reply, stonefaced.

So, fair warning, this post has more than a wiff of dolphin about it.

Death and the Bishop, 1541, Heinrich Aldegrever


In a war, there is the Other Side, and they are Right Bastards Who We Hate. The "We" is important. War brings solidarity and unity of purpose. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it is a traditional and predictable thing. War brings shared experiences and shared hardships; both can be manufactured.


In a famine, there is a chance your neighbor has food. Famine is (hopefully) less of a concern these days. In years when the harvest is good, you hold feasts, provide lavish dowries, donate to the local church, and do your best to bank your excess wealth in bonds within the community. In bad years, you call in those bonds. "Grain rots and money can be stolen, but your neighbor is far likelier to still be your neighbor in a year, especially because these relationships are (if maintained) almost always heritable and apply to entire households rather than individuals, making them able to endure deaths and the cycles of generations."

And if your neighbor doesn't have food, you can at least starve together. Or eat them, if it comes to that.


In death, all your problems are over. (Depending on your belief system you might have an entirely new set of problems to deal with, but that's beyond the scope of this article).

The people left behind have a shared and well-maintained framework to cope with death. After all, everyone dies. Mourning, monuments, and the slow process of forgetting help distribute the pain through an extended social group.


In a plague, all the normal rules stop working.

Your family and your neighbors - the people you rely on when war looms, when famine strikes, and when death cuts down a loved one - are now potential enemies, through no fault of their own. All the social capital you invested is worthless. In fact, it's worse than worthless, it's actively harmful.

The oldest rule for surviving a plague, the only treatment that has always worked, no matter the time or the place, is to stay away from people. Go to the hills, flee to the country. Barricade your door. Hide in the tower. Hope that the plague doesn't sneak through the cracks.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they we also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estate, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath, wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.
-The Decameron, Introduction
This mechanism is hard to circumvent. Humans are not very bright. All social contact, even over the internet, seems like a potential route for contagion. Medieval authors stopped writing letters. The switch has flipped. "Shun thy neighbor" is the rule, and it's entirely sensible, but the human brain can't easily distinguish one neighbor from another. Shun and shun alike.
Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers
-The Decameron, Introduction
Saturn reigns; the normal order of the is inverted. Yet how could it be otherwise? Normally, it is admirable to strive for fairness and charity. When the plague stalks, the answer, "yes, it is unfair, but it is necessary" comes easily.

The Black Death killed, give or take, a third of the world, but the world was smaller then. The largest cities boasted populations of a few hundred thousand. The survivors were often gripped by apathy, lethargy, or madness. Unfairness of any sort breeds apathy, and both a plague and its preventive measures are deeply unfair. Why strive when tomorrow looks worse than today?

Back in 2017, in a post about the Plague in D&D, I wrote:

It's almost as if there is a blind spot in our view of history that prohibits us from grasping the devastation of a Plague, of a scourge that kills on in ten or one in three of our neighbors, families, and peers. The survivors write histories and chronicles, sometimes in desperation. "I leave parchment," Brother John Clyn of Ireland wrote in the 14th century," to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun.”  

But the memory fades almost immediately. The next generation builds few monuments. There are thousands of WWI memorials but only a handful of memorials, mostly plaques and tombstones, for victims of the Spanish Flu. Similarly, while a cult of death arose in 15th century Europe, it rarely referenced the Black Death directly. It's almost too grim. We can understand war and violence, but disease escapes us. Survivors often launch into a period of excess, not just while the plague rages and life seems cheap, but for years afterwards. The "Roaring Twenties" and the elaborate pageantry of 14th century France could be seem as reactions to the vast, merciless mortality that "embraced the entire world".

I didn't think I get a chance to test my theories in real life.

Give Me Death or Terror of Anathema Will Drive Me Mad

In Nabucco, the opera by Joe Green, set in the year 587 Before Oily Josh, Ismaele (for operatic reasons) gets cursed (in a charming and not particularly cursed tune), and begs for death instead of anathema.

He who is accursed has no brothers,
no man on earth spares him a word!
Harsh lamentation everywhere arises,
the wind carries it to the impious wretch's ears!
On his brow like lightning,
shines God's fatal brand!
Poison is brought to his lips in vain,
vainly the dagger would pierce his heart!

For the sake of the living God
from the anathema cease!
The fury drives me mad!
Oh death, for pity's sake!
Anathema has always reminded me of the phrase from Leviticus - "that soul shall be cut off from the community." To Ishmael, being cut off from the community is worse than madness, worse than death. Yet in a plague, everyone anathematizes each other. Normally the solution is to stop doing the terrible thing and do something else, but in a plague, the terrible thing is the right thing. It's all well and good to cry "anathema or death" in an opera, but in real life, it's a fairly easy choice, especially when the anathema is temporary.

Easy to choose, but not easy to bear.


If normal life requires constant spoon-payments to maintain, abnormal or disrupted life requires additional payments. Energy that could be spent on art, creativity, household chores, etc. gets wasted on the entirely necessary but entirely useless mental processes such as "am I going to die of the plague" and "I have not seen other humans; am I anathema?" and "I must learn new skills."

The good news is that, throughout human history, the abnormal becomes the new normal very quickly.

The bad news is that you may not like the new normal. Adaptation is not always improvement.

Who's To Blame?

Have we angered God? Or have they angered God? Medieval authors, up to and including Popes, are more than willing to heap fault on themselves, under the paradigm that disease is the reward of sin. The populace, aware that they were sinful but painfully aware that they were worse, always found a convenient them to blame, loot, and burn.
Wherever the plague struck, waves of accusation and intolerance seemed to strike in its wake. Sinners were responsible, or heretics, or foreigners, or beggars, or lepers—whoever was Other.
-Heretics and Heroes, Thomas Cahill. Not a great book, but the quote was handy.

These days, under the paradigm that the current plague is a viral infection spread by close contact with the moist breath of infected persons, fingers are pointed in all sorts of directions, but rarely inwards.

Blame is also an excellent activity, and a plague provides very few positive activities. In a war, you can train, fight, build, prepare, assist, and maintain a good righteous froth of anger. In famine, the search for food blots out all other concerns. In death, you do don't need to do anything, and those left behind have a wide variety of activities to keep them occupied. But for most people, there's very little to do besides wait out a plague, ideally in good health. Idle hands are the devil's plaything.


Failures of Math and Empathy

Humans are bad at statistics; witness the rapturous joy around a "natural 20" on a d20. Evaluating statistical risk is best left to very clever people with very good models, because most people are poorly equipped to evaluate this sort of thing.

Covid-19 does not seem, compared to the Black Death or other medieval plagues, particularly deadly.
Here's a handy chart from May. When more than half the population of your city dies in a few months, leaving corpses unburied and entire districts empty, the reality of the plague is hard to deny. But these days, it's possible to plug your ears and ignore the whole thing. This is the first global plague most people have experienced. For some people, HIV's silent efficiency at eliminating friends and contacts might make the current plague seem trite, and there are still plenty of people alive who lost swathes of childhood friends to polio, whooping cough, smallpox, and diphtheria.

Medieval rulers often
ignored the plague until it was on their doorstep. The plague strikes a neighboring country; it is time to mock, to plot a campaign, to buy cheaply. And then the plague spreads; it is time to pray, to shun the returning soldier and the traveler, to sell dearly. Temporary protection is attributed to divine favour; when that protection fades, the initial explanation was rarely called into question.

Denial of tragedy can be a form of failed empathy. "If that happened to me it would be terrible; therefor it cannot be happening." Lack of familiarity with disruption can also lead to passivity. A quote from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (notes here) keeps coming to mind.

 I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. It added to their eerie quality that on paper these people would seem the most practical and sensible people. Their businesses were, I am sure, most efficiently conducted. But this only meant that since the Industrial Revolution capitalism has grooved society with a number of deep slots along which most human beings can roll smoothly to a fixed destination. When a man takes charge of a factory the factory takes charge of him, if he opens an office it falls into a place in a network that extends over the whole world and so long as he obeys the general trend he will not meet any obvious disaster; but he may be unable to meet the calls that daily life outside this specialist area makes on judgment and initiative.

 A plague makes muddlers of us all.

Final Notes

Lack of extra spoon-energy makes everything feels coarse and irritating. Lack of contact feels like failure; some part of the lizard-brain thinks you've done a bad thing and the lizard-pod has exiled you. Lack of practice makes creative muscles sore; lack of hope makes creative output feel pointless.

Still, best to carry on and do your best.

And finally, I'd love to do a chapter-by-chapter reading/retelling of The Decameron at some point. I suspect that a lot of people who claim to have read it haven't, and those who have skipped quite a bit. I know I did.


  1. That would be a rather nice series, I've never gotten around to reading the Decameron.

  2. Wonderful article!

    The only thing I disagree with is that there are no memorials to the plague. Around where I live, every other town square has a plague pillar. Sure, they were built to appease God and bring his favour during the Black Death, not to reminisce, but I still think they are a good reminder that the plague was everywhere.

  3. Joe Green, huh? I'd enjoy a run-through of The Decameron alongside you, when you've got the spoons for it.

  4. Well I haven't read the Decameron, and I won't pretend I will. But I do say I have a little bit more appreciation for Tolkien. While a plague and a war are not the same, they both are long catastrophes filed with uncertainty. The "Tolkien Journey" makes more sense to me now.

    I certainly feel "off", not on my game.

  5. A lecturer I had in the Uni used to say this:
    "Statistics is hard to learn and use because our brain wasn't made for it. It was made to kill mammoths, to run away from sabre-toothed tigers, and to steal the women of the neighbour caves. Statistics doesn't help to do any of those functions."

    1. In fact, I'd say statistics *feels* like it makes you *worse* at all of those important activities, because it tells you to do the opposite of what is "common sense".

  6. Good article and a pleasure to read - thanks for publishing!