“One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis [of COVID-19] have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347–50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000.”
“Like COVID-19, the disease spread with bewildering rapidity, but unlike in the modern pandemic, it infected everyone, young and old, rich and poor, not mainly the old and infirm. And again unlike the current virus, the effects of bubonic plague were particularly humiliating. Tumor-like growths as big as apples, called ‘bubos,’ would appear in the groin or armpit. Gangrenous blotches would appear on hands and feet causing the skin to turn black and die. The victims would start coughing up blood, all their bodily fluids stank and their breath became putrid. ‘The stench of dead bodies, sickness and medicines seemed to fill and pollute the whole atmosphere.’ There was no dying with dignity during the Black Death.”
James Hankins, Social Distancing During the Black Death, Quillette, March 28, 2020.