Triumph of Death by Traini

Like everyone, I’m hunkered down trying to get into a routine. I generally work from home; being forced is a different matter. I went to Costco and pushed my cart down empty aisles, no jalapeno poppers — husband Dave says he can survive if there are poppers and beer. There was lots of frozen cauliflower — no one wants to embellish that horrible vegetable at a time like this. Have to keep busy, so I decided to read up on plagues — not a good idea to get the plague, it turns out. I get it though — pleasure derived from the misery of others can be therapeutic. The Greeks call it ‘Epicaricacy’; Germans have ‘Schadenfreude’.

The Justinian Plague appeared in 541-542 A.D., but the Black Death of 1347, which killed 40% of Europe by 1380 (numbers vary) seems to be the first documented. Trading galleys from the Crimea showed up in Sicily with sick or dead oarsmen. Bubonic plague infected the bloodstream or lungs. Swelling of lymph nodes and oozing bloody pus would have made today’s horror movies seem tame. You went to bed and never woke up. If treated, the patient was uselessly bled, or prodded with nasty enemas. Plague was initially thought to come from China but is now thought to have arrived from Central Asia, also spread along the Silk Road in dry goods. Astrological happenings or an angry God were deemed the cause; no one knew it was carried by fleas, which piggybacked on rats. In the meantime, processions of the penitent who practiced flagellation at least gave the devout something to do. And if that didn’t work there were always the Jews to blame, who were bonfire-d for allegedly polluting water wells. With oceans and rivers practical transportation routes, the plague spread to Norway, turning westward towards Greenland.

Last rites were overlooked as bodies were thrown out windows and into the domain of street cleaners who were society’s lowest-of-the-low, dying in desolation. With monasteries and prisons hotbeds of contagion, confessions could be heard by anyone with priority given to male laity (women a last resort). Husbands walked out; parents abandoned children, while livestock and uncut wheat went unattended. The wealthy retreated to their country acreage. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote ‘Decameron’; tales of seven women and three men who shelter from the plague outside of Florence, engaging in debauchery. Like a scene from ‘Parasite’, peasants plundered estates once inhabited by employer/masters. Families were locked in their houses with militia placed outside, keys taken away. Food was transferred into houses by pulleys or wooden troughs. Domiciles were periodically cleaned with perfume, and few towns had hospices/hospitals. Mandatory attendance was taken by window roll calls, accounting for who was alive or dead. Permission to roam the streets was hard to obtain—you left your house, you were killed. Magistrates decided who warranted a physician, an apothecary or a confessor. In some cases a house was nailed/bricked up and everyone inside, sick or healthy, died.

Plague came and went throughout the Renaissance with strict quarantines becoming the norm. Seventeenth century Dutch blamed comets and shooting stars until French physician Alexandre Yersin identified the bacillus in 1894. Plague is still with us today, but it can be treated with antibiotics.

Eighteenth Century French invented bureaucratic systems for military, schools, monasteries and approaches to deadly diseases--chaos needs organization! Invented for the early Nineteenth Century Napoleonic War era, ‘Triage’ or prioritized medical treatment bluntly decided who could be saved and who would die. All this discipline came (comes) with tremendous power, which historically has not always been for the good.

Plague changed society, except for continual rape and pillaging. In 12th and 13th Century England, a population explosion that strained farming practices was relieved when half the people succumbed to plague. With the sudden shortage of worker-bees, peasants briefly had clout and got paid slightly higher wages, some paid for the first time, or had rents reduced. In Siena it became illegal to marry rich orphans without approval of some relative, as increasingly more single women were pestered. Education of young males floundered having lost teacher-priests. Demands led to the expansion of institutions like Cambridge University. Prices that initially dropped because no one was buying quickly soared as supplies dwindled. Churches grew greedier as they professed to save immortal souls, provided parishioners tithed extra-generously. Conversely, it is thought Humanism began when disappointment in God and His earthly churches increased, as many clergy had wimped out and refused to comfort the dying.

The subject of death in art increased. In the modern era Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, 1937; Winslow Homer’s ‘Harper’s’ Weekly’ Civil War illustrations, 1861-1865, and ‘Life Magazine’s’ Vietnam War ‘My Lai Massacre’ photographs, 1968, hardly give today’s image-saturated-viewers pause. But in Pisa’s Camposanto, Francesco Traini’s (1321-1365) ‘Triumph of Death’ depicting man’s inevitable fate, impressed medieval viewers--sadly damaged in WWII. This fresco is typical of fanciful/realistic early Renaissance landscapes, held together by a zig-zagging road through a background of lollipop trees. In the foreground the idle rich come upon coffins containing rich and poor alike. From Tuchman’s ‘A Distant Mirror’: “Death swoops through the air toward a group of carefree, young, and beautiful noblemen and ladies….In a heap of corpses nearby lie crowned rulers, a Pope in tiara, a knight, tumbled together with the bodies of the poor, while angels and devils in the sky contend for the miniature naked figures that represent their souls. A wretched group of lepers, cripples, and beggars…implore Death for deliverance. Above on a mountain, hermits leading a religious contemplative life await death peaceably (Tuchman 124,125).”

There are threads of irony connecting medieval plague reportage with today’s coverage of Coronavirus. Italy was hit hard then and now. Although we are not murdering people who don’t self-quarantine, there’s peer-pressure to abide. Maybe hoarding today is our version of looting? And the irrational blame-game played upon those who are the ‘other’ continues. Somehow, we owe a debt to those who travailed before.

Mini Sleuth: Information from: ‘Discipline and Punish’ by Michel Foucault; ‘The Ugly Renaissance’ by Alexander Lee; ‘A History of Britain’ and ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’ by Simon Schama; ‘A Distant Mirror’ by Barbara Tuchman; ‘Plague and Pleasure’ by Arthur White--available from Amazon.

Jean Bundy is Climate Envoy to AICA-International

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