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What we can learn from pandemics past

Some reactions to the Black Death were not dissimilar to how people are acting during Covid-19

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, it is interesting to observe how people react differently to the threat. On the one hand, there are the diligent mask-wearers and social isolationists, who even after the initial lockdown phase have continued a careful, mainly singular existence. And then there are those who don’t have a problem with up to three months of relative monastic existence, but feel compelled to burst out of the cocoon and have more than a bit of human interaction and craic after their period of enforced good behaviour.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to read recently that we have been here before. During the Black Death global pandemic, some people shunned society completely, while others sat in bars, downing beers and tried to forget about the disease raging around them.

The Black Death, which arrived in Europe in 1347, spread across the continent, killing around 50 per cent of its population. Jean de Venette, a French Carmelite friar who documented the pandemic, called it “a most terrible scourge inflicted on us by God”. We now know that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which spread from rodents to humans through fleas. A recent article in the online magazine Atlas Obscura looked at how drinking habits compare between Covid-19 and the Black Death.

The writer Giovanni Boccaccio describes the plague invading his home city of Florence in 1348. Food, and particularly drink, are central to this account. Florentines also reportedly sought out culinary ‘cures’. Tommaso del Garbo, a professor of medicine at Bologna and Perugia, advised stuffing one’s mouth with cloves, then eating “two slices of bread soaked in the best wine” as a remedy.

During the Black Death global pandemic, some people shunned society completely, while others sat in bars, downing beers and tried to forget about the disease raging around them

But confusion reigned: People began to guess at preventatives, or reject them altogether. According to Boccaccio, two extremes emerged, which to some extent echo what we have seen over the last six months. While a lockdown wasn’t officially imposed during the Black Death, some Florentines went into voluntary hiding. They restricted their diet to simple meals and only drank small amounts of fine wine to sustain themselves; they were intent on “avoiding every kind of luxury, […] eating and drinking very moderately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines”. They believed gluttony was a root cause of plague and thought that “to live temperately and avoid all excess” would protect them.



Others went a different route. Florence was decimated, with its population only recovering pre-plague numbers in the 1800s. Faced with almost certain death, many threw themselves among the dying for a cup of ale and maintained that “to drink freely, […] sparing to satisfy no appetite, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil”. Pub crawls were a regular sight, while a strange open-house policy emerged, as people invited passers-by inside for a drink. “The owners, seeing death imminent, had become as reckless of their property as of their lives,” writes Boccaccio.

Atlas Obscura author Rachel Ashcroft asks how did the two groups feel about each other.

Clearly, some hoped that the disease might be controlled, whereas others, consumed with desperation, resorted to binge-drinking. Boccaccio describes a growing paranoia among the community: “Citizen avoided citizen, […] kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely.” However, the author refuses to whole-heartedly condemn either party; the “fury of the pestilence” was so severe that there were no winners and no time for moral superiority. People died alone and bodies piled up.

Boccaccio himself chose a third option: Fleeing to the countryside. But for those who were unable to leave, plague-stricken Florence became a city in which “every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes”.

However, in a nice twist, an old custom is returning to the streets of Florence. Around the Italian city, several historic ‘wine windows’, or buchette del vino, have reopened in order to serve wine in a safe, socially-distanced manner. The concept is simple: Rather than step inside an osteria, or a bar, you simply grab your glass from a window specifically built for the efficient dispersal of wine.

The narrow wine windows, in fact, are a testament to the creativity of the city’s Renaissance residents, who weren’t going to let a wave of bubonic plague get in the way of a nice glass of red.

I wonder would the Government here consider a subsidy for restaurants and pubs to allow them develop wine windows as a step towards reopening our so-called ‘wet pubs’?

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