When reading about major disease pandemics over recorded history, it’s hard not to dwell on the deadly so-called Spanish flu of 1918-19, as well as our current bout with the novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19.
When it was first called “novel,” it was kind of hard for all but the medical/scientific community to get our heads around.
It took a while, but after reading about the different virus strains out there — including the common cold rhinovirus, which has made me quite miserable on any number of occasions over many decades — we take it for granted that medical people know how to deal with it.
Unfortunately for all of us, they are learning right along with us just what COVID-19 can do to the human body. And, we may not know a great deal about it for several years, until all the data can be analyzed. You see, each and every one of us reacts differently to disease. It’s kind of like each person on planet Earth has his or her own personality and traits.
Each is unique. Now, we are faced with the unique — novel — coronavirus.
As good as medicine and health care are today, and we expect instant results and instant answers in our instant society, how do you think they felt back in Medieval Europe when the Black Death decimated the continent, along with other places the bubonic plague reached because flea-carrying rats were everywhere?
Fleas carried the plague. To the Medieval mind of most who lived and died in that dark time in world history, it had to have been quite discouraging.
I’m sure more than a few people thought the end of days was at hand. In fact, it very nearly was, as from a quarter to nearly half of everyone who lived in great cities like London, Hamburg and Florence died from the Black Death. Not only did they die in unfathomable numbers — 80% of the people in Florence, Italy, died from plague — it scarred those who lived for the rest of their lives.
Whole families died or were sickened. Disposing of the dead became so overwhelming, people didn’t know what to do.
But one of the very tangible outcomes of the Black Death of 1347 to 1351 was a complete change in how peasants — the lowest class of people in Europe — were viewed after the disease had run its course.
You can almost see a few parallels popping up every now and then during our time of trial in the era of COVID — the acronym for COrona VIrus Disease. The parallels don’t present in the disease itself, because the plague was far deadlier. It was the economic changes that came about because of the Black Death.
Basically, there was no middle class during the Middle Ages. Oh, there was, but they were quite small compared to today’s society. There were the lords and landed gentry, and there were serfs and peasants. You know, an expendable class that did all the work and provided wealth to the rich. It was a great system for the wealthy at the time, a subsistence-only way of life for everyone else.
But history, economics and in this case disease, turned the world almost on its head. So many peasants died of the plague, along with a fair amount of people of wealth, that the agrarian economy that prevailed during this time in history began to lose a large number of its manual, menial workers. Who tilled and toiled in the fields? Serfs and peasants did, in order to feed themselves and their families and very, very, very little else.
But when the butcher’s bill came, and workers died by the millions, there were fewer and fewer people left to provide labor the wealthy required to, well, stay wealthy.
In fact, so many laborers died that those who survived the plague actually had grown greatly in worth to the upper economic class, such that their labors were only gained by those who paid the most. More and more wealthy nobles were forced to actually get out into their fields and their lands and work the ground, help with the raising of crops and the harvest.
It was as if that part of the world that had royal houses and nobles had to actually appreciate the working class for the first time.
Not that it anyway compares to today’s workforce, but Americans have seen first-hand that those who labor behind the scenes in our great economy have far more worth that many realized.
Unless you are among them, do you think of farmers when you eat, stockers in groceries, truckers, people who toil behind the scenes in hospitals and clean up after us and on and on — did you really think about these unsung heroes much before COVID-19?
Maybe ... the last will be first, and the first will be last.
I’m sure I read that somewhere.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at www.tinyurl.com/Column-Blog.