Between the Black Death and Us

Dan Riley
4 min readJul 11, 2020
Prof. Dorsey Armstrong bringing the Black Death home

At the beginning of this thing, I posted a listing of what I thought were good viewing options for those looking for something different to watch during the pandemic. Since posting that list, I’ve come upon a Must-See new option. It’s called The Black Death, the World’s Most Devastating Plague. It’s unlikely we ever would have watched it had the current crisis not so immersed us in the pathology of disease…nor likely Amazon Prime* would have recommended it for us. Which goes to prove that just when it seems the world is falling apart all around us, serendipity still manages to rear its little bobblehead.

To say the show is hosted by Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Medieval scholar at Purdue University, is an understatement. She is the show. She roams deliberately before the camera over a rich donnish set, weaving a compelling narrative of the Black Plague, bolstered by scholarship and presentation skills and aided occasionally by graphics of line drawings, paintings, animated maps and pull quotes. This is an old school college lecture, where video razzmatazz and high tech computer tricks take a back seat to erudition and oral tradition. It’s among the best college courses I’ve ever experienced, which is why half way through its two-dozen 30-minute lectures my head is exploding.

It’s not just the history of the Black Plague that’s so riveting; it’s the echoes of it in our battle against Covid-19. One might think the show was purposely designed to draw parallels between 1348 and 2020, but it was put together in 2016, which makes the comparisons between then and now even more profound based on happenstance alone. Generally the similarities consist of failure of political leadership, economic devastation, collapse of coping capabilities, and civic unrest. Travel is restricted from plague-designated areas. And there is the inevitable scapegoating of “others” — during the Plague it was the Jews, rather than the Chinese now…or old people or brown people or poor people.

Most fascinating of all is that with all the death and devastation the Plague wrought, it also brought with it fundamental and one might say progressive changes. With the highborn and clergy being wiped out in comparable numbers, it served to lessen their mystical hold on the lower classes. Mass deaths at all levels of society created significant gaps in the labor force. But because peasants existed in such greater proportional numbers many more were able to survive and in doing so those that did realized freedoms they hadn’t been able to before. Mainly they were no longer tethered to the manors they’d lived and worked on for generations and could take their labor elsewhere. Moreover they were now able to make wage demands rather than just take what they were given. One can imagine how much easier the Fight for 15 is going to become in the months ahead in our own time.

On the curious end of the coincidence spectrum, the Swedes back then, like those today, marched to the beat of their own drum…continuing to gather in homes of the sick and for funerals. And speaking of funerals… Lorna and I have taken to watching the lectures during lunch, a sometimes un-appetizing ordeal. During one viewing we were eating lasagna when Dr. Armstrong described burial in mass graves as a single layer of bodies, covered with a layer of dirt, covered with another layer of bodies, covered with another layer of dirt…like a lasagna, she said. (Gaaak…gag me with a shovel!)

Despite the widely held view that the Plague years saw depressing acts of abandonment of diseased family and friends as well as cruelty against diseased strangers, there are stories of remarkable bravery and sacrifice. In Norway, an Icelandic sailor came down with the plague before his ship set sail back to Iceland. The ship’s captain and crew decided to stay behind in plague-ravaged Norway rather than carry the disease home with them — an act of courage that spared Iceland from the Black Death for another half century. In another instance, the Black Death came to Florence in the person of a sick seaman who had arrived at the door of a friend seeking refuge. In granting it, the Florentine Good Samaritan doomed his city to lose 80% of its population in 1348. The rapaciousness of the Plague, however, suggests that if not that particular sailor, another Patient Zero would have been close behind.

That sailor was a refugee from the city of Caffa (present day Ukrainian territory). In 1266 Genoa had negotiated rights to the port city with a Mongol Kahn to facilitate trade between the two. But another Mongol leader a century later wanted the city and laid siege to it. While encamped on the outskirts, the Mongols were visited by rats bearing the plague and started dying off. In a stratagem worthy of Game of Thrones, the Mongols used a trebuchet to catapult diseased cadavers of their comrades over the walls of Caffa, thus infecting the Genoese traders in one of history’s first recorded acts of biological warfare. The Italians escaped on their ships, but only to take the plague with them to Italy and beyond.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it has become such a cliche that its meaning has just about been lost (if not outright challenged…). In this series, Dorsey Armstrong serves the lesson up to us moderns in very palatable, bite-sized portions and leaves it to us to gag on it or not.



Dan Riley

From the obit desk at the Hartford Courant to the copy desk at Larry Flynt publications to the stage at Long Beach Playhouse to books, blogs & beyond.