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Black Death and Covid: History Rhymes Again

Over the past 15 months, thousands of writers have evoked the plagues of the Middle Ages to either make us feel better or worse about the global pandemic of the past two years. And I would wager that more of us read Albert Camus’s The Plague in the past two years to gain perspective on what was happening than had ever read it before.


And now, it appears that there is another perspective by which we can view what happened then and what happened now.


As Dorsey Armstrong, PhD, professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue, has relayed in a number of articles and her Great Courses lectures, the Black Death of the 1300s in Europe and Great Britain wiped out huge swaths of populations—sometimes entire communities. But it had an effect not unlike what we see in our own time: a desperate need for workers to fill jobs left empty by the pandemic.


The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that McDonalds is seeking 10,000 new employees, and Amazon.com is looking for 75,000 workers, many of whom were siphoned off by higher-wage opportunities, were victims of Covid, or left their jobs to avoid the spread of the virus. While McDonald, Amazon and a number of other fast-food chains are scrambling to fill vacancies, the Journal points out the competition among companies is still for what it terms “lower wage” workers. Now that our masks are coming off, unemployment benefits wind to an end, and the economy is on a rebound, workers are returning, according to the Labor Department’s tally of jobless claims, and wages are slowly rising. But the paucity of workers may force companies to raise wages further.


As Dr. Armstrong has written, one of the effects of the Black Death of the fourteenth century was a shortage of workers in what were probably similarly low-paying jobs: “In the towns along the south and west coast [of England], we see a surge in clerical vacancies in the autumn of 1348,” she wrote in a recent article for The Great Courses Daily. Of course, the death toll of the bubonic plague was much higher than that of our recent Covid outbreak. Estimates are that it reached as high as 50 percent over the Continent and the British Isles, and as high as 80 percent in some localities.


Still, it is interesting that in both time periods, we see lower-paid workers hit the hardest—the ones who weren’t able to escape London and hide in country manors in 1348, and the ones who could not escape New York and L.A. to cocoon in the Hamptons or their Montana ranches in 2020-21.


Dr. Armstrong also noted that priests in the earlier plagued suffered disproportionately to the population as a whole. The "priests were hit hard because they were visiting parishioners who were ill and in need of comfort and last rites.” Clerical vacancies persisted for years after.

At the same time, “the plague burned through monasteries. When you have a lot of people living together in close quarters, it’s a perfect recipe for an epidemic. The abbey of Meaux lost 83 percent of its population, with 42 out of 52 monks and all of the lay brothers attached to the monastery perishing in the Great Mortality.” Monasteries in Medieval Europe were sanctuaries for men and women who had no other occupational paths or whose birth order left them without inheritance, but they couldn’t protect them from the scourges of a rampaging plague.


In February, the Washington Post reported on "the personal risks taken by spiritual leaders who comfort the sick and their families, give last rites or conduct funerals for people who have died of Covid." Although the newspaper didn't claim that clergy in the U.S. have suffered a similar death rate as those in the 1300s in Europe, the Catholic Review and the Vatican News have reported widespread deaths of priests in Italy and India.


And our nation’s assisted living and elder-care facilities, where scores of patients and caregivers fell victim to the rapid spread of Covid, were modern day analogues for the Medieval monasteries. I imagine that like the monasteries that were left devoid of penitents to tend the abbey gardens and livestock, our senior facilities are also short of staff, many of whom are also "lower wage" in the Journal's lexicon.


History does not repeat itself, they say, but it rhymes.


Monastery image by Peggy Choucair from Pixabay

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