An Angry History of Science Addendum – The Black Death didn’t cause the Renaissance

I got irrationally angry today when I read this New Yorker article. It should be obvious by now that I have very strong opinions about history in general and certain topics in particular, one being the Black Death. And so when large publications make claims about the Black Death that I find … problematic … I react strongly. My exact words to the person who sent me this article were “I despise what they wrote”. So, I’m here on my personal soapbox to shout into the void that the Black Death didn’t cause the Renaissance and this kind of silver lining thinking is misguided.

There’s a lot that the New Yorker article got right about the Black Death. It mentioned the three pandemic events, the fact that it had a major impact in Asia, and that it’s still hanging around in wild rodents. The explanation of medieval medical theory was also not horrendous, although I wouldn’t describe it as correct either. (See this video I did for my own summary of the medieval plague.)

It also got a lot wrong about medieval history, which historian Carol Symes nicely summed up.

But my personal gripe is that this article was set on drawing parallels, and that’s a weird angle. It strikes me that the main reason the article relies entirely on the expertise of Gianna Pomata, a historian of medicine who does not specialize in the plague, is that that she is Italian. That allows the article to make neat jumps between 14th century Italy, which is one of the focal points of the American imagination of the medieval plague, and present-day Italy, which was one of the focal points of the American imagination of COVID-19 until we screwed things up for ourselves so badly that we stopped paying attention to the rest of the world.

It’s not that Pomata doesn’t know enough about the Black Death to have been interviewed for this article, it’s that the author of the article, Lawrence Wright, simply uses her to prove the point he wanted to make the article about – that all of this has a silver lining. Pomata’s expertise is in early modern medicine, specifically the idea of treating patients as individuals. For us today, that seems like calling water wet – how else would you treat patients? But the shift to individualism is one of the big ideological impacts of the early modern period (roughly the 16th through 18th centuries). In short, somewhere over the course of the 15th century, European intellectualism became more interested in how each individual person was a product of their own experiences, rather than how they were emblematic of larger patterns at play in the universe. By choosing Pomata as the only authority for this article, Wright guaranteed that he could tell a story about things changing for the better after the Black Death, because the premise of all of Pomata’s work is that once we left medieval ideas behind with the plague we developed early modern ideas of individualism that would set us up for “real” science. Here’s the problem with this argument: the Black Death wasn’t the end of the Middle Ages, and it didn’t cause the Renaissance (if the Renaissance even happened at all).

Ok, there’s a lot to unpack there.

So, Wright’s article acknowledges somewhere along the way that the Middle Ages actually ended in 1453 when Constantinople was overtaken by the Ottomans and the Byzantine Empire collapsed. That’s an impressively informed opinion for someone who is not a medieval historian, since as a group, we don’t actually agree on when the period ended (I would argue it ends in 1492, when Islamic Spain was snuffed out by Ferdinand and Isabella). It’s a bit of a cop-out to start your article off by claiming that a major disease event ended a 1000-year period of time, only to make a side note half way through that the period actually ended a century later for a completely different reason. But I can’t blame Wright because I remember saying as recently as 2013 that the Black Death was the end of the Middle Ages (not that recent, but the point is that I agreed with him in the past). It’s an accepted narrative for exactly the reasons Wright details: the plague caused major economic shifts that changed Europe’s social structure and possibly influenced a number of intellectual shifts. The reason I don’t buy that argument anymore is that some of those shifts don’t really come into play until the 15th century, and others were already in place to the point that they likely caused the plague pandemic itself. So it’s fair to say that the Black Death played a role in transforming the social and economic systems of medieval Europe, but not that the pandemic event actually marks the end of the period.

Then there’s the issue of the Renaissance. This deserves its own post, which maybe will have to be An Angry History of Science Part 6, but this paragraph will have to do for now. The Renaissance was much more limited in scope than our modern mythos has tended to present it. It was not a Europe-wide artistic and intellectual movement that was characterized by a bunch of men suddenly being amazing at art after 500 years of sucking. The Renaissance is mostly characterized by a shift in the artistic style in northern Italy during the 15th century. Medieval art tended to be more representational than realistic – it was more important to suggest what a person looked like than to depict them in as lifelike a manner as possible. In the 15th century, northern Italian artists became interested in verisimilitude as an extension of the effort to imitate Nature that was driving alchemy. This movement was not a huge departure from what came before it, since the imitation of nature goes back to the 12th century (see Part 2 and its discussion of Creation for some of this background). There’s definitely an argument to be made that the worldwide trauma of the Black Death spurred a shift toward Humanism, a fixation on death, and a different, more individualistic, approach to medicine. But that is not the Renaissance.

More importantly, that shift is not necessarily better than what came before it. Humanism and individualism are more like our modern approach to science (and politics, thanks Thomas Jefferson), but the humanistic and individualistic approach is also how we ended up in our current pandemic crisis. That’s not to say we should never have had this approach (that’s up for debate), just that different approaches are more or less effective based on particular circumstances, not based on an objective scale. Saying that the Black Death led to the Renaissance is an empty fantasy, because it tries to tie into a neat package all of the things that Americans educated in the 20th century have been taught to value – European culture, American exceptionalism, liberty – but that are now, literally, being pulled off of their pedestals. The Renaissance, even as a myth, isn’t the beacon of human achievement that it used to be.

TEARING DOWN STATUES So Hot Right Now - So Hot Right Now | Make a Meme
In searching for this meme, I discovered that most “tearing down statues” memes are alt-right propaganda. Fun times.

As I wrote a few months ago, there are a lot of superficial similarities between COVID-19 and the Black Death, but now I have to stress that what we take away from these diseases is their social and cultural impact, and those are not comparable. The biggest reason that the Black Death changed Europe is that it killed so many people, and that is simply not happening with COVID-19. This is a horrible disease. Many people have died. But proportionally, that number has thankfully stayed small. The major social shifts that can actually be linked to the Black Death – namely the rise in status for the working class due to a shortage in labor – those will not happen as a result of COVID-19. If anything, we need to open our eyes to the huge unemployment and housing crises that are headed our way as a result of people losing their livelihoods, rather than their lives, from this disease. Moreover, even if you buy the argument that the Black Death influenced a new artistic or intellectual movement, don’t wait around for the next Humanism. It’s already here, and it’s called Black Lives Matter. This pandemic caused a nation-wide shutdown that finally made white people pay attention to the state-sanctioned murder of a Black man. The intellectual shift isn’t professional thinkers sitting around pontificating and stumbling on physics (*ahem*), it’s people who don’t normally give a lot of dedicated thought to social theory being forced to reckon with the evidence of systemic racism that is right in front of them. Future peoples will hopefully look back on this moment in appreciation, identifying it as a watershed moment in the civil rights movement of the 21st century. But right now, we can’t just hold this up as a silver lining to a horrible time. The recognition of injustice is itself a horrible time, because injustice shouldn’t happen in the first place. This moment doesn’t have to be good or bad. It is. And let’s not let our romantic image of what quarantine should be like get in the way of experiencing this moment in all its complexity.

This post is part of a series. You can find the other posts in this series here:

Part 1 Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5