In Search of Precedent in Unprecedented Times

Samuel Rubinstein 25 January 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The first essay I wrote in Cambridge was on the Black Death. As I trawled through the fourteenth-century chroniclers, suffering from a dreadful bout of Freshers’ Flu, I couldn’t help but find descriptions of my symptoms wherever I looked.  ‘For several days they spend most of each day asleep, weighed down by drowsiness’, wrote the anonymous author of a German treatise on the plague. That certainly rang true. The bishop of Rochester, Thomas Brinton, insinuated in a sermon of 1375 that my affliction was a punishment for being ‘drowsy, lazy, and sluggish’, in which case, fair enough. My suspicions were supported by a violent cough: the blood and buboes were surely only a matter of time. Like any good late-medieval peasant, I lunged for my bedside Ars moriendi and prepared myself for entry to the heavenly kingdom.

If indeed I had been struck by plague, I realised, it was because I hadn’t been taking sufficient caution. John of Burgundy advised in 1365 that, to prevent infection, one should ‘avoid overindulgence in food and drink’. I foolishly did not take heed of his counsel in freshers’ week. ‘Bearded John’ did kindly permit ‘spiced wine diluted with water’, but I tended to prefer my wine un-spiced, and, in the spirit of student rebellion, I drank it neat. I inadvertently took his recommendation to ‘eat little or no fruit’ (perhaps my Freshers’ Flu was actually scurvy), but this, alas, was not enough to stave off the inevitable.

John’s suggestions for what I ought to do once I had contracted the disease were not very practicable. The Trinity porters would have been irritated to find me ‘lighting fires in my chamber’; the Trinity scientists even more so that I was taking medical advice from a man who wrote ‘it is obvious that physic is of little effect without astrology’.

Happily I survived for my first supervision, at which I ‘uttered inarticulate sounds’ (another plague symptom, according to emperor John VI Cantacuzenos). But, induced perhaps by the morbid subject matter, I experienced a humiliating coughing fit, so violent that I had to excuse myself for the bathroom. It was an appropriate beginning for a new chapter of my life, one distorted by another terrible pandemic.

***

2020 was the year everyone became an amateur epidemiologist, and it was also the year everyone became an amateur historian of disease. A week before the World Health Organisation declared that COVID-19 was a pandemic, The Telegraph published an article on the Spanish flu observing some points of comparison and contrast with the novel coronavirus.[1] The Black Death was all the rage; Camus’s La peste and Boccaccio’s Decameron were last summer’s hottest reads; and even the oft-forgotten sixth-century Justinianic Plague at last enjoyed its moment in the sun, when it achieved every English student’s dream of being featured in The New Yorker.[2] ‘Escapism’, strangely enough, was not the name of the game.

This resided, at least in part, in a glass-half-full mentality. Bad though COVID-19 is, by any measure it is preferable to, say, the Black Death. It is less contagious; its symptoms are less painful; it is less likely to affect young people; and it is unlikely, one hopes, to wipe out around half of the population. ‘Things are bad, but they could be much worse’. ‘How fortunate I am to live in the twenty-first century’. ‘At least the Conservative government is better than Edward III’s.’

A more perplexing justification for this phenomenon comes in the ‘What can we learn?’ genre of popular historical writing.[3] Well, to repeat the cliché, what can we learn from the Black Death? Antibiotics are a very good thing; doctors should ideally be well versed in medical science; we should keep a safe distance from infected individuals; the Jews (especially if they are also dying at a high rate) are most likely not to blame. These insights are hardly profound. They are hardly insights.

A more perplexing justification for this phenomenon comes in the ‘What can we learn?’ genre of popular historical writing.

***

The Capitol insurrection on the sixth of January invited a wide range of historical parallels. The Los Angeles Times described it as ‘America’s Beer Hall Putsch’, bookending the ‘Is Trump a fascist?’ discourse that has been inescapable for the last five years.[4] Closer to home, Varsity published an article likening Trump to Publius Clodius Pulcher and the insurrection to the decline of the Republic: this is quite understandable, given that America has always nurtured Roman revivalist pretensions.[5] I alluded to something similar when, in my election eve article grimly predicting the end of America, I supplied the painting Destruction from Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire.[6]

Historical comparison is not always so fruitful, however. Probably the most bizarre I’ve encountered was in an article in The Mallard that drew parallels between the sixth of January and Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450.[7] The article describes it as a ‘curious quality’ that this rebellion was in support of the king. But there is nothing ‘curious’ about it, because virtually all popular resistance in the later middle ages had a royalist subtext: Wat Tyler, only seventy years earlier, considered the crown to be an effective bulwark against aristocratic oppression. Moreover, Cade’s rebels – as Marxist historians like to point out – had some legitimate grievances and economic anxieties; Trump’s, on the other hand, were pampered, entitled, and bored. (It should be noted that none of Cade’s rebels arrived in a private jet.[8])

Still, coming up with strained and half-hearted historical parallels is like breaking the law: we’re all guilty of doing it in these ‘unprecedented times’.

Still, coming up with strained and half-hearted historical parallels is like breaking the law: we’re all guilty of doing it in these ‘unprecedented times’. On the sixth of January, I was working on a long essay focussing on the early Abbasid caliphate. As I switched on CNN, the Abbasid parallels seemed screamingly obvious. I saw the QAnon terrorists as a twenty-first century Rawandiyya, a radical sect so devoted to the eighth-century caliph Abu-Ja’far al-Mansur that they worshipped him as a God and threw themselves from his palace, ‘as if they could fly’, to obtain his attention. Like the Rawandiyya, QAnon is at its core a deranged eschatological movement: they pin their messianic hopes on Trump, and ‘the Storm’ will herald his Millennium. In their all-consuming devotion to their leader, they are moved to do strange and dangerous things. But whereas al-Mansur denounced, imprisoned, and killed his most fanatical supporters for straying from orthodox piety, Trump egged them on. Compelling though the comparison seemed in the moment, the analogy breaks down because really it is nonsense; the comparison was borne of the unremarkable coincidence that, thanks to my long essay, the Rawandiyya were lurking in my thoughts anyway.

***

Often the intellectual exercise of forging parallels between past and present is no different from my freshers’ week hypochondria: the irrational mind is provoked into finding things that aren’t really there, making vague and superficial similarities out to be something more. Sometimes it is akin to my reaction to the Capitol insurrection, where I could make sense of the horrifying events, as they unfolded, only by relying on terms that happened to be already present at the forefront of my mind.

Often the intellectual exercise of forging parallels between past and present is no different from my freshers’ week hypochondria: the irrational mind is provoked into finding things that aren’t really there, making vague and superficial similarities out to be something more.

This, in short, is bad history. Yet, swept up by the maelstrom of unprecedented times, we feel an intense desire to cling on to precedent, no matter how feeble. We want to know how our ancestors coped in predicaments loosely analogous to our own. We want to be inspired by their resilience.

The Irish friar John Clyn succumbed to the plague in 1349; he left blank pages at the end of his chronicle ‘in case anyone should still be alive in the future’. His cautious optimism was well placed, as I could attest when, 670 years after he wrote those words, I was alive to read them. Our search for precedent can thus provide an affirmation of hope. From our vantage point we know, even if our fourteenth-century forebears did not, that the apocalypse never came, and that the world and humanity turned out all right in the end.

[1]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/1918-spanish-flu-pandemic-helped-shape-coronavirus-action-plan/
[2]https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/06/pandemics-and-the-shape-of-human-history
[3]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/01/what-can-we-learn-about-2020-from-the-black-death-dorsey-armstrong-has-all-the-answers; https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/coronavirus-containment-what-we-can-learn-from-the-black-death-1.4193891; https://www.history.com/news/pandemics-lessons; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/black-death-novel-fear-not-christopher-wilsons-hurdy-gurdy/
[4]https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-01-16/donald-trump-insurrection-capitol-beer-hall-putsch
[5]https://www.varsity.co.uk/opinion/20440
[6]https://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/american-carnage/
[7]https://mallarduk.com/the-2021-capitol-siege-was-a-modern-day-cades-rebellion-andrew-trovalusci/
[8]https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9125701/Texas-real-estate-broker-took-private-jet-join-Trump-supporters-DC-rally.html