At the start of the first lockdown in early April, I had a rare moment of hilarity when I read somewhere that a condom company was bewailing lack of sales during the pandemic. It was a decidedly Chaucerian moment for someone who has taught fourteenth century literature for more than half of her life. For those familiar with the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this four-liner I wrote at the time should immediately make sense. It was appropriately illuminated for me by a friend thus:

In corona or Covid-19 times, and belonging as I do to the endangered and dispensable age demographic, my thoughts in all this imposed solitude inevitably go back to memories of my younger days and also to literary readings of earlier epidemics and pandemics. Sometime in the 1990s, there had been the threat of a bubonic plague.

At the time, I noted with relief, doctors were fully confident a couple of shots of penicillin would cure it. I have also read subsequently that rats could not be held responsible for the plague: it was communicated by touch and also airborne. Perhaps bats will also eventually be liberated from the bad press they have been getting in recent months.

In the 1950s, we were periodically lined up at school to be vaccinated against small pox or shot with a painful TABC injection to protect us from other epidemics of our childhood such as cholera and typhoid. In retrospect they were a breeze compared to what we are being put through now, with no vaccine in sight and the numbers of the afflicted going up with each successive day.

Let me begin with a children’s playground game: many of us have played Ring-a ring-a roses. It sounds pleasant enough and we have visions of little girls dressed in pink, wearing circlets of roses around their heads and perhaps carrying little posies of fresh flowers and then flopping down to much innocent childlike laughter.

Boccaccio’s Decameron has a sinister description of those roses, posies and the flop. Roses were the nasty red glandular growths of varying sizes, symptoms of the bubonic plague. Stage 2 could be black pustules everywhere on the body. Most people did not recover, so “Hush-a husha, they all fell down” in unmarked graves.

A page from Boccaccio's 'Decameron' | Image credit: BEIC digital library / Public Domain

The plague was supposed to have come from the mysterious East, it was variously predicted by different schools of astrology; many considered it the wrath of god and organised prayer meetings and even processions to appease the said god. No sort of medical wisdom seemed able to combat it, no human foresight seemed to prevent its rapid spread across the world.

It spread from person to person by touch and indeed the clothes and bodies of those who died from it were so contaminated that even pigs who neared them died instantly. Posies were not dainty rosebuds but bundles of herbs people carried around with them in hope of staving off the illness and also to protect themselves from the stench of festering bodies.

Many quacks and honest medical men from separate schools of thought suggested preventions and cures to no avail. Much of that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Perhaps you will discover other familiar features in what I write next.

Human nature changed drastically according to Boccaccio. Every person for himself, became the order of the day. Families and friends abandoned each other, priests or pall bearers decamped as soon as they were able to “flop” bodies into the nearest open hole. People who had been much loved and respected died, without tears shed for them, candles lit for them, and with minimal last rites. Money or property was taken over by enterprising doctors and lawyers, or anyone who happened to be still around: the venal sin of gluttony was the order of the day.

Wall drawing of doctor dressed to treat a medieval plague patient

Some isolated themselves, ate sensibly and drank very little of only the choicest wines. Others, like a group consisting of Boccaccio and his friends, escaped the world of Florence to pleasanter climes, where they told each other some gripping stories, exercised and listened to gentle music. Scarily, the genteel manners of the great city of Florence had disappeared; bloodsuckers had taken over, and Boccaccio speaks ominously of people breakfasting with family and supping at night with their ancestors.

In that eventful year of 1348, Doomsday seemed to have arrived in lovely Florence. To counter the sense of an ending some, says Boccaccio, adopted a devil-may-care attitude and gave themselves up to more debauchery and loose living than ever before.

This takes us directly to the most profound of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, told by the thoroughly corrupt Pardoner, in which three “friends” appear to have recklessly chosen this path of giving themselves up entirely to a life of sin. By this time the plague was so widespread and rampant, the “Black Death” or “pestiferous mortality” were no longer good enough names for it: the word Death had become synonymous with the pandemic.

Black Death

The three revellers seem to be capable of all the Seven Deadly Sins and, according to the Pardoner’s glib sermon, all the sins are related to each other and stem from the single sin of Gluttony, or as he says in Latin: Radix malorum est cupiditas. Greed is the root of all evil: gambling, swearing, lechery, lying, pride, you name it…

There they sit enjoying themselves in a tavern, when they hear a funeral procession go past. They want to know for whom the bell tolls and how he died: a tavern boy with folk wisdom tells them the dead man was an old friend of theirs, who died sitting up while carousing at a pub, instantly murdered by “a privee thief men clepeth Deeth” (a shadowy thief by the name of Death) who has killed thousands already.

They resolve to locate and kill this person called Death to avenge the murder of their old companion in riotous living. Yet again the young boy wisely tells them to be careful in taking on this particular enemy. It’s a riveting story and still gives me goosebumps whenever I read it…no need for a spoiler alert. I’ll leave you to read the rest of the tale on your own.

Piers Plowman

There is Langland in his long rambling allegorical work, Piers Plowman. Like Chaucer, he sees very little good in most representatives of the Three Estates, the aristocracy, the priesthood and the labouring class, nor indeed in intermediate professions like lawyers, doctors, guildsmen and so on. With much elegance and tongue in cheek flattery about all the others, Chaucer finds just one truly good poor Parson, who looks after the spiritual well-being of his flock and a single genuine Plowman of the fields, providing food for the whole community. That simple farmer is the hero of Langland’s poem, written in a pre-Norman Conquest poetry form, a shapechanging persona who sometimes becomes St Peter (his namesake) and sometimes Christ himself.

The hardworking people of the land found their numbers diminished by the many recurrences of the plague through the century, successive famines and ruinous wars with neighbouring countries and also the unending Crusades.

It is on record that for the first time they could free themselves from the old feudal obligations that had tied them to their place of birth through generations of exploitation. The demand for just rewards for their labour became the lynch-pin of the Peasants Revolt of 1381 in England, and the beginning of a similar kind of reality in much of Europe.

In the cryptic secret mode of communication that constitutes the language of rebellion in an unjust society, Piers Plowman became their icon: a Che Guevara for the times. In a surviving letter to the peasants of Essex, John Ball, a leader of the Peasants Revolt, writes thus in a crude translation I have made from fourteenth century English:

John Shepherd, earlier Saint Marie Priest of York, and now of Colchester, warmly greets John Nameless, John the Miller, John Carter, and warns them to be aware of the possibility of treachery in the land and to stand together in the name of God; he tells Piers Plowman to continue with his work (because people must eat, in pandemic times and during revolutions), to punish Hobbe the robber, (who takes from the produce without contributing to it), to take with him, John Trueman and all like-minded friends...

John the Miller has grounde it down to the finest,
The Son of the King of Heaven shall recompense (us) all.
Be careful if you do not wish to come to grief.
Know the difference between a friend and a foe.
Do Well and Better, flee from sin,
Find peace and keep yourself within (it).

I love the way the revolutionaries are all called John. The name works to establish both anonymity and a strong sense of comradeship. The reference to Do Well and Better refers to later chapters in Langland’s work: Dowel, Dobet and Dobest. The epistle is a masterpiece of the basics of revolution.

Watching the endless and horrendously upsetting visuals of migrant labourers betrayed alike by employers and governments, making their way home, I wish (romantically perhaps) for a revolution when those who sweat through their lives to keep the privileged in the style to which they are accustomed, will rise up against their oppressors. Perhaps I shall not live long enough to see this happen.

And I differ slightly with the presentation of the Pardoner’s three revellers as thoroughly corrupt, dissolute and foolish young men. I wish I had the strength and knowledge to rush fiercely out into the world and destroy the coronavirus forever.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.