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Journals for a Plague Year: Teaching Early Modern History in the Era of COVID-19

Author: 
Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske
Institution: 
Yale University

Early modern history offers a particularly good lens through which to examine the impact of disease on society. For example, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Great Plague in London in the Year 1665 (1722) vividly illustrates how epidemics hold up a mirror to the social, cultural, and political conditions in which they arise.1 This semester, as the global pandemic triggered a shift from physical classrooms to Zoom, it seemed to me that Defoe’s eighteenth-century tale of quarantine measures, isolation, and frustration was not only a source, but also a model for my modern European history class.2 Defoe raises pressing questions about how people perceive plagues, their role in them, and the influence of plagues on society and history. It seemed a matter of some urgency to bring these historical and topical discussions into the classroom as my students struggled to come to terms with the first global historical event to impact their lives directly.

The course was a broad undergraduate survey of modern European history, from the Thirty Years’ War to the aftermath of World War II, and was open to history and nonhistory majors at Yale. The two major revisions I made to the course when we moved online were (1) to include two full lectures and discussion sections on the influence of disease in early modern and modern European history to give students an understanding of the historical sources and context for their current experience,3 and (2) a new project, which I called the Plague Journals, that was an exercise to help students to first analyze historical sources and knowledge, and then use this historical framework to reflect upon the present.

This article discusses some of the themes in early modern history explored in the reoriented lectures, including the new focus on the intersections of disease and social, economic, and gender hierarchies; changing understandings of contagion; the role of state-sponsored public-health programs and resistance to these policies; and diseases’ global impact. It also comments on how these themes were used to facilitate drawing connections with the current pandemic, and how the Plague Journals, which continued throughout the remainder of the semester, helped students to become more critical historical readers and thinkers, and to engage in reflection on the current historical moment, all while creating a sense of community in times of isolation.

Plagues and Disease in Early Modern and Modern Europe

As we transitioned to Zoom classrooms, I expanded the discussion of disease in modern Europe from a single discussion of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, to a survey of the social and economic conditions and consequences of disease throughout early modern European history. In fact, modern public-health policies are based on methods developed in Europe and the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period in response to emerging understandings of contagion.4 Following the devastating outbreaks of the Black Death, which continued into the seventeenth century, towns and cities began appointing officials to develop and enforce measures to limit the spread of disease: quarantining infectious houses or streets, disposing of corpses and the belongings of the dead, prohibiting public gatherings, and setting out cordons sanitaires around uninfected areas.5

Reading these accounts in the spring 2020 semester, my students came to see not only the historical development of ideas of contagion, but the ongoing intersections of disease and society.6 They noted the disproportionate burden of disease and its management on the poor and marginalized in both the historical record and today and how isolation is impossible for people too poor to stockpile food. This resonated with the students, a number of whom were personally experiencing such inequalities, whether living with insecurities related to food and housing, trying to learn online without regular internet access, or serving as primary caregivers of small children or older family members. Despite our modern advantages in medicine and science, the novel coronavirus has highlighted social ills and economic disparities, and has illuminated the complex intersections of social, economic, and gender hierarchies that have left the mainly female nurses and homecare workers, and the racial minorities who staff our vital, but poorly paid, “essential services” to bear the brunt of the disease.

By the seventeenth century, acceptance of public health as a governmental responsibility was growing. At the same time centralizing states began to view large and healthy populations as essential to the well-being of the state. Public health came to include the keeping and use of better vital statistics, including birth, death, and morbidity rates as a basis for health policies.7 Hospitals too were increasingly viewed as important institutions for maintaining public health.8 In England, the government took an active role in disseminating public-health information on the advance and retreat of the various waves of plague across the country by subsidizing the publication of bills of mortality. This significantly increased public awareness and fed an abiding interest in public health issues.9 Roy Porter argues that these developments helped early modern states extend their social control over their populations and generate commercial development.10 Examining these developments provided a new way for my students to evaluate the role of institutions, how they work, why they matter, and their role in shaping and contextualizing how people experience upheavals, including the current pandemic. These discussions also highlighted the origins of the relationship between public health and government, the increasing role of government in enacting public-health measures and influencing how people learned about death and disease, and the ways in which those in authority sought to use, control, and disseminate information.

A survey of how people responded to quarantine measures during the early modern period reveals striking similarities with reactions to isolation measures for COVID-19. In early modern Europe, the imposition of plague regulations and the simultaneous flight away from cities altered normal social interactions and sociability and resulted in a deep sense of alienation. Many early modern writers criticized public policies intended to contain epidemics, including quarantines, isolation, and economic shutdowns, even as they reluctantly understood the necessity of the restrictions. Quarantine in particular was described as uncharitable and cruel, inverting traditional values/relationships by separating people from family and community.11 The restrictions were also criticized for their negative impacts on trade. Many seventeenth-century Italian commercial elites faced new expenses and restrictions on their Mediterranean overseas trade due to restrictive quarantine measures and consequently opposed many of the public-health restrictions.12 English merchants in 1636 and again in 1720 openly protested against quarantine measures and travel restrictions, claiming the quarantine of goods could spell the end of England as a mercantile power, would be a devastating drain on the public purse, and would kill trade, thus playing into the hands of the country’s commercial rivals.13 It would seem that profit rather than mortality rates was the bottom line in many quarantine reform discussions, ideas echoed today by pundits who claim that stay-at-home policies that “shut down the economy” are more “dangerous” to a nation’s well-being than a pandemic.

These historical debates bring into focus the fact that all epidemics have required a balancing of privacy and individual rights against the good of the larger society and that certain interests prevail at different times.14 In class discussions, the students were asked to evaluate the implementation of a plague-related decision by analyzing the interests it served; by estimating the position, power, and priorities of each actor involved; by assessing the ethical dimensions of the decision; and by evaluating its costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives. Herein lies one of the most powerful benefits of the study of early modern history as a means of understanding current events. My students came to recognize that historical knowledge provides a critical lens through which our current pandemic can be understood as being not quite as exogenous or capricious as it may initially seem. Furthermore, I asked students to pay particular attention to how fear, truth, and falsehoods were and continue to be used; the effects of the spread of misinformation; and how those in power may promote policies that are not always in the public’s best interests.

The early modern period also provides examples of how disease can transform society on a global scale. Europeans seeking trade routes brought diseases to the Americas that were common in Eurasia (such as measles, mumps, bubonic plague, influenza, and smallpox) but against which the indigenous populations had no immunity. The resulting dramatic drop in population was a key factor in the establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese, and later French, English, and Dutch, empires.15 Studying the short- and long-term impacts of disease on a societal level enabled my students to gain an appreciation of how historical developments such as a plague can effect widespread changes to entire societies and economies on a global scale. It also provided an alternative perspective on the novel coronavirus, which has spread along the international trade and travel routes created by globalization, cost an enormous loss of life, and precipitated a potential global economic recession, although we have yet to know what the full and final consequences of this pandemic will be.

Furthermore, early modern discourse on disease reveals that “facts,” “witness accounts,” and observations about the “foreign” origins of disease have a long history of being socially constructed.16 In assessing widespread and popular responses to epidemics in the past, we find reactions of fear, hatred, and scapegoating. We see the same today, directed especially at China and, more painfully, here in the United States at Asian Americans. However, historians who have probed the records more deeply have also found evidence that epidemics call forth expressions of compassion, self-sacrifice, and civic responsibility, themes which many of my students were drawn to in class discussions and in their writing assignments, as they reflected on their individual responsibilities in the face of the current pandemic.

As this review shows, it is clear that the concerns that animated early modern responses to epidemics and the resulting transformations of culture, society, and economy have gained new resonance in the era of COVID-19. Moreover, the work of early modern historians on early modern disease and pandemics helps to explain why certain cultures, groups, and individuals have reacted to epidemics in particular ways; how hard or easy it is to change those ways; and why fear and hatred so often have deeper and more varied roots than the simple knee-jerk dread of infection. This work helps contextualize and explain the cultural, social, intellectual, religious, and philosophical differences that condition human responses to disease that are so critical for our students, and all people, to understand.

Having laid the groundwork in my two lectures on pandemics and disease, I introduced a new activity that became central to the online course: the Plague Journals project.

The Plague Journals

At the beginning of his own Journal of London’s Great Plague of 1665, assembled fifty-seven years after the events and recounted from primary and secondary sources, Defoe cites the power of descriptive prose to trigger the kind of response usually produced by “seeing” or being witness to events. In his attempt to paint a picture for readers, he says, “were it possible to represent those Times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the Reader due Ideas of the Horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just Impression upon their Minds, and fill them with Surprise.”17 With the Plague Journal exercise, I challenged my students both to become witnesses to how people experienced plagues in the past through close readings of primary and secondary sources (to become those that do see) and to document their own experience of living through a “plague” and to reflect on it as a community.

When the class moved online, rather than having weekly writing assignments based solely on their primary and secondary readings, I tasked my students with creating and submitting short (1–2 page) weekly Plague Journal entries. The students were asked to engage with an assigned primary18 or secondary source and to place the reading(s) into conversation with their own personal experiences, including their ongoing experiences with the novel coronavirus pandemic. These online submissions were posted to our class Canvas (Yale’s Learning Management System) course site. The students had the option of making their submissions visible to the rest of their class, and almost all decided to make their submissions public. Although making the posts public was voluntary, one objective of the exercise was to initiate discussions outside of classes, thereby helping students to establish a closer relationship with the other members of the seminar, and giving them a place to discuss class material and their own pandemic experience.

Defoe’s Journal was a particularly good primary source to use in our first online discussion section when we returned from spring break in March. His account of the 1665 plague is constructed from primary and secondary sources, so I asked students to pay attention to what Raphael Samuel referred to as the “imaginative dislocations which take place when historical knowledge is transferred from one learning circuit to another.”19 This exercise, therefore, also became a way to demonstrate how primary and secondary sources are rearranged and sometimes added to or discarded, and how the substance of events is built upon and molded according to the author’s intention and purpose.20

I encouraged my students to use their Plague Journal entries to reflect not only upon their assigned readings and themes from our class, but to document their own personal responses to the global pandemic, compare it to plagues of the past, and consider how epidemics of both today and the past affect communities differentially due to demographic factors such as race and socioeconomic status. As this was not a course devoted to disease, I wanted students to extend their reflections on the impact of pandemics to the consideration of other social stresses such as war and economic depression, as well as the role of media and mass communication in the transmission of ideas.21 Many students commented that this historical perspective provided a way for them to better understand today’s pandemic and helped them to feel less anxious, bewildered, and confused.22 One student even cited Defoe when discussing frustration with current governments’ regulatory efforts, noting that even in the eighteenth century they understood that self-imposed isolation was, quoting Defoe, “the most effectual secure Step that cou’d be taken,” against the plague.23

Finally, it was my intention that these Plague Journal entries would not only help students to reflect upon the past, and become critical, historical readers and thinkers, but also be a place for them to create their own useful historical archive of their experiences during our current pandemic. Unsurprisingly, in their Plague Journal entries, students reflected upon their fear of contagion for both themselves and their loved ones, the reactions of their parents, and the actions of both local and national politicians. Their personal reflections were mostly about people and the intensely human implications of the public-health emergency that has engulfed our lives. I explicitly pointed out to students that as historians we work hard to understand the people we study, and that their insights might one day help historians examining how this historical moment was understood and reacted to.

Their more personal entries also indicated the prevalent, though often unspoken, sense of loss caused by the shift online: students missed the daily interactions of classes and college life. Nearly every student longed for interaction with their instructors and other students. Several lamented the loss of in-person discussion sections, the ability to spontaneously pose questions to their professors or drop-in on their office hours, and the camaraderie that develops in the classroom setting. Historians have shown that in the early modern world, a sense of membership (in colleges, guilds, male and female fraternities) provided people with many of their most intimate experiences of relationships of solidarity as well as hierarchical structures of authority and leadership. As scholars of the early modern period, we recognize that these structures are still significant; in campus life, students experience this through dorm life and in university clubs and activities where friendship and support can be found. We know that these activities create webs of obligation, reciprocity, emotion, and dependence that help individuals understand and negotiate the wider world well beyond their years at university. Students’ frustration at the loss of these experiences was palpable in each Plague Journal entry but was perhaps best expressed by one graduating senior who wrote, “I feel like someone has stolen my semester from me.”

Luckily, the modern experience of quarantine and isolation is alleviated by new technologies that facilitate interaction and teaching. A wonderful result of producing and sharing these Plague Journals as a shared intellectual pursuit was the chance to find much-needed community in a time of social distancing and isolation. Students commented on one another’s work and started new conversations threads about their classmates’ contributions and their own experiences in our online discussion board on our class Canvas site. These virtual conversations arising from Plague Journal postings helped fill the gap left by the loss of informal interactions among students and professors. Moreover, using sharable, including student-created, content to promote discussion and analysis helped my students express their anxieties about the present while sharing reflections about the past. These online postings and discussions became essential in helping to create a learning community, especially for those students unable to attend “live” Zoom lecture and discussion classes, while further enabling the continuation of discussions, and community, outside the classrooms.

Conclusion

As we look toward teaching this fall 2020 semester, we must reflect upon how both professors and students continue to be mired in what has become a public health, economic, and sociopolitical crisis of uncertain dimension. As historians, we may gain some comfort in remembering that although disease has transformed the structures of learning and scholarship before—the universities that shaped the culture and economic life of the cities such as Bologna, Oxford, Paris, or Salamanca were closed for years at a time as waves of epidemics spread through Europe—it also led to the Renaissance of education, in particular the studia humanitatis, that enabled scholars to face the future with confidence and hope. Thus, helping our students understand the early modern world and how it reacted to disease and epidemics, and creating ways for them to better analyze how actors in the past reacted to disease, and how people’s private interest can be redirected for the public good, is crucial. Moreover, looking at the past provides an understanding that health is not a marginal or secondary subject to the real business of history. Past or present, health shapes culture in fundamental ways.

Epidemics always raise the ultimate questions about death and morality, about civic duty and responsibility. Pandemics force societies to question whether those in authority, and we as people, really care about what happens to others, and what our individual responsibilities, as well as those of society and government are. Finding parallels in the early modern past allows students, experiencing fear and anxiety as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, to address those concerns in light of both the past and the present. Finding ways for students to engage with the past and relate it to their own ideas and feelings through Plague Journals proved an effective means of helping them deal with the present. Journals as personal reflection have long been a way to document and describe events during times of disease, but having students write Plague Journals as reflections of both past and present, can also be a tool for students to develop historical skills by making them critical readers and thinkers, something which will only help in their assessment of the present as well.

Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske spent the spring 2020 semester teaching in the History Department at Yale University. She has also taught at Columbia University where she received the Preceptor Award for Teaching Excellence. She teaches early modern and modern intellectual history, the history of political thought, and early modern and modern empire and colonialism with a focus on Spain and France. Her research focuses on power and state authority in Early Modern Spain and Europe and includes publications in: The Oxford History of Historical Writing (Oxford, 2012, 2015); Portraying the Prince in the Renaissance: Humanist Depiction of Rulers in Historiographical and Biographical Texts (De Gruyter, 2016); and The Myth of the Enemy: Alterity, Identity and their Representations (Minerva, 2019). She is currently writing a monograph on the relationship between humanist history, truth, and polemics in Early Modern Spain and Europe, and how history became a tool of political legitimacy.

1 Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Great Plague in London in the Year 1665…By a Citizen, Who Lived the Whole Time in London…To which is Added, a Journal of the Plague at Marseilles, in the Year 1720 (London, 1722). Another such primary source is James Amelang, ed., A Journal of the Plague Year: The Diary of the Barcelonan Tanner Miguel Parets, 1651 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991). For contextual discussions see, Charles Webster, ed., Health, Medicine, and Mortality in Sixteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); David Steel, “Plague Writing from Boccaccio to Camus,” Journal of European Studies 11, no. 2 (1981): 88–110; Giulia Calvi, “A Metaphor for Social Exchange: The Florentine Plague of 1630,” Representations 13 (1986): 139–63; and Calvi, Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); John Henderson, Epidemics in Renaissance Florence: Medical Theory and Government Response (Paris: CNRS, 1989); and Paul Slack and Terence Ranger, eds., Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

2 Defoe’s work is a good primary source because it is in English, has a modern edition, and addresses most of the themes discussed in the reoriented class.

3 Notably, the students drew on this epidemiological framework when commenting upon many other historical events during class discussions. For example, when we discussed the nineteenth- and twentieth-century urbanization projects of cities like Paris, conversation revolved around how the fear of recurring disease shaped construction and widening of streets and sanitation, and when we talked about economic disparity affecting the health of congested urban city dwellers, they made reference to how health historically has been an economic issue.

4 Birsen Bulmus, Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

5 Vivian Nutton, “The Rise of Medical Humanism: Ferrara, 1464–1555,” Renaissance Studies 11 (1997): 2–19; and Samuel K. Cohn Jr., Culture of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). See also, David Herlihy, Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), esp. 40–41.

6 During class discussion students identified how past rhetoric surrounding disease is strangely similar to today’s. They commented on how the need to self-isolate, the prohibition on public gatherings, the effect of epidemics on the economy and employment, the enormous strains placed upon family bonds, the impact on rituals surrounding death, the disproportionate effect on marginalized communities, and the effect of physical environments on how epidemics flourish, especially in crowded cities, are recurrent issues, and part of the ongoing intersections of disease and society.

7 Vivian Nutton, Medicine at the Courts of Europe, 1500–1837 (London; New York: Routledge, 1991). See also, Carlo Cipolla, Miasmas and Disease: Public Health and the Environment in the Pre-Industrial Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Mary Lindemann, Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Frank Snowden, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

8 Colin Jones, “Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France,” Representations 53 (Winter 1996): 97–127. See also, Amelang, introduction to A Journal of the Plague Year; Bartolomé Bennassar, Recherches sur les grandes épidemies dans le nord de l’Espagne a la fin du XVIe siécle (Paris: SEVPEN, 1969); Carlo Cipolla, Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Italy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981); Richard Palmer, “The Church, Leprosy, and Plague in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in The Church and Healing: Studies in Church History, vol. 19, ed. William Sheils (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Routledge, 1985); Ann Carmichael, Plague and the Poor in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and Carmichael, “Plague Legislation in the Italian Renaissance,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 57 (1983): 508–25.

9 Stephen Greenberg, “Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London,” Huntington Library Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004): 508–27.

10 Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 238–41, 428–29.

11 A particularly good primary source for such a discussion is the anonymous London Looke-Back: A Description or Representation of the Great and Memorable Mortality an. 1625. in Heroicke Matchlesse Lines. By A. H. of Trinity College in Cambridge (London, 1630), which captures both the fear generated by the plague outbreak in London in 1625, and contemporary expressions of frustrations and resentments over quarantine and self-isolation measures.

12 Vivian Nutton, “The Seeds of Disease: An Explanation of Contagion and Infection from the Greeks to the Renaissance,” Medical History 27, no.1 (1983): 1–34; and Mark Harrison, Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), chaps. 1–4. For how early modern governments were able to successfully negotiate a balance between medical concerns and economic interests, see Kristy Wilson Bowers, “Balancing Individual and Communal Needs: Plague and Public Health in Early Modern Seville,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81, no. 2 (2007): 335–58.

13 See the work of Daniel Defoe (see n1), and London Looke-Back (see n11). Charles F. Mullett, “The English Plague Scare of 1720–1721,” Osiris 2 (1936): 484–516; and Mullet, “Politics, Economics and Medicine: Charles Maclean and Anti-Contagionism,” Osiris 18 (1952): 224–51. See also Vivian Nutton, “Books, Printing and Medicine in the Renaissance,” Medicina nei Secoli 17, no. 2 (2005): 421–42, esp. 434–35.

14 The discourse in Italy and England are good examples to help understand how current “resistance” to “rational measures” are embedded in a broader milieu of attitudes and assumptions and demonstrate the deep historical threads of our current economics and geopolitics of disease.

15 Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Another work which is good for discussing disease within a larger early modern survey course is Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

16 Identifying an “other” civilization as the origin of an epidemic disease has a long history. Thucydides contended that the plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE originated in East Africa and fourteenth-century European writers believed that the Black Death came from central Asia. In the sixteenth-century, Muslim scholars claimed that syphilis came from Europe, while Europeans asserted that syphilis originated in the Americas. See Samuel K. Cohn, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

17 Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, ed. Cynthia Wall (London: Penguin, 2003), 17–18.

18 Early modern history has vastly benefitted from the digitization of archival and museum collections and scholarly internet resources. I was able to gain online access to many of my sources with the gracious help of Yale’s librarians and their resources at the Beineke Library. However, one particularly useful website for open-access to early modern primary sources is Early Modern Resources.

19 Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, vol. 1 (London: Verso, 1994), 8.

20 Written as a reaction to the widespread concern aroused by the Marseille plague of 1720, and the regulatory measures enacted by the British government, including the quarantining of plague victims, restrictions on travel, trade, and assembly, and the burning of ships importing infected goods, Defoe’s account of the 1665 plague both supported and reflected a mistrust of government measures. His work has a clear perspective and is written as a call for civic obedience. Defoe presents his work as “fact” by presenting it as the “eyewitness account” of a first person narrator. So while Defoe’s intention was to support official government discourses, to lend credibility to his account he includes unofficial discourses like the thoughts of Londoners, and the individual actions they took and the attitudes they had, to serve as reminder of the “prodigious charity and benevolence of London’s citizenry,” and as a clearly stated plea for sanity and tolerance in difficult times. Considering how Defoe’s 1720 experience influenced his approach to presenting the past helped students understand the importance of contextualizing opinions.

21 For example, students were asked to consider what the impact of such large-scale events/experiences like pandemic diseases, that involve millions of people, mean to individuals, families, and societies. Are the impacts of world wars similar when dealing with large-scale death? What are the demographic differences (especially a larger death toll among able young males versus the old and infirm), and do those affect how people respond to those deaths?

22 Moreover, having lived through developments brought about by the novel coronavirus, students more easily identified with the reactions of actors in the past (how they reacted to quarantines, isolation, objections to stay-at-home measures and quarantine restrictions, government action/inaction, and how certain communities were affected more than others), by sharing their own experiences.

23 Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, ed. Wall, 197.

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