A medievalist’s modern perspective on plague

Carrie Benes
Carrie Beneš, professor of medieval and Renaissance history

By Abby Weingarten

“Welcome to the Brigata,” Carrie Beneš, Ph.D., wrote to her students in an email in mid-March.

It was a cleverly-worded way of easing her class into the remote learning period for her “Death, Hell and Capitalism: Medieval Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch” curriculum for the spring semester at New College. And Beneš, a professor of medieval and Renaissance history, couldn’t have found a more astute parallel.

“The Brigata” is a reference to Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s collection, The Decameron, which was written in 1353, just after the Black Death. The 100 stories of The Decameron are told by 10 young people who isolate themselves in a villa outside Florence, Italy, to escape the plague (an eerily familiar concept for socially-distancing college students during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic).

“We find ourselves in circumstances unprecedented in the modern world,” Beneš wrote to her students. “Pretend this is a virtual Decameron. There are 10 of us. We are all quarantined by the COVID-19 plague. And while we’re not in a villa in the hills outside Florence, we can use this space to pass the time and learn something despite everything that’s crazy in the world. We will get through this.”

She then encouraged her students to wash their hands and self-quarantine, cautioning, “You have knowledge that people in the 14th century didn’t—USE IT.”

But what other knowledge did people in the 14th century have or not have—and how can their experiences offer us insight and perspective today? If anyone knows the answers to these questions, Beneš does; it has been her life’s work as a cultural historian. 

In fact, this pandemic has provided an incredible teaching opportunity for her—a way to introduce her students to an area of her expertise that, for the first time in her scholarly career, is universally relatable and topical: the plague. 

For years, Beneš has taught a class at New College called “The Black Death,” which combines historical epidemiology and cultural studies. A graduate of Harvard University and the University of California who specializes in the study of late medieval Italy, Beneš has earned numerous accolades for her work (including a Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, Italy).

“Speaking as a historian, one of the things that really interests me is what makes us different from people in the 14thcentury and what makes us the same,” Beneš said. “I think part of what this experience shows us is that we’re not really better than them. Even despite all the extra knowledge we have, we have not been able to stop this thing [COVID-19] from spreading.”

The idea of modern society being somehow “better” has never been entirely true, she explained, even with advances like germ theory, penicillin and antibiotics. There are still variables and unknowns, as evidenced by a rapidly spreading virus with no known cure, and people don’t always respond rationally. Is trying to treat COVID-19 with a hairdryer (an actual proposed modern method) any more rational than rubbing a chopped-up snake on plague boils? One of the things an understanding of the plague-era past can teach us, in Beneš’ view, is humility.

“We’re so used to the benefits of modern medicine that we don’t think about how recently it was that we didn’t have them. That gives us a really dangerous sense of complacency,” Beneš said. “Modern antibiotics have been around for less than a hundred years, but we’ve gotten used to not having to think about the problem of epidemic disease, and that’s dangerous. Historians tend to talk about that a lot—the problem of generational or telescopic memory.”

One fact many people tend to forget—or maybe never knew altogether—was just how long plague was rampant.

“The Black Death was a pandemic but it wasn’t an isolated thing. The Black Death hit Europe around 1347 to 1351, but it was just one part of the Second Plague Pandemic, which technically started sometime in the 13th century in China and kept going in Europe until the 1790s,” Beneš said. “So, the Second Pandemic in Europe lasted nearly 500 years; it became established in the population and recurred every five to 10 years for centuries. But nobody knows that.”

Why does this matter? Well, as people today complain about fairly short-term inconveniences like social isolation, people during the Second Pandemic were being hit with outbreaks once or twice a decade for hundreds of years; it was simply part of life. The current generation has no memory of anything like this ever happening. But it happened, multiple times. And life (and death) went on.

So, to bring this historical perspective to her students as they isolate and learn online, Beneš found it only fitting to welcome them to “the Brigata.”

As Beneš explained, Boccaccio’s Decameron offers one of the most famous eyewitness descriptions of the Black Death in Florence in 1348, complete with gruesome details. But the tales told by the quarantined “Brigata” provide an uplifting contrast to the darkness of the day, and demonstrate the power of camaraderie and humor amid the chaos—something she hopes her students can relate to and embrace.

“The stories of the ‘Brigata’ encourage us to recognize that we all need distraction,” she said. “Boccaccio’s contrast between brutal description and escapism demonstrates that we all need these fluffy stories (and the diversion of thinking about something else) to get us through.”

The stories are what have always fascinated Beneš—those then, those now, and how they contribute to our collective cultural history.

“That brings us back to the importance of historiography. What are the stories we are telling ourselves? Not just ‘what do we know?’ but ‘what do we think we know?’,” Beneš said. “And what do we dwell on? What are the narratives we are putting together?”

For more narratives, Beneš has compiled a list of recommended reading material here: sites.google.com/a/ncf.edu/benes/plague

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

 


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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