From Black Death to COVID-19, pandemics have always pushed people to honor death and celebrate life
After last year’s Halloweenwas very much plagued by doubt and worry thanks to a global pandemic with no clear end in sight, Halloween 2021 may feel especially exciting for those ready to celebrate it. Thanks to ongoing vigilance and continuing vaccination efforts, many people in the U.S. are now fortunate enough to feel cautiously optimistic after all those awful months that have passed since March 2020.
But Halloween opens a little window of freedom for all ages. It lets people move beyond their ordinary social roles, identities and appearances. It is spooky and morbid, yet playful. Even though death is symbolically very much present in Halloween, it’s also a time to celebrate life. The holiday draws from mixed emotions that resonate even more than usual during the COVID-19 era.
Looking at the ways survivors of past pandemics tried to celebrate the triumph of life amid widespread death can add context to the present-day experience. Consider the Black Death — the mother of all pandemics.
Black Death birthed a new death culture
The Black Death was a pandemic of plague, the infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Between 1346 and 1353, plague rampaged across Afro-Eurasia and killed an estimated 40% to 60% of the population. The Black Death ended, but plague carried on, making periodic return visits through the centuries.
The catastrophic effects of plague and its relentless recurrences changed life in every possible way.
Artists’ allegorical references to death stressed the closeness of the hour of death. Skulls and other “memento mori” symbols, including coffins and hourglasses, appeared in Renaissance paintings to remind viewers that because death was imminent, one must prepare for it.
Bruegel the Elder’s famous “Triumph of Death” stressed the unpredictability of death: Armies of skeletons march over people and take their lives, whether ready or not.
Death culture influenced the 19th-century Western European doctors who started writing about historical pandemics. Through this lens, they imagined a specific version of past pandemics — the Black Death, in particular — that one modern historian named “Gothic epidemiology.”
Flawed image of Black Death emerged in 1800s
The German medical historian Justus Hecker, who died in 1850, and his followers wrote about the Black Death in a dark, gloomy, emotional tone. They emphasized its morbid and bizarre aspects, such as violent anti-Jewish pogroms and the itinerant Flagellants who whipped themselves in public displays of penance. In their 19th-century writing of the Black Death, it was cast as a singular event of cataclysmic proportions — a foreign, peculiar, almost wondrous entity that did not belong to European history.
The living legacy of this Gothic epidemiology still defines scholarly and popular understanding of plague and may creep into today’s Halloween costumes and decorations.
Triumph of death or celebration of life?
Pandemics never mean death and suffering for all. There is strong evidence that Black Death survivors experienced better living standards and increased prosperity. Even during subsequent outbreaks, differences in class, location and gender informed people’s experiences. The urban poor died in greater numbers, for example, as the well-off fled to their countryside residences. Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous “Decameron,” written in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, tells the story of 10 young people who took refuge in the countryside, passing their days telling each other entertaining stories as a way to forget the horrors of plague and imminent death.
A later example is Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, a Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who took refuge in the Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul during a plague outbreak in 1561. His memoir describes how he spent his days fishing and enjoying other pleasant pastimes, even while the daily death toll in the city surpassed 1,000 for months.
No one yet knows how the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered. But for the moment, Halloween is the perfect occasion to play with the pandemic lesson to simultaneously celebrate life and contemplate death.
As you dress up in spooky costumes or decorate your home with plastic skeletons to celebrate this late capitalist holiday – yes, Halloween is now a thriving US$10 billion industry annually – you may find comfort thinking about how the way you feel about life and death connects you to those who survived past pandemics.
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