Ecclesiastes and pandemics, then and now: an Italian reflection

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

Virus patients locked into homes; Deficit rises amid virus; County judge limits purchases of scarce products; Superspreaders responsible for diffusion of virus; New jobs created by the pandemic; Public masses and funerals suspended; Medical professionals promised $10K week. 

If you guessed that these headlines came from 2020, you would be right. However, these same titles could have been written about the Black Death of 1629 in northern Italy, where authorities struggled mightily to understand the etiology of the disease and to articulate suppression measures that were in any way as effective as they were authoritarian.

For this semester’s Italian Literary Tradition III course, I had long planned to teach Alessandro Manzoni’s classic nineteenth-century novel “Promessi sposi” (“The Betrothed”). It was a(n) (in)felicitous coincidence that I would be doing so in the wake of one of the worst public-health crises and related institutional responses in recent memory, for in the midst of Manzoni’s novel of agape love, sacramental marriage and mercy erupts the plague that afflicted Lombardy in 1629-1630. 

In comparison to the United States’ rate of coronavirus-attributed deaths at .07%, the total mortality rate from the 1629 plague in Italy is estimated to have ranged from 30 to 43 %, and in the city of Milan alone at 74%. 

 What struck me most about rereading and teaching “Promessi sposi” was the universality and timelessness of the political and human reactions to disease and death, which make the novel instructive for our own time. 

According to Manzoni, who carried out careful research to lend authenticity to his account of the plague, the authorities at first ignored the plague, and then took contradictory measures in their largely vain efforts to contain it. 

It will surprise no one that Manzoni describes the initial fiscal policy as a “time to spend without saving, to attempt every single solution possible.” Scrambling to stave off twin crises, economic and sanitary, the chancellor of Milan set limits on the sale and purchase of grain and bread. Medical advice from the Health Commission was haphazard and thus ridiculed and ignored by nearly all. Traditional funeral rites were interdicted. 

What followed was a weakening of human bonds, the loss of mutual trust, and mass hysteria. Sound familiar? 

Back in February of 2020, Chinese authorities went so far as to weld the sick inside their own homes; in Milan, the doors of the infected were nailed shut. 

In our own day, new jobs and entire new lines of work include Amazon workers, grocery store employees and the heretofore nonexistent contact tracers. During the plague in Milan, new ‘professions’ also sprang up: monatti (corpse removers), apparitori (funeral-bell ringers), commissari (overseers), even the notorious monatti who transported the sick to the hospital, buried the dead, and burned all infected possessions.

The Black Death of 1629 overwhelmed existing rudimentary healthcare networks, which were largely Church-run and staffed by men and women religious. As with nurses in New York, some of whom at the height of the virus were making $10,000 per week, doctors could be enticed to staff the lazzaretto only if handsome salaries were involved, and even then it was a challenging task. 

Then, as now, the most chilling consequence of the public health crisis and the institutional response to it was the loss of fellow feeling, of comunitas. 

Manzoni depicts a culture of abandonment and fear: “there was something more afflicting and hideous still—reciprocal distrust and extravagant suspicion; and this not only between friends, neighbors and guests; but husbands, wives and children, became objects of terror to one another, and, horrible to say! even the dinner table and the marriage bed were feared as places of ambush, as hiding places of poisoning.” As in 1629, in 2020 every mask-wearing man, woman, and child is feared as a vector of disease. 

Along with the loss of fellow-feeling came the impetus to publicly shame those deemed responsible for spreading the virus. In Manzoni’s Milan, the untori (spreaders) were hunted down mercilessly, with a vehemence rivaled only by the shamers of the maskless Sunday shopper, the college-party attendee and the motorcycle rally rider. Manzoni recounts the horrifying story of an elderly man accused of spreading plague on the pews of his church. For his supposed transgression, he was taken outside and beaten within an inch of his life.

In 2020, political dictates and decrees have been arbitrary, capricious and scientifically dubious. The incompetence of our political and institutional leaders has been rivaled only by the furor of the perfectly overlapping Venn diagram of politics and the virus. 

This, too, is nothing new. In his most insightful comment on the plague-induced frenzy, Manzoni cites his uncle, Italian Enlightenment thinker Pietro Verri, on the desire to place blame: “it pleases the people more to attribute the ills to human perversity, against which it was possible to carry out a vendetta, than to recognize them [as being] from a cause with which there is nothing to do but resign oneself.”

For all of the supposed advances in our scientistic society, the pandemic–and more so the response to it–makes clear that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” Our much-vaunted social and technological advancements are tenuous, if not illusory, in the face of a virus that pales in comparison to historical examples. 

The responses to the pandemic on the part of our institutions, public health officials, the Church hierarchy and citizenry confirm that we really aren’t too far removed from early modern and “medieval” habits. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the latter adjective’s status as a pejorative?

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