Much to Fear, Then and Now

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

Medieval historian Larissa Taylor on how history can inform action in times of crisis

By Laura Meader
March 27, 2020

Fear. It’s running rampant right now. Palpable, but invisible, like the coronavirus that’s brought us to our knees.

Across the ages, however, fear has been a recurring part of the human experience. Can history offer clues on how to cope? What made things worse? What helped?

Looking back—way back—medieval historian and Professor of History Larissa Taylor turns to the Middle Ages, and to the plague of 1347-50 specifically, for answers. Her conclusion isn’t overly comforting. “I’m not sure that we’ve learned so many lessons,” Taylor said. “Or at least I think there are more lessons to be learned.”

COVID-19 gives us another chance to learn those lessons. Lessons about prejudice. Lessons in leadership. Lessons in humility.

Since 2010, Taylor has taught a course titled the History of Fear. She’s also researching and writing a book on the topic from antiquity to 1888. She loves teaching about the plague, she confesses—and admits to having a morbid sense of humor. But right now, it’s no laughing matter. “It’s okay to talk about something that happened six hundred years ago,” she said, “but when it’s happening in the present, and there are a lot of resemblances, it gets a little different.”

Like the coronavirus, the plague, also called the Black Death, probably started in the central steppes of Asia before spreading first to Italy, the most densely populated European country in the 1300s, then following 14th-century trade routes to France, England, and Scandinavia. Death rates in Venice topped 600 a day, Taylor said, while 60 percent of the population of Florence perished. Eerily, on March 20, 2020, Italy reported more than 600 COVID-19 deaths in a 24-hour period.

Medieval people had no idea what had hit them. They looked to the University of Paris and other institutions for answers, Taylor said. They consulted the Pope, who had left a chaotic Rome in 1309 and established a papal palace in Avignon, an enclave in what is now France. They turned to astrology, wondering if the great planetary conjunction of 1345—when Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aquarius—was to blame. They speculated the invisible enemy came from a miasma floating over the subcontinent of India. 

No matter the cause, people were terrified. They shuttered themselves indoors in self-isolation. Those who could afford to fled the cities for the country, Taylor explained. Still others, like today’s spring break revelers, threw caution to the wind, opting to eat, drink, and be merry.

Professor of History Larissa Taylor
Professor of History Larissa Taylor is writing a book on the history of fear prior to 1900 and draws upon her extensive knowledge about the topic to determine how leaders and citizens are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“History allows us to think critically about the past and what it means for us.”

Professor of History Larissa Taylor

Medieval governing bodies locked the gates to the city. They restricted market days. They quarantined citizens—Venice was the first, forcing citizens to spend 40 days in ships offshore. Today, countries have closed their borders. Grocery stores have special hours for the elderly. Cruise ships search for harbors to dock.

“The parallels are really stunning,” said Taylor, who is most interested in people’s psychological responses then and now. Why do people react differently in these situations? “I think ultimately that it comes down to human psychology. Our own experience shapes how we respond.” Taylor, who minored in psychology as an undergraduate at Harvard and worked for three years in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, points to differences in education, varying levels of wealth, and knowledge of others as underlying factors. One of the biggest factors? “Prejudice,” Taylor punctuated.

The fear of others, and the need for scapegoats, is a common thread throughout humanity. In the Middle Ages, Taylor said, Jews were frequent targets and were blamed for poisoning wells during the plague. In 1321 the kings of France were convinced that lepers were planning to overthrow Christendom and that the plot was being funded by Muslims. Women accused of witchcraft; homosexuals; ghosts, vampires, and creatures from fairy tales—all have suffered the pointed fingers of blame. Today, President Trump has called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” while Iran blames the United States for the virus.

Homophobia. Xenophobia. Misogyny. Religious fear and hatred. Will we ever learn?

Unless we want to repeat brutal human history, we cannot turn our emotional stress towards a scapegoat, such as an ethnic or minority group,” wrote Kristen Watts ’10, now a corporate counsel for Capcom in San Francisco. Watts recently revisited her senior thesis from Taylor’s class and posted it on LinkedIn. “In many cases, preventing a disease also means controlling certain groups within society and preventative measures. … We must integrate the mandate to live with a consciousness of the effects of our actions on others.”

Taylor argues that such a mandate must come from the top down, from strong leaders “who can urge people to be their best,” she stressed. She fears, however, that a lack of leadership—and a lack of preparedness—may make the COVID-19 pandemic worse. 

Could leaders do better if they studied history?

“You bet. I think any leader in their right mind should know something about the pandemics of the past, whether it’s the 1918 flu or further back in history,” she said. But with the emphasis on technology and STEM fields in the last 20 or so years, the study of history and other humanities fields have been sidelined.

“History allows us to think critically about the past and what it means for us. We always hear the maxim that history repeats itself,” Taylor said. “Most historians will tell you that’s not true. It never repeats itself. But you can learn from history.”

Will we learn? Can lessons from the past lessen our fears? Taylor hopes so. “I think history is needed more than ever in times like this.”