Of viruses and plagues

For many 15th-century patients, urine checks were all that doctors could do for them, Tours, Bibliothèque Municipale, 703

Everyone has something to say about viruses these days, including historians and philologists. And why should it be different?

The strange fact about viruses is that vaccines were invented before viruses were known to exist. And that the illness a virus caused didn’t get a name until the pestilence was a thing of the past.

One of the most devastating diseases in human history was the Black Death, which killed nearly half of the population of Europe in a matter of years. Not only was the bacterium Yersinia pestis unknown to 14th-century Europeans, but the contemporaries did not even put a name to the disease. It was simply known as an epidemic, epidemia, a purely medieval Latin word forged from the Greek meaning ‘among the people’. Today, we’d say the Black Death was a pandemic, a disease common to all (pan) people (demos->demic), rather than just present among them.

As the Coronavirus has been upgraded to a pandemic by the WHO, the historian has to ask: is that a fair decision? But the historian doesn’t have to answer the question for now.

From a European perspective, Covid-19 has been most dynamic in Italy, with the highest number of infections and casualties of all European countries so far. The historian has to point out that the bacterium which caused the Black Death entered Europe through northern Italy, carried aboard Genoese ships. It then quickly spread to the rest of Europe before historians and scholars had time to name it or write theses about it.

The historian yields the floor to the philologist. The word ‘virus’, which in Latin means ‘poison’, has its root in the proto-Italic language spoken in the Italian peninsula, which later gave rise to Latin. From an etymological point of view, the virus is an Italian gizmo.

Let the historian take it up again and close with the classic account of the arrival of the bubonic plague into Italy by Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza:

Scarcely one in seven of the Genoese survived. In Venice, where an inquiry was held into the mortality, it was found that more than 70% of the people had died, and that within a short period 20 out of 24 excellent physicians had died. The rest of Italy, Sicily and Apulia and the neighbouring regions maintain that they have been virtually emptied of inhabitants. The people of Florence, Pisa and Lucca, finding themselves bereft of their fellow residents, emphasise their losses. The Roman Curia at Avignon, the provinces on both sides of the Rhône, Spain, France, and the Empire cry up their griefs and disasters – all of which makes it extraordinarily difficult for me to give an accurate picture. (from The Black Death, edited and translated by Rosemary Horrox (Manchester, 1994), p. 20).


4 thoughts on “Of viruses and plagues

Add yours

  1. From a European perspective, some studies on the Covid-19 genome say that it has been brought to Italy by Germany. Other countries in the world are NOT doing enough tests to have a real number of infected people (and there’s something racist in this article).


    1. Thanks for your comment, Elisa.

      It may turn out to be true that the virus entered Europe via Germany, and surely other countries don’t report cases accurately. However, can I ask what you thought was racist in this short post?


  2. Thank you Crhristian,
    as a reader of babilonia I often appreciated the quality of the posts in the site and I’m sure you can understand that european fear of covid-19 has already led to stigmatizing Italians. I’m sure it was not the aim or the post, but I found the parallelism with the Black Death quite astorical.


  3. I’m sorry you think that Elisa, that was certainly not my intention. I’m sure many historically-minded people are now thinking about other previous epidemics and pandemics, including the bubonic plague, and drawing all sorts of parallels. A friend working at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the US has recently compared and contrasted the Covid-19 epidemic and the Black Death in terms of the path they followed. The fact remains that Italy is the most affected country in Europe, and that the bubonic plague devasted the Italian peninsula, as de Mussis, Boccaccio and countless other witnesses reported. To move beyond that statement of fact is dangerous territory and I believe the article didn’t try to suggest otherwise.
    I also appreciate that Italians may be stigmatised in the current context, but that is something I absolutely reject and condemn.
    The humorous argument about the etymology of the word virus was not meant to cause offence, but simply to amuse. I don’t think anyone in their right mind can say that Italy is doomed to host and suffer from epidemics.


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