Drawn into the maelstrom of the coronavirus frenzy, my mind keeps turning to the late 1340s and to the arrival of the bubonic plague in Europe. I already reproach myself for not rewinding even further back, stopping at the Justinian plague of the 540s AD or even at the Plague of Athens of the 430s BC, the earliest recorded epidemic. I can’t help it, my camera steadies over the horrors of 1349, and I take notice of some of the ways Europeans responded to the mystifying realities of the Black Death.
If the late 1340s and the early 1350s were the most harrowing horrorshow in European history, some of the explanations of the disease contemporaries came up with were no less bewildering. A monk from Westminster Abbey in London thought he unlocked the mystery of the plague by linking its outbreak in England to the latest fashion:
There were few other good things worth noting this year. Ever since the arrival of the Hainaulters about eighteen years ago the English have been madly following outlandish ways, changing their grotesque fashion of clothing yearly. They have abandoned the old, decent style of long, full garments for clothes which are short, tight, impractical, slashed, every part laced, strapped or buttoned up, with the sleeves of the gowns and the tippets of the hoods hanging down to absurd lengths, so that, if the truth be told, their clothes and footwear make them look more like torturers, or even demons, than men. Clerics and other religious adopted the same fashions, and should be considered not regulars but irregulars. Women flowed with the tides of fashion in this and other things even more eagerly, wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down inside their skirts at the back, to hide their arses. The sin of pride manifested in this way must surely bring down misfortune in the future. (translated by Rosemary Horrox).