The Distant Mirror 

                                     What effect – upon society

                                           of lethal disasters?

                                         The answer – elusive

                                    So many strange and great

                                        Perils and adversities

                                   Hoofprints of the horsemen

                                          Plague

                                              War

                                                  Taxes

                                                      Brigandage

                                                   Bad government

                                               Insurrection

                                                    Schism

                                      This our last dozen decades,

                                              a Time of discomfort,

                                                         maybe an Age

                                               Know you though

                              Our species has lived through worse before.

 

                                        To some,

                                  the dates seem dull ….   pedantic

                                         Contradictions are part of Life

                                           Expect them

                                               No Age is tidy

                                       Disaster and Splendor

                                   A checkered fabric All

                                                         Let us begin,

                                               Where the record allows

 

                              Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. 

                         He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, 

                  his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled 

                                with the rage that trembled within him. 

                                    He sat  down away from the ships 

                                       with a face as dark as night,  

                                        His silver bow rang death 

                                    He shot his arrow in the midst of them.

                                First He smote their mules and their hounds, 

                     but  presently He aimed his shafts at the people themselves, 

                          All day long the pyres of the dead were burning.           

                                                                               Greeks on the shores of Troy

                                                                                from Homer    750 B.C.

                                                                               Give or take.....

 

                             A statement! Of what it was like

                             Which people can study-

                             Should it ever attack again,

 

                                           Birds and animals that fed on human

                            flesh stayed away from the bodies. If they did 

                            indulge, it proved fatal.

                                            The most terrifying aspect was despair.

                             When a soul realized infection, immediately, 

                              they lost all hope.

                                           Lawlessness! No fear of Gods or law                   

                              of man provided restraint. No one expected to live 

                              long enough to be penalized. 

                                                                            Thucydides / Athens

                                                                              'bout....400 B.C.

                                        What you are,

                                     We were.

                                 What we are,

                                       you will be 

                          

                                                                         And to Rome,

                                                                         from Lucretius,

                                                                         in the reign of Marcus Aurelius

                                                                         163 A.D. Or there abouts....

 

                   Again, death filled the sacred shrines 

                                 with lifeless bodies, 

                      all the temples of the heavenly ones 

                                       everywhere 

                                  crowded with carcasses 

                  religion of the gods was not counted for much:

                    the grief of the moment overwhelmed it all. 

                     Nor did the old rites of burial continue in the city,

                                      Horrors of burial.  

                  the whole people was disordered and in panic,       

                      every man sorrowing buried his dead,

                                laid out as best he could. 

       

         Depression and despair accompanied the physical symptoms  and before the end,

    “Death is seen seated on the face.”       Arising in China and spreading through 

      Tartary Asia to India, and Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and all of Asia Minor,

      it reached Europe in 1346-47.

 

                             Thirteen hundred and forty eight years

                                                had passed,

                                   since the fruitful incarnation

                                         of the Son of God,

                              When there came into the City,

                                             a Pestilence.

                                   Either due to the operations

                                     of heavenly bodies...

                                    or the Just Wrath of God

                                                 Punishing

                                        our iniquitous ways,

                                                 It came,

                                       moving from place to place,

                                            growing intensity

                                      destroying countless lives.

                                   Human wisdom and foresight

                                             had no value...

                                        Fears and imaginings

                                were born in those

                                                           left alive?

                               Avoid and run away from the sick-

                                                                           one might

                                 Others locked themselves in,                  

                                     withdrawn from all,

                                         ate and drank moderately,

                                      avoided luxury,

                                          refrained from speech,

                                 Diverting themselves with music,

                                            or whatever pleasant.

                                      For others...

                                         Beer and enjoyment,

                                        Singing and cavorting,

                                        the best medicine.

                                    Many were abandoned,

                                       Brother his brother,

                                     Wives their husbands,

                                   Most cruel and incredible,

                                     parents their children.

                                 Almost without exception,

                                        All of them died,

                                 Most passed from this life

                                with no one there to witness.

                                     Never tears,

                                        or candles or company 

                               the Catastrophe so great,

                               that no one really cared.

                               Behaved as if everyday

                                                                   the last.

                                    Breakfast with Friends,

                                         Dinner with Ancestors.

                                                                     Bocaccio

                                                                     Intro Decameron   

 

                                  With Europe polarized between two papacies,

                             it became harder to heal the schism each year 

                             that it lasted. All thoughtful men realized how 

                             it was damaging society. But in schism as in war,     

                             vested hostilities kept the breach open. 

                                   Council, advocated by Universities and individuals

                            was the obvious solution. As a challenge to their supremacy, 

                            both popes rejected it. The rift in Christendom was to last 

                            40 years. It was said, “No one since the beginning of the 

                            schism had entered Paradise.”

                                    France experienced the working class revolt that had

                             swept through Florence and Flanders. Concentrated wealth 

                             was moving upward in the 14th century enlarging the 

                             proportion of the poor who remained manageable as long 

                             as their subsistence could be maintained by charity.

                                    The situation changed when urban populations swelled 

                            by the flotsam of war and plague, infused with new 

                            aggressiveness in the plague's wake.    

                                     History never more cruelly demonstrated the 

                           vulnerability of a nation to the person of its chief of state

                            than in the affliction of France in 1392.  

 

                                           London  1665

                                                        from Samuel Pepys

 

                            Apr. 30     Great fears of the sickness here

                            in the City. God preserve us all.

                         

                            Aug 16     Two shops in three; generally shut up.

                            It was dark before I arrived at my home steps

                            where to my great trouble I met a corpse

                            Aug 22     This disease makes us more 

                            cruel to one another than we are to dogs.

                            

                            Aug 28     How few people I see and those

                            walking like people who have taken leave of  

                            the world

         

                            Sept 14     To hear that poor Payne [my waiter], 

                            hath buried a child and is dying himself. To hear 

                            that a laborer I engaged the other day is dead of 

                            the plague and that one of my own watermen that

                            carried me daily fell sick as soon as he had landed

                            me on Fri morn past when we had been all night 

                            upon the water and is now dead of the plague.  

                            Sept 31     It is feared that the true number of 

                            dead this week is greater, partly from the poor that

                            cannot be taken notice of.

                            Dec 31     The plague is abated but many I know 

                            well dead. The town fills a pace and shops open.

                            Pray God continue the plague's decrease.

                     

                            Feb 3, 1667     Did satisfy myself fair in the saying;

                            “The world does not grow old at all, but is in as good

                            condition in all respects as it ever was. 

                

                   Times were to grow worse over the years until at some imperceptible

               moment, by some mysterious chemistry, energies were refreshed, ideas

               broke out of the mold of the Middle Ages into new realms and humanity

               found itself re-directed. 

                                                                                  A Distant Mirror

                                                                                  Barbara W. Tuchman

                                                                                  1978