In these times of the new coronavirus pandemic, the question of how our contemporary world might change is the most-discussed subject. Many thinkers believe that the world order, relationships between governments and society, and even people’s everyday lives will change unrecognizably.
Those who do not agree with the opinion that “the world will never be the same” underscore humanity’s persistent inability to learn lessons, the short-sightedness and the inconsistency of the human being. On the other hand, there is also the belief that the world is constantly changing, and for change to come about, such shocks are in no way a necessity.
There is truth in all three opinions, but it is indisputable that such a large-scale event that has affected the whole world will have consequences. The course of human history attests to that. Pandemics have always critically changed societies. Sometimes they have had a larger impact on the development of humanity than world wars, diplomacy or significant geographical discoveries.
The Plague of Justinian and the Rise of Islam
The first major pandemic recorded in history was a plague that erupted in the 6th-7th centuries. It is often referred to as the Plague of Justinian as it coincided with the reign of the Byzantine Emperor with that name. The plague started in 540 AD in Ethiopia and Egypt and, through ships supplying grains to the Byzantine Empire, quickly spread throughout the coasts of the Medditerranean and then to all of Europe and South Asia. Various estimates suggest it killed about 100 million people. Forty percent of the population of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, fell victim to the plague, which also reached Armenia.
In addition to the enormous human losses, the plague had massive political consequences. It challenged traditional beliefs. It was under these conditions that in the Arabian Peninsula a new religious teaching appeared: Islam. As trade stopped due to the plague, Northern Arabia, which was at the juncture of caravan trade routes stretching from east to west, lost its revenue. Tens of thousands of once prosperous Arab merchants, who serviced the established caravan routes, were left without an income and became the followers of this new religion. They formed the basis of the Prophet Muhammad’s army, which with incredible speed and ease was able to defeat two of the largest powers of its day. The Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Persian Empire were both already exhausted from the pandemic and an endless war against one another. The world changed; the Caliphate, a new conquering power, came into play on the world stage and Islam emerged as an international religion.
The Black Death and the Demise of Feudalism
The next pandemic was called the Black Death. It originated in Asia and spread rapidly through Europe between 1347-1353, killing more than 100 million people. The pandemic was so deadly that it killed one third of Europe’s population and half of the population in certain parts of China. Several revered cities, like Paris and Venice, stood almost desolate. The plague would periodically reignite; it forever remained synonymous with horror and death and left an indelible mark on the course of human history. Today, one can find monuments in a number of European cities erected as a sign of overcoming the plague.
The pandemic brought about an economic crisis and an unprecedented restructuring of economic relations. Amid anarchy and insecurity, when it was unclear what the next day would bring, people stopped paying taxes. The population had become so sparse that lands remained uncultivated. As there was a shortage of labor, its value increased and surviving workers had new demands. The widespread, merciless exploitations and the impunity of the past were no longer viable. To return to normal life, it was necessary to cultivate the land and create goods. States and the nobility tried to restrain the new demands of the workers by passing new laws but were met with resistance, which would sometimes turn into armed rebellions.
Unwilling to cope with the oppression, villagers fled en masse to the cities, escaping their former owners. Guilds (fraternities of tradesmen), which used to be hereditary, were now able to recruit new members more readily, expanding and reinforcing urban economic might. The growing potential of cities made them strongholds for kings. Using tax revenues from cities, monarchs started to hire mercenary armies. As a result, the feudalist system began to disintegrate.
It has to be said that the reduction in the population also shifted more attention toward science. The insufficiency of the workforce had to be compensated by technical innovation and new ways of increasing labor productivity. This boosted discoveries in the field of agriculture, armament manufacturing, sea navigation and, later on, publishing and theology. A century later, Gutenberg published his first book and a young Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, marking the beginning of a new split in Christianity and the emergence of Protestantism.
Smallpox and the Conquest of America
Smallpox was the next pandemic to spread across the world in the 15th century. For over 100 years, it would occasionally resurface in outbreaks. By the end of the century, the entire European continent had been affected by smallpox, as it killed more than a million people annually. Survivors of the disease would often be disfigured with scars, popularizing the use of cosmetics and makeup.
A greater share of Europeans had some inherited resistance to smallpox. That process had not taken place in the New World. The disease was new and horrifying to the indigineous peoples of North and South America, as it ravaged through their cities and communities, killing one third of the population in a very short time. Other diseases, including influenza, followed, wiping out 90 percent of the native population at places.
With a couple hundred soldiers, the Spanish conquistadors were able to bring down the Aztec and Incan Empires, and the British and the French asserted their dominance over North America. It would be difficult to imagine the rapid decline of the civilizations of America had they not been so weakened by the pandemics, which ultimately ushered in a new era of European colonialism.
Globalization and Cholera
In 1817, cholera once again spread in India. Global trade networks allowed it to spread rapidly across the Eurasian continent, killing hundreds of thousands annually for the next hundred years. Historians have recorded seven waves of cholera, with the strongest being the second wave, lasting from 1827-1834. From India, the wave reached the United States and Latin America, proving that the industrial revolution and new means of transportation had condemned humanity to the global spread of diseases. Fast-growing cities were also a factor in the spread of cholera. Overpopulated cities were not able to ensure sanitary hygienic conditions for their residents. Human excrement was dumped in rivers, which were also the main sources of drinking water. Medicine was inadequate and in certain areas fatalities reached 50 percent.
Cholera was the turning point that led to the improvement of sanitary conditions in cities. Centralized sewage systems were built and started operating in urban centers after it became clear that water quality was one of the main causes for the spread. The world changed, regulations for hygiene, garbage removal systems, water purification and the public health system that we know today were all the result of the fight against cholera.
The Spanish Flu and the Increasing Role of Women
In 1918, the world was taken over by yet another deadly disease in the form of a particularly deadly strain of the flu. It was named the Spanish flu because initial reports of the flu came from Spain, despite the origin of the virus being elsewhere. It had traveled from Indochina to the U.S. state of Kansas and from there, through American soldiers, all the way to Europe. World War I also aided the spread and high fatality rates of the virus. Armies packed people into close quarters and populations were worn down from the long-running war and by the lack of food and medical aid. By different accounts, around 500 million people were infected and about 50-100 million died.
The Spanish flu accelerated the end of World War I. Human losses in the armies were growing, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were especially affected. Since the main victims of the pandemic were young people between the ages of 20-40, and many more of them had died on battlefields, the role of women in society drastically grew. Women started to take on jobs that were traditionally done by men, as the labor shortage intensified. Women also started to rally for their political rights.
Of course, there were also many other epidemics throughout human history. For millennia, epidemics persisted alongside humanity and will likely continue to occur for a long time. Every century has seen dozens of viral infections that were localized and contained in time but pandemics that impacted humanity as a whole have brought about tectonic shifts. It is possible that coronavirus is one of them.
Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, Harper Collins, 2002.
David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, Harvard University Press, 1997.
William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Anchor, 2010.
Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Frank M. Snowden, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Yale University Press, 2019.
Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Cambridge University Press., 1989.
Catherine J Kudlick, Cholera in Post-Revolutionary Paris: A Cultural History, Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996.
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, Vintage, 2010.
J.N.Hays, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History, Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Michael B. A. Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present and Future, Oxford University Press; Revised edition, November 2, 2009.
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