The Black Death: Lucy Worsley Investigates – BBC 2

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When I was 13, I got 91% in a biology exam.  Apologies if that sounds like showing off.  It was a very long time ago!  The point is the interaction between biology and history.  Our big topic that year was genetics, and our biology text book had a wonderful family tree showing how Queen Victoria’s haemophilia gene spread through the royal houses of Europe.  So, instead of trying to put iodine on a piece of onion without getting bubbles in it (something which took me eleventy billion attempts, and of which I still fail to see the point), I got to focus on royal history, with particular reference to the Romanovs.  Sorted!!

The application of science to the events of the past was one element of this very interesting programme.  Lucy Worsley really is so good when she’s acting like an adult and not dressing up, even if “Lucy Worsley Investigates” does make her sound like Nancy Drew.  But what really struck me most was how she, and all of us, now view the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  Three years ago, would a programme about medieval plague have used the terms “herd immunity”, “super spreader event”, “frontline worker” or even just “pandemic”?  I think we’ve all got past panic buying toilet rolls, and few people wear masks now, but our outlook on history’s changed.   That’s quite a big thing.

We started off with the scientific facts – how there were variants (another Covid-era word) of the plague, and how it was spread by body lice getting into fabrics, as well as by fleas on rats.  The body lice factor explains what happened in Eyam, so I suppose we knew that anyway, but the emphasis has always been on fleas on rats.   And there was a lot of talk about how this was a new disease, and, because it was new,  it spread very rapidly at first, only ceasing to be so dangerous once herd immunity had built up.  

Lucy kept talking about “Britain”, which was a bit annoying as “Britain” wasn’t a political entity then, and references to the political, economic and clerical authorities wouldn’t have included Scotland,   Just saying!   She talked a lot about the role of economics, and what can be deduced from economic records.  We think of inheritance tax as having been brought in with the People’s Budget of 1909, but there was a form of inheritance tax even in the 14th century.   And she really is obsessed with “fornication”!   Last week, she kept trying to make the witch trials all about fornication, and this week we were told that the Church tried to blame the plague on sin, and especially on loose women.   Thankfully we didn’t get that with Covid … although it has to be said that some deeply unpleasant people in the 1980s tried to make out that the AIDS pandemic was some sort of message from on high.

The Church did have a useful role to play, though.   Priests read out Edward III’s instructions on how to try to deal with the plague, after hearing horror stories about how it’d affected countries on the Continent.  Hopefully they were more like cheery Jonathan Van Tam than grumpy Professor Chris Whitty!   And clerics were also “frontline workers”, as we’d now say.   

We were told that the plague actually increased the role of religion, because, with little hope other than prayer, people turned to religion, deeply distressed at the need for plague pits rather than proper funerals.   No real Covid link there, but how about social change?   As we know, the devastating effect of the plague on the population led to a shortage of labour, and an increase in social mobility and wage levels.   The Statute of Labourers, passed in 1351, tried to keep wages down and tie people to their place of origin, but it just wasn’t practical to do that.  We also heard about improvements to the lot of women, stepping into places once held by men, as was later to be the case during both world wars.   

Are we going to see positive social change brought about by Covid?  Well, here in North West England, where we were so badly affected, we were hoping so, but, at the moment, we’re still waiting.  We’ll see.

All in all, as I said, this was an interesting programme about the Black Death, but I think that the most interesting part about it was the historiography.   We now see the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  I wonder if it’s going to have a long term effect on how we see other aspects of history too.