A Year into COVID-19, A Retrospective of How Pandemics Change the World

european renaissance, protestant reformation likely catalyzed by black death

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

March 11 marked the first anniversary of when the WHO declared the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since then, civilization worldwide has been turned upside down and virtually ground to a halt. The bubonic plaque pandemic, the Black Death, left its mark for a century.

Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed plague, which devastated medieval Europe.
The Triumph of Death, oil painting c. 1562, by Pieter Bruegel. Image by Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Although the first cases of the novel coronavirus, which can develop into COVID-19, were reported months earlier and the virus had already come to the United States, the world suddenly looked a lot different on March 11, 2020. As we all know, in this past year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, schools, businesses, restaurants, bars, theme parks, the travel and tourism industries, and professional sports shut down nearly completely.

On a state-by-state basis, differing restrictions and partial re-openings have been declared by state governors in terms of capacity, social distancing, mask wearing, and hand sanitizer. In 2021, it may take from early until late summer for life to return to some semblance of what we all considered “normal.” We are at that critical juncture point of the number of vaccinations increasing daily while we are trying to avoid another wave of a surge in coronavirus cases.

Humanity is now looking back on how the pandemic has changed our common experience: more than 2.6 million dead worldwide, drastically altered ways of life globally, and looming questions about how to fully reopen nations to the outside world. In the 14th century, the Black Death had a far higher death toll, especially per capita. In the years after global disease, nations experienced societal times of distress, especially economically.

After the Devastation

In her video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, said that the world after the Black Death had been shaken to its foundations—causing deep emotions, which people will be able to relate to in a post-COVID-19 world.

“When the Black Death struck the medieval world in the middle of the 14th century, its effects were immediate, catastrophic, and devastating, on multiple levels,” Dr. Armstrong said. “The economic, social, and political worlds needed to reinvent themselves in order to cope with this new normal, and social structures that had been firmly in place for centuries were now only an ideal or a suggestion, but not a reality.”

According to Dr. Armstrong, huge social shifts changed the world. Civilization found itself with a tremendous upward mobility that poorer citizens were able to use to their advantage.

Ironically, this enormous change in social order—the plague often arrived in a town and changed its hierarchy literally overnight—may have been a catalyst to the European Renaissance. Without external change, Europe’s social changes may not have come for centuries.

A Reckoning for the Church

“The plague’s impact on the Church and that institution’s reaction to it—sometimes inept, sometimes reluctant, sometimes sincere and dedicated, but always with just as much loss of life as there was in the general population—meant that any dissatisfaction with the Church that had existed pre-plague were amplified,” Dr. Armstrong said.

“At the same time, those who might have been devout, unquestioning followers of Church doctrine were forced to confront and reconsider what the Church’s many failures during the Black Death might mean, a line of thinking that arguably leads straight to Martin Luther nailing those 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.”

In retrospect, this means that the effects of the Black Death rippled out for at least a century. Resurgences of the plague have often sent society reeling with fear.

It isn’t limited to plague. The 1918 flu pandemic and the novel coronavirus pandemic are evidence that when faced with a massive, seemingly new disease that devastates a population, humankind finds itself in a difficult position to act quickly and react with severity and unusual precaution.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily