“After the Plague” Presenter Wants to End “Pornography of Suffering”

simon doubleday eschews gore for practicality in new series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Most discourse about the Black Death revels in the macabre. The ghastly symptoms, living conditions, and death tolls are often detailed gleefully without hesitation. Professor Simon Doubleday takes a different approach.

Simon Doubleday on the Wondrium set
In After the Plague, one of Professor Simon Doubleday’s goals was to look at the surprising degree to which medieval society was able to handle the global pandemic of the bubonic plague. Photo by Wondrium

Although we think of international and intercontinental trade as being so comparatively advanced today versus the 14th century, plague affected the entire planet. There was sickness, death, fear, and more, but when we learn about the Black Death, we often omit the human element and the societal complications in the fallout.

Wondrium’s video series After the Plague aims to fill that hole. From a generation of orphans to the peasants’ revolt of 1381, a rich world of urgency and survival struggled during and after the plague. In an exclusive interview, Professor Simon Doubleday, Professor of History at Hofstra University, expressed his interest in leaving the grotesque out of the post-plague world.

Bringing Humanity Back to the Plague

“I think that, in general, discussions of the plague and TV programs about the plague have often dwelled excessively on the morbid, dark, catastrophic dimensions of this event and there’s a certain point at which it becomes a kind of pornography of suffering,” Dr. Doubleday said. “There’s a kind of indulgence in the kind of human disaster, which undoubtedly did occur, but I prefer not to dwell in a kind of morbid or gothic sense on this human suffering.”

Dr. Doubleday said that his goal in After the Plague is to look at the surprising degree to which medieval society is sophisticated, shows resilience, and is able to handle the global pandemic of plague in ways that we may not expect. The positive responses that unfolded to the plague are often unsung, but noteworthy.

“Part of this picture which I’d like to emphasize is the degree to which medical and public health responses are mobilized in ways that are very surprising,” Dr. Doubleday said. “We’re accustomed to being told that nothing they did was useful, that their response was kind of laughable, but 14th-century doctors are putting themselves on the frontline. They are dying perhaps in disproportionate numbers; they are courageous; they are committed; and, they’re often responding in ways that at least are internally rational.”

Treading Familiar Ground

Dr. Doubleday said that when he studied at Cambridge in the 1980s, there was a cluster of scholars who focused on the subject, which he’s been delighted to return to. He has also taught a course on the plague at Hofstra, which has helped him stay current with the latest news regarding the Black Death. However, researching After the Plague has been an educational experience in and of itself over the last several years.

“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to delve intensively into all of these different aspects of 14th-century culture,” Dr. Doubleday said. “These lectures cover not just the epidemiological dimension, of course, but the other dimensions: cultural, religious; there’s a lecture on the legal system and different conceptions of justice. It’s really been interdisciplinary and I personally have enjoyed researching them.”

After the Plague is now available for streaming on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily