In the late 1340s, the plague outbreak that we know as the Black Death descended upon Asia, Europe, and Africa, causing widespread disruption and death. Medieval responses to the pandemic varied. In many European cities, social chaos, fear, and mistrust were widespread. In Syria, by contrast, we find the example of a community that united in its response to the pandemic. Although medieval people lacked the medical knowledge to help them avoid infection and the plague was far more lethal than today’s COVID-19 virus, their reactions to the pandemic can still teach us today.
In his preface to The Decameron (1353), the Italian scholar Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375) detailed not only the physical symptoms of the Black Death as it arrived in Florence in 1348, but also its influence on Italian society. Boccaccio describes people who, whether through indifference, bravado, or fear of social isolation, continued to go out to bars and public events even when the evidence indicated that seclusion was the best option. He recounted how funeral rites in Italy were canceled and families cut themselves off from infected relatives and neighbors.
Similar to today, economic divides influenced the ability of people to respond to the plague, as wealthy Italians fled to countryside retreats while the poor tried to isolate themselves as best they could in crowded cities. Across Europe, foreigners and Jews were scapegoated, tortured, and killed, even as those very same communities fell victim to the illness. According to the chronicler Jacob Königshofen (d. 1420), for instance, Christians in Basel, Germany in 1349 accused Jews of poisoning their wells and compelled their town council to ban Jews from the city for 200 years. The news shows us similar responses taking place today, with nation-specific travel bans and Asian-Americans being subjected to discrimination and bullying on account of the coronavirus.
While some medieval communities succumbed to fear and distrust, others found ways to support one another. Examples of such behavior also can be found in The Decameron. Boccaccio explains that during the plague women served as physicians to men — something almost unheard-of in the 14th century — while those with specialized knowledge used their skills to help those who didn’t have other means of support. Municipal and local government officials did their best to keep public places clean, and many people made efforts to self-quarantine. Meanwhile, quarantined people entertained themselves by telling stories and singing songs to one another. In our own time, people are also singing from balconies to lift each other’s spirits.
One of the most striking examples of a community uniting under duress comes from another 14th-century writer, the Moroccan Berber adventurer Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), who chronicled his 29 years of traveling some 75,000 miles around the Middle East, Asia, and Africa in a book commonly known as the Rihla, or Journey. In this book, Ibn Battuta describes the arrival of the plague in Syria in 1348. During this time of tribulation, he writes, the citizens of Damascus did not abandon one another or persecute the minority Christian and Jewish populations living within the city. Instead, the Damascenes set aside their differences. Members of the city’s various faith groups — Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike, from children to political leaders — united in their efforts to protect their community.
Ibn Battuta explains how all the various people of the city came together and processed through the streets. The Muslims carried aloft copies of the Quran, Jews brought out the Torah, and Christians brandished the Bible in a united appeal to God to spare their city. The result, Ibn Battuta argued, is that Damascus had significantly fewer fatalities than other cities.
Today, of course, we know better than to hold large public gatherings during pandemics. Ibn Battuta did not know the modern scientific reasons for social distancing. Yet, he pointed to a communal ethos of overcoming differences in a time of trouble that probably helped Damascus’ response and still resonates today. In the face of a pandemic, the Syrians of Damascus demonstrated that the best response is to combine our resources, share our knowledge, and remember our common humanity.