A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

Today, we fear cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic slow killers. (At least, we did before coronavirus temporarily shifted our focus.) Those “diseases of affluence” threaten us because of some uniquely modern bad habits, like eating processed foods, smoking, living surrounded by toxic chemicals, and exercising less than the average walrus. We also have the luxury to worry about chronic diseases because we’ve made such progress against fast-acting, acute diseases. The latter, however, loomed over the pre-industrial world. They cast such long shadows that our ancestors were used to the threat of death from sudden illness.

Acute Disease before the Industrial Revolution

Pre-industrial societies regularly faced death from acute diseases like pneumonia, dysentery, flu, malaria, diphtheria, typhoid, and food poisoning, as well as infected injuries. And these illnesses struck every level of society, not just the poor. Dysentery is acute diarrhea, and its victims include at least four kings of France and three of England The latter include John “Lackland” (Robin Hood’s Prince John, 1216) and Henry V (Shakespeare’s war hero, 1422). But dysentery felled rulers far beyond these backwards medieval kingdoms. Its victims also include emperors of the Roman, Byzantine, and Mughal empires and rulers from rich and sophisticated states across the world. And of course, dysentery killed countless non-royal big names, like Hernán Cortés (1547), Sir Frances Drake (1596), and Renaissance philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam (1536).

Malaria can probably claim even more big names. Those include Pope Urban VII (who reigned only twelve days thanks to the disease, 1590), Oliver Cromwell (1658), three members of Renaissance Italy’s mighty Medici family, and probably Alexander the Great (323 BC).

Yet Malaria and dysentery represent just a small sample of the fast-acting microorganisms threatening our ancestors. Several of the acute diseases listed above had similar death tolls, as did many more vicious microscopic bugs.

Young Victims and Epidemics

St. Sebastian's prayers were no match against the pandemic.

St. Sebastian praying for a gravedigger during the 541-542 AD Plague of Justinian, Josse Lieferinx, 1493

Generally, these acute diseases did not restrict their malevolence to the elderly. Alexander the Great died at 32, while England’s Henry V was 35, and malaria’s three Medici victims died at 24, 18, and 15. In fact, children bore most of the risk of acute diseases. During the Roman Empire, half the children died by age five. And the Romans had better doctors than most people before or since, until modern times.

Some of these illnesses lurked in the background, killing here and there, while others struck in waves, as epidemics. And while our ancestors probably experienced many epidemics like COVID-19, killing 1% or more, history rarely records them. To those keeping records, a noteworthy epidemic killed far more of its victims, including among the young. A smallpox outbreak could kill 30% of the infected — or more among children — while cholera and yellow fever ranged from 5% to 50%. And the Black Death of 1347 — possibly an extinct strain of plague — killed about half its victims when it spread through the lymph nodes (“bubonic plague”). If it spread through the blood or lungs, the death rate may have been 100%.

The Hunter-Gatherers’ Advantage

Interestingly, our only ancestors not accustomed to regular acute illness were the most primitive: hunter-gatherers. These foragers lived in bands ranging from 30 to 100 people, and they could trek vast distances without seeing anyone. So they didn’t offer the population-density necessary for human-focused viruses and bacteria to evolve or spread. Nor did hunter-gatherers live with pigs, chickens, cattle, or any other animals, except dogs (after about 40,000 years ago). So they offered illnesses few opportunities to jump from animals to humans. (Hunting and eating animals does create those opportunities, but not as often.)

Humanity’s acute diseases mostly evolved and spread once farming came along, with its denser populations and daily close contact with livestock.

Fear of the Epidemic but No Recession

Contrary to common belief, our pre-industrial ancestors often lived into their 60s or 70s — at least, those who survived childhood did. So I don’t mean to suggest that life was cheap. Past people would have feared coronavirus. But unlike us, our ancestors already expected much of the population to die of acute disease. That means word of an illness killing one in a hundred — at most a handful per village — would not shock them. Coronavirus would add little to the background level of disease-driven death. In fact, an epidemic that mostly spared the young would almost come as a relief.

Today, we stand on the verge of a recession, thanks to our efforts to stop coronavirus. That decision would baffle our ancestors.

Monte Python and the Holy Grail exaggerates the regular role of death in Medieval Europe — with excellent comic effect — above. But the movie still makes a fair point.

© 2020 by David W. Tollen


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