Calling Some Public Health Initiatives “Medieval” is Harmful

The “Middle Ages” have been making the headlines since the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and its presence in at least 29 countries around the globe. As the list of the dead and infected grows worryingly long, observers seem eager to draw parallels between the current situation and the deeper past, depicting, somewhat ironically, both the virus’ spread and diverse attempts to contain it as “medieval.” The term’s use in both contexts is meant to shock, even offend, albeit driven by a real desire to see efficient policies being rolled out. Yet there is a grave danger in weaponizing the “Middle Ages” in that particular way.

Recent allusions to the “Middle Ages” refer to the onset of and responses to the second plague pandemic, a.k.a. the Black Death, in 1346. That disease killed, by the most conservative estimates, 30 per cent of Europe’s population, although how and why it could do so remains hotly debated. Even as aDNA has become an accessible technology, which happened very recently, scholars continue to argue about the disease’s epidemiology. Yet the lack of reliable data did not stop commentators, then as now, from taking earlier societies’ ignorance and apathy for granted. It was, after all, a period historian Jules Michelet famously wrote off as “one thousand years without a bath.”

Those roots likely nourished an influential commentator’s quip, that we mustn’t “pull up the drawbridge & hide in the castle” until coronavirus goes away. Yet, as study after study has shown, earlier societies had a complex health awareness and rich experience with implementing preventative measures at the population level, even well before the onset of plague. Cities enforced zoning, armies monitored their diets, miners wore protective gear: all actively managing their unique risks, without the aid of microscopes, colonial armies, the WHO or the Rockefeller Foundation. More importantly, these attempts fit cultural contexts and available means, just as vaccinations and seat-belts did others in later eras. In short, the current framing of “medieval” responses is not merely ignorant, it is a blatant attempt to discredit certain measures. And it does so based on a combination of insufficient data, a distorted view of the human past, and a desire to throw “deviant” approaches into history’s dustbin.

Pundits’ lesser fault is their misuse of an imagined Middle Ages. In the shouting match that the public sphere has become, they undermine considered and relevant responses to the spread of disease by othering certain measures as “medieval.” That is unhelpful, and it ignores Anna Tsing’s important insight about the inherent friction of globalization. A globalized society does not mean (if you’ll excuse another irony) that the world is flat, and that policies must be uniform to succeed. Pathogens may know no borders, but fighting disease happens in specific cultural, political and historical contexts. Among the latter, none are—and some would say never have been—medieval.

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