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COVID-19's death and suffering could lead us to rebirth, as the bubonic plague did in Europe

It's important to look back and learn from those who surmounted similar challenges 700 years ago. Doing so may give us something we're short on: hope.
Image: Basle Plague
A painting showing the effects of the plague in Basel, Switzerland, 1349.Hulton Archive / Getty Images

First a technological innovation undermines the authority of governments, breaks down social structures and gives every person a power never before imaginable. Next, a pandemic claims millions of lives and devastates entire economies. Unrest rocks major cities — many flee to the countryside — and the darkest hatreds are released. People fear that the world will never be the same again, that uncertainty and danger will continue to afflict their lives. And yet, with upheaval comes change — social, economic and political — that's potentially positive.

From the Old World, a more open and vibrant one became possible. But not all of the outcomes of the 14th century were benign.

This is the way the world looks to many of us in the 21st century, but our sense of despair would surely feel familiar to 14th century Europeans. In a short period of time, from 1330 to 1380, they experienced not one but two seismic shocks that profoundly altered their reality. These transformations proved to be permanent, laying the foundations for the modern age. The result was rebellions, depressions, the collapse of power structures and war, but also scholarship, greater equality, prosperity and art.

As we wrestle with our contemporary challenges, it's important that we look back and learn from those who survived and ultimately surmounted similar ones 700 years ago. Doing so may give us something we're short on: hope.

The revolutions that would rock the 14th century began innocuously enough, with a simple iron tube. But once soldered at one end and punctured through the top, filled with black powder and loaded with a metal ball, the tube became known in Middle English as a "handgonne." Invented in China and imported via the Silk Road, the earliest firearms purportedly reached Europe in 1326 and appeared on battlefields five years later.

Before then, medieval European society revolved around the invincibility of an armored knight fighting on horseback and ruling from his castle. Attaining these advantages required an immense amount of time for training and money, neither of which was available to the hardworking peasants. Knights and castles preserved a feudal system of enslaved serfs and all-powerful lords that lasted for some 600 years.

But then came the gun that shot feudalism down. Armed with this weapon, which was relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, the simplest farmer could defeat the best-mounted, thickest-coated knight. Many did in the peasant revolts that subsequently erupted. Naturally, the knights retreated to their castles, only to find that they were no longer impregnable, as well. These could now be destroyed by a larger version of the handgonne, also known as a cannon.

New weapons weren't the only force wreaking havoc. A few years after the arrival of the gun, Europe was in the grips of history's deadliest pandemic, the Black Death. This, too, likely originated in China and followed the Silk Road, arriving in Italy in 1348. As described in Boccaccio's "Decameron," many of the rich fled the pestilence to the country, but the vast majority of Europeans remained exposed. More than half of them died.

The plague further contributed to the collapse of feudalism, depleting the labor force on which it depended and slicing the value of land, which now lay fallow. Formerly little better off than slaves, serfs could now sell their work for money that the lords had no choice but to pay. The seeds of free market capitalism were planted. Previously beholden to the nobility and the church, artists and scholars flourished in what soon became the Renaissance, and freethinking priests spearheaded the Protestant Reformation. From the Old World, a more open and vibrant one became possible.

But not all of the outcomes of the 14th century were benign. The shifts in Europe's balance of power created political instability and triggered wars that were longer — in one case, 100 years — and deadlier than any known there previously. Guns and cannons could kill far more efficiently and massively than arrows and swords. Christians fought Christians, and both sides turned on the Jews, libelously blaming them for spreading the plague and annihilating more than 200 Jewish communities across Europe. Alongside social and intellectual advances, the era produced bloodshed on an enormous scale and levels of intolerance extreme even by medieval standards.

Recalling the upheavals of the 14th century today can easily provoke a disquieting sense of déjà vu. While our era's groundbreaking innovation — the internet — is used in mass communication rather than mass warfare, it's one that, as with firearms, empowers every individual to tear down established institutions. Netizens have shaken many of society's long-standing edifices, such as journalism, the legal system and the church. Once online, any person can become a columnist molding opinions, a judge issuing convictions or a pastor preaching her or his beliefs.

In doing so, the web has also fomented unrest. It has spread conspiracy theories, undermined confidence in government and helped generate mass protest movements. Like the advent of gunpowder, it has resulted in economic dislocation, but in this case away from the "serfs" of retail and toward the "lords" of e-commerce.

Then came COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated the trends begun by the internet, making us less trustful of institutions, angrier and more isolated. Economies are buckling under massive unemployment, and fears of global depression loom. If history is any guide, the immediate result is liable to be further disruption and fundamental changes in the way we lead our lives. A great many people may never again work outside their homes or travel frequently by air. Theaters, restaurants, hotels, sports arenas all may remain empty and college campuses closed.

As Barbara Tuchman wrote in "A Distant Mirror," her masterly study of the 1300s, innovations and illnesses can cause instability and conflict. A weakened United States may well find itself threatened by an emboldened China, new waves of desperate refugees might try to flee to developed countries, and the prices of oil and other essential commodities could continue to plummet, bankrupting entire nations.

Yet as other historians have noted — most prominently, Jared Diamond in his famous work "Guns, Germs, and Steel" — technology and plague cleared the way for modernity to grow. Without them, the nation-state wouldn't have developed, together with democracy, human rights and religious freedom.

For all of its role in deepening hatred and insecurity, the internet has also vastly expanded knowledge and democratized information. It has rallied support against racism and inequality. For every tech giant trying to corner a market, there are a thousand more mom-and-pop entrepreneurs realizing their own online dreams.

For all of its role in deepening hatred and insecurity, the internet has also vastly expanded knowledge and democratized information.

It was the Renaissance that ultimately gave birth to the Enlightenment, to widespread literacy and the scientific revolution. From there a direct line leads to the advances in medicine and engineering that enable us to combat a vicious virus more rapidly than ever before.

We don't know which outcome will prevail, the bleak or the favorable, in our current crisis. We don't know how much short-term suffering could lead to a long-term reward. But we do know that without the twin traumas of pestilence and technological change, our 21st century would have looked much more like the 14th.