When I was asked to do this journal I recalled a quote from a medieval chronicle. I recently read in T.H. White’s The Book of Merlyn. It was by a monk named Friar Clynn, who in 1349 was hard at work writing the annals of his little part of Ireland, the region around Kilkenny and Tipperary. And then the world came to an end. The Black Death arrived and put a stop to everything. A third of Europe’s population was already dead. Clynn felt certain that his turn was next. “Waiting among the dead for death to come to me,” he set down faithfully all he had seen and heard in those terrible days. When he was done, Clynn left a few more pages of his chronicle deliberately blank, “in case by any chance a man may remain alive in the future, or any person of the race of Adam may escape this pestilence, to carry on the labor once begun by me.”
With the pandemic entering its tenth month, time, and especially duration, has been on my mind a lot lately. I took my first college history course twenty years ago, and I’ve been involved in studying, teaching or writing about history in a couple of different capacities ever since. Sometimes I wonder if it’s done me any good. Do I understand what’s going on any better for knowing about the past? If so, why am I so confused all the time?
I don’t think history imparts any moral lessons. I do think it can occasionally put things in a bit of a wider perspective. Maybe the hardest lesson, and the one that’s taken me the longest to take on board, is that most of history happens without anyone noticing. Or to put it another way, history for most people, for most of all recorded time, has happened in a way that left behind hardly a trace. It didn’t involve kings or generals or great works of art or grand ideas—at least not ones that changed very much from generation to generation. It followed its own rhythms, which were principally agricultural, since the occupation of most people for most of history had something to do with getting food out of the earth. What mattered most to them was having good soil and fine weather and avoiding one disaster on the other. Disaster could take many forms, the worst and most common of which were war, famine and plague.
This is a history in which human agency mattered very little and environment matters the most. It can strike many of us as alien because it features so little change, which is why Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the great historian of rural France, called it “history without a motor.” I remember very clearly when I was first learned about it. It was in a class on the French Revolution. The professor was a bit of a ham. He cried when the delegates to the National Assembly signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and he shouted when they cut off Louis XVI’s head. But the real work of the course happened elsewhere. Every week we looked at 18th century France through a different lens: political, religious, philosophic, cultural, economic and demographic.
Along the way, our idea of what constituted an ‘event’ kept changing. Trivial things could have seismic consequences. For instance, the fact that in the days leading up to the storming of the Bastille the wind didn’t blow in Paris, and because the wind didn’t blow the windmills that ground the city’s flour didn’t turn and because of that the price of bread went sky high. Conversely, giant things could be almost meaningless. The impact of the French Revolution on the health and well-being of the French peasantry—that is, the majority of Frenchmen—was dwarfed by effect occasioned by the introduction a decade later of the calorie-rich and hail-resistant potato.
One phrase in particular stuck with me from brief immersion in French rural history as practiced by the members of the Annales School: the “demographic scissors.” This was a sudden increase in the death rate, usually occasioned by a bad harvest, a mass outbreak in disease, or in truly bad years, both. When something like that happened, most of the very young and very old in a given village would die. A terrifying idea, but I didn’t realize just how common of an event the ‘scissors’ were until I began working as a genealogist.
For several years now, I’ve been tracing the family histories of people with roots in Eastern Europe. The people I trace are mostly random. They are small-hold farmers, vintners, cobblers, maids, serfs and shopkeepers, whose only claim to fame is that one of their descendants would move to America (and, given my clientele) and one day strike it rich. My work, though, begins much earlier. I follow chains of through church records and census tracts, going back to the 19th and sometimes even the 18th century. There, I can see the demographic scissors in action. I flip the page to a long-past December, and the yellowed sheet parish register will suddenly be full of funerals. When almost every family loses a grandparent or a child, then I know, though it isn’t written anywhere, that I’m seeing the trace of a forgotten plague.
More recently, I’ve begun to immerse myself in my own family history. As part of a book project I’ve been working on, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year and a half reading about daily life in my grandfather’s shtetl (which, by sheer coincidence, is now the home of my aunt). Death haunts those pages too, even the ones which take place long before the Holocaust or even the First World War. Back then, periodic outbreaks of cholera were the main driver of the ‘scissors.’
When such an outbreak would strike, as it did with special ferocity in the winter of 1892 and 1893, the members of the Jewish community would try any of a variety of remedies. The old prayed for repentance and observed the Sabbath all week long. The young organized a field hospital where the sick could rest and drink tea and hot schnapps. They also took the weir off the water mill so the river could run freely through the town again. They hoped that it would thereby take the cholera away in its flood.
When none of this worked, there was a final remedy: a shvartse khasene, or black wedding. This was a ritual in which the community would choose two of the poorest people in town and marry them off. The ceremony, which was a real wedding, with a crowd, food, dancing, and the best of everything, was conducted in the cemetery. Afterwards, the couple was given new clothes, new furniture and a new house to live in. The strength of the good deed was thought to be such that it would prevail on the dead to shower mercy on the living. In my great-grandfather’s time, the chosen bride was a woman named Chana Yenta. After the wedding was over and cholera subsided, she was given a job as the shtetl’s water carrier. In gratitude, everyone called her the “City’s Daughter-in-Law.”
The current pandemic, awful as it is, is not the end of the world as the Black Death was for Friar Clynn. It is not a page to be left blank, but a return to an older rhythm of history.
Photo Credit: Nik Bresnick