Pandemic, Utopia, and Disenchantment: Just a Bit of History Repeating?

by Assistant Professor Dr. Niels Grüne (University of Innsbruck)

Almost from the onset of the current pandemic, sanguine commentators have envisioned that the pervasiveness of the virus and of the lockdown measures would also have profound beneficent effects on Western societies. In particular, the experience of collective vulnerability might foster a sense of solidarity across class lines, age brackets, borders, political camps etc., which could survive the acute crisis. What such views come down to is the idea that SARS-CoV-2, just like its many predecessors, works as a potent leveller – and that the awareness of this link helps to buttress a new, more humane social morality.

However, counter-evidence was not long in coming. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, for instance, in mid-June published on its title page an article headed “A virus divides society”. Yes, it points out, there has been an initial “illusion” about the virus being a “great equalizer”. But now the figures show clearly that COVID-19 takes its biggest toll among poorer people and low-income groups, who (including their children!) at the same time suffer most severely from contact restrictions (Hütten/Rossbach). A few weeks later, a similar case was made on a global scale with regard to industrial and developing countries (Proaño).

One wonders, then, if this sort of clash between utopian notions and disenchanting realities in the face of a major threat to public health is a feature of our modern world or just a bit of history repeating. And what can be learned from possible answers?


An archetypal scene, incongruous pictures, and failed campaigns

In a historical perspective, any search for equivalents to Corona will soon hit upon the bubonic plague. This contagious disease also sets the scene for the most famous medieval collection of novels: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Providing the frame story, in 1348 ten young people from Florence, seven women and three men, retire to a villa in the countryside, where in the evenings they tell each other altogether one hundred tales. Why did they move in the first place? Because “in the illustrious city of Florence […] there made its appearance that deadly pestilence”, which became known as the Black Death. How could they afford to do so? Because being of “noble birth”, no livelihood concerns forced them to stay. They were thus among those who, according to Boccaccio, believed “that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight” – and who “negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city” (Decameron). Obviously, the ten patricians do not shelter in a home office to practice social distancing. They rather join in a kind of quarantine summer retreat. Nevertheless, wealth- and income-related differences in exposure to pandemic health risks seem to bridge the ages.

Woodcuts “Der Künig” and “Der Krämer” from Hans Holbein the Younger, Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, Lyon: Trechsel 1538. © universos mercatores de hansa Theutonicorum.

Even in the Middle Ages, however, this bleak fact did not go unchallenged. On the contrary, it was repudiated on theological and religious grounds – an approach which also found its way into the fine arts. Epitomizing the Christian tenet of equality before God and his visitations, the widespread genre of Danse Macabre depicted the omnipresence and randomness of death: People were exhorted in church murals, illustrated books, or pageants that fatal illness could strike anyone at any time and, in a more political reading, that it was blasphemous vanity to defy this simple truth in life (Dreier, 83-131). In Hans Holbein’s sixteenth-century woodcut adaptation, for example, the plague, symbolized by a skeleton, does not discriminate between kings and peddlers (see above). And in the verses to the 1463 Dance of Death painting in the Church of St. Mary in Lübeck, created amid fears of an impending plague wave, the king appears surprised to learn that he and his fellow aristocrats are denied preferential treatment. It did not need the Decameron to reveal egalitarian models of that kind as pious delusions.

They were not entirely futile, though. For religio-political reform movements against the perceived hubris of church, ruling, and economic elites, the spectre of an epidemic – interpreted as divine wrath – could help to boost their cause. Returning to Florence once again, this happened in 1494 when the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola and his followers seized power to do away with the splendorous ascendancy of the Medici in favour of a more participatory civic regime. The Savonarolans’ drive towards egalitarianism involved an agenda of devout austerity which discredited the conspicuous marks of rank, wealth, and success for the sake of spiritual and bodily health. It culminated in a public burning of fine dresses, cosmetics, paintings, etc. in 1497 – an event that came to be called the “bonfire of the vanities”. Yet, it was precisely this campaign against the display of status that added to Savonarola’s increasing unpopularity and precipitated his downfall about a year later (Weinstein, 217-225). As in many cases before and after, the pursuit of social distinction thwarted any attempt to impose homogeneity when confronted with a fateful disease – be the rationale behind such appeals theological or secular.


Ancient maladies and modern remedies?

From the earliest records onwards, authors meditated on the social and cultural ramifications of epidemics. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, for instance, the Greek admiral Thucydides devoted a long section to the plague which afflicted Athens in 430/29 BC, and portrayed it as a paradigm of moral decline and unbridled egoism in view of an arbitrary evil (Meier 1999). Writers were more ambiguous about the impact of the late antique Justinian plague. When it seized Constantinople in 542 AD, some observers maintained that the inhabitants resorted to heeding the ideals of religiousness, compliance, and modesty (including plain clothes), while others noted a general behaviour more similar to the anomy in Athens nearly a thousand years before (Meier 2016). Such inconsistencies in the historical accounts reflect the tension between the virtues supposed to shield from the calamity and how people actually responded.

It was only in the age of microbiology since the late nineteenth century that the causes of infectious diseases were properly understood and effective therapies could be devised. Already in the Renaissance, however, medical scholars began to see ‘contagion’ at the bottom of the problem. Most prominently, the Veronese doctor Girolamo Fracastoro in his three-volume treatise De contagionibus et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione (1546) counted direct contacts from person to person among the major sources of pandemics. Viewed in this light, physical proximity had to be considered a risk. As a result, the methods of containment adopted by political authorities in the case of an outbreak of the plague increasingly aimed at spatial segregation – and were not too dissimilar from what we witness today: compulsory quarantine of the sick (in their homes or in special infirmaries), cordons sanitaires around quarters, cities, and regions with critical incidences, travel and trade bans (Eckart).

At first glance, these preventive public health measures embodied a utopian egalitarianism, since spatial segregation per se does not pay attention to social status. Yet, reality taught other lessons: “Rank made a difference when it came to protecting oneself” (Mauelshagen, 252). Due to crowded and insalubrious living conditions, urban plagues (just like the nineteenth-century ‘new plague’ cholera) usually originated, and raged most savagely, in the shanty towns: Augsburg’s district Kappenzipfel in 1627, St Giles in London in 1665, Vienna’s Leopoldstadt in 1679, etc. The better off, by contrast, enjoyed more space and cleanliness, could build up supplies and send their servants to the marketplace, buy their way around burdensome restrictions – or seek refuge in flight, a standard recommendation in advice books. In a German report, published in 1720, of an outbreak in Marseille and the Provence, the author concluded with dismay that the plague “severs the bond of human society” (Mauelshagen, 259). To make things worse, churchmen of that time tended to attribute pandemics to sinfulness, which was readily broken down to the alleged indecency of lower-class life; ensuing programs of ethical purification quickly fizzled out, though. As one modern historian has summed it up, “the poor get not only the blame, but also the disease” (Hays, 3). This moralising association of contagious health hazards with precariousness and depravity is probably the most persistent, if often hidden, legacy of the pre-virological era.


Lessons to learn

COVID-19 has brought the issue of social inequality before disease and death forcefully back on the agenda. Western societies have not been prepared for this challenge. After a first wave of putatively all-encompassing solidarity, which seemed to signal a utopian watershed, the consensus is cracking and the misconduct and irresponsibility of certain segments of the population are being held accountable for the ongoing dangers and the irksome counter-measures. In a long-term view, this pattern does not come from nowhere. Age-old prejudices resurface somewhat in disguise. The victims of scapegoating may have changed, but the inherited mechanism prevails: A self-declared majority – hegemonic in both private and public debates – identifies ‘marginal’ groups with a supposed lack of morals or education as main spreaders; and this discourse blurs the inexorable fact that some people are indeed more exposed, vulnerable, and in a way more dangerous for (e.g. economic, occupational, age) reasons which refer back to the functioning of society as a whole. We therefore need to rid ourselves of the historical-cultural baggage of, at best, paternalistic stigmatisation to obtain the real utopia of rational risk calculation and prudent strategies.


About the Author


Niels Grüne is Assistant Professor of Modern History at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). He was a Junior Fellow at FRIAS in 2015-2016, during which time he worked on his project “Corruption as a Political Argument and Field of Conflict in Early Modern Europe” and co-organised an interdisciplinary discussion group on “Inequality”.





The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Decameron, Volume I, by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.M. Rigg; (accessed 30/9/20).


Rolf Paul Dreier, Der Totentanz. Ein Motiv der kirchlichen Kunst als Projektionsfläche für profane Botschaften (1425-1650), Leiden 2010.


Wolfgang Uwe Eckart, Epidemic (2015), in: Encyclopedia of Early Modern History Online; (accessed 30/9/20).


Jo N. Hays, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History, Rev. Ed., New Brunswick, NJ 2009.


Felix Hütten/Henrike Rossbach, Ein Virus spaltet die Gesellschaft. Die Corona-Pandemie trifft die ohnehin benachteiligten Menschen besonders hart: Sie haben ein höheres Risiko, schwer zu erkranken, und leiden stärker unter den Einschränkungen, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 20./21.6.20, 1.


Franz Mauelshagen, Pestepidemien im Europa der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Mischa Meier (Ed.), Pest. Die Geschichte eines Menschheitstraumas, Stuttgart 2005, 237-265.

Meier 1999

Mischa Meier, Beobachtungen zu den sog. Pestschilderungen bei Thukydides II 47-54 und bei Prokop, Bell. Pers. II 22-23, in: Tyche. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte, Papyrologie und Epigraphik 14 (1999), 177-210.

Meier 2016

Mischa Meier, The ‘Justinianic Plague’: The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic in the Eastern Roman Empire and its Cultural and Religious Effects, in: Early Medieval Europe 24:3 (2016), 267-292.


Christian R. Proaño, Ungleicher Kampf. Warum es für Entwicklungsländer viel schwieriger ist, gegen die Pandemie und ihre Folgen vorzugehen, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 27./28.7.20, 22.


Donald Weinstein, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet, New Haven, CT 2011.

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