Here’s something less gloomy than previous comments.
I was once a medievalist as some of you know. I specialized in Chaucer, though I regret to say I haven’t read him in about 40 years, except for reciting the beginning of the Canterbury Tales in freshman English classes in recent years to show students how the sound of the language has changed, though it is recognizably English—unlike Anglo Saxon.
So here’s the cheerful thought I had. I can thank the plague of the 14thcentury for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to some extent. He was highly influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron, those hundred tales written by Italy’s first prose fiction writer; they depicted people telling tales at a villa outside Florence while escaping the bubonic plague that ravaged the city in 1348.
Chaucer may even have met Boccaccio in Italy in 1373. The Black Death also hit London in 1348 and again in 1361; it returned more than once during Chaucer’s relatively long life and career. The Black Death led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. About a third the population of England was wiped out by the recurrent plagues, leaving fewer laborers, and giving peasants more economic power. The feudal system began to crumble.
One of the reasons I admired Chaucer was that he was very engaged with the world; that may be why the 100 Canterbury Tales he envisaged in imitation of his inspiration were never complete: he had demanding day jobs at court. He wrote a couple dozen tales inside the frame of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, many of them funny. But some of the best parts are the human comedy of the scenes that link the tales and bring the tellers alive.
I think this plague year might be a good time for me to haul out the complete works and see if I can still read Middle English. Translations lose a lot.
And note: Here are some good things that came from the London plague of the late 17th century.
And more: a podcast recommended by my colleague Carolyn Trist whose world geography classes at Santa Clara University this spring will focus on epidemiology and pandemics. Classic Tides: The Black Death Revisited. Gives fascinating information showing the widespread social and historical consequences of the plague.