Ada Palmer
Big Brains podcst

What Historic Pandemics Could Teach Us About Coronavirus, with Ada Palmer (Ep. 48)

A historian explains what we can really learn about COVID-19 from the Black Death pandemic

Ada Palmer
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

What happens to the world after a pandemic? Lots of experts have been talking about what we may be able to expect after COVID-19 from the 1918 Spanish Flu and The Black Death. But, as any historian will tell, history is often more complicated than people think.

Ada Palmer is an associate professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago and an expert on the Renaissance that followed the Black Death pandemic. But she says the “Golden Age” may not have been as golden as we think. On this episode, she clearly explains what lessons for coronavirus we can really learn from historic pandemics.

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(Episode published June 8, 2020)



Paul Rand: Hello this is Paul Rand, host of Big Brains. I want to let you know that we recorded this episode before the protests and violence that have swept our country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. We plan to dig into issues of systemic racism and its implications on future episodes. Today’s Big Brains is still very important, perhaps even more so given recent events.

Paul Rand: What happens to the world after a pandemic?

Ada Palmer: A lot of people are wondering, does a pandemic cause an economic boom?

Paul Rand: That's Ada Palmer. She's an Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago. The pandemic that she's talking about is not COVID-19 or the 1918 Spanish flu, it's the Black Death also known as the bubonic plague.

Ada Palmer: We were talking about these because they're the most famous pandemics that we know of or large plague events that we know of and everyone is trying to understand both how it works and how it's going to affect our society.

Paul Rand: The Black Death hit the globe in the mid 1300s and afterwards Europe entered the period known as the Golden Age, the Renaissance. In many ways, it was a political, artistic and economic rebirth for the continent. But, it wasn't that simple.

Ada Palmer: When you see the plague is in town, you just leave.

Paul Rand: Entire cities, towns, and sectors of the European economy were destroyed. And while some people today point to the Golden Age after the Black Plague as a cause for optimism after COVID-19, we wanted to speak with Palmer to find out how history is often misinterpreted and what we can really learn from the world's most deadly pandemic.

Ada Palmer: Yeah. This is going to be a major beginning of changes that are going to go on for several decades.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, Ad Palmer and the lessons from the Black Death. I'm your host, Paul Rand. We've been hearing a lot about the 1918 flu pandemic lately, but what you might not know as much about is the Middle Ages, Black Death pandemic. And as it turns out, a lot of our assumptions about the Black Death aren't necessarily true.

Ada Palmer: People often talk about the Black Death as and are used to thinking of it as if it swept in, in 1348. It kills a third of the population of Europe, half the population of some major cities and then it's gone as if it's a one-time event. It's true that it's a one-time event that it does that giant sweep, but the Black Death remains endemic in Europe, coming back constantly the way we're used to chickenpox being endemic. It's just a normal thing people get, or the way we're used to there being a flu season every year, where it comes back regularly, and it remains endemic like that until the 18th century. From the mid 1300s to the early 1700s, we had a long stretch.

Paul Rand: That's a good run.

Ada Palmer: It's a long run. It means that in different cities, it won't be everywhere. It's never everywhere all at once again. A particular town or a particular city will have a surge of it. And so when you read letters from the 1500s or the 1600s, and someone is writing to their family, saying "I'm coming home from my trip," the family will often reply and say, "On your way home, make sure not to go to Padua, make sure to go around it and instead go to this other place because we hear that that town has the plague." It's just a normal thing. People are used to being part of their lives in a chilling way that cities will get emptied every few years by this.

Paul Rand: Of course, we don't expect the coronavirus to last for 300 plus years, but we also don't know what our world will look like after it. Just as with COVID-19, one of the Black Death's pandemics major impact was on the global economy, but understanding what happened to the economy then is just as complicated as it is today.

Ada Palmer: It's more dynamic than a lot of people think. We have a myth of a static Middle Ages, but in fact a lot had been shifting and changing, starting in the 1100s, there had been new developments in banking and the beginning of what we might call insurance.

Paul Rand: It started with ships, is that right?

Ada Palmer: Right. You could take insurance when you are a merchant and you're speculating by investing in a boat to go out and come back with high profit spices. If you think about the situation in the play, The Merchant of Venice where the merchant has sent his ships out and he keeps hearing that they've sunk and if they all sink, then he's going to be doomed. But if at least one of them comes back with its cargo, then he'll be safe. Well, this is a risk nobody in the period wants to take, so Venice and other cities start offering insurance on your ship, insurance on various other investments, also abilities to invest in city funds. As you get more investment, you consequently get more economic interconnection in more situations where countries start interacting with each other to send goods back and forth, especially to make high quality goods.

Paul Rand: It's this interconnectedness that's so important to understanding how the Black Death was able to change economics on a global scale. For example-

Ada Palmer: England produces lots of wool. In England, you can easily spin wool into thick itchy wool thread and make itchy wool cloth. If you want to make fine high-quality, not itchy wool thread, you need a lot of oil as part of the processing of the thread. They start developing a process where instead of spinning their English wool in England, into itchy English cloth, you export your English wool to the Mediterranean. Italians who have lots of cheap olive oil, spin it into high-quality thread and then re-export that fabric back as a more desirable, higher-quality product. This means that goods are moving around more, which also means that people are moving around more, which means that the diseases are able to circulate more quickly. The speed with which the Black Death moves is partly related to this economic growth, but it also makes the other diseases that have been endemic in Europe for a long time become increasingly deadly as you move from 1200 forward through 1400, so that things like the regular old pox or malaria or dysentery that had always been killing people, start killing people more.

Paul Rand: So that creates a bit of a ripple effect. This affected, for example, one group, the Vikings in Greenland.

Ada Palmer: I think the Vikings in Greenland are one of the most useful examples to think about what the Black Death actually does because there's this small colony, or settlement rather, of Vikings in Greenland. They'd been there for several centuries already at this point, but they vanish not in 1348, but in 1410. We spent a while trying to figure out why this colony vanishes around then and why it was dwindling at that point. We used to think that somehow they just couldn't survive there or that there were environmental shifts and it got colder. But the more we look at it, the more we realize it wasn't that. Our leading theory now is it was economic shifts on the mainland. They never got the Black Death. There's not enough traffic between Greenland and elsewhere for the disease to make it over. But Greenland's main economic lifeline to Europe was the export of walrus ivory.

Ada Palmer: When the Black Death hits, the bottom drops out of the luxury goods market for a while because the economy is reeling and changing. Ships from Norway and so on stop and Iceland stopped coming because nobody wants to go to Greenland, take those risks in order to get walrus ivory when there's no market back at home. The ship stopped coming and importing of goods to Greenland that people wanted in Greenland stops. It stops being a viable economic space. At the same time there's a major later labor shortage and a lot of unclaimed farmland back on the mainland where we've lost people from the Black Death and therefore we need more people. We think that as many as could simply resettled back to mainland Europe from Greenland at that point, because the bottom fell out of their economic role, which is a good way to think about it because what a pandemic does is change and accelerate the rate of change of economic things and make certain industries grow and other industries shrink.

Ada Palmer: Right now, if you look at the stock market, if your money was in a company that produces masks or ventilators, you're doing fine. If your money was in an airline, your money is not. Different industries are going up and down. In the aftermath of the Black Death, we simply see a lot of that where labor is needed shifts, where profits are to be made changes, and lots of people need to adapt to stop doing what their family has done for the last couple of generations and do a new job or stop doing what that individual person has done for the first half of their life and adapt to a new one. Some people can, some people can't. It creates a lot of economic opportunities, but also a lot of hardships.

Paul Rand: And the effects of the Black Plague went beyond global economics. It had an immediate impact on labor at a local level.

Ada Palmer: During the plague itself, and we have descriptions of this from Boccaccio and Petrarch and others. One of the moments of shock is that at the beginning, everyone says, "Okay, it's another play. Plagues are normal. Sometimes there's a big bout of pox and it goes away." But, as the numbers who die go higher and higher, particularly in cities when it gets near 50% and over 50%, people stop working for their patrons. The servants who have served a family for generations just leave. The whole system breaks down so that the multi-generational trust relationships between families, governments, the way towns are run, everything shuts down and sometimes people will have the scary experience of coming in on a ship on the way from Constantinople back to Venice and pulling into the harbor and there's no one there and what's happened is that there's a bout of plague at the moment and the entire city is empty.

Ada Palmer: Everyone has just left, which of course brings the plague everywhere, but also results in the complete shutdown and dissolution of this city and its social safety net that had been there even through other times of trial. There's a lot of severing of old ties and a lot of distrust and a lot of now unprotected wandering labor, which on the one hand has the opportunity to have high wages, but on the other hand has no social safety net to protect it and is easily therefore exploited or worked until old and then abandoned to die. It results in shifts that are a long way from, but a tiny beginning of things like work houses, which are designed to exploit labor until the person is too old to work and then just let them die, instead of use labor and support the retirement of the person because one of the normal gifts that the patron is expected to give to somebody in return for multi-generational service.

Paul Rand: Okay. Can we draw parallels between the Black Plague and the coronavirus? That's after the break. Big Brains is supported by the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Looking to accelerate your social impact, learn how to use evidence-based decision making to lead measurable change in any sector. Work alongside top U Chicago faculty to put policy into action using your data science and analytical toolkit. Full-time and part-time programs available. June 1st deadline for a fall 2020 start. Visit

Paul Rand: When it comes to comparisons between COVID-19 and the Black Death, much of what experts are looking at is whether that pandemic can offer any points of optimism for our situation today. Palmer says the biggest one is modern science.

Ada Palmer: Exactly, because we understand so much now about how diseases work. When the Black Death begins, their medicine is so unfathomably wrong. You just can't believe how wrong it is. When the plague hits Florence, the Florentine government's first action, they take immediate state action. Feel better everyone, we've taken tired of it. They double the penalty for selling meat of male and female animals out of the same meat booth, because, of course, what's making people sick is when male animal blood and female animal blood get on each other and cause generative stuff to happen in the meat and that's going to be what's making you sick. They don't know the first thing about contagion. When I look at the Black Death and then COVID or when I look even at the 1918 influenza and COVID, to me, the enormous cheering difference is that we know things. While we're not doing everything as perfectly as in an ideal world we could, we can do something.

Ada Palmer: 1918 was an election year, but they didn't talk about delaying the election or vote by mail or any of these other things, because they don't know how influencers spreads to do anything helpful. They can't say, "Okay, well, if we delay the election one month, we can have enough wet wipes to sterilize the voting booths after every use and we can stagger the voting over several weeks and therefore have people contact each other less. They just don't know anything about how to stop influenza from spreading. They just do the election because there's no way they could've made the election safe at all.

Ada Palmer: We know we can develop a vaccine. We're confident there will be a vaccine. It may be a year or five years, right? We don't know how long it'll be until there's an effective vaccine. We all hope it will be soon, but nobody right now is worried that our grandkids are going to be frequently going through six months of being shut in the house because of a COVID epidemic. Right? We are confident that that problem will be solved on the decade timescale that we're going to be dealing with the economic aftermath of losing so many people who would otherwise have been contributors to the economy of seeing these shifts where certain industries grow and other industries collapse. We're worrying about those longterm questions and we're worrying about what the loss of the individual people who are being lost was going to do. We aren't worried about actual COVID epidemics like the one we're having now shutting down our world over and over and over for the next bunch of generations.

Paul Rand: Another point of optimism some are pointing to is the period that immediately followed the height of the Black Death. Europe's Golden Age, also known as the Renaissance. This is really Palmer's core expertise. In fact, she's working on a book that totally deconstructs our understanding of the Golden Age. Is that period a reason for optimism? Was the Golden Age really is golden as we all think? Did the plague improve the global economy?

Ada Palmer: We have some older studies on the Black Death's economic impact on the multi-decade level that suggests that it did and therefore for quite a while, it was a belief that it did. There were some studies that show that after the plague, there's a severe labor shortage, so as a result, wages skyrocket, empowering the working class, empowering people to demand more for their labor, save up, buy a land, et cetera. We've more recently re-examined those studies and done similar studies in other regions because those studies were done only in specific areas, mainly in the British Isles. As we've studied more different areas and even different areas there we've discovered that the economic consequences were much more variable. There were indeed some places where it seems to have empowered labor.

Ada Palmer: There were other places where it weakened populations enough that entrenched elites use this to entrench more and pass laws further restricting the freedom of labor. The first work houses, which confine laborers to a sort of semi prison like environment in order to force them to do a particular work and make them unable to move to other areas where they might get wages increased are also results of this. We get a vast range of economic policies implemented by different areas after the Black Death, with a range of economic consequences.

Ada Palmer: When we say Golden Age and the book is intentionally called, Why We Keep Telling the Myth of the Renaissance? When we say Golden Age, there's two different things we often mean And we assume they go together. One is, it's a Golden Age in that what it produces is amazing and it's full of art and culture and music and sparkling cathedrals and new inventions and Leonardo's machines and Michelangelo's amazing sculptures and that's a Golden Age. A Golden Age that we visited museums later on and look at in awe. But the other half of what we tend to mean when we say Golden Age is a good time to live, a time when people were happy, a time when the world was prosperous.

Ada Palmer: If you had to pick among the centuries of the world, you would probably pick to live in a Golden Age. Is the Renaissance of Golden Age? In the first definition yes, in the second definition, absolutely not, no way, no how. Right? The life expectancy drops from ... we'd had an average around 35 for average life expectancy in the Middle Ages, in many of these areas It drops to the Italian Renaissance, urban life expectancy is 18.

Paul Rand: That's a drop.

Ada Palmer: That's a big drop and most of those deaths are between the ages of three and 12, though a number of them are later, mostly men. Mostly men, because that's the violence and the war is being deadlier. It's not infant mortality. Infant mortality is constant between Medieval and Renaissance. It's all of these extra diseases that comes so much more often so that so many people don't make it to 12. Throughout the Renaissance, you have this amazing outpouring of culture, but also these chilling descriptions of what it's like on the ground. Petrarch who lived through the Black Death and is around in the later 1300s as well, talks about Italy being wounded, that it's wounding itself with constant civil wars. This is what Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets are based on. He fears that if Italy doesn't get it together and stop having civil wars and strife and people trying to take over cities and feuding that there's going to be an effective apocalypse and Italy will either collapse or be conquered from the outside.

Ada Palmer: If you jump forward through the Renaissance and there are moments where it's fairly peaceful, but you keep getting these apocalyptic descriptions. There's an amazing letter of 1506 of a friend of Machiavelli writing to Machiavelli. Machiavelli had just written a verse history of that decade of the last 10 years. The friend wrote to Machiavelli and said, "Machiavelli, please, you must continue your history and write more about this period because without a good history of these days future generations will never believe how bad it was and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly. The decade he's talking about is the decade in which Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa and in which Michelangelo sculpted the David. Is it a Golden Age? From the museum side? Absolutely.

Paul Rand: Got it.

Ada Palmer: But what it felt like living on the ground is a kind of apocalypse.

Paul Rand: It was a different story. Are we going to learn something? Because if you look what they learned during that period and you try to look at parallels now, are we going to learn something out of this period and come out of it in a better state?

Ada Palmer: I mean, I hope the answer is yes, but if we look at the Black Death, what we see is the policies that go into place afterward vary enormously from place to place, right? Some places create terrible exploitive workhouses. Some places take this opportunity to pass laws that further bind peasants to the land and prevent liberty and migration. Other places don't and allow a liberation of labor and a lot more people are moving from place to place. Suddenly in Renaissance Florence, day laborers are only working three days a week because they earn enough wages in three days a week to live on that and then the rest of the days ... They spend the other four days sitting around looking at art, which is literally true. It's so implausible and yet it's literally true that they're working fewer hours than we are at this tech level. It's enormous variability based on what policies are used and go into place in different areas. And so I think will COVID usher in change? Absolutely. Will the change be good in some places? Yes.

Paul Rand: And much as labor changed after the Black Death, Palmer says the types of changes we'll experience after coronavirus will depend on the decisions of people in power.

Ada Palmer: Depending on whether this moment is a moment in which elites who feel afraid decide it's the moment to entrench power or strengthen their stranglehold on monopolizing, whether it's a country that's had monopolization of elections and suppression of opposition parties or whether it's a country that's had monopolization of employment and suppression of particular ethnic groups, whatever it is, whether that happens that'll happen in some places. And I think in other places, it'll result in people looking around and saying, "Oh, wow, actually in places that have more social safety net so that when a person gets knocked down, they get up again, instead of getting knocked down and staying down and therefore ceasing to be a contributor to the economy, the places that have it may be easier to get up again are recovering more quickly and producing economic profits, even for the wealthy faster, we would therefore benefit by also extending this empowerment."

Paul Rand: Let me ask you if we brought together a room full of world leaders and we put you in front of them and said ... And the question was tell us the takeaways out of studying the Black Plague in particular and things that you should be keeping in mind thinking about planning for coming out of the current COVID-19 situation. What three, four pieces of insight would you say? I really want you to think about this because history tells us this is going to be an issue. Where would you guide those folks?

Ada Palmer: One, remember that morale is one of the victims of this and then one of the things pandemics do through their extended exhaustion is break down the emotional and cultural apparatus that people have had to deal with grief and to deal with crisis. When you look at Petrarch's letters written during the Black Death, when the first of his friends dies, he says, "I'm so sad, but this is God's plan. I know this is part of Providence. I know my friend is in a better place now." He's consoling himself using the apparatus of his society. When the second friend has died, he's very, very sad. When the fourth friend has died, when the eighth friend has died, it breaks down and he can't say it's God's plan anymore. Those letters can't cope. You see him lose it. And all he can say is, "I don't understand what our generation has done that's so much worse than every other generation that's ever lived, though. We should be punished with this and not anything else. There's no trust anymore. There's only anger." Christianity is for Petrarch, the social apparatus for understanding and dealing with grief.

Ada Palmer: Our modern society has others' apparatuses for dealing with grief. We have funeral ceremonies. We have therapists, we have different philosophies of ethics and ways to live and have a wide variety of religions. Those are all going to break down for the family who loses five people at once.

Paul Rand: Okay. The concept of pay attention to morale is kind of-

Ada Palmer: Well, and remembering that the breakdown of morale is a form of exhaustion that diminishes cognitive capacity. We have all these studies that show it. Exhaustion, grief, and especially fear diminish cognitive capacity. As I keep saying to my stressed out grad students, when they apologize for getting their stuff in late, "No one on earth is operating at a hundred percent right now, no one.

Paul Rand: No one is untouched by what we're living through, either as individuals or as societies and Palmer says it's really important to learn from how different societies are dealing with this.

Ada Palmer: We can look at different places and say, "This country had this bit of safety net work. Let's copy it over here." Because one of the lessons of the disasters of the 20th century has been that nationalism, which was still very powerful after the 19th century in the middle of the 20th, and which is having a resurgence now, often led countries to say, "I'm going to not study the policies of these other countries because my policies are best." Canada didn't have a great depression because Canada's business and banking policies had a bunch of protections in place, so their stock market never crashed and they were fine. The US did not imitate those policies and put in place the things that prevented the great depression in Canada into the US afterward, because nationalism meant that people were proud of their own institutions even if they're institutions, didn't work.

Ada Palmer: I think this is a great opportunity for us to observe how our social safety nets are actually functioning, because there are multiple safety nets in any given society. In our society right now there's government safety nets, there's family taking care of itself internally. There are local charities. There are religious charities. There are national and global level charities. There are businesses that invest in other local businesses because they're large enough. There are situations like here around U Chicago, where the university itself is investing in local businesses and feeding local people. At the end of this, we're going to have an amazing wealth of gatherable data showing us when things really got bad, which social safety nets functioned best and what did they do, which will give us a better way to study the symbiosis of the multiple overlapping social safety nets that exist and show us, for example, interesting, in these regions family did a lot. In these regions, family didn't do a lot. Or among these communities, family did a lot. Among these communities, religious charities did a lot. Among these communities, non-religious charities or local charities or distance ones did a lot.

Ada Palmer: If we can learn about the interconnectedness of our overlapping social safety nets, this thumb on the pressure point of everything is going to very vividly expose how they interconnect and therefore how we can strengthen it, all of them and make them slightly less redundant. If there are places where we discover that service A broke down completely, but there were still four different ways to get service B.

Paul Rand: Perhaps, the biggest lesson of the Black Death is that the world is going to be changed socially, politically, economically on a global scale.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard please give us a review and a rating. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.

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