Posts Tagged ‘plague’


Photo: Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy Stock Photo
The Apocalypse Tapestry was “made after war and pestilence had killed millions in medieval Europe,” says the
Guardian. “It is remarkable that the tapestry still exists, given that during the French Revolution it was looted, cut into pieces and used as floor mats and blankets for horses.”

Sometimes we need a reminder that many people in past ages got through pandemics. And we are so much better off. For one thing, most of us believe in germs and know how to protect ourselves. We can get reliable news on the latest science about our plague. We can talk to friends near and far and see how they’re doing. We can have video chats with family. Some of us can even continue our jobs or our volunteer work online.

In the 14th century, it must have been even scarier than now, and it’s no wonder people turned to fanciful interpretations of ancient texts to try to understand. John Kampfner writes at the Guardian about a beautiful tapestry of the Apocalypse that might have reassured some folks that war and pestilence were part of a divine plan.

“In a basement gallery in a French provincial chateau stands the perfect artwork for our chilling times. The Apocalypse Tapestry is by turns grotesque and daunting. It is also mesmerising in its beauty and intricacy. …

“The 90 different scenes tell the story of the Book of Revelation, the Bible’s last gasp of horror, retribution and redemption. It hangs in the city of Angers, in a dimly lit modern gallery at the foot of the castle. …

“In 1373, at the height of the hundred years war and not long after the Black Death, [Louis I, the Duke of Anjou,] instructed Hennequin de Bruges, a Flemish painter to the court of King Charles V, to draw a group of miniatures from the final book of the Bible. His designs were then woven into 100 separate tapestries by the workshops of Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poincon using vivid red, blue and gold woollen thread.

“This epic work – the largest known medieval tapestry in the world – took nine years to complete but was kept in a chest and rarely shown. …

“Revelation was written by Saint John the Divine. … It marks the final battle between good and evil: Satan as a dragon and Christ as a lamb. The tapestry tells the story of the book through the eyes of John, who is present in almost all of the panels. It depicts the seven seals, seven golden candlesticks, seven angels and seven trumpets – and, of course, the four horsemen, who are released by the opening of the first four seals. One of the most beautiful images, after all the blood and fury, is of John on the point of walking up the river of life into the new Jerusalem. …

“So what does Revelation – and what might the tapestry – tell us about our responses to Covid-19? …  Over the past few weeks, as people have had more time to reflect, discussions about human behaviour and causality have adopted a more urgent tone. To put it another way: is this pandemic a dress rehearsal for trials to come, a final warning perhaps?

“When I visited the tapestry in February, none of this was on my mind, even as coronavirus was spreading across China and into South Korea. I was awed by the beauty and horror of the work. Now, in seeking to relate it to our present predicament, I spent a day of isolation reading Revelation.

” ‘And he opened the bottomless pit and there arose a smoke … and there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth … those which have not the seal of God in their foreheads should be tormented five months; and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man.’ … Believers are raptured to heaven, and those left behind suffer seven (more) years of torment before the second death arrives. …

“Reformation, revolution, rebellions – the more dangerous the world, the more art fell back on Revelation. Albrecht Dürer’s cycle of 15 woodcuts at the end of the 15th century came at a time of pestilence and peasants’ revolts. The works of William Blake and James Gillray reflected fears that the upheaval of the French Revolution would arrive on British shores.

“It wasn’t just bloodshed that caused artists to turn to Revelation. One of the great works of this genre is John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath, painted in 1853. … Martin depicts a pile of rocks collapsing, sending people falling into an abyss. Some eight million people saw Martin’s works, a third of the British population at the time. According to William Feaver, art historian and author of a seminal work on Martin, the artist was reflecting a fear of machines, of lives torn asunder by rapid industrialisation. …

“[Dr Natasha O’Hear, whose book, Picturing the Apocalypse, points out that some are more directly based in Revelation than others. She cites as example the video game Darksiders, released in 2010, which draws on the four horseman of the apocalypse and the evil angel Abaddon for some of its characters. But she insists that nowhere is the story more vividly told than on the tapestry in Angers. …

It is remarkable that the tapestry still exists, given that during the French Revolution it was looted, cut into pieces and used as floor mats and blankets for horses. The pieces were gathered back by a canon of the cathedral and all but 16 were found and restored. …

“The castle is planning to build a new interpretation centre within its grounds. It was scheduled to open in June, but now who knows when?”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his book
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) with handwritten corrections for the second edition. The young Newton was self-distancing from plague when he had his inspiration about gravity.

Folks, I keep a pipeline of possible blog topics, but not all the curiosities I saved back in December, say, seem right for this moment in history. So in case you are online a lot and have already seen some of my picks from current headlines, I’ll do my best to come up with different angles.

Did you see this one about Isaac Newton during the plague? Maybe a few people self-distancing right now will make earthshaking discoveries, too.

I first read the Newton tidbit in a rare-book story at Hyperallergic: “Issac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and had an epiphany that would rewrite physics and the way we understand our universe. He later published his findings on the laws of motion in the 1687 book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Now, by sheer accident, a rare first-edition copy of this groundbreaking book was found in a library on the French island of Corsica.

(Fun fact before we continue: Newton made his discovery while ‘socially distancing’ himself during the Great Plague of London in 1665. He was a 20-something Trinity College student at the time.)

“Vannina Schirinsky-Schikhmatoff, director of conservation at the Fesch Public Heritage library in Ajaccio, was researching an index from the library’s founder Lucien Bonaparte — one of Napoleon’s brothers —when she discovered a copy of Newton’s 17th-century book.”  The Hyperallergic piece is here.

In a rather somber column at the Washington Post, Alexandra Petri adopts Newton’s discoveries as a metaphor for how we connect to others in this moment.

“There was a plague, so Isaac Newton went home,” Petri writes, “and for him it was an annus mirabilis, which in Latin is a ‘year of miracles.’ He discovered the theory of universal gravitation, began his study of optics and formalized what would become calculus. …

“I am told, at such a time, Isaac Newton sat at a country estate with an apple tree. His reflections upon the forces between distant bodies, propelling them together and apart, gave us gravity and enfolded the moon and the apple in a shared system of invisible laws.

“He saw a spider’s web of formulas spinning across untold space, in which the stars hung like dewdrops, and from them beams of light pierced his own seclusion. All kinds of lofty things entered the brain of Isaac Newton, some of them traveling great distances, and when he emerged, science was permanently different. Such was the life of Isaac Newton during the plague year.

“I am secluded, too. Perhaps, for a proper miracle, I should go look at a tree. I go for a quiet walk six feet away from everyone I encounter. … Other people pass along, distantly together in this space. We nod at one another. How far is too far? How close is too close? The force that propels us together in ordinary moments is currently propelling us apart. …

“I wanted to see my parents. I happen to be fond of them, which I realize is a symptom of luck. But I do not know what I may be bringing with me. I am terrified I will get too close. Thus, I take a telescoping metal stick for roasting marshmallows and brandish it at the end of my extended arm, to mark out six feet. So armed, I go for a walk with my dad, swinging it between us on the sidewalk, trying to trace an arc of safety. Is this funny? It feels almost funny, but for some reason, I am crying. …

See your family, without hugging? Please, we are of Scandinavian extraction! We have been training for this moment our entire lives! …

“This must be a year of miracles — not the common miracles we only see after they vanish, the miracles of people in a restaurant or a room or a theater together. No, other miracles: the shield we build for one another by briefly deserting those places. The connections that persist across distances, the formulas that make a familiar face appear in glowing pixels on a screen. Who would have thought that our old enemy the conference call would be an ally, in the end? Who would have thought that phone calls, long disdained, would come to the rescue? This is an advantage we possess over Newton.

“I cannot see anything easier than inventing gravity during a time of plague. How can you think of anything during such a time but bodies and the distances and forces between bodies. I feel nothing now but the pull of distant bodies too far away to touch. I feel nothing but the invisible ties that bind us across spaces, the imperceptible, far-off vibrations in the web that signal: Yes, there is someone here.”

More by Petri.

There may be a firewall, but you can get a month free at this newspaper, and it sure is good to have it during our the Covid-19 plague. Very reliable journalism.

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I hope this post doesn’t sound frivolous at a very serious time for our country, but I keep thinking of literature related to plagues and sieges, and I’m realizing that even the most devastating stories have a note of comfort and reassurance.

The film How to Survive a Plague, about the early years of the AIDS crisis, may not be reassuring about Dr. Fauci, who is on the news every day now (he certainly had a chance to learn a lot), but it is very reassuring about what ordinary people can accomplish.

Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders is a fictionalized version of what one town in England did in 1665 to halt the spread of bubonic plague. Albert Camus’s beautiful The Plague is the last word on how plague highlights and reflects moral sickness in society but also how some unlikely people surprise themselves by rising to the occasion.

The moral sickness angle makes me think of the reason impoverished school districts are reluctant to close right now: free lunches for children suffering food insecurity. America has many chronically hungry children.

A 1908 novel by Arnold Bennett also comes to mind because of the way life just goes on under the 1870 siege of Paris. It’s called The Old Wives Tale. Although the siege is only a smallish part of the story, you might find it relevant. I read the book at least twice and really liked it.

If you have other recommendations, please add them in Comments.

Anyway, I was planning to make this a photography post. So here I am in a lax self-quarantine (because of age) and starting off with the tombstone of a 33-year-year-old New England soldier who died in Louisiana in 1863. I’m glad we can send a warm thought to Charles W. Stuart today.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: floating gloves permanently lost at the end of the season.

Also, murals in Providence that I’m seeing now in the light of current news. (Still pretty hard to make sense of the one mentioning Esperanto!)

Also in Providence, a cute little replica boathouse next to the Narragansett boathouse, where health-conscious rowers congregate early every morning.

My friend and former boss had her quilt “Explosion” accepted into a show in Watertown, Mass. I took another photo at that show, which I’m saving for a post about border policies.

I really liked how pretty the plants along the side of my house look even past their season.

Next are two cozy and comforting libraries, one in Arlington, one in Concord.

Finally, a comforting cappuccino. Is there a theme here?














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Both my kids are entrepreneurs. They got their start in business with a lemonade stand, as my grandson is doing in the photo.

His customers don’t know how lucky they are. Lemon peels in the trash may be protecting them from bubonic plague. Doubt me? Well, have you heard of anyone getting plague in an area of New England where lemonade is sold?

Well, there you go.

Consider a recent article by Tom Nealon in the Boston Globe.

He writes, “I’d like to tell a story of what lemonade was doing in Paris 349 summers ago. Lemons have been used for making drinks since before the Ancient Egyptians, are often used to detoxify, and to soothe a sore throat, but that year, the fate of Paris may have hinged on one of its lesser known properties.

“In 1668, the bubonic plague, dormant for a decade, returned to France and was threatening Paris. It had been reported in Normandy and Picardy, in Soissons, Amiens, and then, terrifyingly, just downstream of the capital along the Seine, in Rouen. … Panic-stricken Parisian public health officials imposed quarantines and embargoes in the hope of mitigating inevitable disaster — but the dreaded pestilence never struck.

“The plague that loomed over Paris was the midpoint of a 17th-century European epidemic that would go on to decimate Vienna (80,000 dead in 1679), Prague (80,000 dead in 1681) and Malta (11,000 dead in 1675). The body count in Amiens would end up topping 30,000, and almost no city in France was spared – except for Paris, which, miraculously, survived almost completely unscathed.”

By chance, lemonade was extremely popular that year.

“The limonene contained in lemons (and other citrus fruits) is a natural insecticide and insect repellent. The most effective part of the lemon is the limonene-rich peel. Indeed, after centuries of discovery of chemical insect repellents, the US Environmental Protection Agency still lists 15 insecticides in which limonene is the chief active ingredient, including both general bug sprays and products for pet flea and tick control. The French were piling lemon peels in the best possible place to disrupt the flea-rat-human-rat chain [that caused the spread of plague]: the trash. …

“Paris emerged alive — and refreshed.” More here.

I don’t really think we should count on lemonade to protect us from plague. But lemonade in a backpack isn’t a bad idea for a lemonade-stand spinoff. Time tested. You could take it to the beach.

Image: Staeske Rebers
Limonadiers were French vendors who sold lemonade from tanks on their backs.

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