On a hot September afternoon in 2020, we sat under the tents of our outdoor classroom for a history seminar session. We were there, rather than inside the school building, because this was the safest possible in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were set to discuss our first primary historical source, an excerpt from History of the Wars by the Byzantine historian Procopius. In it Procopius offered vivid and horrifying stories of how the plague ravished Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium) in 542 CE. His narrative is considered to be the first recorded account of the plague, known also as the plague of Justinian because it occurred during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
Procopius described the enormous suffering, death, and pure terror that the plague visited upon the citizens of Constantinople. He also showed how they tried to make sense of what was happening to them often by searching for signs of divine anger, the presence of demons, or imbalances in the humors of the body.
These kinds of explanations, some students said, were outlandish, even comical (“Where are the humors?”) from our standpoint but normal for the times because “people back then” didn’t have the science that we have nowadays. “People just didn’t know” was an expression that one could frequently hear in our seminars as we talked about how people dealt with the plague in Constantinople, the “Black Death” in Medieval Europe, the smallpox epidemics, the “Spanish Flu.” Or, once in a while, a couple of students would say that “people back then” were religious and explained everything with God; the scientific knowledge wasn’t there for them to see differently.
“Back then They” vs. “Nowadays We”
I wondered during some of our seminar discussions, “Did the students think that the achievements of modern western science had made us so different from our ancestors that we simply couldn’t relate to their experiences in the past when modern medicine didn’t exist?” The whole concept of humors in the body, humoralism, and humoral medicine seemed really odd. We wanted to understand so we read about this topic in Frank M. Snowden’s Epidemics and Society.
When we got to the part where doctors who practiced humoral medicine prescribed exercise and specific diets to their patients, one student said, “I mean, doctors nowadays would recommend exercise and healthy eating too.” “True but they’d also give you medicine,” added another. Whether humoral medicine and western medicine had any connection became a point of discussion.
When we got to talking about how people behaved during the outbreaks of the plague, the smallpox, and the influenza, our discussions drew us even closer to the present as students began comparing what “people back then” did and what we did in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Giovanni Boccaccio’s introduction to his The Decameron provoked this comparison. In it we read about how mid-14th century Florentines responded to the bubonic plague. Their actions ranged from escaping the city (as Boccaccio’s fictional story tellers do in The Decameron), total isolation and minimal food and drink through cautious engagement with the outside world in order to lift up one’s spirits to ignoring the plague, complete abandon in sensual pleasure for one’s days were anyhow counted and everything else in between.
Students began analyzing what quarantine meant for “us” in the present and for “them” in the past. Very quickly students began drawing parallels between people in their present and those described by Boccaccio. And the question of how and why the plague was spread became so relevant as most of us sat outside masked and six feet apart. Yes, people didn’t have the scientific knowledge we do, we all agreed, but “even now some people behave like there’s no pandemic, not wearing masks, you know” said one student.
Measuring the distance between “Them” and “Us”
The students extended this comparative analysis to gender norms, social status, cultural values in Boccaccio’s time and our present especially when we also read a few of the stories from The Decameron. One story in particular stirred up the minds and hearts of all the students. It involved a “gentlewoman named Madonna Filippa” in the city of Prato where a statute condemned women who committed adultery to death by being burned alive. The statute didn’t deal with men at all. Madonna Filippa appeared in court before the podestà (the highest official in the city) where she argued her case with eloquence and wit. She was not only absolved but the statute was modified so that it applied only to women who cheated on their husbands for money.
This “double standard,” as some students called it, was just beyond the pale. “I can’t believe they treated women like that. It’s awful. I wouldn’t want to live there. I’m glad it’s not like this anymore. They had to follow social expectations to make their husband look good.” Another student said, “I am not saying it’s right but this is how society was then.” Some students pointed out that gender norms in our society are different and better. Others mentioned that there are still double standards.
So it wasn’t that the students couldn’t relate to “people back then.” Rather, the students paid attention to something in the past which helped them with making sense of their present reality. We adults often look into the past, especially when there are tumultuous events in our current world, in the hopes of seeing the present more clearly, perhaps even drawing on the wisdom of previous experiences. We can do that because we have the perspective of time which comes with age and learning.
Highschoolers, who are on the cusp of adulthood, are in the process of developing this perspective. They need to relate to events in the past on a very personal level in order to begin feeling that they and “people back then” share humanity. From this point high schoolers open up to the work that is necessary to understand “the people back then” without, like good historians, imposing the present. This is one of the most important methodological skills in the historian’s toolkit.
What “Nowadays We” Share With “Back Then Them”
The closer we felt in our seminar to events and people in the past the greater the challenge became to practice that skill. As we studied about the development of inoculation and then vaccination against smallpox, students began recognizing certain approaches to care, prevention, or concerns about both as familiar.
We read a letter from The Turkish Embassy Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the 18th c.) in which she described in detail how the Ottomans inoculated children against the smallpox. Having recovered herself from the disease but left with permanent facial scars, Montagu was committed to protecting her children from smallpox as well as spreading the knowledge of the Ottomans to England and beyond.
“How did they manage to keep things more or less sanitary?” some students wondered. “They didn’t always. The incision could get infected if the knife wasn’t clean,” explained one student. And another added, “People were afraid about infection with the vaccine that Edward Jenner created.” What was scarier, the disease or possible infection associated with the inoculation and vaccination procedures?
The question quickly led us to a juxtaposition with current fears of the vaccines against Covid-19. Yet, things were different in the past because the danger of infection was more serious than nowadays, students pointed out. They were intrigued by the fact that people thought about disease prevention and infection at all.
The “people back then” had clearly changed since the plague in Constantinople and Florence. Not only that, knowledge about dealing with disease in one part of the world was carried over to another. In short, in our study we saw that “people back then” changed across time and space, which is probably one of the most important history lessons. What brought about the change is the fundamental question that occupies historians.
So we had to dig in to understand changes in thought, attitudes, knowledge, etc. We shifted focus from the specific disease to broader historical changes, such as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, which helped us understand why Lady Montagu was able to travel in the Ottoman Empire and take back to England the practice of inoculation or why Edward Jenner could experiment to develop a vaccine.
The Historical Conclusion – “We” and “They” Share One Continuous Humanity
We also saw that the modern science that we took for granted at the beginning of our seminar journey had roots in the past. The past now felt meaningful to our students because they could use it to understand some of the reality in which they are developing as young adults. In turn, by reflecting on people’s experiences in the present, they could imagine the humanity of people in the past. “[I]t is always by borrowing from our daily experiences,” as the famous French historian Marc Bloch once wrote in The Historian’s Craft, “and by shading them, where necessary, with new tints that we derive the elements which help us to restore the past.”