Pandemic Advice From Literature (And Diaries) of the Past

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Addison Rizer


Addison Rizer is a writer and reader of anything that can be described as weird, sad, or scary. She has an MA in Professional Writing and a BA in English. She writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly and is always looking for more ways to gush about the books she loves. Find her published work or contact her on her website or at addisonrizer at gmaildotcom.

Wash your hands to the tune of Happy Birthday, learn how to bake, sit outside for ten minutes every day: we’ve all heard the same pandemic advice one hundred times over. Everyone, it seems, has advice for getting through this challenging time. Even my emails are chock full of it.

But, what about those who have been through pandemics past in fiction and in fact? What kind of advice do they have to offer? As it turns out, a lot. And I reckon you’ll find many of them ringing a similar tune to what you’re hearing today.

Give In To Decadence

An account by the Greek historian Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War writes of the society around him when, a year into the Peloponnesian War, plague ravaged the city of Athens, “So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day” as “it was so uncertain whether they would be spared” “it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful.”

In much the same vein, Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer who lived during The Black Death, writes in his collection of novellas called The Decameron, in which the characters live through a plague in Florence, “they shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine,” “passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures.”

Others took to “carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odours.”

So, buy yourself a bouquet or that wine you’ve always been wanting. The characters of past plagues give you their blessing.

Wear Comfortable Clothes

The Zoom uniform of business on the top and pajama pants on the bottom might not be so strange. Byzantine historian Procopius in books 1 and 2 of his History of the Wars, an account of a bubonic plague that hit Constantinople, writes, “And, to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys,” which were cloaks often worn by high officials and the emperor at the time. Instead, “every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home.” In modern terms, the citizens of Byzantine wore their pajamas all day long. Your T-shirt and sweatpants pandemic uniform is, as Procopius reports, exactly as you ought to dress.

Be Merry and Laugh Often

Okay, I know how cheesy this sounds. Laughter is the best medicine, how lame, right? But, pandemic advice from the past says your aunt Sally’s Facebook meme may not be too far off the mark.

Boccaccio, again in The Decameron, writes, “the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them.”

Beatrice Groves in her article, “Laughter in the Time of Plague: A Context for the Unstable Style of Nashe’s ‘Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem’” quotes Glending Olson, editor of The Canterbury Tales, on the “hygienic values of delight.”

A treatise written in Medieval times, Compendium De Epidimia, writes that a way to combat illness was to, “live in joy and gladness as much as possible.” A litil bokethe first popular book of plague remedies in English” says “to be mery in the herte is a grete remedie for helth of the body. Therfore in time of this grete infirmitie beware ye drede not deth But lyue merely and hope to lyue longe.”

One plague pamphlet says to “apply Mirth, Musicke, delightfull businesse, good Company, and law full Reacreations; such as may take up all time from carefull thoughts”

Samuel Pepys, in his diary he kept during plague time in 1665, writes, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.”

Katherine Anne Porter, in her novella about a woman who catches influenza during a pandemic, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, writes, “’Don’t you love being alive?’ asked Miranda. ‘Don’t you love weather and the colors at different times of the day, and all the sounds and noises like children screaming in the next lot, and automobile horns and little bands playing in the street and the smell of food cooking?’”

While many of us may feel guilty for laughter in this time of grief, it is wholeheartedly recommended by those who experienced past plagues.

Fresh Air

Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, talks of the necessity of fresh air, too, when the main character takes ill and is visited by her boyfriend. She says, “move over and sit near the window. We keep forgetting about fresh air. You must have it.”

“Antonia – A Poem with Notes descriptive of the Plague in Malta” by Murdo Young writes, “Retracing long those walks with weary feet / they cursed the fate which warned them not to meet.” Pandemic advice to walk and be sure to walk alone.

Explore New Hobbies

In this time of isolation, many of us have turned to new hobbies. Baking, knitting, yoga, and board games rank in the top 15 of the most popular new hobbies picked up during quarantine, according to a NerdBear study. Much of the popular pandemic advice features some encouragement to find a way to keep ourselves occupied. I, too, fell into the newly-devoted Animal Crossing players spurred by the pandemic. As it turns out, this, too, is encouraged.

Albert Camus, in his The Plague, writes, “everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”

Groves reports Medieval plague pamphlets, too, “encouraged their readers to keep their spirits up by means of ‘songs, stories, and melodies’,” and, too, with “cheerful companions.”

Daniel Defoe’s main character in his book A Journal of the Plague Year recounts his experience living through the Great Plague of London in 1665. The character writes, “Such intervals as I had, I employed in reading books, and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day.” For anyone wanting to join him in reading, try these if you’re so inclined to read about pandemics and these if you’d rather escape into another world entirely.

The character also takes to baking bread. “I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread” and says, of brewing his own alcohol, “also I bought malt, and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks.” Those bakers who caused the yeast at my grocery store to disappear for awhile are in good company. This pandemic advice is backed up all the way to 1665.

Yearning for the Future

Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider narrator, closes out the novella with, “no more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”

Petrarch, too, in a letter he wrote to his brother in 1347 about the death of friend, Laura de Noves, who died of the Black Death, laments, “oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables.”

Regardless of how you’re coping with the pandemic, may we all, one day, be those happy people of the future. No more plague, we beg along with Miranda. Let us dream of the time for everything.