How Pandemics Change the Course of History

A look at centuries of scourges shows the unpredictable impacts that often take years to reveal themselves.

When Covid-19 first arrived last year, everyone’s go-to historical parallel was the 1918 influenza pandemic. Precisely because it was so fleeting, it’s hard to find evidence that it caused a sweeping reorientation of everyday life. In its wake, most people simply forgot what happened. Other global pathogens stayed longer and had much bigger impacts on society.

Consider what followed the double-shot of diseases that hit the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague, which raged between the years of 165 and 180, and the Cyprian Plague, which hit in 249 and lingered into the 260s. At least one or both of these are believed to be ancestors of modern-day variola virus, better known as smallpox.

When these plagues arrived, Christianity was a fringe religion. The sociologist and religious scholar Rodney Stark has argued that the response to the outbreak among this small sect helped propel Christianity to dominance, destroying the older, pagan faiths along the way.

Stark contends that unlike pagans, who fled, Christians responded to the disease with religious charity. They nursed the sick, pagan and Christian alike. They offered a compelling case for a better religion by proselytizing while providing the kind of palliative care – food, water and basic comforts –that often made the difference between living and dying.

Stark’s research suggests that the Christians – especially younger, childbearing women — basically outlived their pagan counterparts; they also converted many of the survivors. Consider the fact that state-sanctioned religions basically left people to die, and the reasons for the meteoric rise of Christianity in this period becomes all the more clear.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, killed off a quarter of Europe’s population in the 1300s, making it one of the worst outbreaks in human history. It also unleashed unspeakable violence against Jews. Many survivors fled to what is now Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, setting in motion the next stage of the Jewish diaspora.

This plague left behind more positive legacies, too. Though historians argue about the precise impact, the pandemic left feudal Europe with a serious shortage of peasant labor, elevating the bargaining power of the survivors. This had all manner of unanticipated effects, with the first minimum wage established in the pandemic’s wake as well as far more [ … ]

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