Achievements That Emerged From Dark Times Like Now
So, pandemics, it turns out, kind of suck balls, what with the death and the fear and the isolation and the toilet paper shortages and everything. But good news, everyone: not every plague that's ravaged this earth has ended badly. Well, OK, no, they totally have -- the death, fear, etc. -- but every once in a while something pretty great manages to wriggle its way out from underneath all that terrible.
Isaac Newton Developed His Theory of Gravity, Among Other Things
The bubonic plague is one of history's greatest killers, right up there with war, famine, and texting while driving. A fast-spreading bacterial infection that causes fever, delirium, and exploding lymph nodes, the Bubes made its last full-scale assault on the United Kingdom way back in 1665, a.k.a. the Great Plague. London, no dummies, shut everything down -- including the prestigious University of Cambridge. Among the students sent packing was none other than Isaac Newton.
Because plagues don't get to be called The Great if they don't murder a quarter of the population and stick around for a while, Newton ended up spending a lot of time at his family estate, the stately Woolsthorpe Manor. And since Fortnite and TikTok didn't exist yet, he actually spent that time studying, like a nerd. A nerd who was about to change the (possibly literally) God damned world.
1666 is referred to as Newton's annus mirabilis -- the Year of Wonders. He worked on mathematical theorems he'd started at Cambridge, fine-tuning them into what would eventually become fluxional calculus. He screwed around with a prism and drilled holes in his shutters to stare at light beams, ultimately coming up with ground-breaking theories on optics. Somewhere along the line, he also took the time to expound on religion and philosophy, because the difference between genius and being stoned is mostly just a matter of writing shit down.
Speaking of which: the infamous apple tree incident. You know, the one where Newton invented gravity? Turns out that actually happened -- sort of.
As Newton's assistant John Conduitt explained it: yes, there was a tree at Woolsthorpe and, yes, an apple did fall from it. A bunch of apples, actually, because that's just what apple trees do. One day, while chilling in the garden, isolating himself from the plague and just kinda, y'know, thinking, man, Newton got to wondering if that same "power of gravity" that made an apple fall might not extend even farther, maybe even "as high as the Moon." (Something was as high as the moon, all right.)
Edvard Munch Nearly Died, Built a Studio, Kept Painting Instead
The Spanish Flu was a particularly virulent strain of influenza that ran roughshod over the globe during the waning days of World War I. The pandemic was so bad that an estimated twenty-five percent of the goddamn world got infected. Hell, they even called off the war early, since everyone was too sick to fight.
Despite the name, the flu in question didn't actually originate in Spain -- the real patient zero was probably in France, Kansas, or Canada -- but gained the moniker because Spain was the only country not lying about the pandemic. The rest of the world, not wanting to demoralize their painfully dying troops, simply closed their eyes, stuck their fingers in their ears, and pretended that all the soldiers huddled together in trenches and all the international travel everyone was doing in order to shoot bullets into each other wasn't exacerbating the problem.
Anyway, because the war and the flu were so intrinsically linked -- and because of, y'know, all the lying -- memorials and writing on the subject are actually fairly scarce. Even though flu victims outweighed dead soldiers by a heavy margin, the war got all the press, leaving little evidence of the infection behind. Even when it was all over, the involved countries were so concerned with "moving on" from tragedy that memories of the pandemic -- especially cultural ones -- were all but buried.
Enter Edvard Munch. The Norwegian painter, famous for "The Scream," was far from a one-hit wonder -- he was remarkably productive throughout his life, even when he, himself, was suffering from the Spanish Flu in 1919. Instead of wallowing (or even resting and isolating like he probably should have) he built himself a new studio, put on an exhibit in New York, and painted the slightly less famous "Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu."
His flagrant disregard for taking care of himself became not just art, but a fairly detailed documentation of the flu's symptoms -- he kept journals and sketches through his ordeal -- as well as a much needed commemoration of the lives lost to the otherwise forgotten pandemic.
Shakespeare Wrote King Lear -- and Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, and Some Poems, and ...
If you're anything like me, you're friends with a bunch of writers who have been lamenting how unfair it is to compare our current quarantine to the one in which William Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Well, sorry, friends, Romans, and countrymen, but it's even worse than you thought: Shakespeare didn't write just one of the greatest plays in history during a pandemic; he wrote a metric buttload of his most famous works while hiding from a murder-disease.
Shakespeare's lifetime was so plagued by, uh, plague, that self-isolation was practically a constant. Hell, the bouts of bubonic bacterium that regularly shuttered London didn't even get fun names, like the Great Plague or the Black Death or Susan. There was simply a standing order that theaters were closed whenever the deaths for the week topped thirty. And, sure enough, if the stage was dark, that meant Billy boy was putting pen to paper.
Two of these plagues in particular seemed especially fruitful for the Bard. The first, in 1593, led Shakespeare to write the narrative poems "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," as well as inspiring pivotal parts of Romeo and Juliet. The play was, technically, written right after the outbreak, but you can still see the shadow cast by the pestilence. The friar that's supposed to deliver the message of Juliet's faux demise is "sealed up" in quarantine and can't get to Romeo in time. And then, of course, there's Mercutio's famous "A plague o' both your houses!" -- an idle threat now, but likely eliciting cringes and shouts of "Too sooneth!" back then.
Isolating himself from the epidemic of 1606, meanwhile, allowed Shakespeare to write not just King Lear, but also Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens. With the theaters closed for at least the summer, he knew the winter season would be hopping and he wanted to be prepared. Plus, like R&J before them, Lear, Macbeth, and Timmy o'Athens all include explicit references to the plague, often describing the outbreaks as unstoppable and devastating forces of nature.
But wait, there's more! Two years later, Shakespeare's theater troupe took over the indoor Blackfriars Theater after most of the actors that had been performing there died from yet another outbreak. In fact, it's been posited that since the plague had a habit of targeting the youth, and most of Shakespeare's rivals were "boy companies" of young actors, a not-insignificant amount of his theatrical rivals might have been killed off, allowing his company to thrive. No wonder Shakespeare felt the need to talk up the plague so much.
The HIV/AIDS Epidemic Decimated Broadway, Led to Two of Its Biggest Hits
While it's not often spoken of in the same breath as the other pandemics on this list, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s was no less damaging. By the early 1990s, more than one-million Americans had been infected with HIV, and AIDS had killed more than 100,000 people; by 1995, the autoimmune disease was the number one killer of men between the ages of 25 and 44.
Luminaries including Alvin Ailey, Liberace, Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe and Isaac Asimov were all taken by the disease, but it was especially damaging to Broadway and other theater communities nationwide. Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that two of the biggest cultural touchstones to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic were theater productions.
Tony Kushner began writing 1991's Angels in America in 1986, in San Francisco, the epicenter of the epidemic. The Tony-winning play features an HIV-positive protagonist and weaves the AIDS crisis -- then still considered by many to be a "gay disease" -- into the deeper history of America, showing its true scope. 1996's Rent, too, came from writer Jonathan Larson watching friends die around him in New York City. Larson's story took place a few years later than Angels, in the early 1990s, during "the aftermath of the first wave of the AIDS crisis." Treatments were at least available then, but the epidemic was far from over.
Both Angels and Rent put the fears and horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis on stage, front and center, bringing the crisis into the popular consciousness and helping to erase the stigma that still surrounded the disease. (For those too young to remember -- a situation that current productions of Rent find themselves struggling with -- Ronald Reagan famously ignored the epidemic, and the '80s and '90s contained even more homophobic shitheads than we have now.) Given the continued revivals of both, it seems pretty clear that their stories will be told for a long time, whether you're measuring that span in minutes or seasons (of love).
Tuberculosis Pretty Much Defined Victorian Art, Literature, and Fashion
Europe. The Victorian era. A time rife with overwrought poetry, tragic tales of longing, ladies cramming themselves into corsets while covering their skin in white powder, and paintings that captured every part of this distinct moment in history, even the French accents. And you can thank a never-ending tuberculosis pandemic for all of it.
Referred to as "consumption" at the time, the disease wasted its victim away to nothing and then drowned them in them own blood -- consuming them, if you will. Although tuberculosis had been around in some form or other for, like, forever, this particular variety really found its stride during the late 1700s ... and then straight on through the entire 1800s. At one point, pulmonary tuberculosis was responsible for approximately one out of every four deaths in Europe and North America.
Which is what makes it kind of weird that there was a romanticism -- nay, a fetishism -- attached to the disease, especially in Victorian France and England. Because many famous writers -- Keats, Balzac, Chekhov, two of the three famous Bronte sisters, etc. -- died from it, consumption was thought to be a disease of artistic genius. And not metaphorically, either: spes phthisica is the name for an actual euphoric state, specific to pulmonary tuberculosis, that comes over a person as their body shuts down. Most likely due to a fatal neurotoxin, but, hey, a creative high is a creative high.
I cannot stress enough just how fashionable it was to die young from tuberculosis in the 1800s, especially if you were a writer. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, once said, "It was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty." The Lady's Magazine wrote, "In the last stage of consumption a lady may exhibit the roses and lilies of youth and health, and be admired for her complexion -- the day she is to be buried." Even Charlotte Bronte, she of Jane Eyre fame, despite four of her siblings dying from it, called consumption "a flattering malady."
Which, conveniently, brings us to consumption's other nickname: the White Plague. For some dumbass reason, these beautiful corpses became the standard for Victorian beauty -- standards which, really, haven't changed much since. "Consumption chic" involved women powdering themselves as pale as a ghost and narrowing the appearance of their waists. That's right, tuberculosis wasn't content just to murder everyone, it also decided to help invent the corset.
By the 1850s, consumptive heroes and heroines were everywhere -- including some of the most famous creative works ever made. The operas La Traviata and La Boheme both follow tuberculous heroines to their deaths. Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" is a poetic list of symptoms. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Young Woman at a Table" is a portrait of "an anorexic-looking woman who's putting rice powder on her face so that she'll look pale." Other painters hired actual tuberculosis patients as models. On the literature side, Elizabeth Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment are among the many, many stories that feature lead characters wasting away gorgeously. Hell, consumption is so prevalent in the novels and what-not of the time that it's now considered a trope unto itself. Take that, horrible disease that killed millions! You're boring and hacky now.
The Black Death Jump-Started the Italian Renaissance
While it's hard to pinpoint an exact start date for the Italian Renaissance, the general consensus is that it flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It's similarly difficult to condense the reasons behind the cultural "rebirth" to a single event, but scholars are in agreement that the movement flourished thanks to one very unlikely ally: the Black Death.
The Black Death was the first -- and worst -- of the bubonic plagues that made a habit of ruining parts of Europe over the next few centuries. And while Elizabethan England was a little more on the ball, the mid-1300s found everyone woefully unprepared. At its peak, between 1346 and 1353, the Black Death killed one out of every three people in Europe. And I don't know if you know this, but plagues don't give a solitary hoot about status, even if certain moneybags and theocrats might argue otherwise.
The Black Death thinned out the ruling classes at least as hard as it did everyone else, and weakened the Catholic church's stranglehold on culture -- it's kind of hard to convince people God is kind and benevolent when He's actively murdering their family. With the reins now off, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo put down their pizzas and started changing art forever.
Scientists and philosophers, meanwhile, didn't have to worry as much about pissing off the pope, so secular topics could be studied again and classical texts could be reinterpreted. Astronomy, philosophy, the printing press, and exploration all became Big Deals again, in a way not seen since the ancient Greeks and Romans.
And it's not like any of them were doing it for "the exposure," either. An unexpected side effect of the complete and total economic collapse of Europe was that the remaining wealth was spread around -- diseases don't kill money, after all, and there were only so many pockets left for those coins to go into. Wanting to show off their newfound status, people did what rich people do and bought art. Then, as more and more art was produced, the more stable art became as an "industry," until folks were straight-up investing in artists and architects instead of businesses.
The fact that most of these works were now tempered with notions of death and disease didn't seem to bother anyone. In fact, one of the most pivotal pieces of Renaissance literature, Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, was a straight-up plague narrative, a kind of Italian One Thousand and One Nights set against the backdrop of the Black Death, that laid the groundwork for the rest of the Renaissance, combining fear of the plague with a belief in mankind's creative force.
Because that's the important part to remember in all of this: humanity is fucking resilient. Even when shit seems dire, even when pandemics are at their most pandemic-y, we find a way to persevere. And if, along the way, an autocratic, science-denying ruling class dies off en masse allowing thoughtful, smart people to transform the world into something better and usher in the closest thing to a utopia this planet's ever seen? Well ....
Eirik Gumeny is the author of The End of Everything Forever, which is kind of like this generation's The Decameron, if the plague was replaced with fireballs and monsters and Vanilla Ice clones and the cultural insights were replaced with fart jokes. He's also on Twitter.