Note — Nov 22, 2020

Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

The link above is to an essay by Ada Palmer but my notes are from listening to this interview with her, treading much of the same territory.

The interviewer is a bit too singulitarian for me but Palmer’s answers are fantastic and give a superb overview of everything in the title above. I didn’t know that the Black Death didn’t die out, it lasted around 300 years and Europeans developed immunity. That immunity also seems to have repercussions on other deficiencies today. The “there are no definite winners and losers, things just change” example of Greenland is excellent and perhaps the quickest lesson for today. The Renaissance is a moving target in terms of beginnings and endings, and was initially largely aspirational and not that much better than what preceded it. Great art but also great suffering.

I started writing this post a few weeks ago but rapidly discovered that a thorough answer will be book-length (the book’s now nearly done in fact).  What I’m sharing now is just a precis,  the parts I think you’ll find most useful now.  So sometimes I’ll make a claim without examples, or move quickly over important things, just linking to a book instead of explaining, because my explanation is approaching 100,000 words.  That book will come, and soon, but meanwhile please trust me as I give you just urgent parts, and I promise more will follow. […]

I don’t love the Renaissance for being perfect.  I love it because it was terrible yet still achieved so much.  I love it because, when I read a letter where a woman talks of a nearby city burning, and armies approaching, and a friend who just died of the plague, and letter also talks about ideas for how to remedy these evils, and Xenophon’s advice for times of war, and how Plato and Seneca differ in their advice on patience, and the marvelous new fresco that’s been finished in the city hall.  To find these voices of people who faced all that yet still came through it brimming with ideas and making art, that makes me love the human species all the more.  And gives me hope.