Shared stories can heal in troubled times
by PROF TOM BETTERIDGE
IT IS a great pleasure to be writing this piece for the first edition of The Hillingdon Herald. It is also absolutely fantastic to be welcoming students back to the Brunel campus and for face-to-face teaching to be returning. I found teaching my course, Chaucer and Shakespeare, online last year difficult and I am sure that the students also found it frustrating. Looking back, I also realise that there were also lots of ways I could have related what we are studying to Covid-19.
In Shakespeare’s time when there was plague in London the theatres were also closed, but for very different reasons. Elizabethan Londoners assumed that the plague was a punishment from God for their sin. And what could be more sinful than the theatre with its stories of rebellion, lust and betrayal, with boys dressed as women playing the female parts and lower-class actors pretending to be kings and lords?
In a world where what you could wear was set down in statue, the theatre seemed to many to be the epitome of sinfulness. No wonder it produced such an awful punishment as the plague.
Chaucer lived and wrote under the shadow of the catastrophe of the Black Death. The current estimate of the death toll of this plague is approximately a third of the population of Europe which would be about 20 million deaths. And the Black Death had already caused similar levels of death in Asia and China.
Covid-19 is awful, but I cannot imagine how it would feel if you lived at a time when no-one understood the most basic aspects of medicine or how the human body worked. The general public accepted the immediate cause of the plague was miasmas or “poisoned air” sent as a punishment by God. It was not long, however, before some people in Europe decided that a more immediate cause of the plague was the Jews and the years following the Black Death were marked by horrific pogroms and massacres of long-established Jewish communities right across Europe.
In England when Chaucer was working as a civil servant and producing the Canterbury Tales the social impact of the plague was powerfully felt in 1381, the most important date in English history when working people across England rose up against the attempts of the gentry to reimpose pre-plague levels of servitude. Although the Peasants’ Revolt is depicted in the history books as a failure, in fact in the following years the key demands of the peasants were met. Serfdom was not finally abolished in France until the French Revolution, 1789, in Germany not until the beginning of the mid-nineteenth century and even later in Russia. However, in England, serfdom had largely disappeared by 1500 and Elizabeth I formally abolished it in 1574.
I do not think we have any idea of what the long-term impact of Covid on us as individuals will be or on society. The Black Death seems to have led to a period of increased risk taking but also of profoundly questioning of the established order. When the peasants in 1381 asked:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
They were questioning the very basis of the social order. What had happened since the Garden of Eden to produce such rampant inequality, oppressive and exploitation? If the Black Death was a warning from God, then perhaps it was the whole of society that needed to be renewed in order to placate God’s fury.
The idea that we can return to something called normality after Covid-19 is not simply ridiculous, it is also wrong. Covid-19 has been a terrible experience, it has shown a harsh light on the inequalities that disfigure our world.
There are very few direct references to the events of 1381 in Chaucer’s work and only slightly more that directly mention the plague. But the whole of the Canterbury Tales is infused with the idea that society should, like the pilgrims, be made up of many different voices and ideas.
Chaucer used literature, fictional writing in English, which was a radical new idea when he wrote, to create a space for him to play with new ideas and concepts; to start to imagine a different world to the one sacred by the Black Death which some people were desperate to hold onto.
If I had one hope for The Hillingdon Herald it would be that in its own way it could also be a space where lots of different voices come together to share ideas, tales, hopes and dreams. And that in the process this wonderful endeavour helps us all find our way out of the dark wood of Covid-19 to a better world.
Professor Tom Betteridge is Vice Provost and Dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University.