As students all over the world and from pre-K to graduate school experience disruption to their educational lives, Fordham doctoral candidate Rachel Podd took some time to discuss the differing ways societies respond to pandemics with some students of the Bronx School of Science. One of the great teachers there, Mr. Matthew Clark, reached out to Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies looking for a lecturer, and connected with Rachel. She crafted a twenty-minute recorded lecture, including slides, for the students to explore, based on comparing societal responses to two pandemics, the Black Death of the fourteenth century and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Students read a selection from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron recounting the author’s experience of plague in Florence, as well as several current news articles on COVID in New York, focusing specifically on areas of commonality, including a rise in xenophobia and a breakdown in the rituals of death and dying. Students were also asked to consider how the experience of a pandemic is at least partially determined by social class and economic status.
On Wednesday the 6th, Rachel and about forty BSS students gathered on Google Meeting for a question and answer session lasting about an hour and a half. Discussion was wide-ranging and lively, as the students probed how ideas about disease causation – the miasma theory of the Middle Ages versus today’s germ theory – determined the ways governments sought to prevent or reduce the spread of disease, as well as how the medical establishment, past and present, has responded to moments of intense stress. Finally, Rachel, Matthew and the students discussed how pandemics result in fundamentally changed societies. Though immeasurably painful and demographically catastrophic, the Black Death allowed for considerable social reform, increased female entry into the workforce, and rising social mobility, fundamentally changing the way medieval Europeans lived. How, exactly, COVID-19 will change our own lives remains, as of yet, unknown.