[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
The spectre of disease, pandemic, and death have been with us since life emerged on this rock. And once we got around to discovering music, homo sapiens (and perhaps Neanderthals, whose numbers were probably drastically culled by disease), began reacting to these periods of widespread sickness with stories, art, and song.
The first recorded pandemic hit the people of Athens between 429 and 426 BC. No one knew why, other than the gods must have been displeased with mankind.
We still don’t know what caused the death of up to 100,000 — Typhus? Typhoid Fever? Some sort of viral hemorrhagic disease? — but it left an unusual mark on the city. Those were the peak years of Greek tragedy, a form of theatre that had tremendous influence on both ancient Rome in a few centuries and the Renaissance more than a thousand years in the future. From disease came great art.
Speaking of the Renaissance, scholars point to the city of Florence as its birthplace around 1350. The Black Death killed much of the population in 1348 (and maybe as much as 60 per cent of all of Europe between 1331 and 1353) yet Florence rallied, becoming a flashpoint of intellectual and artistic evolution that was felt for centuries.