A memo to history—the health crisis of 1350

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Volume 28

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‘As I write this, it is tonight a thousand years, and three hundred years, and fifty years since Jesus Christ was born; and it is now two years since the plague came to Ireland; and I am now twenty-one years old; and let anyone who reads these lines show mercy to my soul by saying an “Our Father” for me. It is Christmas Eve tonight and I am here through the protection of the King of Heaven and Earth. May my life come to a holy end, and may this great plague bypass both me and my friends, and may we be returned once again to gladness and joy. Amen. Our Father … [this is a cue for the reader to continue the prayer].

Hugh, son of Connor MacEgan, wrote this on his father’s book, in the year of the great plague.’ [24 December 1350]

I am grateful to fellow editorial board member Tom O’Loughlin (University of Nottingham) for sending me this, a marginal note, written in Irish, from a manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. For those of us currently in social isolation its message of desperation—and hope—resonates, in spite of the gap of 670 years. The Black Death (bubonic plague) eventually killed between a third and a half of the population; Europe was never the same again. For one thing, by placing a premium on the value of labour, it fatally undermined the iniquitous institution of serfdom and with it the entire feudal system.

As we contemplate the vital contributions of our healthcare workers, shop assistants, transport employees etc. in getting us through the present crisis, will we witness a similar reordering of priorities when this all blows over? Already we have a single-tier health system and a freeze on rents, measures that would have been regarded as impossible, even unconstitutional, a few weeks ago. Of one thing we can be sure—in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic the world will never be the same again.

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And what happened to Hugh? His prayer was answered for at least another year, for in 1351 a second note was added:

‘It is a year ago, tonight, since I wrote those lines that are in the margin below. And may it be the will of God that I reach this great eve once more next year. Amen. Our Father …’

We do not know whether Hugh’s second prayer was answered.

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