All of us have tried to come to grips with the coronavirus in different ways. Here on Open Culture we’ve featured online courses to get you conversant in the science around the pandemic, but readers of this site will also have sought out the most pertinent works of history and literature. That goes especially for those in need of reading material while in states of quarantine or lockdown (self-imposed or otherwise), and any list of recommended books must include Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague. (I recently wrote about the experience of reading that last in Korea, where I live, for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) Both fictionalize local outbreaks of the bubonic plague, but how far and wide did that horrific and much-mythologized disease actually spread?
You can see exactly how far and wide in the animated historical map above, created by a Youtuber called EmperorTigerstar. It mainly covers the period of 431 BC to 1353 AD, during most of which the plague looks to have occurred in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa with some regularity. Up until the 1330s, the outbreaks stay small enough that you may have to view the map in fullscreen mode to ensure that you even see them.
But even the most casual students of history know what happened next: the best-known occurrence of the Black Death, whose peak lasted from 1347 to 1351 and which claimed somewhere between 75 to 200 million lives (including roughly half of Europe’s entire population). Rendered, suitably, in black, the plague’s spread comes eventually to look on the map like a sea of ink splashed violently across multiple continents.
The plague hardly died with the 1350s, a fact this map acknowledges. It would, writes EmperorTigerstar, “take years to go away, and even then there would be local outbreaks in individual cities for centuries.” These Black Death aftershocks, “big in their own right,” include the Great Plague of Milan in the 1630s, the Great Plague of Seville in the 1640s, and the Great Plague of London in the 1660s — the subject of Defoe’s novel. When Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, the Algerian city of Oran in which he set its story had experienced its last outbreak of the disease just three years before (at least the fifth such experience in its history). Though harrowing stories are even now coming out of places like modern-day Milan, the coronavirus has yet to match the gruesome deadliness of the plagues featured in either of these books. But unless we understand how epidemics afflicted humanity in the past, we can hardly handle them properly in the present.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.