In his biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, published last year, the historian Geoffrey Parker tells an appalling tale of how Charles mistreated his mother, Joanna, sometime Queen of Castile and Léon.

Joanna, who was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, has gone down in history as Joanna the Mad. Is it any wonder? In 1507, in a dispute over Spanish succession laws that was worthy of any modern edition of ¡Hola!, Ferdinand had wrested control of Castile and Léon from his daughter, Joanna, who had been widowed in 1506. When Ferdinand died in 1516, the council of regency resolved to keep this news from Joanna, who by then had been confined to the castle of Tordesillas, near Valladolid.

Charles appointed the marquis of Denia to be governor of his mother’s household and the two of them conspired to maintain the convenient fiction that Ferdinand was still alive. Later, they also kept from her – for 18 months - news of the death of her father-in-law Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor.

In October 1518, plague was coming dangerously close to Tordesillas, but Charles (still only 18) instructed Denia that if his mother refused to evacuate the palace, then, since “Her Highness fears death, especially from the plague, you must tell her that the plague is so intense that those afflicted die in two days or even less;…and to this end it would be good if you could arrange for the clergy to pass in front of the palace carrying their cross several times a day, pretending that they are taking someone for burial.” 

You have plenty of choice here as to what lesson of contemporary relevance to extract from this particular episode in history – perhaps that all families are unhappy, and royal families are unhappiest of all; perhaps that people who come from Ghent – as Charles did – can be devious; or perhaps that those in authority will manipulate death rates to their own ends. At any rate, it is no surprise that at a moment when our modern world has lost its grip on what made it modern (or so we thought), we will ask questions of history. What is new about our experience of COVID-19? What is different about it? What might be its consequences?

The answers that history gives back are neither simple nor reliable, though often thought-provoking. Here’s Diarmaid MacCulloch, writing in Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700, on the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the English throne. She succeeded Mary Tudor, a Roman Catholic who had married Philip II of Spain, Charles V’s son. “The Queen [Mary] and Cardinal Pole died on the same day in November 1558, Pole the victim of an exceptionally vicious influenza epidemic. With no opposition, the Lady Elizabeth took the throne with a ready-made team of advisers who had been senior administrators in the Protestant government of Edward VI….The new Queen could thank influenza for removing many powerful elderly figures in Church and Commonwealth who might have proved an obstacle in her way…” 

In his 1994 book, Les Cloches de la Terre, published in English in 1998 as Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19thCentury French Countryside, Alain Corbin writes that administrators in the early 19thcentury banned funeral bells during epidemics. In the winter of 1805, an inhabitant of Longny (Orne) wrote to the ministre des Cultes, “it had been noticed that the sound of the bells serving to announce the death agonies and the death of those who had succumbed had produced the most dreadful effects upon persons stricken by the illness, and this state of affairs was further aggravated by the funeral chants heard in the street, and [by] the noise of the handbells preceding the funerary ceremonies.” “In 1832, at the height of the Asiatic cholera epidemic, the mayor of Bettancourt (Haute-Marne) issued a decree banning the great bell, and likewise any carillon. Ringing to mark deaths and burial was prohibited.”

At the very least, a perfunctory contemplation of history reminds us how common epidemics were until the modern era. Some 35 years ago, while I still had aspirations to study history, before I opted for the related but lesser trade of journalism, I did some research on guilds in London in the early 17thcentury. One of the things I looked at was the effect of the plagues on the recruitment of apprentices. As a child, I had been taught that the Great Fire of London happened in 1666 and was preceded by the Great Plague in 1665. But l learnt from reading Ian Sutherland’s essay, When was the Great Plague?: Mortality in London 1563-1665, that there were major outbreaks of plague in London in 1603, 1625, and 1636 - and 1609 was also a plague year. In 1625, Parliament adjourned to Oxford, the London lawyers’ term was adjourned and the Stowbridge and Bartholomew cloth fairs were closed. Apprentices were particularly vulnerable to plague outbreaks. They were often recent recruits to London, so unlikely to have built up immunity, but were less likely than children and young people to be taken out of the city. Indeed, they worked in warehouses and shops that might harbour rats and disease. One of the conclusions of my research was that, despite the high mortality, apprentice recruitment rose sharply in the succeeding years: London recovered quickly.

I fully expect COVID-19 to awaken new interest in such demographic history and the history of medicine. Nor would I be surprised if it revives discussion of that well-worked question of history as Progress. I don’t just mean that people might yet again call into question the infamous Whig interpretation of history that makes the past a relentless progression to the glorious present. Wider than that, the events of 2020 will loosen people’s assumption that the present is better than the past. The anthropologist Ernest Gellner writes in Anthropology and Politics(1995): “The real essence of the idea of Progress is not that we in particular are better than the ancients, in literature or anything else, but that generallyspeaking, later means better, that later forms of humanity tend to surpass earlier ones, that there is a global, cosmic mechanism or principle, given which things improve, by and large, passing not through two stages, but through an endless series or gradations of improvement.” Gellner observes that: “Romanticism and anthropology have this in common: they are, both of them, spin-offs, corollaries and, in part, reactions to this progressive vision.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has yet to run its course. We can only guess at how enduring might be the damage done to our assumptions of progress and how many of us will be transformed by the experience into conservatives, Romantics, or even anthropologists. For the moment, I and many others will take solace in reading history. Joanna the Mad lived on until April 1555. Just six months later her son Charles presided over an abdication ceremony in Brussels as he took his leave of the States-General of the Habsburg Netherlands. He had united much of Europe into his Holy Roman Empire but could not keep it together, wearied by a succession of conflicts with France and the Ottoman empire. He gave up the crowns of Spain and of Germany and Italy the following year. In September 1556 , his fleet sailed from Zeeland to Spain where he retired to the Jeronimite monastery of Yuste – in what we might now consider an imperial form of self-isolation, but he died 19 months later at the age of 58. The cause of death, it was confirmed in 2004, was Plasmodium falciparummalaria, almost certainly contracted in Yuste itself. Staying in Brussels might have been healthier.

Tim King