“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also”
In this poem, first published in 1855, Whitman describes crossing the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn (near what is now the Brooklyn Bridge). He thinks about the sights and sounds of the crossing, he thinks about himself, his body, his feelings, and he thinks about others, people he knows and doesn’t know, and also you, yes, you the person reading the poem: “I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”
Whitman wants you to know that he had the same joys as you, but he also wants you to know that “dark patches” fell on him too. In 1855, people despaired of themselves, blamed themselves, and asked themselves, “My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?”
I offer this for two reasons. First, Whitman expresses out loud what is, for me, one of the (usually) silent comforts of studying history: the sudden shock, almost like an intake of breath, when you realize that a human being who lived a century and a half ago, or a thousand years ago, or even more, maybe in a world utterly different from your own, was nevertheless a human being like you. “It avails not,” says Whitman, “time nor place—distance avails not, / I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, / Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt…”
Second, I think Whitman offers a good reminder that we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. We are another few weeks into the pandemic. In Austria at least the outbreak has not been as severe as it has been in Whitman’s “mast-hemm’d Manhattan” and “Brooklyn of ample hills.” But these are still disorienting times. Many of us know people who have gotten sick or who have been exposed to the virus, some of us know people who have died, or who have come close to dying, and we all have fear, uncertainty, anger, guilt, and boredom to contend with.
I think we all know, but are not always really able to believe, that we are suffering a common hardship, that, before us, people lived through hardships like this one, and that after us people will learn from how we responded to this hardship as they undergo their own.
For medievalists, a certain cold comfort lies in the fact that this pandemic — terrible as it is — is not the first or the worst humanity has endured. Spare a thought for fourteenth-century plague survivors, like Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (1304–1374). The plague took many friends and loved ones from Petrarch, including Laura, the muse of his sonnets. He lost one of his mentors to the plague. He waited anxiously for news about his brother Gherardo, sole survivor of a monastery where plague was raging. Like Boccaccio, with whom he exchanged letters about the pestilence, Petrarch has left us with vivid thoughts about living through a pandemic.
I have been reading some of Petrarch’s plague letters lately. Some deal with the pain of loss, some deal with Petrarch’s frustrations about the slowness or inaccuracy of news, and others lament the unrepentant peddlers of false information (Epistula senilis 3.1: “they are going to make this and any other foolish claim rather than confess their ignorance; yet many events before have displayed to the common folk not just their ignorance, but their blindness and madness, and now this plague has revealed it even more clearly, and it would be modest at this time finally to admit they don’t know what they do not know, and, what is more, that everyone knows that they don’t know it”).
For me it is a comfort to know that Petrarch and his contemporaries felt something similar to what I feel, and that, like Whitman, he spared a thought for us. Petrarch’s most famous plague letter is Epistula familiaris 8.7. This letter begins “mi frater, mi frater, mi frater” (“My brother, my brother, my brother”), a line Petrarch borrowed self-consciously from Cicero (he called it a “new/old opening for a letter”). It is addressed to “Socrates.” This is thought to be Petrarch’s nickname for his friend Lodewijk Heyligen, but Petrarch liked to write letters to the ancient dead too (Homer, Cicero, Seneca, Varro, Quintilian, Livy, Horace, Vergil, etc.). Petrarch wonders whether the future will believe in the plague:
When at any time has such a thing been seen or spoken of? Has what happened in these years ever been read about: empty houses, derelict cities, ruined estates, fields strewn with cadavers, a horrible and vast solitude encompassing the whole world? Consult historians, they are silent; ask physicians, they are stupefied; seek the answer from philosophers, they…bid you be silent. Will posterity believe these things, when we who have seen it can scarcely believe it, thinking it a dream except that we are awake and see these things with our open eyes… O happy people of the next generation, who will not know these miseries and most probably will reckon our testimony as a fable!
In truth, the Second Pandemic continued into the eighteenth century (think of the Pestsäule and the Karlskirche), so people of the “next generation” were only too able to believe in it. But Petrarch was surely right we are all too capable of forgetfulness when danger disappears.
And if history provides comforts, I think history also involves certain duties. One duty is to try to learn from the past. A second duty, a little stranger, is to empathize with the past. This is not always natural, or even always required. After all, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy.” And that’s alright. Monty Python has some great plague jokes, and it’s hard to contemplate those horrific birdlike early modern plague-masks without laughing a little at their monstrosity (did they think these would reassure patients…?). I know I always use humor in teaching the Justinianic Plague or the Black Death (Siena in the 1330s plans to massively expand its cathedral…great timing).
But we should also cultivate a sense of empathy (for the victims of the plague when it hit Siena, for the builders who went out of work, maybe even for the architect, poor Giovanni di Agostino). They were real people, those men and women of a generation. I believe that part of our duty as historians is to struggle to think and feel as they thought and felt. Like many duties, this duty is also a comfort, because sympathy toward others breeds sympathy toward ourselves.
And if you are like me (or Petrarch, for that matter), you may be at a stage in this pandemic when you need to be less unsympathetic toward yourself. “I disgust myself deeply, and I pity myself,” says Petrarch, and he throws a list of aspersions against himself: “You who seemed able to bring consolation and support to others, who promised us nothing that was less than great, who from being accustomed to evils should have put on a hard skin against Fortune’s harrowing and harshness…see how weakly you are bearing your burdens! … Where now is that loftiness of spirit suitable to your calling? Where are those grandiose words?”
Maybe it has been difficult for you to be productive in quarantine: to read or write or get work done? Or maybe you feel that you have let “time flow through your fingers” (as Petrarch puts it in another letter to “Socrates”)? You’re not alone. I promise you: your teachers too are horrified of clocks, we can’t make sense of words on a page, and we struggle to put thoughts in writing.
If you suddenly find yourself in a sour mood, angry not with a righteous or satisfying anger, but with that fruitless, easy anger into which so many strong emotions seem to transform these days, know that you are not alone there either.
If you have trouble falling asleep, or if your dreams are nightmares that stay with you half the day, you are not the only one sleeping restlessly.
Or perhaps you have that awful feeling, that not only are you are falling behind in your work, but that, even worse, you are falling behind in telling your teachers that you are falling behind, leading to the awful sensation expressed by the Roman proverb auribus teneo lupum, “I am holding a wolf by the ears” (and the longer you hold on, the angrier the wolf gets, and the harder it is to let go). You are not the only one. There’s a reason it’s a proverb!
And if a sense of guilt has been stalking you around the house, you are not alone.
“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also.”
At the end of Petrarch’s letter, Petrarch quotes Cicero again: “Who are we, really? And how long shall we remain this person we are?” And he asks a third question, this time directed to Cicero himself (by his first name): “But I ask you, Marcus Tullius, after we have ceased to exist here, what will become of us? That is a big question, and a tricky one, but not to be neglected.”
On one level, that is a question I cannot pretend to answer. But on another level, I can say this at least: Francesco, almost seven hundred years after the dark patches fell upon you, you are still alive, you are still here with us (we have videoconferencing now, by the way — it’s better than carrier-pigeons, but it strains the eyes), we are still talking to you, and you edify and comfort us still. It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not.