A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

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