This piece is part of HWO’s feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’. The feature brings together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?
Herd immunity, social isolation, quarantine, and now lockdown. 2020 will be remembered by so many of us because it is the first time we have encountered a global pandemic on this scale. We are living and breathing the COVID-19 crisis, but we are also sensing it. People of the past, as in the present, often experienced and perceived illness and disease through their senses. In many ways, we are utilising our senses in similar ways to those living through seventeenth-century plague outbreaks.
Scientists across the globe are currently investigating the possibility that COVID-19 reduces our ability to smell and taste. Since these findings were released, health officials have encouraged the UK government to include the absence of these senses as an official symptom of the virus. Similarly, leading authorities in various countries are advising people not to touch or make close contact with others. This now very familiar part of our public lives, known as social distancing, involves maintaining a distance of two metres from anyone who does not live within the same household as you. But if we cannot smell, taste, or touch, how can we sense COVID-19?
Arguably the dominant sense, sight has almost always played an important role in how we perceive and experience illness. Visual imagery and symbolism were as prominent in the seventeenth century as they are today. A frequently recorded aspect of plague outbreaks in early modern London was the Red Cross, which was mounted to the doors of those who were infected with the disease. Unlike the apotropaic visual culture which existed in Italy in the same period, this visible reminder of the plague instilled fear and suspicion in those who wandered the streets of plague-ridden cities. Writing about the events of the 1665 Great Plague in London, John Gadbury observed how he ‘cannot but smile to think how many there are, that look askew […] at the sight of a Door with a Red Cross’ (p. 26). It was believed that even the mere sight of the Red Cross was capable of contaminating those who looked at it.
In 2020, we are still using visual culture as a response to illness. Families across the UK have adorned their houses with decorative rainbows. These rainbows are intended to represent hope, recovery, and solidarity. Just like in the seventeenth century, we find ourselves once again relying on visual culture and the power of sight to understand and protect ourselves against illness. As entryways to private spaces, these doorways and windows and their accompanying visual symbols demonstrate our awareness of the unstable boundaries between health and illness.
It is also important to consider the significance of early modern soundscapes. The image of doorways and windows as liminal boundaries between illness and recovery, fear and hope, is also evidenced through the projection of particular sounds. In 1667, Thomas Vincent reflected on the events of the Great Plague of London two years earlier. He described how he heard plague victims ‘crying and roaring at their windows, some coming forth almost naked’ (p. 38). In Vincent’s account, sound was experienced through the unstable boundary of the window. The terrifying sounds of plague victims penetrated the border between private and public and contaminated the street with noises of suffering and infection.
Today, we associate COVID-19 with very different sounds. On 26th March 2020, and every Thursday since, thousands of families across the UK gathered at their doorways and windows to applaud the NHS for their services during the current pandemic. The now recurring event, known as ‘Clap for Carers’, could be heard across the nation and signalled many to reflect on their gratitude towards the NHS in a time of crisis.
But what can we learn from comparing past and present sensory experiences of illness? Reflecting on previous experiences of illness and disease acts, to some extent, as a mental and emotional coping mechanism. By studying the parallels between seventeenth-century plague and COVID-19, we find comfort in acknowledging that people have been through something even vaguely similar before. Reflecting on the relationship between plague and COVID-19 lends some familiarity to an otherwise alien and unusual experience.
Importantly, studying experiences of plague and COVID-19 through the senses also aids our understanding of the human experience of sickness and recovery. The senses are an essential avenue through which we navigate understandings and responses to disease. We need to be aware that sensory experiences can shape and completely alter how someone perceives and experiences illness. Understanding sensory experience in the past can therefore provide insights into how we might utilise the senses to ameliorate or influence experiences of sickness, health, and recovery. For example, historian Victoria Bates has recently begun a project focusing on the hospital as a sensescape. Her research so far has highlighted how certain sights, sounds, and textures can affect the patient experience in significant ways and how these findings can be put into practice in a clinical setting. Further research into how people sense illness, both inside and outside of the hospital, past and present, can aid our understanding of the experience of sickness and recovery for individuals and societies, particularly at times of public health crisis.