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Sex & the black plague.

sex & the black plague.

Repent, party, screw in a graveyard, repeat.

By now, we’ve all come to terms with the new normal: social distancing, washing our hands every ten minutes, and the fact that
"Explained" already has an episode examining this contagion hellscape we're in. But we humans have encountered pandemics throughout history, and we’ve always found a way to get through it and get it on. 

Back in the 14th-Century, Europe and Asia were struck with the Black Plague–also known as the Bubonic Plague and the Black Death–which claimed between 75-200 million lives. At the time, the understanding of germs was still 300 years away; so people looked to other ways to cure and cope. 

They may seem ridiculous and boring in 2020, but the practices of quarantining were first recorded almost 700 years ago during the Black Plague. In 1377, officials in Croatia required ships and travelers coming from “plague-infested areas” to spend a month in isolation to limit the disease’s spread. The word “quarantine” actually comes from “quarantino,” the Italian word for a 40-day period. 

It was widely believed that God sent the plague because of mankind’s sins. Most turned to a life of prayer, atoning in the hopes of being saved. So-called “flagellants”–professional self-torturers–would go around whipping themselves for a fee to win God’s mercy. Notably, the second part of the “Hail Mary” prayer–“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death”–was added at this time to ask for the Blessed Mother’s protection.

Throughout history, times of uncertainty like the Coronavirus pandemic, have caused people to turn to religion to process their fears. Religious or not, many are using this time as an opportunity to reevaluate their lives, make changes, and come to peace with a very different world.

Still, with what appeared to be the end of the world, others stopped praying altogether and embraced a life of hedonism. As the writer Boccaccio described the wild excess of the era:

"Thus, doing exactly as they prescribed, they spent day and night moving from one tavern to the next, drinking without mode or measure, or doing the same thing in other people's homes, engaging only in those activities that gave them pleasure….. And they combined this bestial behavior with as complete avoidance of the sick as they could manage." 

There are even accounts of people having sex in graveyards at the height of the plague, to laugh in the face of death. Things got so bad, that a Papal official even threatened so-called fornicators with fines and ex-communication. 

Mandated Sex
Knowing very little about what caused the Plague, doctors advised their patients to avoid sex altogether. Health officials believed that exerting yourself in the bedroom could overheat the body, allow “bad air into the pores, and increase the risk of illness. So what did people do when they couldn’t Netflix and Chill? 

The Black Plague saw an increase in sanctioned prostitution. With a diminished workforce, cities started purchasing brothels as a source of new income. Brothels also helped to control hostility and unrest by giving men a sexual outlet. And with the high death rate, this prostitution boom actually helped to increase the population during this period.

The Black Plague turned society upside-down. Before, people generally turned to God and religion in times of struggle. After the Plague, authority was questioned; and artists and scholars tried to use reason to understand the world around them. This eagerness for answers led to the Renaissance. With more resources to go around after the Plague, people’s relative wealth increased; and elite families like the Medicis were able to become the patrons of artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. 

It’s anyone’s guess what the post-COVID19 landscape will look like. But no matter how you deal with it–by praying, painting, or fornicating in a graveyard–just remember to do it six feet away from someone else.