What to Learn from a Medieval Nun on Coronavirus?
As fans of Hildegard von Bingen, we harken back to Medieval times for a frame of reference during the corona crisis. Quarantine feels arcane, partly because modern medical advancements elevate us beyond the widespread fear of sickness. We rely on stable systems to provide cures for every symptom, and isolation smacks of primitive self-preservation. The spread of a virus, without an effective means to address it, sends shock waves through us all.
The more things change
Pandemics have always existed. And, while the corona virus is not directly comparable with many past experiences, including the Medieval Plague, both present a persistent threat to human health and safety. When the Black Death swept Europe in 1347 to 1353, an estimated 25 million people lost their lives, about one third of the population, at that time. Today, not even the darkest doomsdayers among epidemiologists forecast mass death scenarios.
Hildegard and interconnectivity
While we try drawing distinctions between this pandemic and those of the past, our historical inspiration, Hildegard appears in many different forms. First, we validate her concept of interconnectivity through the accelerating spread of this virus around the world. Equally impactful is the instantaneous transmission of information (about the virus) through the interconnectivity of our communication channels.
Much like in Hildegard’s time, we suddenly face healthcare constraints. In the past, many health conditions were treated by monks and nuns in cloisters and monasteries, where resources were limited. In our modern age of abundance, we solve for all forms of scarcity. We seek solutions, backed by the power to bend nature for our intended outcomes.
Merging Past with Present
Today, we face similar constraints as in the past, and we find ourselves merging pre-modern and modern practices. This combination, which had been overlooked, represents a powerful force. A recognition that the many thousands of years that preceded cellular medicine may continue adding value. While modern medicine rewards cures, pre-modern medicine relied on preventive measures.
Prevention versus cure
Unlike Medieval medical treatment, the infectious agents (pathogens) of disease have long been identified through modern cellular medicine. We know how the virus spreads. Our health system is highly competitive, and laser focused on finding a cure. Our modern capitalist system allocates the spoils to those who discover cures. It remains only a matter of time before effective antidotes and a vaccine for the coronavirus becomes available.
However, the rise of an epidemic triggers the initial step of self-care and prevention, both relics of pre-modern healing. Our modern emphasis on cures over prevention exposes vulnerability to a novel virus. The introduction of a new threat leaves us no more prepared today than any other time in history. Now, despite all our technical advancements, we draw on the past for solutions to address the same problems humans have faced countless times.
The basic measures to limit the spread of a disease are not modern inventions. Generally, those steps include identifying cases, tracing contacts, isolating infections, quarantine, and plans for future intervention. Many of the concepts underlying these measures were developed by the city-states of Italy in the 13th century to thwart the ravages of bubonic plague. These were sophisticated measures invented and applied in northern Italy.
Italy has always been a country of innovation in dealing with infectious diseases. Similarly, today, after initial hesitation, the country has taken radical measures to contain the coronavirus by massively restricting public life.
Awareness of the crisis
Italy’s pandemic awareness has tradition. After the great pandemic wave of the Black Death finally subsided in 1353, the plague became endemic in Europe. The city-states in northern Italy – especially Milan, Venice and Genoa – invested significant energy and effort in finding ways to deal with the plague.
These city-states were located at the interface between Europe and Asia, at the foothills of the Silk Road. They were dependent on trade with Asia, and frequently exposed to the import of contagious diseases.
Preparing before the crisis hits
City-states developed a system based on specially appointed magistrates who had the task of preventing a plague epidemic from arising. They had legislative, judicial and executive power in all matters relating to public health. Until the middle of the 16th century, such health officers were at work in all major cities in northern Italy. In smaller towns and in the countryside, special committees were set up to assist in an emergency.
Communication before and during crisis
The basis for efficient monitoring of a threat was smooth communication. The capitals of participating republics and principalities constantly exchanged information among themselves about the health conditions in various parts of Italy, the rest of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In quiet times a letter went back and forth every two weeks, and in emergencies several letters a week.
If the emergence of an infectious disease had been registered somewhere, a ban was issued. A short-term ban was imposed on reasonable suspicion of an epidemic. Confirmation of an outbreak led to longer-term enforcement. In both cases, regular trade and communications were cut-off immediately; people, boats, goods or letters were disinfected and quarantined.
The Strictest Measures
If, despite all these precautions, an epidemic reached the country, the strictest measures of isolation and quarantine were imposed to limit the spread. All of this, at a time when the real cause of epidemics such as the plague was not even known. The pathogen causing the plague was not discovered until 1894.
Quarantine originally lasted forty days, which according to legend corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent alone in the desert and Moses on God’s mountain.
Everything would have been worse
Despite the thoughtfulness of Italy’s defense system against the plague, it could not completely prevent the spread of disease. Records evidence the thousands of deaths caused by each plague outbreak. But without these measures in place, things would have been much worse.
The protocols developed in northern Italy during the centuries of plague comprise the core of modern systems for the control of communicable diseases: identify, trace, isolate, quarantine.
We understand Hildegard of Bingen medicine as the basis for modern preventive medicine and holistic healing. Hildegard firmly placed the responsibility for our health on ourselves. Each of us has the task of understanding ourselves in our entirety. This includes an ever-changing individual value, and a persistent relationship and connectivity to others. This crisis presents an opportunity to restore our values individually and collectively. We can use this time to manage over-stimulation and find meaning within ourselves.
Today represents a rare moment to restore discipline in self-care. We can stabilize our mental defenses by recognizing our vices and try to balance those with healing protective factors of our virtues. We have this time to take responsibility for our personal well-being and avoid the rut of simply waiting for a cure.
Consider the self-discipline of fasting, the inner voice of meditation, the balance of ‘discretio’, moderate exercise and nutritional treatment, finding Viriditas in nature, taking a break from over-stimulation, and giving birth to a unique brand of creative power.
The future holds great progress as new developments take shape to nurture ourselves while embracing healthy connectivity.