In Tudor England you could wake one morning feeling perfectly well, eat breakfast, take a walk by the river and be dead from cholera or the sweating sickness by four in the afternoon. There was every variety of infectious disease. Bubonic plague, anthrax and typhus stalked the land for centuries, sweeping like fire through cities and carrying off so many that it was impossible to decently dispose of the dead.
Until Pasteur and Koch stared down their respective microscopes, the only explanation for these and many other afflictions was that we had annoyed a God by too much feasting, sex, drunkenness or greed. God was appeased by huge penitential processions through towns and cities, the participants whipping themselves with metal flails or burning their possessions in huge pyres.
An alternative explanation was that plagues were the work of witches, Satan or foreigners. Nearly everybody believed that Jews and witches were constantly carrying off our children for sacrifice or transforming them so they could be returned to society unrecognised to carry on Satan’s work.
Which is why during such processions at intervals the cry of ‘witch’ would go up and some in the procession would leave the crowd in order to beat up a passerby, perhaps somebody who dared to laugh at them, fitted the description of a demon in disguise, or unfortunately happened to be a passing Jew. And God help any oriental sailor the crowd might catch sight of. The devil was supposed to have the eyes of a Chinaman.
After such processions people went home to a world of curses, spells and forbidden words in which they implicitly believed and which guided their lives. Utter a taboo word and you might be marked out as a witch. Fail to make an offering to the corn doll next to the chimney and your harvest might die. The church ? The priest and his building, the only learning people had access to – were no more than an embassy of the crown there to keep rational order – witches were the thing.
Well that was all a long time ago and we live in more enlightened times. We are a sophisticated, rational society.
Are we so?
In the last month if you were to stand in Parliament Square on a Sunday you might see a huge procession of penitents coming down Whitehall, chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Racism is the sin of the 21st Century and like their medieval ancestors those in the procession are here not just to atone for their own sins but to make sure everybody else does. Covid 19 which has spread with almost supernatural speed has caused a type of madness in society.
At the cry of ‘racist’ some dash from the crowd to beat up the occasional passerby, banners imploring the population to give up their racist ways are raised, the statues of past witches are attacked, daubed in paint or overthrown. The police, knowing they were witnessing a religious procession, stand aside, some kneeling in sympathy. Every plague has its bogey, ours is the racist.
Meanwhile the hunt for racists is on in society in general. Every day politicians, artists, academics, scientists, and society’s benefactors are swept from office following the cries of the ignorant mob.
There are in addition a sizeable number of people who believe the current pandemic is fake, there is no virus or it is no more than flu, but a part of a plot by sinister secret organisation of very rich and powerful people to enslave the world through the use of vaccines. They latter meet in heavily guarded covens on remote mountain tops planning vaccines containing all manner of poisons including parts of dead babies.
Primitive societies often burn their most precious belongings to appease the Gods as the medieval monk Savonarola urged the rich of Florence to burn their treasures in the marketplace to prevent the plague. Instead we throw our treasures into a mythical fire called global warming believing if we give up our cars, walk or ride bicycles, avoid flying and throw away our wood burning stoves God will not rain down fire on us from the heavens.
In the seventies I spent two years working in the mountains of New Guinea, where for 10,000 years people were entirely cut off from the outside world and where ideas like these were deeply embedded, if not hard wired into people’s brains.
The tribes believed that there was no such thing as natural disease or death; both were the work of witches and if every witch on earth was killed man would live forever free of sickness and pain. They believed it with a passion and up to the day I left were enthusiastically killing rival ‘witches’.
Standing in Whitehall watching BLM and its banners passing, or reading about vaccine plots, secret societies and global warming, we have not advanced very far in our understanding of our primitive instincts. Covid 19, which is real – enter an ICU last April and see it packed with people on respirators – has outlined those instincts in bright letters for us all to see.