In the summer of 1485, at the start of the reign of Henry VII, a previously unseen disease started to spread across England. It was believed that it was brought to England by French mercenaries in Henry Tudor’s army. Henry Tudor arrived in London shortly after the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 and the ‘sweating sickness’ was first reported there less than three weeks later. It ran rampant through London, killing thousands and striking panic in the population. One of the most terrifying features of the disease was the speed with which it could kill. Some of you may remember the moving scene in Hilary Mantel’s novel and the television drama mini-series, Wolf Hall, when the disease struck the family of Thomas Cromwell. He returns home to find his wife and two young daughters are dead hours after catching the disease.
The cholera epidemic of 1832 was similar to the “English sweat” that afflicted Londoners and Europeans during the time of the Tudors. People were terrified by the horrific symptoms which seemed to afflict victims instantly. People caught the bug in the morning and were declared dead by supper time. There was no known cure for cholera and the sense of panic among the population was palpable. When our loved ones are struck down by illness within hours, we lose our heads and any rational sense of order. Fear leads to panic and the breakdown of society. Family members turned against family members, friends against friends, and soon everyone was out for themselves. Cholera victims were simply abandoned on the roads, and wagons were sent around to collect the bodies and bury them in cholera pits. The population lived in absolute fear of the epidemic and normal rules no longer applied.
The collapse of society often happens in cases of natural catastrophe, war, pestilence, etc. What do people do when things start falling apart? They revert to primal behaviour, every man for himself. That’s the theme of The Walking Dead. At least that’s the theory, but it is not always true. Remember the movie Lord of the Flies based on the novel by William Golding back in 1954 about a group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. It presents a very bleak view of mankind, returning to nature. The boys form into groups and three boys die as a result before a British naval officer arrives on the island and saves them. The story was loosely based on a real adventure involving several young Tongan boys stranded on an island in the Pacific and things didn’t turn out so badly for these boys. Their story was more about friendship and loyalty. They worked together to survive and no one died.
Of course, the breakdown of society can happen even today with an economic downturn. For years now, people have been predicting an economic collapse in the US due to the huge debt level. If the US dollar ever takes a dive, there will be a global panic. The doomsayers maintain that massive unemployment would be the result and governments would no longer be able to pay their employees. Local communities would suffer because their tax base would disappear. They would no longer be able to pay their police departments, garbage disposal, and other services. People would take to the streets to protect themselves and fight over access to food and supplies. The 2020 coronavirus is bringing us closer to such a reality with the burgeoning debt levels in the US and the stress on the dollar.
My fourth novel Remembrance Man is now out on paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. This is a tale of murder, greed and deceit, and the breakdown of society. It is interesting to see how little progress civilized society has made in the face of pandemics. We deal with them no better than our grandparents did during the influenza outbreak of 1918 and the 19th century cholera epidemics.
*Originally posted in August 2020