Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

The Black Death and the Fisher's Manuscripts

Date posted: Thu, Apr. 30, 2020

Over these last weeks many of us have been trying to find our way to the future through the past, hoping to discover lessons for this ‘new normal’ by comparing our situation to such earlier events as the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. I have personally found myself delving even further into the mists of time, looking back to that fourteenth-century pestilence known as the ‘Black Death’ which, it is estimated, carried off somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of the European population between 1347 and 1351. One thing is clear: we did not invent the idea of social distancing. During those cataclysmic years, those who could fled urban centres for more spacious ground where they hoped to breathe fresh air with little human contact. Their economy, like ours, came under a threat – a threat that had disastrous consequences for the important and growing trade in books.

Medieval manuscripts, such as those we collect at the Fisher, fell into a production slump, but did not disappear from the market altogether. Many books copied during the period offered practical suggestions on how to improve diet and fumigate one’s home to release the evil vapours associated with the plague. Some preserved firsthand accounts of the pestilence and its effects and were accompanied by illustrations personifying Death and the other terrors of the ‘End Times’ they believed were now frighteningly at hand. Other manuscripts were more reflective and introduced a new genre of spiritual reading, the ars moriendi or the art of how to die well. Whatever their content, the production of these manuscripts, even under the most difficult of circumstances, remind us that communication is always a crucial component to surviving a crisis.

Given the significant rise in mortality during the mid-fourteenth century, especially among members of the educated class who lived and worked in the cities, it is not surprising that manuscript production saw a significant decline, estimated at about fifty percent between 1349 and 1360. With fewer manuscripts on the market, and fewer scribes to copy them, came substantial inflation in their value towards the end of the fourteenth century. The records of Hereford Cathedral, for example, suggest that there was a 174% increase in the purchase price of manuscript books over the one-hundred-year period after the plague. 

Scarce and unique: these are two of the characteristics we often look for when considering whether to acquire a rare book or not. Such criteria certainly apply to the acquisition of medieval manuscripts, from the fourteenth century or any other time in the Middle Ages, and the Fisher Library is privileged to have a growing and important collection of such books. Throughout history, tragedy has often inspired new initiatives, and that was certainly the case after the great fire of St Valentine’s night 1890 when the University of Toronto Library burned to the ground with the loss of almost all its precious volumes. Out of the ashes, however, arose a new interest in collecting early books to support teaching and academic research. My new illustrated lecture, ‘Treasures Old and New’ traces the process by which one generous donor planted the seeds for the University’s medieval collections with a bequest of two manuscripts in 1901. That modest donation has blossomed into almost a hundred bound volumes and several hundred leaves which are in constant use in our reading and seminar rooms to the delight of visitors, students, and professors alike. Who knows what good things will spring from our current hardships?