Pandemics Past: A Historical Guide to Getting Through

With the spread of Covid 19, it may feel like our way of life is being broken apart. Politicians and media commentators have told us that the new conditions we face — social distancing, isolation, mass–quarantine — are “unprecedented.” But really, we have been here many times before. How did authorities try to “flatten the curve” in pandemics past? How did social distancing work out in the medieval countryside, or in the crowded cities of the earlier twentieth century? How long did lockdown take to work, and at what points did order begin to break down? And how have people coped, shut away in quarantine like many of us are now, throughout history?

The Black Death (1347–51)

The Black Death was the emperor of all pandemics. Striking with an 80–90% mortality rate, between c.1347–1351 this disease killed an estimated 50-60% of the European population. Infection was caused by the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted to humans by fleas living in the fur of black rats. Many at the time believed the plague came from China, although evidence now suggests it originated in the Steppe lands of Central Asia, traveling along the roads and sea routes that defined the global trade network of the late Middle Ages. According to the writer Michele da Piazza, it first came to Europe with the arrival of infected Genoese sailors at Messina in October 1347. “Its victims,” he said, “violently spat out blood.” Others grew enormous buboes in their groins and armpits, their extremities turning black with necrosis until they died, usually within three days.

Infection still seemed like a distant prospect in England in the spring of 1348. Most approached the disease as a problem that could be tackled at the individual level, perhaps through extra prayer or pilgrimage. People in the village of Walsham in Suffolk exchanged stories of how the plague was slowly working its way up through France from the Mediterranean. It was getting closer and closer, they said, and soon it would cause total havoc in rural England. But these still seemed like the tall stories of sailors. Many mocked the illness, while others simply took precautionary day trips to the shrine of Saint Edmund in Bury.

When the plague eventually did hit England, the response was panicked. Bishops sent out directives ordering Christians to confess their sins, sing the Psalms, say prayers, and make communal religious processions. This way, they could “prepare themselves… to come into the presence of the Lord.” Groups flagellated themselves in town squares, hoping that God might be moved to spare their community. Eventually citizens, like those in Walsham, took to barricading their city walls. But this was futile. Unknown to them, the flea-infested rats continued scurrying under and in with the disease.

Desperate quack remedies began to trend. “Expert” treatises advised that skipping baths, eating light meals, and abstaining from sex could keep everyone plague-free. Believing that the disease was transmitted through bad smells (a mistake repeated for centuries to come), the writer John of Burgundy told people to “inhale aromatics every morning” before going outside, and to burn juniper branches at bedtime. Safety would come through sniffing “ambergris, musk, and rosemary” for the rich, or “cloves, nutmeg, and mace” for the poor.

But as many quickly realized, the best defense was staying at home. The writer Giovanni Boccaccio described how Florentines shut themselves away from the sick, “consuming choice food and wine in moderation,” and “avoiding all excess.” With a regime of total self-isolation, they stopped speaking to anyone from outside the house, and even avoided “hearing any news of the dead or sick.” Instead they enjoyed cultural pursuits, telling stories and making music. Others chose the opposite path, flouting measures in social-distancing and dedicating themselves to getting as much enjoyment out of their last days as they could. For these doomed rebels, “heavy drinking, pleasure-seeking, and going round singing” was the only way of remaining sane.

Political experiments in Italy demonstrate sharp contrasts between a naïve and a seasoned response to the pandemic. Upon first encountering the disease in early May, 1348, the city government of Pistoia, Tuscany, imposed a set of draconian rules. No citizen should go to or come in from the infected cities of Lucca or Pisa, they said, threatening a penalty of 500 pence. Aware that dead bodies were dangerous carriers of the disease, they limited attendance at funerals to the immediate family only. Yet just a few weeks later these rules needed adjusting. There was now little point in focusing on the threat of Lucca and Pisa, as the sickness was paying no respect to borders. Instead, the government struggled harder to make the city clean, hoping the absence of filth might make the illness go away. By June there had been so many funerals in the city that they had run out of candle wax.

With the fourth wave of plague, precautions became more advanced. Faced with an outbreak in January 1374, the Duke of Milan imposed rules centered on the isolation of the sick. Any person who had swelling or a tumor, he said, should leave the city immediately and find refuge in the “open country” until they either recovered or died. He ordered a ten-day quarantine for all people who had recently met with someone who had died of the plague. In relief to the 500-pence fines of Pistoia, the duke enforced these laws with threats of violence. Priests were required to examine the sick in their parishes, with the warning that failure to notify authorities of any new cases of plague would result in them being “burnt alive.” He also announced that all the property of those known to have brought the epidemic from another place would immediately be seized.

In the initial response to the pandemic, there were fanatics who thought they could stop the illness through xenophobic genocide. In Tárrega in Catalonia, “several men of the village whipped up the populace to a fever pitch,” convincing them that Jewish people were to blame and that they should be killed in revenge. Many were killed, and many more were driven from their homes. But these reactions were widely condemned, and quickly stamped out. Ultimately, communities understood that the only real hope for action against the Black Death came through coordinated, cross-border efforts. When surgeons in England and Italy shared their analyses internationally, or when the medical faculty at Paris advised towns across the continent to tackle poor hygiene, they showed that the best way of beating the global disease network was with the global knowledge network.

The Great Influenza (1918–1921)

In terms of raw numbers, the Great Influenza (c.1918–1921) was the deadliest pandemic in human history. The disease was first publicized by the Spanish media, earning it the nickname “Spanish Influenza,” although historians have suggested that it really began in the United States. It was both violently contagious and highly deadly. Infecting as much as a quarter of the global population, it carried a mortality rate of 10–20%. EBest estimates of the worldwide death toll stand at around 50 million, although this may be a gross underestimate. Unlike other forms of influenza, it disproportionately affected young people, pregnant women, and those with strong immune systems. Symptoms included fever, a severe headache, aching limbs, and delirium. Coughing was often so hard that it would rip the abdominal muscles, lasting until blood was pouring from the nose and even the ears. Death came after a few days, usually through pneumonia and suffocation.

When the pandemic first arrived in America in the Fall of 1918, many dismissed it as just another round of ordinary flu. “There is no occasion for panic,” said the Bridgeport Times on October 11th. “Influenza itself has a very low percentage of fatalities,” with only about “one death out of every 400 cases.” The newspaper even took the opportunity to exploit the crisis for some advertising funds. “Use Vick’s VapoRub,” it said, a remedy used “in over a million homes” that could be bought “in three sizes at all druggists.” Although deaths continued over the following month, the paper continued to spread the good news that VapoRub could help them at the first sign of influenza symptoms. It was only as deaths rose sharply in December that the paper finally gave an acknowledgement that “patent medicines should not be trusted” for treating the illness.

Federal authorities were a little more helpful in the initial stages of the crisis. Responding early, Rupert Blue, Surgeon General of the US Public Health Service, sent out advice to the media for people to “work, play and rest” to keep their bodies strong and keep illness at bay. Anybody continuing contact with an infected person, he said, should wear “a simple fold of gauze or mask” to protect from “dangerous disease germs”. These masks were soon seen everywhere, from New York and Memphis to London and Paris. The American medical community also made a decisive early effort to offer practical advice. An October 12th 1918 editorial in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, recommended that patients be “quarantined until all clinical manifestations of the attack” had subsided and temperature had “been normal for three successive days.” Those who threatened public health, they said, should be cordoned off in specialist hospital wards.

Yet, unsurprisingly, federal recommendations had little sway over state and civic authority. In practice, the American response consisted of a thousand different efforts, each one conducted locally, and each one a kind of “laboratory” for testing out how to fight the disease. Some cities, like Saint Louis, took a hardline approach, closing schools, bars, theatres, and stores, and banning public gatherings while cases were still in the low double figures. With this policy, as well as with the heroic initiatives of the local Red Cross, Saint Louis was able to limit its death toll to one of the lowest in the country. Yet this kind of action had obvious economic repercussions. As one observer in Iowa put it, “practically every owner of a movie show, restaurant, temp bar, dance hall, taxicab or other place of business … claims that the ‘flu’ has hit him hard.” Seeking to avoid the economic fallout, some cities were much looser, hoping that staggering the opening hours of businesses, while insisting on good hygiene, would be enough to hold back the tide. Boston waited thirteen days after the influenza death rate accelerated before imposing social distancing measures, and paid the price. Suffering one of the nation’s steepest mortality curves, the city lost an estimated 5,000 lives that quicker intervention could have saved.

Cincinnati’s erratic response dramatizes many of the social and economic dilemmas thrown up by the pandemic. Conscious of actions in other parts of the country, Mayor Galvin wanted to act immediately. He ordered a ban on all public and private meetings, whether indoors or outside, and insisted that all bars operate as takeaway only while there were still just fifteen officially reported cases. “There is no epidemic here,” he said. “We are doing what other cities should have done — We are preventing.” But, unfortunately for the mayor, fifteen turned out to have been an enormous underestimate. By November, the city had recorded 681 influenza deaths.

It was at this point that Cincinnati turned to a partial lockdown of the city. This was a policy with some recent precedent in American cities. During an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco in the 1890s, civic authorities sought to isolate infected neighborhoods, restricting trade and preventing residents from leaving. Yet this quarantine seemed to be more influenced by racial association than any genuine medical concern. Popular opinion had associated the disease with Chinese residents, and paranoia centered on “cleaning up” Chinatown. Bands of workers were sent to the houses of all Chinese people, regardless of their health, to fumigate them. As the San Francisco Chronicle observed, there was a “careful discrimination in fixing the line of embargo,” to the extent that “not one Caucasian doing business” was affected, while their “Asiatic neighbors” were “imprisoned within the lines.”

In Cincinnati the death rate began to slow, and thoughts returned to saving the city’s economy. Every day the mayor was bombarded by appeals to reopen businesses, many of them from people living in desperate poverty. On November 11th (Armistice Day), he finally caved. “The people are tired of hearing of influenza and want to forget it,” he announced. “The psychological time for raising the restrictions has arrived.” This was a great mistake. Within a week of schools reopening the disease came back with a vengeance, affecting children in particular. Reacting on the fly, the mayor issued a new order banning the city’s under-16s from all forms of public life. Every time there was a set of encouraging figures arguments raged again to lift restrictions, but ultimately the mayor held firm. Measures were finally relaxed in the final days of December, with the worst of the crisis over. Health authorities estimated that almost a quarter of Cincinnati’s population became infected over the last four months of 1918, attributing nearly 1,700 deaths to the influenza.


Tuberculosis (TB) — an airborne disease, caused by bacteria attacking the lungs — has always been a threat to human life. Analyzing remains from over four millennia ago, paleopathologists even identified TB in the bodies of several Egyptian mummies. Symptoms of the disease in its advanced stage, as shown in a bronze statuette of a beggar from third-century BCE Alexandria, can include spinal collapse, as well as fever, night sweats, rapid weight loss, and the coughing up of blood. For those who become ill, the mortality rate is around 15%.

TB erupted as an epidemic health crisis at several points throughout the twentieth century. In Ireland in 1904, it accounted for nearly one in every six recorded deaths. Doctors called for facilities to allow patients to be isolated in hospitals, urging that private wards, combined with the construction of new sanitoria, could “flatten the curve” of the outbreak. Yet the British government’s response to the request was half-hearted. Although ministers issued the Tuberculosis Act in 1908, only a handful of local Irish authorities adopted it. This was because, while it called for the construction of new TB sanatoria, it deferred costs entirely onto the individual Irish counties. As these were ill-equipped to pay, the act effectively undermined itself, and the disease continued to kill Irish people in vast numbers throughout the following decades.

Governmental strategy only changed with the heroic effort, in the 1940s and 50s, of Noël Browne. Both of Browne’s parents had died from the disease, and he himself was treated for it at a specialist sanitorium in England. After he recovered, Browne trained in medicine and then became a member of the reformist political party, Clann na Poblachta. Upon his election to the Dáil, Browne was immediately appointed Minister for Health. He introduced free mass-screenings for TB, and worked on developing a range of dedicated sanitoria, funded through sweepstakes lotteries and the strategic sale of government assets. Outstripping the facilities that saved his own life in England, Browne’s sanitoria offered patients comfortable beds in private rooms, sun verandas (onto which they were wheeled to enjoy fresh air), nutritious food, and the treat of two pints of Guinness every day. Cases of TB finally began to fall away, and by the 1970s there were only a handful reported throughout the country.

Britain also experienced upticks of TB at points throughout the early-mid 1900s. Although cases had been declining slightly in the 20s and 30s, increases during the war led to so much anxiety that the House of Commons considered seizing control of German sanitoria in Switzerland for the use of British patients. Although notable casualties included George Orwell, the disease disproportionately affected the impoverished, malnourished, and homeless of cities like London and Birmingham. The new National Health Service provided over 22,000 specially staffed beds, yet this was still not enough to meet the surge of cases. By July 1948, there were around 9,200 infected patients stuck on hospital waiting lists. Although many made private quarters for themselves at home, the government’s refusal to offer financial support for these remote patients meant they were unable to pay for additional care.

One person lucky enough to find a bed was Mary, a thirty-two-year-old professional from Bristol. After she was diagnosed, in late March 1944, she was immediately separated from her husband, Bill, and from her fifteen-month-old baby, Mark. She kept a diary, recording the pains of life in isolation. “My idea,” she said, “is to let off steam when I am fed up”. Separation from her baby boy was especially painful. “Mark already ignores me,” she wrote. “I think it is because I am in bed and I am a ‘stationary’ object.” She was also heartbroken at the thought of being unable to have a second child. But she was determined to remain upbeat, reminding herself that getting well was essential to her family’s happiness. As a way of coping, as well as a way of structuring her life alone, she gave herself a set of rules to follow.

      1. Never give way to self-pity. List the disadvantages and then, having conquered them, forget them. […]
      2. Always appear cheerful. Partly for self-discipline and partly because people will soon get sick of me if I don’t.
      3. Interest myself as much as possible in outside things — both world-wide, through the newspapers, books and also personal […]
      4. Try and improve my mind by reading and thinking … in preparation for trying to make some constructive contribution to the good of the world.
      5. Do not talk about myself and my illness.
      6. Do not organize other people [from the bed] […]
      7. Reconcile myself to avoid movement myself.
      8. Later on, try writing articles […]

Mary was given the all-clear in October, and by late November she was back to cooking, shopping, and doing housework, although she still avoided “polishing, washing or ironing.” But one day the following January, while she was relaxing in the lounge after dinner, she began coughing up blood. The disease had returned. Her next spell in hospital lasted for seventeen months, followed by two years of regular trips back for monitoring and medication. In the Spring of 1949, doctors finally advised her that she was safe to get pregnant again, and she gave birth to her second baby on February 9, 1950. She went on to live, disease-free, to the age of 86.

Countries such as Ireland and the UK, which rolled out vaccines to all school leavers in 1952, were ultimately able to bring TB under control only with the concerted reform of their health systems. But the disease is still far from gone. In fact, it remains the deadliest infectious illness in the world today. In 2018 alone, TB claimed the lives of 1.5 million people, 95% of them in the developing world. The BCG vaccine, developed first in the 1920s, continues to offer the best chance for protection, while antibiotic regimens offer the chance of cure. Efforts by the WHO and the CDC to inoculate communities in the Global South have saved more than fifty million lives in the past two decades. Nevertheless, the struggle depends on extending expert medical support, and making healthcare accessible and affordable for vulnerable populations worldwide.


If we can learn anything from these moments of history, it is that individual resilience, communal spirit, and an informed cross-border leadership have always been the best hopes for overcoming a pandemic. Strong and decisive governmental measures have also been essential, particularly in the face of economic and business pressures. The isolation of cases has long been effective in limiting the spread of infection, although these have typically required the kind of spending that some administrations have balked at paying. Lockdowns have also been crucial, when adopted early, although these measures have often carried excessive exclusionary politics of their own. Ultimately, it is sobering to be reminded that pandemics have rarely been overcome simply. Wars with diseases are wars of attrition, requiring patience and commitment to get through. Seeing ourselves as true historical subjects, we might be able to put the inevitable losses and damages we face from Covid 19 into some perspective. Like others in the past we will suffer, but, like others in the past, we will rebuild to fight again.


picojoule /

Searching for Paradise in Medieval Europe

Where is paradise, exactly? In the European Middle Ages (c.500–1500), there were several plausible answers: A) A garden, at the far east of China; B) An island in the Atlantic Ocean; C) A chain of planets and stars, beginning with the moon; D) A mountain top, located inverse to Jerusalem on the globe; E) A golden city in a cloud.

Giovanni di Paolo, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise (1445), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Between these answers was an important distinction. “Paradise” had very different connotations to “heaven.” While paradise (paradisus) could signify either a terrestrial or a celestial home for virtuous souls, heaven (caelum) in medieval theology only ever referred to a space (like the chain of stars) that stood apart from earth. The difference in their implications was therefore enormous. While heaven lay beyond the parameters of perception and comprehension, paradise was something that could conceivably be inhabited in the present life. It was a place that chivalrous knights might discover, in the course of their explorations or adventures. It was a holy city, the first buildings of which might already have been built. And it was a territory, for apocalyptic and millennial thinkers especially, that might soon expand to encompass all true Christians everywhere. If heaven was always a fantasy of life after death, paradise was often taken as a blueprint for a coming society on earth.

How far did paradise function as a political paradigm in the medieval world? If we are talking about paradise as an earthly garden, according to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben the answer is a qualified “not much” (Il Regno e il Giardino, pp.68–71). As a place of withdrawal, relaxation, and reflection, the garden worked more as a laboratory for theologians to explore human nature than as a useful testing ground for modes of human society. Agamben does highlight the work of Dante Alighieri (d.1321), whose Eden at the top of Mount Purgatory, he says, was a model of virtue and communal love that implicated a wider political community. But this was a rare exception. As Agamben concludes, the garden of paradise had little influence on politics in the medieval period.

Yet in the form of the heavenly city, paradise was much easier to connect to political life. This was not only because the coming city was often confused with the already existing Jerusalem. As an idealized and sanctified image of urban life, it acted as a space in which fantasies of social renewal could be explored, insulated by the defense that this was not a political program but rather the will of God.

“The New Jerusalem” from the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Jean de Bondol, c.1373–1387

What was the society of the heavenly city supposed to look like? Augustine of Hippo (d.430) gave a succinct answer to this question. Paradise, he said, was a city that accommodated and harmonized the lifestyles and customs of diverse citizens under a stable Christian leadership.

“This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.”

Augustine, City of God, 19: 17

This “sojourn” on earth was meant in both a spiritual and literal sense. Linking the heavenly city with its earthly imitators, Augustine’s coming paradise was connected directly with present prescriptions for good governance. If a city practiced peace and inclusivity, then by his implication it could be numbered among the “Cities of God” on earth.

By the 1100s, however, opinion on the diversity of paradise was becoming divided. While some maintained that it would be uniform, with all souls looking and acting the same, others saw it as being defined by further variety and difference. Bishop Otto of Freising (d.1141) was a writer firmly in the uniformity camp. According to Otto, who wrote an epic history of the world that included the future alongside the past and present, paradise would make all humans look nearly alike. On this “new earth,” he said, souls would enjoy “new bodies for a new use, purified, by the removal of every inequality and of all uncleanness, to the likeness of the paradise of God.” He briefly contemplated the possibility that women would become men in this afterlife, before rejecting the idea as a philosophical mistake. Yet he did insist that these “new bodies” would follow a normative ideal. While people would tend towards the same weight and height, those with acne would lose their spots, and Ethiopians would apparently shed their blackness and become white. (The Two Cities, 8: 12).

Despite his uniformity, Otto insisted on the heavenly city’s diversity of wealth. “It cannot be that [souls] all in like manner enjoy equally that eternal blessedness,” he wrote, defying unnamed scholars who, he claimed, had argued otherwise. The “many mansions” promised by God in the Gospel of John were, just like earthly mansions, to be of different sizes and qualities. Otto even suggested that these heavenly inequalities would reflect inequalities on earth. Quoting God’s words to Moses, “See that you make all things after their pattern,” Otto implied that the hierarchy of his contemporary society was made immutable by its resemblance to the feudalism of the angels and saints. (The Two Cities, 8: 29).

Fra Angelico (attributed), The Dominican Blessed (detail), c.1420, National Gallery, London

At the other end of the spectrum was the white canon, Anselm of Havelberg (d.1158). If Anselm was a theologian of anything in particular, then it was diversity. He had been a follower of the radical reformer Norbert of Xanten (d.1134), and took it as his great cause to preach fluidity and change in the Church. God was “multiform” in the distribution of his gifts (multiplex in multifaria donorum suorum), he insisted, and the Holy Spirit was “divided and articulated” among a great variety of “different members” (diversa membra diversis). Most of all, Anselm argued that this diversity of being would multiply in the coming city of paradise, a space that would come to earth in the imminent “seventh stage of the Church.” Hosting a “variety” of blessed souls, the earthly paradise would reflect “not mutability in God,” but rather “the fragility of the human race and the changing of times from generation to generation.” (Anticimenon, 1: 13).

Another question that occupied theologians in the central decades of the 1100s was the social organization of paradise. If it was to be a city, would it function like one? And if so, would it replicate the business pace and velocity of cities on earth? Again, theologians were divided. Taking a more traditional approach was the monk Bernard of Cluny (fl.1140s), whose De contemptu mundi featured a partly satirical snapshot of a wanderer’s preview of heaven. His pilgrim described paradise as a city “without business,” and “without aspiration,” where the only occupation was singing (Tota negotia, cantica dulcia dulce tonare). Bernard’s heavenly city existed “without time” (urbs sine tempore), as a privileged place of perpetual rest for angels, martyrs, saints, and the elite souls who had deserved to enjoy their company.

Civitas Dei Mosaic, c.800, Palatine Chapel, Aachen, Germany

Quite different from this was the view offered by Honorius of Autun, the eccentric preacher and theologian. A famous popularizer of high theology, Honorius wrote handbooks on the basics of the faith that were widely circulated throughout Europe in the third and fourth decades of the 1100s. His most lengthy account of the heavenly city appears in his Elucidarium, a text framed (like Plato’s works) as a dialogue between a Master and his Disciple. After the Disciple enquires about the nature of heavenly beatitude,Honorius’s Master distinguishes between the earthly garden of paradise and what he calls the “kingdom of heaven.” While this kingdom offers a sensual overload, with delightful sounds and fragrances, he gives it the unmistakable quality of a modern cityscape. It contains a thronging “multitude of handsome men and women” (multitudinem virorum ac mulierum speciosarum), all appreciating “splendid buildings” (praeclara aedificia), he says. More curiously, his heaven seems to function with capital and possessions. In this city, the Master explains, the blessed souls will “possess lots of money, and a range of items” (multam pecuniam et variam supellectilem possidere). Presumably, his heavenly city worked as an economy, trading the endless cycle of pleasures — the garments, incenses, pigments and spices, and the entertainments and shows — that Honorius describes in so much detail.

In terms of framing social relations on earth, all these images of paradise may seem to offer contrasting perspectives. Within the tension between Otto of Freising and Anselm of Havelberg over the diversity of paradise, we can detect an important difference over how to integrate ordinary people into the hierarchy of an ideal city. And between the heavenly cityscapes of Bernard of Cluny and Honorius of Autun, we see a disagreement over the mechanics of redistributing wealth in paradise. 

Yet we should not dismiss Otto’s coming paradise so quickly. Although it might culminate in a physically and biologically non-diverse heaven, his city of paradise would first arrive to transform the social and material conditions of the present life.

“The city, therefore, is said to come down out of heaven because, by a mysterious ordering of the divine plan, that incomparable crown is to come to the notice of the elect not only by knowledge but also by experience.”

Otto of Freising, The Two Cities, 8: 26

Instead of a dramatic superimposition of community, Otto’s paradise would come through a gradual unfolding into — and transformation of — earthly society. It would manifest through a pattern of new community, one that would dawn on the faithful as they began to experience it. Otto further explains this mysterious process with the image, drawn from Revelation, comparing the heavenly city to the bride of Christ. Like that bride, he said, “creation” (or the world around us) would be “fashioned anew” through the process of building the city of God.

The Effects of Good City Government, Fresco, Siena, c.1338-9.

What might any of these points of view have to do with “democratic” forms of living? In the case of Otto of Freising, paradise may seem closer to an autocracy. With God at its apex, it maintains many of the feudal hierarchies that characterized the social structure of twelfth-century Europe. On closer inspection, however, Otto’s description of the heavenly city’s gradual unfolding implies a radical democratization. Cutting across social boundaries, it is exclusively built through the action of empowered citizens, of all classes, who become agents in the forging of the new kingdom.

“Some of these, dwelling in cities, in castles, in villages and in the countryside, impart to their neighbours by word and by example the rule of right living… [After a brother fails in some way] they mutually correct one another in love.”

Otto of Freising, The Two Cities, 7: 33

Functioning on principles of communal love, Otto’s coming city reveals a fantasy of an unrealized medieval democracy. Yet it is a fantasy based on discipline and repression. Binding themselves to rules of humility and inner virtue (resembling the restrictive protocols of ideal medieval lovers), Otto’s new citizens would find freedom in limitation. His democracy of collective empowerment does not look so much like an opening up of limitless enjoyment. Rather, it appears to be a gradual radiation, throughout the whole world, of a monastic rule of life.

Wall-building, Limits, and Intentionality

Welcome to the first blogpost of the Laboratories of Democracy multidisciplinary research team. Taking our name from US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s well-known experimental metaphor describing the US states as “laboratories of democracy,” our research investigates how democracy is practiced, experimented with, and experienced today. In our first blogpost, Zachary Reyna (political theory) explores the often-paradoxical tension between democratic practices and wall-building.


I spent a week earlier this month on the Greek island of Zakynthos—just a hop and a skip from Odysseus’ beloved Ithaca nestled in the Ionian Sea. Approaching Zakynthos by ferry, the island looks like a slumbering lithic dragon curled up on a sea-blue blanket. Clouds like smoke gather in a lethargic skirt around its peaks and the rocky seashore juts into the uncannily turquoise water like the ridge of the serpent’s arched back (or a massive serrated knife). From a distance, the gnarled olive and scruffy cypress peppering the landscape look like lichen clinging to the scales of the long-sleeping beast.

I spent the week grading, writing, and preparing for the Communal Studies Association annual conference (Winterthur, Delaware), but I also had the chance to rent a motorbike and cross the island. I was captivated by the numerous stone-walls that crisscross the island, and was repeatedly returned—almost as if by the walls themselves—to two tensions that animate my interest in the Laboratories of Democracy team research: 1) the tension between walls/boundaries/limits as simultaneously restrictive and generative, and, relatedly, 2) the tension between isolation and activism. But first, back to the walls.

The walls are almost entirely grayish-white, composed of the rough—even at times sharp—carbonate stones (limestone and others) that are ubiquitous on the island. Most of the walls are no more than four feet high and vary in width from one to three feet. Many of the walls look to be in an extreme state of disrepair. Olive trees seem to have a penchant for winding their roots right into the walls and unless you have a watchful eye it is very easy to mistake the lion’s share of walls for a natural, or non-intentional, feature. There are two main types of walls. The first serve as retainer walls and are built right into the side of the hill allowing for a terraced effect, presumably for farming reasons. The second appear to form corrals or mark the boundary between pastures. This latter type of wall is free-standing. When puttering by on a motorbike, it is not hard to imagine that the walls are the old, worn chains used to bound the dragon and tame it.

Walls and boundaries—and in particular, Greek walls—have long held the imagination of political thinkers.[1] Walls both limit and restrict on the one hand, impeding or even halting the movement of bodies, defining an inside and an outside, or what Carl Schmitt has called the friend-enemy distinction; and, protect, facilitate, and generate on the other hand, creating a space in which certain activities can come into being. A good example is the walls of a house. These walls do not only restrict the flow of inclement weather and unwelcomed bodies both human and nonhuman, but they also foster and even create modes of domestic living that would be impossible on the open plain. The Western social imaginary is replete with images of walls, boundaries, and limits. In the Abrahamic traditions, the first divine act of creation is one of boundary-drawing: setting a limit to the darkness of night and giving a boundary to the sea. And on Hannah Arendt’s rereading of Western political thought, the wall is the sine qua non of politics, the nomos or walls of the ancient Greek city-state. For Arendt, without the walls and laws protecting, defining, and structuring the city-state, the space of appearance in which politics can emerge and take place would not only be ephemeral but impossible, bereft of the very stage on which it could appear.

Yet today, and in part because of these theoretical-theological origins, few things sound as reactionary—even nationalistic—as wall-building, limits, restrictions, and “law and order.” One might think here of US President Trump’s building of a border wall between the US and Mexico along with his rhetoric of “law and order,” or the EU’s recent austerity measures, but one can also think of the response to environmental activist calls to limit CO2 emissions or population growth. In all these cases, the limit or boundary—even if intended for progressive purposes—is cast as reactionary and authoritarian: the desire to return to an often-mythologized past of stability and harmony.

And yet, what do we lose when we abandon the rhetoric of the limit, of the boundary, of law and order to the reactionary forces of society? The Greek walls of Zakynthos—and its leisurely Mediterranean climate—were a good injunction to follow this thought. One could literally amble along the walls, over brush and thicket, following the line of thought… Around me on Zakynthos surged a mass of northern European vacationers all pumping money into the local economy while capitalizing on the warm weather, plentiful beach scene, and relatively cheap accommodations. Unlike in Athens, most of the locals I observed on the island seemed to live in relative, even if spartan, comfort. Furthermore, the island’s infrastructure, including its roads, was all quite well-kept (even if I would have preferred a few more guardrails around the narrow mountain turns). And yet the stone-walls were almost all in seeming disrepair—sometimes appearing merely like the victim of time’s slow march under the ceaseless circuit of the Ionian sun, and other times appearing deliberately mined for their material.

Standing there in silent majesty, the deteriorating walls seemed to harken to a time past, to a time before the tourism industry and globalized capital, to a time when walls and limits did not merely restrict, but facilitated, to a time when “nature, red in tooth and claw,” needed to be tamed and bounded to be put to human use. And yet, while the stone-walls seemed to attest to human control of the natural environment, they also dissolve into that environment. Made of the same stuff as the island itself, the walls were at times almost imperceptible and I am sure I zipped past many without the slightest awareness. The stone-walls of Zakynthos make me ask: in our contemporary era of globalized capitalism with its rhetoric of limitlessness, what role do walls/boundaries/limits continue to play? And if wall-building has been nearly wholly coopted by reactionary forces in our contemporary world can (and should) it be reclaimed for leftist, egalitarian politics?

Over sixty years ago, in the aftermath of her own encounter with the forces of nationalism and authoritarianism, the political theorist Hannah Arendt began The Human Condition with a meditation on limits and boundaries. Writing just a year after the successful launch of Sputnik, Arendt offers a brief but insightful reflection on the cultural and political meaning of humankind’s first forays beyond the limits of the Earth. Arendt claims that the success of Sputnik in escaping the boundaries of Planet Earth marked an unrivaled event in human history that exceeded even the splitting of the atom and its nuclear geopolitical implications. Yet, as Arendt astutely notes, it was not triumph or joy that attended this event, but “relief.” Arendt writes, “The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’ And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s greatest scientists: ‘Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.’” 

Fast-forward some six decades and our preoccupation with escaping limits and boundaries has only seemed to accelerate: we look for limitless energy in the wind, sun, and water, dream of limitless posthuman futures in technological advances, pine for unlimited democratic inclusion, accumulate cordless charging stations and limitless data plans for our wireless mobile devices, and of course, motor our economies on a rhetoric of limitless growth. Especially on the left, the limit, boundary, and, I want to add here, intentionality, do not fare well (more below). Indeed, as a political concept, the limit or boundary, just like the planned or intentional economy, is routinely opposed to the hallmarks of contemporary left theorizing: potentiality (Hardt & Negri 2005; Agamben 1999), pluralism (Connolly 2005), and multiplicity (Deleuze & Guattari 1987). Nothing sounds as backwards and simple-minded today as the invocation of the limit, the boundary, the intentional prohibition. Indeed, it seems only Bible-thumping fundamentalists, crazed doomsday environmentalists, and jingoistic rhetoric invoke limits. From the center right to radical left comes a nearly unanimous denunciation of limits. “Drill, baby, drill!”—the 2008 US Republican National Convention slogan invoking a limitless lust for and equally limitless demand of oil—merges uncomfortably well with Judith Butler’s more recent injunction to the radical left to “demand the impossible.” Nothing seems more anti-egalitarian and less utopian than the limit and the disciplining of desire.

The deteriorating stone-walls of Zakynthos seem to reflect our contemporary disdain for walls and limits. And yet almost paradoxically—as Wendy Brown has perceptively observed in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty—we witness alongside this disdain for walls and globalized capital push, a contemporary resurgence of nation-state wall-building that has only taken on more brash forms since Brown published her book in 2010. I want to conclude this first blogpost with a series of questions that I hope to flesh out within the larger research framework of the Laboratories of Democracy project.

First, the stone-walls that crisscross Zakynthos while melding into the landscape raise for me the question of intentionality. The stone-walls are undoubtedly intentional constructs and yet at the same time, in part because of their deteriorating state, in part because of my own ignorance of historical agricultural practices on the island, and in part because of the very material from which are they are made, the walls seem almost natural. As I mentioned above, often for the untrained eye, the walls are almost impossible to discern, appearing like a natural feature of the landscape rather than an intentional human-made construct. The walls thus simultaneously stand as a token of intentionality even as they materially and historically problematize the intentional—unintentional (artificial—natural) dichotomy. In an article I published last year on Aquinas and his understanding of law as ligament and nature as a boundary-drawing activity rather than a universal normative foundation, I used Aquinas to probe the boundary between the so-called “artificial” and “natural” (see, In their own way, the walls of Zakynthos perform a similar probing.

As Louis Althusser has argued in his work on Montesquieu and Rousseau, modern Western political theory begins with the radical intentional creation of an artificial community through the mechanism of the social contract in contradistinction to the natural filiations of feudalism. However, since at least Marx’s time, the left in particular has been critical of intentionality and planned utopian communities, or what David Leopold has called Marx and Engels’ “utopophobia” (2016). Intentionality is criticized here for a number of reasons: that it is elitist, authoritarian, and non-democratic; that it excludes rather than includes; that it fragments political power rather than builds coalitions; that it is escapist, creating gated utopias rather than pursuing a more radical democratic politics; that it is a historically-situated bourgeois value that is both closed-off to others and mired in a particular worldview. Rather than shying away from these criticisms, I want to approach them head-on.  To do so, I have begun empirical research on intentional utopian communities. The Foundation for Intentional Community defines an intentional community (IC) as: “a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, a suburban home, or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings” (Kozeny). I recently began this empirical research through a series of in-depth, semi-structured, informal interviews at the annual Communal Studies Association conference of IC practitioners and scholars. I hope to continue this fieldwork in the spring and summer of 2020 with Anna Varfolomeeva with an onsite study. My working hypothesis is that what is political about ICs is their intentionality and that it is precisely the practice of intentionality—of having and giving intentions, of working within boundaries, of setting and holding to limits; namely, law’s boundary-setting function—that must be renewed in critical politics and reclaimed from nationalistic politics (Nersessian 2015).

Second, the stone-walls of Zakynthos highlight for me the question of walls’ dual function—as both restricting and generating. The legal theorist Peter Fitzpatrick has described law as the dynamic between restriction or determination and facilitation or responsiveness. Both boundary-setting and boundary-breaching, law for Fitzpatrick is animated by the tension between bounding and bonding, between limiting and connecting (2001). In political discourse today—and we don’t just have Trump to thank for this—walls have an overwhelmingly reactionary and excluding force. Walls are built to exclude migrant hordes, to protect that which is on the inside, to limit and bring stability. Yet what is the radical potential of wall- building? And more to the point, is there any? Do limits only become generative in their erasure or is there a positive radicality of limits? If politics is about making distinctions and boundary-drawing is a radically democratic and egalitarian politics automatically foreclosed? These are question I have begun to raise with Anne Mulhall drawing on Gorgio Agamben’s discussion of potentiality and impotentiality.

This last set of questions is related to a third and final question that the walls of Zakynthos raise for me even as it returns to the first. Namely, just as walls create a separation, I am interested in exploring the political benefits and pitfalls of separatist autonomy practiced in isolation. If leftist “utopophia” is right in suspecting the fragmenting and escapist tendencies of intentional communities, I am interested in asking what the benefits might be. To this end and working alongside Peter Jones’s work on the political influence of monastic medieval communities, I am beginning to inquire into the political potential of concepts and practices such as refuge and sanctuary. How does one practice and perform separateness? What are the wider political benefits of practicing separateness?

With the stone-walls of Zakynthos receding into the background (and alas the Mediterranean clime too), I turn now to a new quarter of teaching and research in wintry Siberia. Still though, the walls stubbornly endure, a testament of the generativity of rubble and a goad to further think through a politics of intentionality at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Stay tuned for more posts, updates, and podcasts from the Laboratories of Democracy research team!

Zachary Reyna,

[1] See Hannah Arendt’s reflections on nomos and lex in The Promise of Politics, as well as Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth; Peter Fitzpatrick’s account of law as a “shoring up” and “breaching” process (Modernism 2001); Deleuze and Guattari’s meditation on nomos, nomads, and straited space (A Thousand Plateaus); and Derrida’s concept of limitrophy (The Animal that Therefore I Am).

Laboratories of Democracy

This is the blog of the Laboratories of Democracy multidisciplinary research team at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen (Russia). Composed of five international scholars from Ireland, Russia, the UK, and the US, the blog will be our forum for regular topic posts, research updates, and podcast. Thanks for visiting!