Almost from the moment that the Covid-19 virus began to spread in Hubei province in China, public discourses about the disease have focused on its geographical origins. As it swept westward to Europe and the USA, the geographical source of the virus became widely politicised. Even when challenged publicly on this point, President Trump has insisted on referring to Covid-19 in speeches and press conferences as ‘the Chinese virus’, while the term ‘Wuhan virus’ has been adopted by members of the US administration, and the derogatory ‘Kung Flu’ has been shared on social media. To an historian interested in identity formation, this desire to label threats according to geographical profiling is nothing new. As a medievalist, I am particularly struck by contemporary congruences about perceptions of the sources of danger and pestilence. It is, of course, a fact that Covid-19 originated in China, just as the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century spread from central Asia to Europe. Yet both in the Middle Ages and today, the source of disease as ‘eastern’ played into fears about existential threats posed by ‘the east’ less as specific geography than as dangerous ‘other’.
It did not take the spread of a disease to bring these ideas to the fore in the Middle Ages. In the mid-eleventh century the monastic chronicler Ralph Glaber described a famine ‘that ravaged the whole earth.’ This famine, he declared, ‘began in the east, and after devastating Greece passed to Italy and thence to Gaul and the whole English people.’ Famine, to Ralph, had a pathology in the same way as disease: not only did it require a geographical point of origin, but that point was ‘the east.’
One of the contemporary chroniclers of the First Crusade (1095-9), the French monk Guibert of Nogent, began his account with a reflection on the dangers posed by the east. The east, to Guibert, was an amorphous region that gave rise to all kinds of threats, both spiritual and bodily. It was no coincidence, he thought, that the Turks, the enemies of Christendom, came from the east, a place of confusion, doubt and error. Moreover, Christians living in the east were unable to combat this because they were weakened in body and mind by the lighter atmosphere of the eastern climate. The overriding psychological characteristic of eastern people, according to Guibert, was ‘lightness’ (levitas). This made eastern people, of whatever religion, clever and argumentative, but psychologically and spiritually unstable, and physically weaker than westerners whose blood was heavier. In consequence it fell to Europeans to rally to defend Truth by taking up arms to recapture Jerusalem. The motif of the easterner as essentially ‘unstable’ resonated among medieval Europeans. The early thirteenth century bishop James of Vitry echoed this view when he described Arabic-speaking indigenous Christians as inherently untrustworthy and mendacious, ‘prone to saying one thing while thinking another’.
The idea that western Europeans bore the burden of responsibility for ensuring stability in a dangerous world informed the historical viewpoint of the Cistercian monk and chronicler Otto of Freising (1114-58). Otto’s book The Two Cities was written as guidance for his nephew, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. Otto was convinced that successful and wise rulership was only possible if rulers knew their history (and who would argue with that?). Otto saw the history of human society as a geographical progression form east to west. Civilization had begun in the (Middle) east among the Assyrians, but had passed successively westwards to the Greeks, then the Romans, and now lay with western Europeans, whose task it now was to maintain Christian rulership as an earthly simulacrum of heavenly order.
Medieval Europeans were deeply ambivalent about ‘the east’. Otto of Freising was one of the earliest writers to comment on the legendary priest-king of the Indies, Prester John. This figure, fabulously wealthy and powerful, represented and transmitted a kind of fantasy world for medieval Europeans. At the height of the legend, Prester John was thought to rule over vast territories populated by fabulous flora and fauna, in which precious stones with magical properties could be picked up from river beds. The east was objectified as a place of marvels and wonders unknown in the West, a place of wealth and the source of the spices that Europeans were starting to crave in their diets. But it was also as a place of danger: the spices were guarded by fabulous beasts that included poisonous reptiles, snakes and dragons. Gerald of Wales, describing Ireland in the late twelfth century, contrasted its homely and pleasant but rather tame landscape with the east. There may be no marvels, no precious gems and no spices in Ireland, Gerald acknowledged, but at least one did not have to watch out for danger with the approach of every animal.
A hundred years after Gerald was writing, some Europeans were experiencing the East for themselves. But even the largely factual reports of Marco Polo and others could not dispel the idea that the east was the origin of unpredictable and uncontrollable marvels. One of the most widely-read books of the late Middle Ages, the Travels of John Mandeville, deliberately mixed heavy doses of this kind of fabulous material into an account of travel purporting to be factual. It seems that Medieval Europeans wanted their east to remain a place of fantasy even after more rational truths were available. What might seem merely absurd, even amusing, as a set of attitudes among people hundreds of years ago, however, is far from innocent in the twenty-first century. Social media posts about Covid-19 being the inevitable consequence of exotic Chinese tastes for bat soup and other supposedly ‘traditional’ delicacies using wild food play into stereotypes of the ‘oriental other’. Historians, especially, should know where such racial profiling can lead.
Andrew Jotischky is Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research has focused on religion, especially Christianity, in the middle ages and his publications include Crusading and the Crusader States (2004), A Hermit’s Cookbook (2011) and, with Keith J. Stringer, The Normans and the Norman Edge (2019).