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BMJ. 2007 September 22; 335(7620): 617.
PMCID: PMC1989014
Between the Lines

That's life—and death

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

What fails to happen is sometimes as important as what does happen. This is most famously (and felicitously) expressed in Dr Conan Doyle's story Silver Blaze:

“Is there anything to which you would like to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Likewise, as every married couple knows, what is unsaid is often as important as what is said. And what historians omit from, or do not emphasise in, their accounts of the past tells us much about the mentality of their own times.

In the philosopher David Hume's The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, we are told that in the year 1349, in the middle of the Hundred Years' War, Edward III instituted the Order of the Garter with considerable fanfare. But, Hume continues: “ . . . a sudden damp was thrown over the festivity . . . by a destructive pestilence which invaded the kingdom, as well as the rest of Europe, and is computed to have swept away nearly a third of the inhabitants in every country which it attacked. It was probably more fatal in great cities than in the country; and above fifty thousand souls are said to have perished in London alone . . . So great a calamity, more than the pacific dispositions of the princes, served to maintain and prolong the peace between France and England.”

And that, in effect, is the only thing Hume has to say on the subject of an epidemic that caused the death of a third of the population.

This is not a view of history that would find much favour today. We live in an age of obsession with health, when the deaths of a few people are sufficient to spark a panic worldwide. How could Hume have passed over the Black Death with such apparent unconcern and equanimity?

One possible explanation is that he was callous and indifferent to the fate of the great mass of mankind. I do not think this is very likely, however, for few people who knew him had anything bad to say of Hume. In his letter to William Strachan about their mutual friend, Adam Smith says: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him [Hume] . . . as approaching as nearly the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.”

Since both Hume and Smith wrote feelingly of the benefits of human sympathy, and made it indeed the basis of their moral philosophy, it is unlikely that Hume was merely hard hearted when he wrote so little of the Black Death.

I remember reading a book a long time ago about the London of Hume's day by Dorothy M George. A single statistic so startled me that I have never forgotten it: that a half of all children in the London of that time died before the age of 5. If it had not been for the constant influx of people from outside the city, the population of London would have fallen rather than risen.

In these circumstances, everyone in Hume's day must have had a close personal acquaintance with death, and therefore the events of 1349 must have seemed correspondingly less terrible than to us, who have so much difficulty in grasping the fact of our own mortality.

It is unlikely that Hume was merely hard hearted when he wrote so little of the Black Death


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