It’s been a while since I’ve submitted an installment of my runaway hit blog series “We’ve Seen This Before.” An email flooded in this week asking if a new installment was in the works (thanks, honey) so I thought I’d tap out another one of these little exercises in historical perspective.
I wrote the first of these back in September of last year when the nation was fully in the throes of the Ebola panic. As you may recall, at the height of EbolaFest 2014 (U.S. headquarters, Dallas, TX), a lot of folks were convinced that at least three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were already saddled up with their steeds impatiently pawing at the ground.
For this episode, I want you to imagine you’re living outside of London in the middle part of the 17th Century—let’s say 1660.
From your vantage point just outside one of western civilization’s largest cities, you are increasingly certain that all four of the world’s wheels have come off and that the planet is careening out of control down history’s freeway on rims—sparks flying—as God the Driver laughs maniacally with His hands off of the steering wheel.
Today, historians politely refer to this period as The General Crisis—a period characterized, as Wikipedia tells us, by “a widespread break-down in politics, economics and society caused by a complex series of demographic, religious, economic and political problems.”
But in 1650 this era is more commonly known to you and other people living through it as simply, “All the poop, hitting all the fans, all the time.”
Speaking of the Horsemen . . . War, Famine, Pestilence & Death pretty much own the 17th Century like a boss . . . actually like four, cruel, remorseless, sadistic bosses.
Beginning in 1618, the “Thirty Years War” starts as a slap fight between Catholics and Protestants in Germany but soon engulfs almost every nation on the continent and drowns everyone in blood. People obviously won’t start calling it “The Thirty Years War” until it is officially over in 1648 and someone does the math. Prior to this, everyone in Europe just calls it “Life.” . . . “In Hell.”
The war bankrupts all the participating nations; leaves one-third to one-half of the population dead in many regions; devastates the local economies and agriculture; and just generally tees everything up nicely for the next rider . . . Pestilence.
Thirty years of war wasn’t enough, however. On your little island, and all over the world, its still all wars and rumors of wars all the time. In quick succession, your home country, England, experiences the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639–51), The Protectorate civil war (1653-59), and the Glorious Revolution (1688) is just a few years away.
Scores of other bloody, little wars rage around the world, as well. France is in a full-blown civil war called The Fronde (Oh, the French. Only they could come up with such a precious name for an ugly war.) You read in The Times that the Ming Dynasty in China has collapsed, after ruling most of Asia for three centuries.
For a couple of hundred years you and your ancestors have been watching plagues sweep through Europe and England–wiping out appalling numbers of people each time. Cheerily labeled The Black Death, this scourge has killed, by some estimates, 200 million people. It’s hard to say because the few people who can count that high keep dying. In one particularly busy five year period, it kills nearly 50 percent of Europe’s population.
In your own neck of the woods, you watch the plague tear London a new one in 1665, killing roughly 100,000 people.
As if Nature weren’t already being enough of a complete rectum, you and the rest of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere are also contending with completely off-the-hook, too-outlandish-for-Hollywood climate change, leading to lots and lots of awesome . . .
Scientists in the 21st century will have an adorable name for your era—“The Little Ice Age.” The world experienced a period of ridiculously cold weather throughout a 300-year period beginning in about 1550. That’s right, everyone everywhere pretty much froze their hindquarters off for three centuries. But Nature has saved the very worst of it for your generation. Climate researchers point to 1650 as the “climactic minimum” of the Little Ice Age.
Minimum being a technical, scientific term for being able to walk across the Thames River every winter because it is frozen solid.
For your entire life, not only have winters been bone-crunchingly long and cold, but the summers have been absurdly cool and short. Think puny harvests and outright crop failure. And not just for a year or even two. But year after year; decade after decade. The world is a cold, cold place and no one alive can remember when it wasn’t.
On top of everything else, the price of everything you need to survive is soaring. One of the things that made The General Crisis of the 17th century so chock-full of crisis-y goodness was runaway inflation.
End Times Expectancy
Not surprisingly, this perfect storm of misery, cataclysm and death has you and everybody else convinced that the End of Days is at hand. You’ve not only read The Apocalypse of St. John—you’ve been living the movie, over and over—Ground Hog Day style.
Numerous candidates for the Anti-Christ are put forth in widely circulated pamphlets and condemned from countless pulpits.
Of course, you’re taking all this in from your vantage point in Maidenhead, England—a few miles west of London, population 500,000—in the Year of Our Lord 1665. Toward the end of the year you look at your day planner and realize that next year is 1666.
Could this be it? Will this be the year? It would have to be wouldn’t it? The flipping Mark of the Beast in right there in the date! And don’t think that others in this era haven’t noticed. In fact, the English poet John Dryden has declared the year 1666 an annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders,” precisely because of the foreboding 666 number in the year.
So you enter the new year filled with dread and expectancy. Horrible day follows horrible day. But it’s the normal horrible, you know, Black Death, war, inflation, cold and political turmoil. You’re beginning to think you’re going to get through this year without any extra-horrible wonders. Then September rolls around and . . .
Yep. That’s right. On the night of September 2 you look to the east and it looks like the sun is rising 12 hours early. But not to worry, it’s just massive, uncontrollable fire roaring through the heart of London. It will burn for three days. And before it’s done the beast will have devoured 13,200 houses and 87 churches, including the jewel in London’s crown, St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Here in the year 1666—the year of wonders—you watch one of the world’s great cities go up in flames. And as far as you know in that moment, all the other world’s great cities are probably burning, too. This is it. Didn’t St. Peter say it would be “by fire next time?”
Think we’re living in crazy times? Perhaps. But crazy is relative.
We’ve seen this before.