Time Travel and the Black Death

Author’s Note: In this series of columns (see the first one here and the second here) I am using various works of science fiction and fantasy to consider some of the ethical issues generated by our current situation.


As I write this, the weather is warming and the pandemic appears to be slowing, but we are being told to be wary of new, more infectious variants of COVID that may or may not evade the defenses offered by vaccines, and that COVID may become endemic, like the flu, reappearing on a yearly basis.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Published in 1992, Willis’ book has appeared in a number of editions and the Spectator is having some fun presenting them.

I have been thinking about the possible futures open to us — one in which, for example, COVID disappears; one in which it becomes endemic but infects fewer people as more and more of us get vaccines and develop antibodies; and one in which COVID is simply the first of many pandemic diseases that will appear in our lifetimes —  and how our society and our world will be shaped as one of these possible futures unfolds. I have also been thinking about the relationship between illness, mortality and the ethical dimensions of our interactions with one another.

These thoughts were prompted by a fascinating novel by Connie Willis called Doomsday Book. First published in 1992, Doomsday Book is set in a future in which time travel has been invented (or discovered). The setting is Oxford, both in an imaginary future and an imagined past. Oxford University, in this time-travelling future, trains Historians (the title is capitalized in the book) to go back in time so they can meet the people who live in the periods they study and experience first-hand what it was like to live then. Historians are taught to speak the languages people spoke, as well as to understand their religious beliefs and world-views, so that, for whatever period they are sent to in the past, they can blend seamlessly (it is hoped) into the lives and communities of the people they encounter there.

The central plot concerns a young woman, Kivrin, an Historian who specializes in the Middle Ages. Whenever someone is sent back in time, there is a certain amount of “slippage” that can be expected – time travelers might arrive hours, days or even weeks away from the time they were sent to. In Kivrin’s case, the amount of slippage is enormous: she was meant to be sent back to 1320; however, as a result of a series of mishaps, she arrives in 1348, just as the Black Death hits Oxford and the surrounding areas. The book tells a fascinating, though ultimately harrowing, tale of the people Kivrin meets and grows attached to — all of whom [spoiler alert] are dead of the plague by the time she leaves. Kivrin does not get sick because she is sent to the past fully protected by all the inoculations and immune enhancements of the future — as well as by her knowledge of germs, hygiene, and how the plague is spread.


Interestingly enough, the future, as Willis envisages it, is not a future free of pandemic disease, although it is a future in which humanity has tools — such as effective, wide-Doomsday Book by Connie Willisspectrum antivirals and immune enhancers — we currently lack. While new diseases with pandemic potential occasionally appear, they are usually brought quickly under control, using the measures we are now all too familiar with (PPE, quarantine, and social distancing). In addition, in this imagined future, viruses and bacteria are quickly genetically sequenced, and new vaccines can be created within two weeks. Consequently, apart from these periodic disease outbreaks, this future world is one in which a large number of individuals can grow to adulthood without ever experiencing illness, even one as mild as the common cold.

Ironically, while Kivrin is in the past, experiencing a pandemic that is estimated to have killed one-third to one-half of the population of Europe, her Oxford, the Oxford of the future, is also experiencing a pandemic, this one a serious influenza outbreak.

The story in “Doomsday book” is thus the story of two pandemics, one set in an imaginary future and one in the real past. The story of each pandemic is told in alternating chapters. The pandemic of the past is characterized by fear of the unknown, by terrible deaths caused by a disease for which absolutely no effective treatments exist, by ignorance of the source of the contagion (or even the knowledge that the disease is a result of a bacterial infection, rather than a punishment from God or the work of witches). The disease of the future is characterized by advanced PPE, virus-fighting genetic enhancements and effective vaccines that can be produced very quickly once a new disease is identified.


Since the narrative is essentially the story of two pandemics, it naturally got me thinking about the time in which we are currently living. And reading it made me feel a surprising amount of optimism, despite our present challenges: the world of the future, as Willis imagines it, is much more like the world in which we are actually living today than it is like the world our ancestors lived in during the Middle Ages. We, too, know how contagious diseases spread, have treatments that are often curative, have medications that can control pain, and, it now appears, can develop what we hope will be effective vaccines astonishingly quickly.

Doomsday Book by Connie WillisBut this story also made me think about something else, and that is the larger ethical question of what makes us human, and how we can relate to the pain and suffering of others — and how they can relate to us, when we are the ones who need help. While a world in which no one ever got sick sounds like a great place to live in, we can ask whether growing up in a world like this would make us more human — and more ethical — or less. Are there things that our shared experience of illness, and our shared awareness of our eventual mortality have to teach us that are importantly tied to the care and concern that is necessary if we are to be able to create friendships, communities, and institutions?

Would a person able to grow to adulthood without ever experiencing illness, even illness as fleeting and unserious as a common cold, be able to fully empathize with the needs, pains and fragility of other people who are suffering, especially if this suffering is experienced primarily by the very elderly? A world without contagious illness, we should remember, is not necessarily a world without the illnesses that come with age and mortality.

In short, because we have all, from our childhoods on, experienced illness, when we see others who are sick and even dying, we can feel both sympathy and empathy: we feel badly for them because we have some idea of how they feel, and even if we are not ourselves sick or dying right now, we know that, someday, we will be. These feelings of sympathy and empathy, some bioethicists have argued, are crucially important for the development of our ethical sensibilities: they are, in part, what make us want to help one another, and they teach us that, fundamentally, who we are is tied up in something we all share, namely, the implications and consequences of embodiment.


One of the things that Kivrin learns on her journey to the past is not only that people were ignorant and even superstitious, but that at least some — including the uneducated but devout priest in the little village in which she finds herself — were truly heroic in their efforts to ease the suffering of the sick and dying. In addition, all of those living in the Middle Ages were familiar with the reality of death in a way that most of us are lucky enough not to have to be today; in Willis’s imagining of the Medieval world (which appears to be backed up by serious historical research), the lives of the rich and the poor were more tightly bound together than they are in our time, as they not only lived together but often died together.

Doomsday Book by Connie WillisIn the famous story, The Odyssey, Odysseus, the traveler, is offered immortality; puzzlingly, he turns the offer down, choosing, instead, to remain a mortal human being. Many commentators have argued (correctly, I believe) that this choice is significant because it affirms something fundamentally important about what it is to be human, namely, that our choices matter, our relationships are important, and our projects are meaningful, precisely because we know that we have only a finite time in which to live, not in spite of this fact. For the immortal Greek gods, in contrast, nothing is significant or meaningful, because their pleasures and activities are never ending: consequently, nothing that they do really matters, and their greatest enemy is not death, but boredom.

This point is tied to ethics in the following way: the ethical choices we make matter precisely because part of what it means to be human is that we suffer and will eventually die, and our mutual recognition of this fact, for psychologically healthy people, means that we care about, and want to do something to alleviate, the suffering and angst of others, just as we hope that they will similarly help us when we need them. While a future in which we rarely, if ever, experienced illness or disease sounds very appealing right now, it’s not clear to me that, were ever able to achieve it, we might not adversely alter our shared experience of what it means to be human — namely, that we mutually recognize that our embodiment makes us vulnerable and in need of the care of others.

Ethics is important because we are vulnerable, not in spite of our vulnerabilities. At one point in Doomsday Book, as Kivrin is nursing the dying people she has met and grown attached to in the past, she wonders why she is experiencing such pain, since she knows intellectually that all of them have been dead for 800 years. She realizes that their suffering and death matter because they are real human beings who have taken care of her, and whom she cares about and for in return.

I think it’s safe to say we all wish we lived in a world in which the COVID pandemic had never happened. I certainly do. But after reading Doomsday Book, I am grateful that I am living now, in a time in which we know a great deal about the nature of disease, and will soon, hopefully, get this pandemic under control.

In addition, ethically-speaking, a pandemic such as the one we are in gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we are connected to one another, and how our own well-being is dependent on the behavior of others, just as their well-being is tied to the choices we make. Mask-wearing, social distancing and other measures taken to slow the spread of the disease are not merely medical tools, they are also a way of acknowledging our shared humanity, as well as the mutual ethical obligations that flow from that recognition.

Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.