Keep Calm sign

A virus in itself, even Covid-19, doesn’t know what effects it can have in our world. It’s simply part of the natural world, part of the domain of the microbiologists. But when a virus sparks a pandemic, then we’re dealing with something a lot more complex – history.

When we consider something historically, we don’t just think about its place in time, but also how it fits into the narratives which we use to make sense of time. As individuals, communities and nations, we tell and retell stories about past, present, and future, fitting new experiences and knowledge into them. This means that history isn’t just about the past. It’s about the relation of a phenomenon – anything from a tree to a statue to an idea – to an ongoing narrative which aims to make sense of events, often identifying patterns and extrapolating meaning and intention from them.

Covid and historical narratives

So how does an event as complex as the pandemic fit into this process of historical meaning-making? The very way we talk about it – ‘Covid times’, the ‘Covid era’ – suggests its impact on our concepts of time and history. We quickly became fed up of the terminology of ‘unprecedented’, ‘unique’, and even the rather hopeful ‘once in [any given number of] years’. But this sort of language does, I think, reflect a key part of the historical dimension of living under a pandemic.

A whole range of ongoing narratives were suddenly broken off. On a personal level, life events were cancelled or postponed, work put on hold, routines turned upside down. Communally, local elections were put off, patterns of worship disrupted, educational calendars thrown into disarray. In their place came an experience of time which could feel oddly dilated or compressed. For some, long spans of empty time stretched out, where for others, ever more frenetic activity was demanded in their professional or domestic lives. Day-to-day life, not to mention the constant stream of new information made available by continual news coverage and social media, become more difficult to assimilate into the usual narratives of past-present-future.

One response to this destabilising of narrative and temporal experience is to make comparisons. Some commentators saw parallels with the medieval Black Death or the twentieth-century Spanish flu. In the UK, a more common historical touchstone – implicitly as well as explicitly – was the Second World War. Evoking the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ or of wartime Britain is an established rhetorical move here: a prime example of the kind of collective narrative that links together multiple events, ideas, and practices to help make sense of experience. Politicians, columnists, even supermarkets find it useful at various times to invoke a story that connects us to particular perceptions of that period of history, often as a challenge to rise to. This story has proved irresistible in the Covid era.

The problem with parallels

This search for historical comparisons is understandable – but limited. (The third link above touches on the problems of reaching for wartime as a functional metaphor for a pandemic.) Likewise, I noticed many people reflecting in interestingly historical ways about their experiences. What if this had happened twenty years ago? How would our grandparents’ generation have dealt with this? What will people think about what we did, looking back from twenty or a hundred years’ time?

Ultimately that kind of question says more about us than about any past (or future) time. But such questions indicate the disruption of our own ongoing historical narratives. Such a huge, all-consuming event, with its pronounced effect on our experiences of time, has perhaps inevitably unsettled our fundamental stories about ourselves, our lives, our societies.

Of course, even my use of the past tense here belies the unavoidable fact that the ‘Covid era’ is not over. Forecasts of future normality keep receding as they have so depressingly done right from early 2020 – this in itself, I think, is one reason for the often surreal experience of time I’ve discussed. We’re continually hearing voices trying to tie off the loose ends of the story of the pandemic, all of which have thus far had to admit defeat. In such a spiral of curtailed or invalidated narratives, it’s harder to feel sure of your own place in the story.

So what?

So how useful is it to consider our experiences of pandemic in their historical aspect? I’ve seen some very striking reflections in academic and related contexts on Covid time, and the ways it’s revealed systematic problems and assumptions of ‘normal’ Western approaches to time, both daily and historical. It’s always pertinent to consider what story is being told in a given academic field, institution, or community, and to pay attention when those stories get up-ended.

Christian ways of thinking about human history can offer a particular edge to this kind of attention. One of the medieval texts I came across in my doctoral research was the epilogue of a historical chronicle of England written in the early twelfth century. The author imagines (and speaks to!) readers thousands of years into the future, dramatically relativising his own time period – but placing both into a broad, robust story of Christian time, summed up in a deceptively simple statement: ‘Christ is the conclusion of time’. In other words, Christ is time’s ‘end’, i.e. its purpose and meaning: all dislocations and disruptions find a final weaving together in his place at the centre of reality (Colossians 1:17). This insight offered me a way to think about time and history not as a flat line, a linear progress or decline, but as a dense, interconnected arena of God’s work and love, with human responses woven in. 

More individually and practically, keeping the historical aspect in mind in “these times” may help us to be aware of our own personal histories, and those of others, as we press forward into new history. We can pay attention to what our colleagues, students, and peers are saying about their experience of time, with the understanding that each of their individual circumstances has posed a different challenge to their sense of past, present, and future, and the sense of the self emerging from that framework.

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.