Sometime in the distant future, when Covid-19 is as remote a memory as the Black Death, a builder putting a extension on a pub will unearth two mysterious artifacts. One will be a piece of jaw-shaped cloth with two little elastic loops on either side; the other, a scrap of torn paper with five words, barely readable: “Please keep two metres apart…”
It won’t take the archaeologists long to unravel the history of these two relics. The virus of 2020 will leave such material reminders long after we have all passed on. The personal story of most of them will never be known. But they will be real relics of a past calamity – one an individual’s guard against a lethal infection, the other a warning posted by a bartender.
Historic calamities have all left similar human footprints: the hideous beaked masks worn by doctors in earlier European plagues, stuffed with sweet-smelling aromatic herbs to block the smell. The little plate of tasty-looking patisseries unearthed at Pompeii preserved in the great shower of ash from Vesuvius in 79 AD. The postcard found on the body of a Titanic victim (written to his mother the day before the great liner sank: “If all goes well, we will arrive in New York on Wednesday am…”). The handwritten name of a six-year-old Jewish boy inside a shoe on display in the Auschwitz museum; he perished in the gas chamber.
For the last two years, I have been immersed in documents for a book co-authored by my wife Ann MacMillan – documents that are the most vivid reminders of moments of spectacular drama in the history of the world. They are artifacts like the Covid mask and Auschwitz shoe – but documents have the added impact of being the words and thoughts of people from the past.
Our choice of 50 documents which best illustrate world history include the well-known Magna Carta, Dead Sea Scrolls, Declaration of Independence and Anne Frank’s Diary, but also less familiar manuscripts that reflect both disasters and times of transformational change.
The most eloquent testament to one of history’s great catastrophes is a gloriously illustrated document that lies in the Bodleian Museum in Oxford: the Codex Mendoza. It records the history of the Aztec Empire in Mexico that was obliterated by the Spanish army of Hernán Cortés in 1521. The Aztecs were illiterate so had no written record, but the Spanish governor of newly conquered Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, had the enlightened idea of getting the Aztecs to pass on their history orally to Spanish scribes. The Aztec storytellers then illustrated the accounts by drawing pictures of life in their empire. The result is a document that is an astonishing eye-opener to two centuries of history that would have been lost forever.
Another of the documents we feature in the book is a scrap of paper Winston Churchill passed to Stalin at the Moscow summit of October 1944 as Soviet armies stormed across eastern Europe. Churchill’s attempt to secure western influence in post-war Europe throws a fascinating light on the management of a catastrophe. It reads: “Romania 90% Russia, the others 10%, Greece: Great Britain in accord with the USA 90%, Russia 10%. Yugoslavia 50%/50%. Hungary 50%/50%. Bulgaria: Russia 75% others 25%.”
Stalin gave the paper a large tick and passed it back to Churchill, but it didn’t get Britain’s leader very far: only Greece emerged entirely free in 1945.
Our choice of documents covers 4,000 years, from the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi’s Legal Code to a 21st-century Map of the Universe. Inventors like the Wright Brothers are represented by the excited telegram they sent to their father in 1903 when they finally got their aircraft to leave the ground for 57 seconds. Our scientific choices include pioneers like Copernicus, Brunel and Tim Berners-Lee. There are literary and political landmark documents too, not all of them so widely known, but all of great interest.
Take Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century British philosopher who would inspire feminists around the world. In her famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she argued that men and women were both rational beings, equal in the eyes of God and therefore should be treated in the same way. Sadly, her book fell into disrepute after she died in 1797 giving birth to a daughter, Mary (who later became Mary Shelley, author of the classic “Frankenstein”). After her death, Wollstonecraft’s husband wrote a book about her unconventional life, scandalous revelations that undermined her reputation and stopped people reading her book. It wasn’t until the suffragette movement 100 years later that Wollstonecraft’s pioneering thoughts about women’s rights re-emerged.
The final act of the Berlin Conference of 1885 is a document that records the carve-up of Africa only a little over a century ago. It outrageously divided Africa among the imperialist countries of Europe without one African present. Only two of the delegates had ever visited the continent before.
Records of key moments in history appear in many forms. We came across an envelope covered with the names of cities in North America. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, had used it to scrawl a planned schedule for the group’s first North American tour. In 1964, the Beatles were already a sensation in the UK, but they remained relatively unknown across the Atlantic. That suddenly changed after John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. A record 73 million people watched the Beatles perform five songs including “She Loves You” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. North Americans were hooked. The city names Epstein wrote on the envelope resulted in the Beatles’ legendary tour across the United States and Canada. They performed 33 concerts in 32 cities, breaking box office records and establishing themselves as international superstars. No doubt there will be many written accounts of Covid 19. I wonder how many will echo the apocalyptic words found in the diary of John Clyn, who died in 1350 when the Black Death ravaged Ireland.
“I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world is encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer… I leave parchment for continuing the work in case anyone should be alive in the future…”
My five favourite 'catastrobjects'
1. Captured German pilot’s helmet at the Museum of Duxford
Items that belondged to people who died in catastrophic circumstances are always evocative - like this helmet of an enemy fighter whose plane was brought down over England. It bring alive what he would have through before his death.
2. Wooden arrows at the Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth
Each of the arrows displayed in a great pile would have been in the hands of the sailors as they sank into the Solent. You can just imagine them on parade when their stricken vessel went down.
3. Pompeii mural at the British Museum
This giant wall painting of a garden scene, found in a home destroyed at Pompeii, is spectacular, and not only for its beauty: that it was rescued from the ash - and had been protected by it since 79AD - is a marvel.
4. Great Fire of London bucket at the London Fire Brigade Museum
One of half a dozen such buckets on display in museums around London: a spectacularly wonderful, utilitarian object that had a ringside seat at one of the formative moments in the country’s history - and it would have been almost competely useless in the face of the fire. There were no hoses in those days, of course!
5. Spanish Flu ‘mourning card’ at the Museum of London
My dad, who was 15 at the time of the Spanish Flu, used to tell me how terrified people were it. He remembered how it hit older people he knew who had just come back from the war. An awful surprise in what was otherwise a year of victory.
Treasures of World History, by Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan (Welbeck, £30), is out now. Buy now for £25 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514