For all its influence in the Church, no Christian soul ever laid eyes upon Y Pestis. In an age before the microscope, it was too small, a bacterium that lived and developed multiple forms in places and ways we don’t fully understand even today. The predominant theory seems to favor transmission by flea-bearing rodents. In the early 1300’s A.D. trade between Europe and the Orient was novel and flourishing. The trade routes which carried Y Pestis agents extended from China over land all the way to Byzantium [modern day Istanbul] and then by ship to all major ports in Europe. That said, very recent research has discovered traces of Y Pestis in the western Roman Empire as early as 600 A.D.; this would correspond to accounts of a mortal plague during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian [r. 527-565 A.D.]
Y Pestis arrived in Constantinople in 1347 and began to encircle the entirely of Western Europe. Those who were bitten by fleas or breathed upon by human carriers became seriously ill within hours. As one observer records [from a distance, apparently] a man could be infected at noon and dying by sunset. Moreover, the grotesque symptoms brought a special terror: the most frequently reported and longest remembered symptoms were black swellings in the groin area or elsewhere. Reportedly the size of eggs, these swellings were called “buboes” and gave the contemporary name to the affliction, The Bubonic Plague. The exact number of the dead is not known even today, but reputable texts generally agree that a 25-50% mortality rate is a fair baseline, versus the 2% death rate of the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1917.
I discovered news coverage of a lecture delivered by Dr. William Langer of Harvard University in 1963. Langer, a historian, makes the argument that the social havoc of the Black Plague wrought by Y Pestis is the closest comparison to the impact of nuclear war available to military planners and sociologists. Of particular concern to Langer was the “rather disgusting performance of the leaders of medieval society who fled the cities in the face of approaching disaster. Officials of the towns and the upper clergy fled, professors and students dropped their books, wealthy tradesmen closed their shops.” Catholic history books concur that the most dedicated clergy and religious remained at their posts, celebrating sacraments to be sure, but particularly tending to the spiritual needs of the dying and providing reverential burial, if possible. [An ironic historical twist: when the city government of Philadelphia collapsed under the onslaught of the Spanish Influenza in 1917, the Catholic clergy went door to door in horse-drawn wagons on a regular basis to collect corpses.]
Medieval piety was deeply rooted in a fear of hell; a disease which cut down its victims so quickly would bring a particular terror of loss of recourse to the forgiving sacraments. Fear of gruesome death and loss of eternal reward generated a multitude of aberrant reactions. One reaction, noted above, was flight from the cities and civic responsibilities. Many clerics, for example, fled to the mountains to ride out the plague while their peers and monks died in extraordinary numbers tending to the faithful. Another reaction was hedonism, as many persons, having little or no hope of deliverance in this world or the next, threw themselves into their vices with wanton abandonment. A particularly grim reaction was scapegoating, and Catholics turned to their accustomed targets, the Jews, persecuting and killing large numbers, using the pretense that the Jews had caused the plague by poisoning Christian wells.
The Black Plague devastated European economies, reduced populations for about a century, and turned much of the Christian West from an agricultural society to an urban one, due to a scarcity of labor. The impact upon the Church was immense. The best of Catholic priestly leadership and theological scholarship was dead, and the post-plague religious reactions were diverse. Already traumatized and deprived of quality ministry, waves of mysticism developed among the laity. Some of these groups, absent the restraint of ministerial supervision, took up extreme practices such as self-flagellation or whipping.
Among the men of letters who survived, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio who left narratives of the plague in their letters and literature, and philosophers who had previously embraced the orderliness of St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought universe, a gradual and diverse rethinking of the order of things began to take root. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment would probably have set roots in European [and eventually American] soil without plague, but the impetus of a catastrophe which no one could understand hastened a discontent to discover the true nature of things.
The issue of salvation itself came under greater scrutiny. As Kevin Madigan explains so well in the conclusion of Medieval Christianity , the late Medieval era on the eve of Luther was divided between a desperate search for assurances of salvation, on the one hand, and a depressive cynicism that no amount of devotion, sacraments, and good works could win salvation. The issue that sparked the Reformation was the propriety and trustworthiness of claims of absolute certainty of heavenly salvation through the preaching and cash sales of indulgences.
Catastrophes of any sort cut to the quick of the human experience, shattering the illusion of control and full understanding of one’s universe. When the barbarian Alaric and his troops sacked and occupied the city of Rome in 410 A.D., the image of the Eternal City as religious and political center of the earth was such a critical wound to collective consciousness that St. Augustine was compelled to write his classic, The City of God.
The increasing incidence of the Coronavirus is occurring in the Christian Lenten Season. And now that we know the drill of washing hands for twenty seconds and avoiding crowds, it may be spiritually useful to spend quality time with ourselves, reflecting upon the sobering truth of our own limitations in this universe to know all and fix all. This humility renders us open to the grace and wisdom of God, to the point that we, too, with St. Augustine, can understand the differences between the passing “City of Man” and the eternal “City of God.”