The appearance of the plague brought with it a radical shift in the very fabric of society. With some death statistics measured as high as one out of every three people in some regions, the losses impacted agriculture, economics, and family dynamics. But the church was also affected as clergy and communities suffering the devastation of the plague struggled for survival and wrestled with questions of theodicy writ large in the unprecedented scale of suffering.
In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio describes first first the people’s reactions to the plague. Some thought it best to shun all contact with other people and would lock themselves away at home, while others chose instead to drink and mingle in public, believing that with death coming soon, they should forego pragmatism and simply live for the day. Thus, societal norms dissolved into chaos. Boccaccio reports that there were no authorities, civil or ecclesial, left to enforce normal rule (paragraph 7). While suppliants prayed humbly and made processions the effects of the plague continued to spread (Boccaccio paragraph 2). So many people died that priests and mourners were no longer able to attend to all of the traditional services for the dead. Bodies were taken to the closest available church rather than another perhaps chosen by the deceased and bodies were quickly disposed of in the first available grave (Boccaccio paragraph 10). In the midst of the suffering, the general mood was grim and Boccaccio reports the common perception of the plague as God’s wrath poured out on humanity as a result of sin (paragraph 8).
This general explanation of the plague is echoed by Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, as he calls for penitential processions and prayers: "We are mired in monstrous sin and the lack of devotion among the people provokes the anger of the great king to whom we should direct our prayers" (Horrox 120). However, in the midst of directives for prayer and processions, it appears that the church was losing ground, needing to offer indulgences (of xx days or more) in order to persuade people to participate in church practices.
As the plague progressed entire populations were often displaced, leaving few resources to support many local parish priests. As a result, bishops made tough decisions to consolidate parishes and allocate fewer priests to serve remaining populations (Horrox 302-303). In some areas there were insufficient priests to hear confessions, leading the Bishop of Bath and Wells to authorize emergency confession to a layperson. Perhaps also to relieve the demand for regular confession and penance, the Bishop also declared an indulgence of 40 days for anyone coming to confess and also for those who listened to the confessions of the healthy (Horrox 272).
Gonzáles points out that during this time superstition became more prevalent in religious practice and a brisk trade in counterfeit relics was seen (González 328). From our readings we also find that Sebastian was seen among the company of saints as a patron who might protect suppliants from the plague (Horrox 125). In The Golden Rule, we find the claim that an altar built to St. Sebastian in Pavia, to which some of the saint’s relics were brought, promised to end the plague’s devastation in that city (Jacobus 101).
As I was reading through the sources and doing some extra reading on the side about Yersinia pestis, I was struck by our advances in epidemiology and pharmacology that give us a greater scientific understanding than simply bad vapors drawn into the air by a confluence of planets (Horrox 159). And yet, the question arose for me: how would we deal with a modern-day pandemic? And before the question was completely formed, current situations relevant to the Church immediately began to come to mind.
AIDS and HIV-related illness have become a major pandemic in our own time. In the early days of the epidemic, when relatively unique demographic groups were emerging with the disease, the Church’s response in many quarters was again to point to divine wrath as an explanation for the disease. In this way, not much has changed. What I understood for the first time from these readings is the role of St. Sebastian as patron saint of queer folk. Stricken by a new and terrifying plague for which science knew no cure, it appears that some among the affected population sifted through our common heritage to find claims of Sebastian’s protection in the time of a former plague.
Specifically within the gay community, the devastation wrought by AIDS in the 80s and 90s can be compared to the plague, with UFMCC pastors like Jim Mitulski who celebrated over 500 funerals (West and Goss 153). Populations were taxed to the breaking point as the sick and dying buried those who died before them. And like the scapegoating and demonization that appeared to explain divine reasons for the plague (Horrox 134), gays, intravenous drug users and others were also rumored to engage in all manner of boundary violations that "deserved" divine punishment.
As we move through the third decade of AIDS/HIV, the pandemic rages on. Though antiretroviral drugs have given some reprieve to the massive body counts in the West, the plague rages on unchecked in much of Africa. While some churches have responded with Christian charity, much of the world remains blissfully unaware of the suffering of millions of people affected by this deadly disease.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. "The Decameron – Introduction." 1996. Medieval Sourcebook. 20 December 2004 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/boccacio2.html>.
González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984.
Horrox, Rosemary, ed. The Black Death. Trans. Rosemary Horrox. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Jacobus, de Voragine. The Golden Legend: readings on the saints. Trans. William Granger Ryan. Vol. I. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. II vols.
West, Mona and Robert E. Goss, Take Back the Word. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2000.