TREVIN WAX | SEPTEMBER 23, 2021
Near the beginning of the pandemic last year, in the middle of that initial lockdown, I read John Barry’s The Great Influenza, the greatest single book on the flu that ravaged the world just over a 100 ago. Whenever I mentioned that book, people looked at me funny. Trevin, isn’t it weird to read about an older pandemic when you can just watch the news? Aren’t you overloaded with bad news already? Why revisit the tragedy of 1918–20?
I’m not the only weird one. Several people have since recommended Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a fictional account of an epidemic in London in 1665 that captures something of the fear and isolation of the time.
I find it oddly comforting to revisit past plagues, perhaps because it gives me greater perspective so that I see through the silliness of describing our current moment with a word like “unprecedented.” When you look back to how your ancestors endured similar challenges, you find today’s tragedy less frightening. You feel a little less alone, and a little more grateful that you live in modern times.
The Black Death
That brings me to Richard Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History, a book unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s a work of fiction that comes from the pen of an historian who has devoted much of his life to researching the conditions and the results of the Bubonic plague that swept through Europe in the mid–1300s, leaving an estimated one-third to one-half of the population dead. Hatcher seeks to inhabit the world of the 1300s, and he writes as if he were a scholar of that era who sought to recount the effects of “the pestilence” in a particular English town.
As you’d expect, Hatcher’s book describes the preventive measures, the onset of symptoms, proposed treatments, and almost inevitable death that followed. But The Black Death also considers the pre- and post-pandemic lives of people in the countryside. How did they prepare? How did they cope? How did they respond when their loved ones died? How did rich and poor alike deal with fields lying fallow and cottages in disrepair? How did the town respond to the problem of whole families wiped out by the plague and the subsequent disputes over inheritance, and land, work, and wages?
Beyond the economic concerns are the religious questions that seep through the story from start to finish. Hatcher is wise to transport us to the medieval world of Christianity by making a priest the main character. Through the eyes of “Master John” and the stories of his parishioners, we learn how important it was to help a loved one experience a “good death.” We get a feel for life in a world in which everyone was alert to spirits, good and bad, where superstition and magic mixed with Christian rituals and practices—a pre-Reformation world where bad actors preyed upon the spiritual insecurities of the townsfolk, and good priests warned people of the wrath of God and then sought to understand and explain why the scourge would take out saints and sinner alike.
A benefit of studying history is the opportunity to encounter people who hold radically different assumptions than you do. The Black Deathdrops you into a world in which no one questioned the idea that the pestilence that ravaged Europe was God’s judgment. There are no village atheists wondering if God exists. And at first, no one even wonders about the reasons God would bring such disaster. (It’s clearly human sin.) God exists, the pestilence is his judgment, and repentance is the only solution. Those assumptions were put to the test by the large number of deaths, but they persisted, even when church leaders found it difficult to explain the will and ways of God.
Much of the well-intentioned but misguided theology of that time will frustrate today’s Christian reader. You can’t help but wish the people had a better understanding of the mystery of God’s ways as described in Job, or that the priests would show more of the reticence of Jesus when he countered the disciples’ wrongheaded assumption that a man born blind must have been guilty of something, either him or his parents. We have reason to hesitate when people want to draw a one-to-one connection between suffering and sin.
But even as I shook my head at the mindset of the people in that time, I was struck by how little we, facing a pandemic of our own, even think to ask: Is God upset with us? Is this his judgment? What should repentance look like? How do we prepare ourselves for death, should God visit us with the plague?
Surely it’s an overcorrection to respond to the misguided almost-exclusively vertical orientation of believers 700 years ago by advocating an almost-exclusively horizontal orientation, in which questions of divine sovereignty, human sinfulness, repentance, and faith are drowned out by chatter about mitigation measures, treatments, vaccines, and potential cures.
Say what you want about the excesses of the people in medieval times whose theologies were skewed by an inordinate focus on God’s judgment—at least they were constantly aware of his presence. They knew a God powerful in wrath. Too many today know only a God powerless in “love.” So, even if we shake our heads at some of our ancestors’ wrongheaded medical and theological beliefs, we’d do well to open our minds and look for those areas in which they may be more right than we are.