Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Black Death

I've just finished reading a book I would recommend to all: John Hatcher's The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis, 1345-1350 (London: Phoenix, 2009).

It is a very sympathetic account, written as if by a near-contemporary, of what the village of Walsham in Suffolk faced as the Black Death approached, then raged, and then passed. I found it excellent particularly in its depiction of the religious beliefs and practices of the priests and people, their liturgical and devotional life, and how they dealt with the unanswerable question of why a just and merciful God would permit so terrible a plague to befall them, and with their guilt over how in fear of death they shrank back from ministering to their loved ones in the chaos of the plague.

Apart from three minor slips that I with my interest in liturgy detected (e.g. the author has a priest wearing a chasuble under a cope - I think he meant to write "stole"), the detail is very believable, and tells an important tale. All Catholics would appreciate the characters, particularly the good parish priest, Master John (whom the author gave many of the qualities of the ideal clergyman as delineated by Chaucer and others).

Hatcher also mentions the very interesting and very controversial advice that bishops tendered to their flocks on the eve of the pestilence: that if a priest could not be found to come to the dying victims, they could make confession even to a layman or laywoman! (See this translation of the letter of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, 10th January 1349.) Note that this was intended as a substitute for the sacrament of penance: the dying person, by admitting their sins and having contrition, would, if perfectly contrite, obtain full forgiveness of the Lord, and the process of having to do so would aid them in this. It was not a question of those not priests absolving of course.

Who knows when the next really terrible pandemic will strike? Would we lax irreligious moderns cope any better than, or even as well as, those mediæval villagers? Media vita in morte sumus...

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