Medievals on the usefulness of illness and the meaning of plague


Cover of "Medicine, Society, and Faith in...

This is a third post grabbing some insights from a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). The first post shared some of Amundsen’s observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians. The second revealed Amundsen’s insights into what medieval Christians thought caused illnesses.

“There is, in the literature, a definite appreciation of God’s hand in a Christian’s suffering and of the salutary effects of sickness in the Christian’s life. Pope Gregory I, in his pastoral handbook, wrote that ‘the sick are to be admonished to realize that they are sons of God by the very fact that the scourge of discipline chastises them.’ They were also exhorted to ‘preserve the virtue of patience.’ We must bear in mind that the concept of discipline here was by no means limited to punishment. Indeed, the predominant emphasis in the term was on training or edification. For example, Bede, a contemporary of the events he described, said of the Abbess Aethelburh: ‘Now in order that her strength, like the apostle’s might be made perfect in weakness, she was suddenly afflicted with a most serious bodily disease and for nine years was sorely tried, under the good providence of our Redeemer, so that any traces of sin remaining among her virtues through ignorance or carelessness might be burnt away by the fires of prolonged suffering.’ Aethelburh died of her disease. . . . Bede’s account of the suffering of Bishop Benedict and one of his colleagues is typical of the attitudes expressed in the literature: ‘And not long after, Benedict also began to be wearied by the assault of illness. That the virtue of patience might be added, to give conclusive proof of such great zeal for religion, Divine Mercy laid them both up in bed by temporal illness that, after sickness had been conquered by death, God might restore them with the endless rest of heavenly peace and light. Sigfrid, punished . . . by long internal suffering, drew toward his last day, and Benedict, during three years, [189] gradually became so paralyzed that all his lower limbs were quite dead . . . to exercise him in the virtue of patience. Both men sought in their suffering ways to give thanks to their Creator, and always to be occupied with the praises of God and with teaching the brethren.’” (188 – 9)

“In their efforts to deal with the spiritual needs of the majority, the clerical minority sought to maintain a delicate between meeting the people’s temporal and material wants, on the one hand, and meeting their eternal and spiritual needs, on the other. There was a long and evolving tradition of physical healing in Christianity. There was an equally long tradition in Christianity to provide for spiritual healing; indeed, the very essence of Christianity had that as its goal. This tradition also assumed new forms, or at least was manifested in new emphases, in late antiquity and even more so in the early Middle Ages, when the expectation of Christ’s return, which had always been present to some degree in Christianity, assumed an air of impending destruction and doom precipitated by God’s wrath. While the mechanisms for physical healing were exploited in missionary activities and in pastoral efforts to keep the flock from reverting to pagan healing methods, the message of impending doom was proclaimed in an attempt to wean the flock from the temporal to the eternal, and from the material to the spiritual, to realign their well-being from a present horizontal to a future vertical orientation. Plague proved to be most useful in this effort. We have noted earlier that Europe was afflicted by sixteen waves of plague from 541 to 767, during the early occurrences of which Christians often relapsed into pagan practices. But plague was a two-edged sword, and in the long run the effect was less to stimulate people to concern for the well-being of their bodies than to direct their concern to escaping the eternal consequences of the wrath of God. Plague ‘mainly had the effect of making them more amenable to certain Christian beliefs and practices. Seen as one element in a whole set of calamities and signs, the plague settled in [190] people’s minds a concrete expectation of the Last Judgement. . . . [It] explained calamities as retribution for collective sin, instilled notions of a wrathful God . . . and gave rise to an apocalyptic and millenarian mentality.’ [J.-N. Biraben and Jacques LeGoff, ‘The Plague in the Early Middle Ages,’ in Biology of Man in History: Selections from the Annales: Economies, Societés, Civilixations, ed. R. Forster and O. Ranum, trans. E. Forster and P. M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 48 – 80), 61.] Pope Gregory I was obsessed by the plague. Gregory assumed the papacy during a time of plague (590) and ‘preached a sermon . . . declaring the plague to be a punishment from God and calling upon the people to do penance and repent of their sins. He ordered them to pray and sing psalms for three days, and at the end of that time arranged for a massive city-wide litany. . . . No less than eighty people dropped dead of the plague during the procession.’” (189 – 90)

“ . . . Although Gregory, Bede, and churchmen generally saw the plague as punishment imposed by God, it does not follow that they also viewed those stricken by the plague as especially great sinners. When the pestilence hit Britain, Bede recorded the death of the ‘blessed Boisil,’ who had predicted three years earlier that he himself would die of the plague. Cuthbert also came down with the plague at the same time but did not die of it.” (190)

“Personal sanctity was no guarantee of avoiding plague. Being afflicted with it was no sign of personal sin. Plague and all other sicknesses were designed for the purpose of adjusting people’s minds to eternal and spiritual verities. And repentance, regardless of the level of one’s own personal sanctity, was always appropriate.” (190)

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