Faith & Reason: The Black Death sails across the Gulf

On the anniversary of the plague our ships are setting sail to wage war on a biological terror. John Kennedy reflects on some uncomfortable parallels.

The Black Death came to Western Europe 650 years ago this month. It shook and shaped Europe more than any other event in our history. The anniversary coincides with the launching of a plan to crush Saddam Hussein's capacity for biological warfare. This conjunction naturally provokes some nervous thought.

First, the story. In February 1348, the first victims landed in Italian ports. There is a graphic account of galley crews dying at their oars as they sought haven at Genoa, to be driven back with flaming arrows. The pestilence had till then raged in Asia for years - a fitting torment for the heathen Turk. But in two years, it killed a third of Europeans, brought to us along routes created in the great crusades against the infidel.

The epidemic was caused by a bacillus which fleas carried to rats and to humans. At the time the best explanation was offered by the University of Paris whose scholars suggested a fatal conjunction of planets, giving rise to a poisonous miasma in the atmosphere. The religious culture of the day insisted that loose living was the cause; one commentator denounced the tendency of girls to dress rather saucily as men: "But God, in this matter, as in all others, brought marvellous remedy", he concluded. Langland, in Piers Plowman was clear. "These pestilences were for pure sin".

So cure was sought in penitence as much as in prudential hygiene. There grew up great armies of penitential flagellants, whose marchings and thrashings sometimes became something unspeakably awful with the massacre of Jews, usually by burning. In contrast, countless good people went to certain death to offer less than certain help to others - acts of real heroism, or more truly, saintliness.

Two other responses developed. The first was the spontaneous flight into a faith of personal protection. Around 1350, first names became much more explicitly Christian as the people gathered round protective saints - Sebastian, Nicholas, Lawrence, and above all Mary. The second response was rather different: the Boccaccio tendency. Boccaccio lived through the worst of the pestilence in Florence, and testified to a sensuality experienced in the midst of terror. So a quite new literature of carnal affirmation arose, first in Italian, then in French and then in Chaucer's English.

Remarkably, the plague scarcely interrupted the political conflicts of the time - in the English case, fighting the French. Within four years of the battle of Crecy in 1346, nearly half of all English and French had died of plague, but by 1352 they were back to the business of slaughter as usual. In all the panic, saintliness and hysterical cruelty, one motif dominates. It is the sheer animal vitality that simply struggled, fed and bred though the whole episode. The following age was less kindly and simply pious; it was crueller, more credulous and more cynical. But it had also begun to celebrate its own human complexity, as Chaucer and Boccaccio testify.

Centuries later, the fleet dispatched to the Persian Gulf has crossed the path of those medieval plague galleys. And we feel that we understand creation much more profoundly now, and manage it so much more effectively. But how foolish we would be to trust that feeling. Even our forebears would gape to see the world-threatening modern rationality which sees us fighting to deny doomsday weapons to Baghdad, while countenancing them with apparent equanimity in Tel Aviv. It is only one example. We are generating complexities and sorting through them at a speed far more frightening than the rat-flea combinations of the medieval Levant.

It may be that, even now, our nemesis is heading towards New York and London in a flotilla of battered Lebanese freighters. Yet we have a simple confidence in ourselves that our medieval forebears dared ascribe only to God. Ironically, the first example of that arrogance of modernity was created in their time, in Gothic Siena. It is Ambrogio Lorenzetti's vast fresco, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. It depicts the splendours of the one and the evils of the other. It is entirely bereft of Christian symbol or humility. It celebrates a world manageable within given laws, under human control. It was completed in 1347, just as its creator and his city vanished into the unmanageable horror of the Pestilence.

The question arises - can many more anniversaries of the Black Death pass without some drastic failure of human management? We have the technology to clone the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse, and it is incredible that we shall escape the consequences. Our delusions and perversions continue to be celebrated in the name of truth and justice. It seems a valuable part of the Christian discipline to imagine ourselves into that catastrophic past, as preparation for what might be to come.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Health & Social CareTeacher

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Health & Social Care T...

RE Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Temporary Teacher of RE require...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: PSHE Teacher required in Devon - Star...

SEN Teacher (Primary)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Primary Teacher required Devon

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice