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.

Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices