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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.