The sudden onset and spread of the coronavirus infection has reminded some people of another great epidemic that originated in the Far East, travelled along the major trade routes to Europe and killed between a third and a half of the population. The Black Death of 1348-9 – the Great Pestilence, as contemporaries called it – was a form of bubonic plague spread by the bite of infected fleas carried by black rats, with a septicaemic variant and a pneumonic form that was breathed in and caused respiratory disorders. There was no treatment and no recovery: only those who never caught it survived. The plague returned five times before 1400, and the attack of 1361 was particularly deadly to children.
Amongst the period’s greatest writers, Geoffrey Chaucer makes only a few allusions to the Black Death, and Julian of Norwich does not mention it at all. Both were aged seven in 1348 and, if protected from the worst horrors by their parents, might have escaped traumatisation and a year or so later got on with their lives as the grim memories faded. William Langland, by contrast, was then about 16 (an age when experience is exceptionally vivid and intense), living in Malvern or possibly at Oxford as a young student. His references to the Pestilence in Piers Plowman show he had thought deeply about its religious significance as well as its social and moral consequences.
Whereas during the present Covid-19 crisis Masses have been cancelled and church leaders have left comment largely to the politicians and scientists, the Black Death was understood by Langland and other contemporaries not just as a natural disaster but as a divine scourge for sin, particularly the sin of pride. The long Biblical tradition he aligned himself with begins with the plagues sent by God upon the Egyptians for refusing to let the Hebrew people depart freely: the sixth plague (Ex 9:11) is “boils with swelling blains”. Echoing this, the Book of Revelation describes pestilence as divine punishment for sin (Rev 6:8), and a passage Langland might have remembered as he observed the effects of the Black Death is Rev 16:2: “So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and foul and evil sores came upon the men who bore the mark of the beast and worshipped its image’’. The end of Piers Plowman describes how Death, the minister of Kynde (Nature), afflicts the unrepentant people with “rheumes [colds], feveres … coughes … biles and bocches [boils and plague-sores]”.
Langland’s Kynde is an allegorical figure for God’s workings through Nature, of which death is the normal termination. Yet despite his terrifying presentation of Kynde’s action, Langland’s God is less the wrathful figure of the Apocalypse than a power that intends man’s good, could we but see it.
For Langland, virulent diseases belonged with other “natural” calamities that can serve to point men towards repentance of their flagrant sins: “with weathers and wonders [tempests and prodigious events] He warns us, as if with a whistle”.
To strengthen his message, Langland does indeed adopt the biblical writers’ hyperbolically direct approach; but whereas God’s divine action in the Apocalypse is solely punitive, Kynde’s in Piers Plowman is also a warning. Langland believes catastrophic events should compel men to sit up and take notice of what they are doing with their lives, as when he tells us that the devastating ‘‘south-west wind on a Saturday evening’’ (January 15 1362)] that blew for five days during the second plague was “clearly caused by the sin of pride and nothing else’’. Under “pride” I think Langland includes infidelity (in the sense of, to quote the OED, “want of faith; disbelief in the truth of Christianity”). He saw this as rife among rich and poor, including the professed religious, as shown by indulgence in luxury and failure in charity. Because of pride, he claims, “prayers have no power to stop the plague,’’ and ‘‘on account of men’s sins God destroys little children’’ (an allusion to the 1361 mortalité des enfants).
Other manifestations of this capital sin are the arrogant questioning of God’s justice by pseudo-intellectual nobles and the cynical mockery of religion by common men – like the wafer-seller who sneeringly asks why papal bulls can’t destroy plague-sores, since St Peter healed the sick.
Langland’s view of disastrous plagues and tempests as divine “whistling’’ may seem to modern people, including many Christians, medieval supernaturalism, if not superstition. Surely the coronavirus disease can’t be a punishment for, or even a warning against mankind’s sin? It is a phenomenon of nature, not the product of a malign Chinese biological warfare laboratory. But the element of human negligence that led to its escape from a Wuhan animal market may remind us indirectly that such laboratories do nonetheless exist, and it was not long ago that Salisbury witnessed men in protective suits cleaning up the results of man’s malice.
The “apocalyptic’’ fires in Australia, the continuing rise in sea levels and the increasingly violent storms that batter our coasts testify to an ominous climate change due in some part to man’s reckless and relentless exploitation of fossil fuels. The poisoning of the oceans with undegradable plastic waste is attributable to nothing but human irresponsibility – a fault related to the infidelity I have suggested forms the heart of pride.
However, if I imagine Langland contemplating the burnt-out shell of Notre-Dame in a Paris emptied of people by the pandemic, I also see him as discerning in our current problems a crucial opportunity: to recognise our complicity in the world’s woes, to temper our complacency, and to increase our care for others and our humility before God. For those who can read the signs of the times, he might say, Covid-19 is a “whistle’’ we really should listen to.
Carl Schmidt is Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford