The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly. HarperCollins, 2005. 364pp.
John Kelly’s history of the Black Death is carefully researched and eminently readable. The first chapters examine the origins of the plague and discuss how it was transmitted from fleas to humans and carried across Europe by black rats and international trade. The scientific discussions are well-written for a lay audience, giving the reader a good understanding of how and why the plague spread as quickly as it did. The work is fast-paced and rich with anecdotes about medical practices of the middle ages and the reflections of those who lived through it – or did not.
I find Kelly’s account of medieval anti-Semitism to be particularly challenging. It is a sad fact of Church history that very soon after the separation of church and synagogue that debate gave way to vitriol and violence between the Jewish communities of the Diaspora the increasingly Gentile Christian churches. Teachers and leaders on both sides were threatened by the other because of the competition for converts (or reverts), and several church Fathers stand guilty for supporting or even encouraging violence against Jews as “Christ Killers.”
It’s preachy life-lesson time.
As a result of this culture in Christendom, anytime something disastrous happened to Christian Europe, it was certainly the fault of the Jews. Pope Clement VI condemned the killings as well as the hysteria and imputation of collective guilt upon which they were based, but this seemed to matter little. Holy Week pogroms were a traditional observance for Christian Europe, which would reach their height in the Final Solution of Nazi Germany.
Because of this shameful and inexcusable history, I am increasingly convinced that any observance or remembrance of Jesus’ execution must be made in the wider context of the New Testament witness, which insists that the Church must bear these wounds in its own Body. Jesus came to suffer, and so the Church must suffer. Jesus did not seek vengeance, and neither may the Church that bears his name. This is a question of what we consider the Church to be, at its very foundation. It is a suffering body like that of Jesus, or it is nothing that has anything to do with God or his Christ.
Further, any notion that Jews then or Jews now have some kind of group complicity in the events surrounding Jesus’ execution is just stupid. For whatever else it might say, the New Testament is convinced that God wanted it to happen, and that it would have happened one way or another.
Finally, anti-semitism is stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The other life lesson? Man cannot and God does not guarantee the health and survival of any civilization. All of the accomplishments we pride ourselves on, and the progress we hope to make as a cohesive society can be rolled away pretty quickly. Ultimately, remembering how the 14th Century saw mortality rates around 30% or as high as 50% during these various plague outbreaks makes me far more grateful for the people in my life who aren’t dying of something.