For a historian of religion, an interesting aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been witnessing the resurgence of popular interest in religious beliefs and practices across Europe that might have seemed archaic, alien and even downright odd before the changes wrought in our lives by the virus. The Middle Ages – that iconic period of human struggle with infectious disease – have surged to the forefront of popular historical consciousness. In the absence of a vaccine or any effective treatment for a potentially deadly illness that can be caught by anyone, it may feel as though our society has been thrust back into a pre-modern era of scientific ignorance. One media report after another hammers home how little we know about a novel pathogen.
In reality, of course, we are better off than our ancestors facing infectious diseases: the development of a vaccine is a realistic possibility, and we understand (for the most part) how a virus of this kind spreads and how we need to modify our behaviour. Yet the new ways in which we are learning to live with uncertainty about both the virus and its wider consequences seems to be opening a window on the past that had hitherto been shut: we have begun to understand, at an intimate level, what it may have been like for those who had to live through similar events in previous centuries. Worlds of belief once closed to a sanitized society unwilling to confront death have suddenly been laid wide open.
Popular responses to disease in the Middle Ages have been the butt of ridicule in school history lessons for generations. The useless ways people tried to protect themselves, by tying dried flowers around their faces; the hopeless attempts at isolation to evade the disease; the quack remedies; the extreme religious behaviours designed to avert God’s wrath, like public flagellation – these are all familiar tropes of a contemptible Middle Ages where life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Yet it is only a society secure in its own medical superiority that can stand on the sidelines and laugh at the past. Some of the behaviours that have emerged during the present pandemic (good and bad) are not very far from medieval and early modern responses to plague. Human beings, it seems, do not change a great deal.
The reported rise in ‘attendance’ of online church services in the UK, compared with the meagre attendance at real-world church services before the pandemic, may speak to a sudden resurgence of religiosity in the face of uncertainty – although this is a phenomenon that sociologists of religion will no doubt examine for years to come. Anecdotally, clergy I know have begun to rummage through prayer books for long-disused prayers written in times of plague in order to meet the spiritual needs of a society faced with alarming levels of mortality, while saints seem to have made a sudden return to popular consciousness. I have been approached by the media several times since the start of the lockdown to speak about St Edmund of East Anglia and his role as patron saint of pandemics, and several local newspapers have run features on hitherto largely forgotten local saints. In Hereford, the Benedictine monks of Belmont Abbey have even discussed with the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral the possibility of processing relics of St Thomas Cantilupe around the city – something that last occurred during an outbreak of plague in 1610.
While any revival of saints and relics has so far been muted in the UK, Italy has seen a more overt resurgence. In March, Pope Francis walked to the church of San Marcello in Rome to pray before a ‘miraculous’ fourteenth-century crucifix, which is reputed to have saved Rome from plague in 1522. Later, the crucifix was removed from the church and placed in St Peter’s Square for the pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing, along with the ancient icon of Mary as Salus populi Romani (‘salvation of the Roman people’) that reputedly saved the city from the Justinianic plague in the sixth century. Then, in April, the sword of St Michael was removed from its shrine on Mount Gargano and solemnly carried through the streets of the city of Gargano – the first time this has occurred since an outbreak of plague in 1656. All over Italy, priests have processed through towns and villages bearing the consecrated host in a monstrance, while police have been forced to drive some people away from attempting to attend mass. On the surface, at least, it appears that Italy’s drift towards secularism is in retreat. Similarly, in Ireland there has reportedly been significant demand for confessions offered by priests in church car parks under social distancing measures.
Perhaps we might expect a turn to traditional acts of piety at a time of crisis in countries with Catholic traditions, and without properly researched empirical data it is difficult to say whether the pandemic has produced a return to faith across Europe. However, what does seem to have occurred (at least in the UK) is a widespread normalisation of religious belief and practice. Because flocking to the churches is impossible, what historians refer to as ‘popular religion’ has come to the fore, including veneration of saints, relics, processions and outdoor holy sites. The same patterns of devotional practice seen during historic outbreaks of plague, as well as during the Interdict laid on England during the reign of King John, seem to be making a return. Communities seek the reassurance of the presence of the holy.
However we may respond personally to this development in the landscape of belief as welcome or unwelcome, it will surely affect the way we think about medieval history. The Dance of Death, it seems, draws closer to us than we ever thought possible.