Historical and Modern Christian Responses to Plague

There have been a number of comparisons that I have seen over the last couple of weeks about the response of churches during the plagues of the Middles Ages and churches today.  It is true that there are some major differences, but there are also some very different contexts that I think it is helpful if we understand.

In the Middle Ages, people thought the Black Death (plague) was spread from bad air in places like swamps, and mists, and things like that.  And so they avoided all places that had a reputation for being this sort of location.  While they did not avoid going to churches, this is because they did not think it possible for the contagion to be spread in a church (which were usually built on high points in the land, not known for ‘ill humours’ and ‘miasmas’).  Sometimes governments would close off villages or areas where there was an outbreak of plague in an effort to contain it, but as soon as it appeared anywhere, citizens often fled as quickly as they could, which only spread the disease further and faster, as they were unaware they were already infected.

People in the middle ages well and truly understood that you could catch the plague from being in contact with someone who had the symptoms.  In fact, they considered that being in the presence of someone who had the plague was actually certain death, as transmission rates were so high.  Yet many Christians considered it their duty to care for and serve those with the plague – particularly as there weren’t large and organised medical and caring industries.  Doctors were few and far between, there weren’t nurses or hospitals, and any care facilities were run as religious institutions by monks or nuns.  These Christians took whatever precautions they could, and all sorts of folk remedies to try and ward off infection, but they were willing to die in the service of others.  At the same time, they isolated themselves when they undertook this work so that they wouldn’t pass on the disease to other people.

Today, we are having much the same response, just updated in terms of our understanding of viruses and modern institutions.

We have a better understanding of how diseases are transmitted, how you can be infectious before showing any symptoms, and so our isolation practices aren’t confined to areas with ‘bad air’, but can include every public place, including churches.  We avoid those areas we know where the virus can be transmitted, just as they did in the Middle Ages, one of which places are church buildings.  In addition to this, we are also now more aware that an appropriate way to care for some people in a situation involving an infectious disease is to keep an appropriate distance, and not gather together.  

At the moment, I am aware that many Christians as individuals, and churches as collective groups, are helping their neighbours who are worried and self-isolating, and contacting and caring for those who are anxious.  In Australia, this is all before there are many people who are getting sick, and I would expect to see that churches are at the forefront of the response to serving the sick and isolated.  While we now have caring professions (doctors, nurses, aged care workers, etc) in a way they did not have in the Middle Ages, there is still a large amount of community care in which we are going to see Christian involvement in the not too distant future.  While this service is not the death sentence it was assumed to be in the Middle Ages (at least not with COVID-19), it is something that is not without risk, and I expect to see many Christians helping as their way of imitating Jesus, just as our Christian brothers and sisters have done through the centuries. 

While there are differences, they are not as great as we might sometimes imagine.  People who follow Jesus don’t change much over the ages, although our context does, making the differences sometimes seem greater than they actually are.  Jesus is still our Lord and Saviour, we have the same Spirit who guides us, and we are instructed by the same Scriptures.  And this is where our unity and continuity lie across the ages – in Jesus – and He does not change!

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