Disease and the Rise of Christianity in Europe 150800 ce

Through him [Saint Antony], the Lord healed many of those present who were suffering in body and freed others from evil spirits.

A letter from Martin happened to be brought to him and he placed it in her bosom at the very moment when her temperature was rising and at once the fever left her.

(Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin, c. 396 c.e.)2

The glorious tomb of the blessed martyr Baudilius is in Nimes... The inhabitants of the region realized that this tomb often possessed a heavenly remedy for many illnesses.

(Gregory of Tours's Glory of the Martyrs, c. 590 c.e.)3

Early Christian literature abounds in references to sickness and the miraculous cure. Indeed, the miraculous cure is perhaps the most common type scene in sacred biography and history.4 Why are stories of sick

1 Sister Mary Emily Keenan, S.C.N., trans., "Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius." In The Fathers of the Church, Volume 15, Early Christian Biographies, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, pp. 127-216 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1952), 148.

2 F. R. Hoare, trans. and ed., The Western Fathers, Being the Lives of SS. Martin of Tours, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Honoratus of Arles and Germanus of Auxerre (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 32.

3 Raymond Van Dam, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1988), 100.

4 Clare Stancliffe, "From Town to Country: The Christianization of the Touraine, 370600." In The Church in Town and Countryside, ed. Derek Baker, pp. 43-59 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979), 57.

people who are cured by monks and bishops so common, particularly relative to accounts of other "miracles" such as villages saved from marauding enemies or of crops saved from locusts or drought? To date, scholars of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages have shied away from this question. To quote one distinguished historian, "It is usually fruitless to indulge in speculation about what might have been the 'real' basis of miracle stories."5 Since the Enlightenment, miracles largely have been seen as beyond the bounds of historical analysis.6 Correspondingly, sacred biography and history, because they are replete with miracles, have been ignored or cast as overly fictitious. More recently, poststructural theorists have not only eschewed metaphysical inquiry but also have questioned the ontological status of language itself; for many, narrative cannot reflect any reality other than its own.7 The very notion of historical processes that reflect cause and effect has been cast as symptomatic of an Enlightenment project that occludes "... the accidents, the minute deviations - or conversely, the complete reversals - the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations."8

Rather than pursue the question of a pretextual reality underlying the miraculous cure, scholars have turned to literary-critical analysis of what is understood as a biblical type scene.9 It is generally assumed

5 Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 45.

6 Raymond Van Dam, Saints andTheir Miracles in Late Antique Gaul (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 84.

7 Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographies in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 17.

8 Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History." In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, pp. 76-100 (New York: Random House, 1984), 81.

9 In her study of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Petersen comments: "It is not my intention to search for some kind of scientific basis for miracle stories My efforts... will be directed chiefly towards showing that there was in the Mediterranean area a common fund of stories and teaching, upon which Eastern and Western Christian writers alike could draw." Joan M. Petersen, The Dialogues of Gregory the Great in Their Late Antique Cultural Background (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984), xxi. A number of scholars have remarked on this trend of literary-critical analysis: Caroline W. Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 44; Averil Cameron, "On Defining the Holy Man." In The Cult of the Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, eds. James Howard-Johnston and Paul Antony Hayward, pp. 27-45 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 36-37; Karen Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 16.

that early Christian authors - most of whom were clerics or monks -borrowed the miraculous cure from the Gospels to impart authority to their own works and to restate what is perhaps the most fundamental of Christian beliefs: that God became man. Like the Song of Songs, which speaks of human love yet purportedly is about loving God,10 miracle stories purportedly are not about sickness but Christ's enduring promise.

More recently, Van Dam has suggested that the miraculous cure and early medieval notions of illness and healing provided a powerful idiom with which people could think about and describe not only God but also their own identities.11 Following Foucault, Perkins has argued that this identity - "the suffering self" - was more imagined than real and essentially was imposed on the masses by bishops seeking to maintain and extend their own privileges as elites.12

Early Christian literature reflects a variety of contingencies (e.g., theological, political/institutional, literary, historical), and thus it is true that references to diseased bodies at times had little or nothing to do with sickness or epidemics. That said, the question remains as to why sacred biography and history focus so much on physical illness, suffering, and bodily resurrection, and why this discourse proliferated when it did, in late antiquity. Is it just fortuitous that "sickness" became such a popular signifier at this time?

The central argument of this chapter is that the miraculous cure and other referents to illness and healing were not just another powerful idiom, but a particularly powerful idiom by virtue of the appearance of new and more virulent strains of infectious disease. If people understood their lives as short and prone to sickness, it was not simply because sickness was a powerful metaphor or that a regime of power convinced the masses to value their own suffering. People were sicker and died prematurely in greater numbers during late antiquity and the early Middle

10 For a more literal interpretation of Songs, see Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1982).

11 Van Dam, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul, 84, 91.

12 Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self, Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era (London: Routledge, 1995). Although Foucault was less than explicit naming the agents of what he refers to as "pastoral technology," it is apparent that he had bishops, abbots, monks, and deacons in mind. See Michel Foucault, "Politics and Reason." In Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture, ed. L. D. Kritzman, trans. A. Sheridan et al. (New York: Routlege, 1988), 63.

Ages, as compared with the earlier reign of Augustus. As detailed later, smallpox, measles, plague, and malaria devastated Europe during the early Christian era and the subsequent early Middle Ages. Christianity provided a belief system as well as rituals to deal with disease and its profound consequences. Beginning with the earliest ekklesiae, and continuing with the rise of monasticism during the fourth century, the Church made charity, particularly care of the sick and orphans, central ministries of priests and monks. In what essentially was a disease environment, ekklesiae and monasteries functioned as centers for organizing and reorganizing lives that were shattered by epidemic disease as well as migration, warfare, and social unrest.

In pursuing the above argument, I focus on the western Roman Empire and especially Gaul (modern France, Belgium, and westernmost Germany) during the period 150-800 c.e. (Figure 1). My restricted temporal and spatial analysis of formative Christianity has been dictated by both the enormity of the subject and the fact that it is the Christian literature of the western Empire, and again, especially Gaul, that informed Jesuit missionary texts in the seventeenth century. Jesuit favorites such as Sulpicius Severus, Caesarius of Arles, Gregory the Great, and Gregory of Tours all focused on Gaul. I have not explored in earnest the early Byzantine world, except where it seems directly relevant, as in the diffusion of Eastern ascetic practices and monasticism to the West. It should be noted, however, that the argument advanced for the western Empire appears applicable to the eastern Roman Empire. Here, too, epidemic disease undermined the structure and functioning of communities and Christianity provided "social welfare programs" as well as beliefs and rituals that benefitted the sick and needy.13 Correspondingly, the literature produced by Eastern authors abounds in miraculous cures. Written accounts of cures performed by patron saints ("miracle collections") survive in hundreds of versions and manuscripts dating to the fifth through seventh centuries.14

13 See H. J. Magoulias, "The Lives of the Saints as Source of Data for the History of Byzantine Medicine in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries." In Byzantinische Zeitscrhrift, Bergrundet Von Karl Krumbacher, eds. Hans-Georg Beck, F. W. Deichmann, and H. Hunger, pp. 127-150 (Munich: C.H. Beck'sche, 1964).

14 D. Abrahamse, "Hagiographic Sources for Byzantine Cities, 500-900 ad" (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1967).

Figure i. The Western Roman Empire in 200 c.e.

With few exceptions, notably McNeill and Stark, scholars largely have ignored the evidence of disease from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.15 The writing and rewriting of history always entails the present intruding on the past. Our "present" largely is free of epidemic disease; it has been that way for Americans and Europeans since the great flu pandemic of 1917. Arguably, our relative success controlling and eradicating maladies such as smallpox has made it difficult to imagine epidemic disease having changed the course of history, contributing to the rise of something so otherworldly as Christianity.16 In keeping with recent trends in theory, particularly the eschewing of material causality, many scholars in the humanities17 clearly perceive biological processes as somehow too mundane or irrelevant.18 Scholars who have been entirely comfortable talking about the east-to-west flow of ideas and practices such as the Egyptian ascetic ideal have ignored the same dynamic with respect to infectious disease agents.19

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the neglect of disease has been the historical record itself. Late Roman and Byzantine chronicles frequently mention epidemics but infrequently elaborate on their extent and consequences.20 Typical is Jerome's Chronicon, which includes this entry for the year 332 c.e.: "A countless multitude died from pestilence and famine in Syria and Cilicia."21 Gregory of Tours's History of the

15 William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Doubleday, 1976); Rodney Stark, The Riseof Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

16 William Johnston, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 9.

17 See, for instance, Van Dam, Saints and Their Miracles, 84.

18 Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 74.

19 For instance: Averil Cameron, The Later Roman Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 10; Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries, trans. D. M. Grace (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, [1905] 1981), i7i-i73;Van Dam, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 82.

20 Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby, trans., Chronicon Paschale 284-628 ad (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1989), 196.

21 Malcolm D. Donalson, trans., A Translation of Jerome's Chronicon with Historical Commentary (Lewiston, Australia: Mellen University Press, 1996), 41.

Franks is likewise replete with passing comments about sickness and epidemics: "The plague ravaged the cities of Viviers and Avignon."22 This frequent yet brief mention of disease has led scholars in different directions. Some have concluded that disease was indeed a fact of life in antiquity; so common, however, that it seems hardly worth considering as a dynamic force, contributing, for instance, to the development of Christian rhetoric or Christianity in general.23 At the other extreme are scholars who have dismissed disease as important because particular authors or extant sources make no mention of epidemics.24

As Biraben and Le Goff pointed out many years ago, contemporaries of the plague often completely ignored its devastating consequences, even though they were aware that it killed tens of thousands of peo-ple.25 Eusebius, Theodoret, Jerome, Isidore, and Gregory the Great and Gregory of Tours all were preoccupied with "invisible" truths and first and final causes (God and God's often inscrutable intention). We forget that the Renaissance and Enlightenment relegated God to the status of a distant observer; humankind has since held center stage as both the maker and interpreter of history.

Fifteen hundred years ago, historians thought it foolish and presumptuous to construe history in terms of efficient or material causality; history was more a matter of showing how events were a fulfillment of prophecy or reiteration of a truth revealed in scripture.26 Given this preoccupation with God's unfolding plan for humankind, it is understandable that late antique and early medieval authors ignored the consequences of disease. Only occasionally did writers deem it useful to detail how smallpox or the plague impacted populations. For instance,

22 O. M. Dalton, trans., The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours, 2 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), II, 459.

23 Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, 10.

24 Malcolm Todd, "Famosa Pestis and Britain in the Fifth Century." Britania 8 (1977): 319-325, 322.

25 J. N. Biraben and Jacques Le Goff, "The Plague in the Early Middle Ages." In Biology of Man in History, eds. E. Forster and O. Ranum, trans. E. Forster and P. Ranum, pp. 48-80 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 49.

26 Stephen G. Nichols, Jr., Romanesque Signs: Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 20-21; Clare Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 193, 210.

Gregory of Tours, who often mentioned "great plagues" in passing, offered the following detailed comments on an epidemic in 589 c.e.:

The city of Marseilles being afflicted, as I have just said, by a most grievous pestilence, I deem it well to unfold from the beginning how much it endured. At that time Bishop Theodore had journeyed to the king to make complaint against the patrician Nicetius. King Childebert would scarce give ear to the matter, so he prepared to return home. In the meantime a ship had put into the port with usual merchandise from Spain, unhappily bringing the tinder which kindled the disease. Many citizens purchased various objects from the cargo, and soon a house inhabited by eight people was left empty, every one of them being carried off by the contagion. The fire of this plague did not spread immediately through all the houses in the place; but there was a certain interval, and then the whole city was blazed with the pest, like a cornfield set aflame After two months the affliction ceased, and the people returned, thinking the danger overpast. But the plague began once more, and all who had returned perished. On several other occasions Marseilles was afflicted by this death.27

The above quote is unusual in its epidemiological insight.28 Note, however, that even detailed descriptions of an epidemic such as Gregory of Tours's comments above are likely to be insufficient in terms of determining the extent and consequences of a disease episode. Because disease is dynamic and changeable, and often several rather than one disease agent are responsible for epidemics, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether measles, smallpox, typhus, plague, and so on, were responsible for a contagion mentioned by early chroniclers, historians, or hagiographers.29 This uncertainty makes it hard to fully

27 Dalton, History of the Franks, II, 395-396.

28 Giselle de Nie, Views From a Many-Windowed Tower: Studies of Imagination in the Works of Gregory of Tours (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), 56.

29 P. M. Ashburn, The Ranks of Death (New York: Coward-McCann, 1947), 92; J. R. Busvine, Insects, Hygiene and History (London: Athlone Press, 1976), 53; A. Lynn Martin, Plague? Jesuit Accounts of Epidemic Disease in the 16th Century (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1996); Jean-Pierre Peter, "Disease and the Sick at the End of the Eighteenth Century." In Biology of Man in History, eds. E. Forster and O. Ranum, trans. E. Forster and P. Ranum, pp. 81-94 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

model and assess the spread of disease and its demographic and cultural consequences.

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