“Humbled under the flails of God”

May 11, 2007 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

edwardiii.jpg“A just God now visits the sons of men and lashes the world,” asserted King Edward III, writing in September 1349 to the bishops of England regarding the ferocious pestilence now known as the Black Death.

The plague had reached England sometime in the summer of 1348, having traveled to Europe via trade routes from the Far East. Within two years of its arrival, the pestilence carried off roughly half of England’s population.

King Edward’s judgment was pretty harsh, but it reflected the common view of the source of the pestilence: almost everyone agreed that plague came from God’s hand. It had arrived, as Edward maintained, as an exhibition of God’s “harshness to his people so that they, in fear and penitence, might call upon his name more humbly.” As Thomas Walsingham put it, Europe had been “humbled under the flails of God.”

My senior thesis, which I just turned in last week, was on fourteenth-century perceptions of God during the plague, so I’ve been studying the topic at length recently. One of the points that really interested me in my research was that fourteenth-century individuals almost always thought that plague was directly caused by God. It was something He actively instigated, not something He passively allowed.

black_death.jpgWhen commentators turned to biblical precedent in their efforts to understand the disaster, for example, they nearly always turned to stories that emphasized God’s direct role in punishing His people. For instance, they appealed to the story of Noah and the flood, the judgment on Nineveh predicted by Jonah, and the plagues inflicted on the Israelites at various points. In each case, God sent a punishment because of sin.

Fascinating to me, though, were the stories that plague commentators missed. For instance, I did not find a single reference to the story of Job. The tale of Job would have been a seemingly obvious narrative on which to call given that plague seemed to strike indiscriminately of the righteousness of the individuals in question and without obvious connection to any particular flagrant sin.

Still, no one referenced Job’s story—presumably because the story of Job assigns responsibility for disease and disaster to the devil, not to God.

At any rate, I found the biased nature of the explanations curious, especially since Americans sometimes react to disaster with analyses similar to those offered after the Black Death. (Think hurricane Katrina and the numerous religious figures who suggested that the hurricane represented divine retribution for the sins of New Orleans.)

Perhaps it is worth noting that there is at least one biblical precedent to indicate that disease and natural disasters do not always and necessarily occur as divine punishment.

Thoughts on this topic?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

The maturity continuum God gives and takes away?

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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