Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.
During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.
In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.