Epidemics in History: Of Vaccines and Saints

By John H. ArnoldMay 3, 2021

Epidemics in History: Of Vaccines and Saints

Souls Under Siege: Stories of War, Plague, and Confession in Fourteenth-Century Provence by Nicole Archambeau

IT MAY BE premature, but recent conversations have begun to turn to what life will be like “after COVID” — after the drone of unease has dissipated and the practicalities of life return to something like normal. Such conversations tend to fall into two modes. One is essentially hopeful, and is really about timing: Are you booking a holiday? How soon? By what date do you think gigs might start again? The other is a continuation of current tension. “It’s going to take a long time to get over all of this,” “We’re going to find that the kids are really traumatized,” “There’s going to be a wave of violence.” “None of that way of life — none of it — is coming back.” Sometimes we remember more profoundly optimistic conversations, the kind we had a few months into the crisis, about how the virus laid bare what was wrong with the world, and how it would undoubtedly lead to changes for the better.

Historians of the Middle Ages cannot help but think about the 14th century and the plague known to us as “the Black Death.” There is a grim comfort in the comparison: that pandemic had a much higher mortality rate. It was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium (as recent archaeological study of ancient DNA has conclusively demonstrated, against earlier historical theories), and, since it jumped from animals to humans, it is a “zoonotic” disease, just like COVID. Emerging most probably in Asia in the early 1330s, it swept through China, decimated the Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia and the Mamluks in the Middle East, and arrived in Europe in 1347. At a conservative estimate, at least 40 percent of the European population died between 1348 and 1352; the loss of human life in other parts of the world was probably similarly severe. So, in comparison, we’re not doing so badly today. And there were some benefits for subsequent generations who survived the Black Death. Land became plentiful, laborers could demand higher payment for their services, and in some regions the ravages of plague led to a fundamental realignment of society and politics.

However, for some parts of Europe the plague was not the only calamity to arrive in the middle of the 14th century. As Nicole Archambeau reminds us, in her fascinating and deeply humane book, Souls Under Siege: Stories of War, Plague, and Confession in Fourteenth-Century Provence, for decades communities in parts of France also suffered the effects of major warfare. War killed some people directly, of course, but war also destroyed harvests, disrupted trade, and dislocated social systems and justice. In southern France, the plague was mostly remembered by contemporaries as “the Great Mortality” (or sometimes the “First Mortality” by those suffering through the major recurrence of plague in the 1360s), an implicit reminder that there were other “mortalities” to be suffered as well. Contrary to the popular image of medieval chivalric warfare, by this period many rulers made intermittent use of paid professional soldiers: mercenaries. They were efficient in battle, but a big problem when unemployed, as they turned into roaming bands of hardened men, unaligned (while unpaid) to lord or king and unattached to household or community. Such groups “lived off the land,” brutally extorting what they needed wherever they went. They brought not only violence but a crisis of authority: local lords, whose claim to superiority rested in large part on their ability to dispense “justice” and enforce “the peace,” struggled to suppress them. Over time, the nobility was undermined by the martial abilities of these lowly professional fighting men.

Souls Under Siege is based on the evidence of 68 Provençal witnesses who gave evidence to a canonization inquiry conducted in 1363. The inquiry sought to determine whether the sanctity of Countess Delphine de Puimichel might posthumously qualify her for sainthood. She was a Provençal noblewoman, deeply connected to the regional politics of the period, but also renowned for her personal piety; and, it was said by many, able to perform miracles of healing and salvation even during her lifetime. Her former maid Bertranda, extremely elderly and bedridden in 1363, gave evidence while prostrate, with various high-ranking inquirers standing at her bedside. She told of how Delphine’s touch had healed a noble lady, Johanna de Meleto, in the royal court in Naples itself. And how, in 1349, Delphine had talked with two warring Provençal lords, miraculously creating peace between them. When she died, at the age of 75 on November 26, 1360, and her body was laid out publicly while people sat vigil around her, a prostitute kissed her feet and immediately converted from her sinful life, and a mother touched Delphine’s feet to the neck of her sick child and he was healed. She was even able to heal plague itself. Another witness, a lawyer called Master Laurens, told the inquiry that when plague returned to the city of Aix in the 1360s, he was struck by a terrible fever which people there called lo cat (the cat) and expected to die. But a neighborhood woman suggested that he make a vow to Delphine, and so he promised to bring “wax to her tomb” (a common form of votive offering, often sculpted into the shape of the body part which had been cured). After making this vow, he slept, and when he awoke the next day, the fever had gone.

Archambeau listens to these voices, those who gave thanks for the saintly intervention and salvation they experienced not only during the Great Mortality but also during periodic waves of violent invasion by mercenary bands. While many of the witnesses to the canonization inquiry were noble or religiously elite, including a number of women, some were much lowlier, including soldiers, townsmen, peasants. As they gave their evidence to the investigating bishops and scribes, they turned their memories, experiences, their dread and hope, into narratives that reveal not only practical details but some of the wider emotional texture of 14th-century life. Their voices provide us with glimpses of the shared culture of their world, but also of intensely personal moments of tension and concern. A mother, worried that her teenage daughter’s luxurious hair is tempting her into sin, turns to Delphine. A nobleman named Lord Ferrier visits Delphine prior to leading a force into battle against a mercenary band, telling her of the dangers, and perhaps by implication his fears. She tells him not to go, an injunction he ignored due to his sense of honor — but “miraculously” his horse falls lame, and he is spared the fight. Another mother with a very sick son makes an elaborate promise: she will say the Pater noster and Ave Maria prayers seven times a day, journey to Delphine’s shrine with a wax votive offering, and feed all the people she finds there while fasting herself. Her son is healed: a transformation for him, and a pious transformation of a different kind for his mother.

As Archambeau emphasizes, topics that modern historians tend to pursue as distinct sub-fields — warfare, plague, religion — were not experienced separately by those alive at the time. The threats of violence, disease, and damnation were intertwined, both practically and conceptually, in their pleas to Delphine. Suffering was, most likely, God’s punishment for their failings; people’s eternal souls were at stake, as well as their present lives. Peace-making between warring nobles was a means of showing God how hard they were trying to improve themselves, to repent, to seek to live within His love.

By the time of the canonization inquiry, the trauma of the First Mortality had been digested sufficiently to be named thus, and used as a time-marker, cited by several witnesses to date other events, such as a private war that broke out between various Provençal barons. But the effects of the plague were profound. Louis Heyligen, a musician in the household of a cardinal in Avignon and a friend of Petrarch’s, wrote a letter in 1348 to colleagues in Bruges, recounting the arrival of plague in Avignon. It was highly contagious. Someone who had suffered breathing difficulties would die within a couple of days, and “when one infected person dies, everyone who saw him during his illness, visited him, had any dealings with him, or carried him to burial, immediately follows him without any remedy.” Consequently, Heyligen wrote, “[A]t least half the people of Avignon died.” The epidemic was thought to have arisen from “corruption of the air,” infecting other elements; people were, he said, scared to eat the local fish or drink the water. Fear had a very dark side, too: some “wretched men” found carrying “powders” were thought to be poisoning the wells, and were executed by burning.

Turning to a saint in these circumstances was to seek intervention, to petition the Divine sovereign for an exception to His rule. Why appeal via Delphine? For those who sought aid from her, she was thought to have God’s ear; a saint was a friend with powerful connections. Delphine had spent her life embedded in the political courts of the south, moving to Naples from her home at Puimichel at some point early in the 14th century, and spending time in other major cities such as Marseille. Provence was in this period part of the Angevin kingdom of Naples (politically destabilized, as various of the witnesses recount, following the death of King Robert of Naples in 1343), and the county had strong regional connections with both Lombardy and Languedoc. Delphine had been married to Elzéar, count of Sabran. He had long pre-deceased her, and in life the two were said to have conducted themselves “chastely” and with great piety (indeed, he had similarly been thought a candidate for sainthood, though no records survive from his canonization inquiry). So Delphine was also thought to have the power of virginity, borrowing something of the even greater potency of the Virgin Mary. She was a powerful and privileged woman who willingly adopted an ascetic mode of life, and whose mixture of symbolic lowliness and political connections in life promised a continuation of influence in the world hereafter.

Centuries of Protestant polemic tend to mislead us about the dynamics around the worship of medieval saints. The search for clemency in a world in which most people did not expect their individual wishes to carry great weight could never be other than based on slender hope rather than firm expectation. Pleas for intervention were made in the full knowledge that they might fall on deaf ears; the burden of sin might be too great to deserve such comfort and respite. When a petition was granted — when someone was saved from plague after having been laid on Delphine’s bed; when a mercenary, flung to his death in a well, awoke two days later to discover he was still alive, having muttered a prayer to her just before his execution — these were miraculous events. They were understood not to be how the world normally worked, but rather rare moments of divine special favor. People petitioned saints, made vows to them, promised them a reciprocal recognition of their status (the gift of wax, the gift of pilgrimage and worship) precisely because they sought intervention, an exception from the norm.

Here, as in other similar inquiries, the canonization process demanded to know how the events attested to as miraculous had departed from what was normal and natural. Medieval people knew perfectly well that someone could be healed by medical intervention, or assisted by other sources of aid; these would not count as miracles. The soldier thrown down the well was called Durand Arnau, and he had endured this horrendous fate alongside various other captured mercenaries, all of whom died. The inquiry questioned witnesses on the details around his attempted execution: how tightly had Durand been bound, how deep was the well, did it contain water, what size rocks were hurled down after him, how long was the piece of rope used to rescue him when he regained consciousness some days later? And, as importantly, what evidence was there for his own moral reform? He himself gave evidence, and said that “he changed the feelings [affectibus] of his whole heart, begging to her [Delphine] in his heart, and indeed pronouncing with a secret voice, that she should aid him in such peril, most of all because, if he evaded death, he would come to her, fulfilling whatever she willed.” He did indeed then travel to meet Delphine, at the Holy Cross convent in Apt, and she recognized his true contrition and penitence; but she warned him, “Go, and sin no more. And before committing in the future any similar evils to those you have already perpetrated, you should choose to die first.” Saints could be stern as well as merciful. They were, after all, people of power.

Archambeau’s book is extremely instructive on the politics of the time, the ravages of plague and of mercenaries. But she is also particularly good on the spiritual struggles of those who came to bear witness to Delphine’s sanctity. The moment of making annual confession of sins was, for several of the witnesses, a “moment of danger,” as potentially traumatic as the other threats contained within the period. Had one confessed sufficiently, and with proper humility? Was one’s soul still endangered, despite one’s best efforts? One noble lady, Maria d’Evenos, sought counsel from Delphine because her many years-long disgust for food had made her very ill. At the hermitage in which Delphine was then staying, Maria feared she might die, and sought confession from a priest there. But she “could not find in herself a way to make a perfect confession in either form or manner, and she could not remember her sins as she wished. She was saddened, because she considered herself to be damned.” Maria then laid her head in Delphine’s lap, listened to her consoling words about reconciliation with God, and miraculously all her sins came back to her mind — and thus she was able to confess fully.

These 14th-century people lived through very difficult times. What they frequently recounted, as Archambeau emphasizes in her conclusion, were moments of profound change. Maria found herself pierced with compunction and able to recall her sins fully. Noblewomen gave up luxurious clothing and adopted poverty. Nuns sold off expensive devotional objects and gave the proceeds to the poor. Durand the mercenary took up the life of a penitent recluse. Change, as they narrated it, came through the good example and intercession of Delphine. But change surely also came from the turbulence around them, in the slippage of life from normalcy to radical uncertainty.

Major crises of a prolonged kind, then as now, tend to induce an unstable temporality. We are thrust into an uncertain relationship between past, present, and future, set adrift among our memories, our fears, and our hopes. In the tense and endless “now,” we are whittled down to nubs of core belief, the rational and irrational habits that we hope may get us through. Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Shop online, go for a walk regularly, check the Johns Hopkins statistics, spray sanitizer on the mail. Wear a mask, or carry one as a talisman at least. While we wait for the intercession of the vaccines, we seek protection through hope and ritual, and we project our thoughts to other moments in time as a brief reprieve from the grinding tension of the present. When, eventually, we emerge on the other side of COVID-19 (its very name a temporal marker), we will discover how we turn trauma into memory, narrative — and, perhaps, transformation.


John H. Arnold worked for many years at Birkbeck, University of London, and in 2016 took up the chair of medieval history at the University of Cambridge. He has written on various aspects of medieval culture and society, with a particular focus on popular religion and medieval heresy. His books include History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (Bloomsbury, 2005), and the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2014). His most recent publication is the second edition of What is Medieval History? (Polity, 2021).

LARB Contributor

John H. Arnold worked for many years at Birkbeck, University of  London, and in 2016 took up the chair of medieval history at the University of Cambridge. He has written on various aspects of medieval culture and society, with a particular focus on popular religion and medieval heresy. His books include History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000), Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (Bloomsbury, 2005), and the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2014). His most recent publication is the second edition of What is Medieval History? (Polity, 2021), and he is currently working on a major study of lay religion in southern France before the Black Death.


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