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The Black Death

     “The Black Death” is 2010 movie starring Sean Bean.  It did rather poorly at the box office, earning less than one million dollars, which is lamentable because it was a good movie.  It seems that it was not publicized or advertized in the United States.  I had never heard of it until I saw it listed among the movies available at the nearest redbox two days ago.

            “The Black Death” is about the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague.  The Bubonic Plague was the worst epidemic in history.  It seems that many people do not know this.  I read a magazine article which stated wrongly that A.I.D.S. is the worst epidemic in history because it has afflicted over twenty million people.  Well, the Bubonic Plague killed over seventy million people.  What is more, the world today has a population of over six billion, so even if the number of people afflicted by A.I.D.S. reaches sixty million in the next few years, which is possible but not probable, it will still be only about one percent of the population of the world.  When the Bubonic Plague hit, however, the population of the world was much smaller.  According to Wikipedia, “The Black Death pandemic in the 14th century may have reduced the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400,” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population).  If the world population was 450 million before, and 375 million after, then the Bubonic Plague killed about seventeen percent of the world’s population.

            The movie is not just about this disease, however.  It is also about the religious beliefs and practices of the people of England when the Black Death was ravaging the land.  People in Western Europe had been rather positive, happy, and cheerful during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  The population increased because the food supply increased.  There were wars fought by the warrior nobility, but for most people it was a relatively peaceful time.  The great war during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the crusade, which was fought far away and so did not much affect those who did not volunteer to go fight in a crusade.  Intellectually, some of the greatest minds of all history lived, taught and wrote during that time.  There was Herman the Cripple, Peter Abelard, Albert the Great, Bonaventure and, greatest of them all, Thomas Aquinas.  At that time, life was good, and people knew that it was good, and religion was largely about contemplating God and praising Him for the wonders of His beautiful creation.  By the way, C.S. Lewis wrote well of this and I would recommend his writings, especially his book The Discarded Image.

            The fourteenth century, when the Black Death happened, was a catastrophe in all respects.  France was then the most populated country in Europe.  There was a famine in France in 1314 – 1315.  Then England invaded France in 1337, thus beginning the Hundred Years War which would last until 1453.  The war was ruinous for both countries.  England spent what at that time was an enormous amount of money to fight the war which she eventually lost.  France suffered even more because most of the fighting was done on French soil.  Armies at that time lived of the land, eating whatever food they could find or take, so the French people suffered much from the armies that marched through and fought in their land for over a century.  What is more, a large part of France – namely Burgundy – sided with the English for much of the war, so for the French the Hundred Years War was not only a national war, but also a civil war.  Scotland got involved also by attacking England from the north so as to aid its ally France, but the Scotch were defeated when their king was killed in battle.

             Intellectually, Thomas Aquinas had no follower equal to him.  Worse, the archbishop of Paris condemned the writings of Aquinas because they relied too heavily, in his opinion, on the philosophy of Aristotle, who was a Pagan.  The dominant thinkers of the fourteenth century were John Duns Scottus (1270 – 1308) and William of Occam (1295 – 1349).  The first was so obsessed with universal essences that his system of thought was cut from reality and therefore impractical.  The latter denied the existence of universal essences and, what was worse on the practical level, he claimed that since God is omnipotent, He therefore can do anything that He pleases and need not act wisely.  He wrote, “Omnis res quae est peccatum est a DEO, tamen DEUS non peccat, quia non tenetur ad oppositum, cum nullius debitor sit,” (page 131 of Philosophical Works, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1990).[1] If God acts unwisely, like a man who is moved by emotions to behave irrationally and arbitrarily, then reality is unpredictable and life is terrifying because God could be a tyrant who punishes men and women for no good reason.

            The Black Death hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, while the Hundred Years War was being waged and William of Occam was spreading his pernicious philosophy called nominalism, with nothing but the impotent philosophy of John Duns Scottus to oppose him.  The French historian Daniel-Rops describes these events: “La prodigieuse vitalité dont avait témoigné l’humanité occidentale durant les grands siècles du moyen âge semblait atteinte; la marée démographique qui, depuis le lendemain de l’an Mille, avait soulevé toute la société médiéval, était étalé, et commençait même à baisser: en France, il n’y aura pas beaucoup plus de ‘feux’, c’est-a-dire de familles, en 1789 qu’en 1328. . . . Peut-être est-ce à cette baisse universelle de vitalité, à un vieillissement en quelque sorte physiologique de la société, qu’il faut attribuer la baisse de qualité des hommes de premier plan, car leur nombre avait diminué et ceux qui existaient ne valaient pas ceux de la grande époque, “ (page 31 of L’Eglise de la Renaissance et de la Reforme, Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 1957).[2]  He also wrote that “ à partir du XIVe siècle, la désagrégation morale va de pair avec le déclin politique et social. . . . Au lieu de la charité du Christ, partout prévaut une sorte d’évident sadisme ; le témoignage le plus affreux qu’on en puisse donner est cette habitude qui se répand, malgré les papes, malgré les rois, de refuser la Communion aux condamnés à mort, afin qu’ils meurent dans la plus atroce angoisse da la damnation éternelle, “ (ibid. pages 139 and 141).[3]

            This film does an excellent job of placing us in the fourteenth century.  In addition to those negatives that came in that century, there was the continued existence, since time immemorial, of three classes: clergy, warriors and workers.  There are characters in this movie from each of the three classes, which is well because it thus shows what life was like not just for one group but for all people.  My only criticism of this film is based upon something that the director said, which was included as a special feature on the dvd.  The film depicts life in the fourteenth century, at which time society was falling apart, but the director seems to imply that the problems of the fourteenth century were caused by ‘fanatical’ Christians who actually believed in God, unlike the real Christians living today who do not.  If the problems of the fourteenth century were caused by medieval Christianity, then they would have been present throughout the whole Middle Ages, but they were not present throughout the Middle Ages.

             Sean Bean is the star, but the most important character is a young monk named Osmund, played by Eddie Redmayne, who, apparently, has broken his vow of celibacy.  This is not explicitly shown.  In fact, it could be thought that he loved a girl in a Platonic way, which would be very medieval.  There were several monks, now canonized saints, who had such love affairs with women but never had sexual intercourse with them.  According to the director Christopher Smith, Osmund is a “modern Christian” because “he will give and help others before himself.”  Smith goes on to say, “realistically that is probably not how a character would think at that time.”  Smith made a good movie, and he thus shows a certain knowledge about and understanding of fourteenth century Europe, but I disagree with his assessment of what a Christian is now as opposed to what a Christian was then.  What is more, the character who acted in a way that was “probably not how a character would think at that time” was Ulric, played by Sean Bean.  He killed a woman to save her from being tortured to death.  He then told Osmund that sometimes the most anyone can do to help a person is to end or reduce her suffering.  Such mercy killing is modern or post-modern, but not medieval.  Roman Catholics believed that everybody is purified by suffering before entering into Heaven.  It would be good for a person to suffer in this life before dying, because if a person does not suffer enough in this life before death, then she will have to suffer after death in Purgatory.  Purgatory is not a third place between Heaven and Hell.  Purgatory is part of Heaven, but it hurts like Hell, because those who are there must have their attachments to everything that is not God burned out of them.  Suffering in Purgatory is more painful that suffering before death.  So a devout Roman Catholic of the Middle Ages would not kill a woman to prevent her from being tortured to death. 

             The Middle Ages happened before the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation.  The Catholic Church clarified and rigidified its doctrines at the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563).  Such clearly-defined doctrines were necessary to combat the Protestants who were attacking the Roman Catholic religion all over northern Europe and convincing millions of people to leave the Church, and even to fight against it, causing civil wars in Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands.  In uncertainty causes hesitation, and in a war he who hesitates is lost, so no uncertainty was allowed in the Catholic Counter Reformation.  The medieval Roman Catholic Church was different.  Doctrines were not as clearly defined.  Beliefs were not as rigid.  The intellectuals debated, while the common people lived as best they could according to what they could understand.  According to Smith, however, medieval Christians were fanatics: “What I am trying to look at is, if there is religious fanaticism, it is across the board.  Sean Bean’s character is a religious fanatic.  That’s his character. He believes the absolute truth of God, the word of God.”  Smith made a good movie, and he deserves credit for that, and he showed the Pagans to be just as bad as the Christians, and the Christians to be good in some ways, so I would not accuse him of being entirely anti-Christian, but he assumes wrongly that believing that God really, truly exists is fanaticism.  He uses the term “modern Christian” to describe a secular humanist who tries to help other people but has no strong beliefs.  For people in the Middle Ages, the existence of God seemed obvious.  Some intellectuals tried to prove the existence of God, but this was just an academic exercise because nobody, or almost nobody, was an Atheist.  This strong faith did not make the people fanatics, however, at least not according to the common connotation of the word fanatic.

              The word fanatic means “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics,” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fanatic).   Enthusiasm comes from two Greek words: “en” meaning “in”, and “Theos” meaning “God”.  Anyone who believes in God is, therefore, enthusiastic, and therefore is a fanatic.  But the word fanatic is most commonly taken to mean someone who is uncritical, as the definition states, and therefore closed-minded.  The opposite of closed-minded is open-minded.  Now, is a mathematician open-minded when it comes to math?  Would he say, “I believe that two plus two equals four, but I am open to the possibility that it equals five?”  A mathematician would not be open to the possibility that two plus two equals five, therefore he would be closed-minded.  Would an engineer be open-minded about the strength of steel required to hold up a bridge?  Would she say, “I believe that for a bridge this size the beams must be at least two feet thick, but I am open to the possibility that beams only one foot thick could hold up this bridge.”  An engineer would not be open to the possibility that thin steel beams could hold up a bridge that requires thick steel beams, therefore she would be closed-minded.  When a person believes that something is true, and when the consequences of being wrong are serious, then the person is not open-minded.  The “modern Christians” that director Smith refers to are people who do not truly believe in God, and who do not think that error in religion has serious consequences.  They are people for whom God is subjective and religion is nothing more than feelings.  There are many “modern Christians”, but it seems to me that they are less critical, therefore more fanatical, than medieval Christians were.  Medieval Christians believed in something objective.  The uneducated majority listened to the educated minority, and the educated minority sought to know as much truth and understand it as well as they could, debating amongst themselves, using rigorous logic, avoiding distractions, using their predecessors as a guide yet going beyond and even against them when the truth showed that mistakes had been made (Thomas Aquinas, for example, used Augustine of Hippo whenever he could, but disagreed with Augustine when he had to).  Does listening to and obeying more educated individuals make someone a fanatic?  Is a person a fanatic because he has confidence that what he believes is true?  Is a person a fanatic because he acts according to his beliefs?  It would seem that, according to Christopher Smith, a modern Christian is someone who does not believe strongly in anything and who acts according to his or her feelings, which happen to be sometimes altruistic.  A medieval Christian was not such a person.  Medieval Christians were open to reality, but closed to whatever logically contradicted what they believed to be true, as any sane person would be closed to what is logically contradictory to the truth.  This comes not from fanaticism, but from the law of non-contradiction, which all sane adults hold either explicitly or implicitly.




[1] I would translate this as: “Everything that is a sin is from God, nevertheless God does not sin, because He is not obliged to do or not to do anything, therefore nothing is a sin for Him.”

[2] I would translate this as: “The prodigious vitality that Western humanity manifested during the great centuries of the Middle Ages seems to have ended.  The demographic tidal wave that had elevated all of medieval society, beginning shortly after the year 1000, leveled off and even began to recede.  In France, the number of families in 1789 did not much exceed the number of families in 1328. . . . Maybe this universal decline in vitality, a certain type of societal old age, should be attributed to a decline in the quality of the best people, because there were fewer of them, and the ones who were left were not worth those who had lived in the great age.”

[3] I would translate this as: “Starting in the fourteenth century, moral disintegration went along with political and social decline. . . . Instead of the charity of Christ, obviously sadistic behavior dominated everywhere; the most horrible example that we can give of this was the custom of denying Communion to those condemned to death so that they would die in the most atrocious agony believing that they would spend eternity in hell.  This custom spread despite popes and kings who tried to stop it.”