Plague in Early Medieval Iberia: Texts and Contexts
It is not surprising thatmedieval pandemics have attracted attention in recent years.
The so-called Black Death(1347-53)issurelythe most famous of these,butit isnot theonlyone. The same pathogen,Yersinia pestis,was responsiblefora series of waves of plague whichswept the Mediterranean worldfromc. 541 to c. 750.Beginning during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, this plague, at least its initial phases, is typically referred to as the ‘Justinianicplague’.Whileithas long been studied, in recent yearsnew research methods emerging on theinterface between the humanities and natural scienceshave reinvigorated the scholarship.
Research into ancient DNA, harvested fromthe skeletons of plague victims, hasprovided new evidence to help us understand the pandemic’s spread, sometimes providing vital evidence for regions in which no textual evidence survives.Growing interest in environmental history—again drawing on the skills of historians, archaeologists,and natural scientists—hasalso helped us appreciate the importance of non-human agents of change.The more subjective and personal elements of the past remain central to the historical endeavour, however,even whendealingwith matters (like the spread of a pathogen) which are also susceptible to scientific analysis.
To understand something of the perception and experienceof plague, we have to turn tohighly fragmentary and difficult written sources.I want to focus here on just one: aremarkablecollection offoursermons fromVisigothicIberia (that is,SpainandPortugal). These sermons, writtenas a coherent setby a single author,addressan audience awaiting the onslaught of plague. The sermons are anonymous:we do not even know the city in which they were composed.
That said, the sermonswere clearly the composition of a bishop, aiming to preach at a time of communal disaster.They offer an unparalleled insight into theway plagues were interpreted by Christian authorities and the way this understanding was communicated to ordinary Christians. This, of course, is only one very partial view on the matter—as will become clear in due course—but it is an importantand usefulone,nonetheless.
The bishop Martin of Braga, as depicted in the tenth century Codex Albeldensis
The emotional pitchof the sermonsis high: ‘the mournful tale of the messengers terrifies us, as it describes the borders of our lands afflicted withpestilence, andintroduces bloody death as our neighbour’. The first sermon makes much of the horror of anticipation, ramping up the tension by references to the plague’s progress ‘with quick steps’from the coasttoward theinlandcity. The point of evoking, again and again, the looming presence of the plague was, at least in part, to present the coming plague as a foretaste of the Last Judgement—for this loomed always over people,arguedthe preacher, whether or not they were aware of it.
The fear people felt at theprospect of the plague could be channelled into fear of God’s judgement and anxiety at human sinfulness. The horror of the plague was a wake-up call, in the preacher’s eyes, that made clear the stakes of the afterlife: ‘I can see divine judgement looming over us, and I am compelled to rouse you from bodily sleep’.
Communal disasters like plagues offered bishops an opportunity to assert their claims to moral leadership. In sermons, they tried to shape and direct the responses of their audiences inparticularChristian directions. They offered interpretations of disaster that made such events speak of wider themes: plaguescould be seen as judgements from God, reflecting the sinfulness of human beings;present-day disasters could be foretastes of the punishments of hell. Christians were implored to look within themselves and meditate upon their sins, repentingfor past wrongdoing and reformingthemselves for the future. This repentance, preachers argued, was a way of reforming sinful behaviour, so that one might slowly make oneself worthy of salvation.
As vivid and emotionallyrich as these texts are, they present substantial problems of interpretation.What we find in sermons is a largely one-sided conversation. They are records of people being spoken to by clerics—that is,by a subset of elite men who had dedicated their professional lives to the church.
Many voices are not present. We know very little about how early medieval sermons were received by different groups of people within the congregation.Indeed, sermons often used highly universalizing language, addressing their audience as generic Christiansin need of the same moral lessons rather than as a group differentiated by gender,class, age, and so on.
This means that it is hard to reconstruct the audiences of early medieval preaching.We have even less awareness of how Christian ideas were understood, embraced, or resisted by those who did not attend regular church services (possiblythe majority of peoplein many regions), and still less by religious minorities likethe kingdom’sJewish population.
We can, however, occasionally detect elements of dialogue between different Christian positions within individual texts. Sermons were written with real audiences in mind, and they often responded to the ideas and expectations of those who were to hear them. In the Iberian sermons discussed above, for example, the preacher argued against the position—apparently held by some congregants—that the plague’s arrival wouldindicate that the city’s inhabitants hadfailed toattract God’s mercy.
The preacher clearly faced anger and hostility, as well as bitter disappointment, if demands for penance did nottranslate into salvation fromtheplague. Against this, the preacher had to argue a difficult position: that the congregation’s anguished penance might not affect the course of the plague, but that it might nonetheless help people acquire rewards in the world beyond, after death. This idea—of a merciful God whose rewards were mysterious and often not evident in this world—was an idea, it seems, that was not embraced by all early medieval Christians, however central it was to the ‘official’ doctrine of most priests.
Further problems of interpretation emerge when we considerhowthe sermonshave beentransmittedto us in the present day.We very rarely have direct access to early medieval texts: what we usually have arelater copies, each made at different times, in different contexts, sometimeswith substantial differences from the original text.In the case of the plague sermons discussed above, they survive in a single eleventh-century copy, within a much larger compilation of sermonsby well-known authors like Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great, andCaesariusof Arles.Historians have made convincing arguments that the plague sermonsare Iberian texts whichdate from the sixth or seventh centuries, but this is a matter of probability rather than absolute certainty.
There is afurtherpoint here. We often have access to texts like sermons through their inclusion in compilations made centuries after the original texts were written and first preached.Whenre-used, manyof these texts werere-edited into new compositions, sometimes undergoing many changes by many hands, such that the idea of a single ‘author’ becomes inappropriate.Inthe Iberian Peninsula, we know of some bishops like Martin of Braga (pictured above),who composed sermonsin his diocese in what is now northern Portugal.
Sadly, however,fewsuchtexts survive.Often, as with the plague sermons, we cannot place the texts in a precise historical and geographical context, but must, instead, speak in more general terms.
Furthermore,the fact thatsuch texts were used and re-used by different peoplemeans that we should not only think of one context.Though one individual wrotethe sermons forone particular context, they were used by others in later, different contexts.When reading medieval texts of this kind, then, we are rarely dealing directly with one moment of authorship, but with a whole chain of use, re-use, copying, and compiling.This is especially true for sermons. Delivered orally, preachers may have performed them in very different ways, anddoubtless modified the content and extemporized when they saw fit.Texts were much more fluid that they may at first appear.
Texts like the Iberian plague sermons are rich and fascinating windows into the emotional and spiritual stakes of pandemics. Yet, like so many early medieval sources, they also present formidable difficulties of source criticism, requiring us to think of texts in less rigid and fixed ways than we are often accustomed to. The manner in which texts of such apparent emotion immediacy can also be part of such convoluted and complexlines of transmission is instructive for how we think about textual interpretation more generally.While scholarship on the boundary of the humanities and natural sciences promises to open important new vistas in our understanding of the medieval past,suchquestions of textual criticismcontinue to hold an essential placealongside them.