We are very reliant on Bede’s works for our understanding of plague and disease in early historic Britain. Bede wrote sacred history so we ignore his theological views on illness at our peril.
I don’t think Bede would have been theologically bothered by large numbers of deaths. Death at all ages would have been common in Bede’s world. Infection would have been ever present, and local epidemics fairly common. Bede had a strong belief that the righteous were safe with Christ. They were passing to their just reward. What was harder to explain was suffering before death. Why do we suffer? A timeless questions that we still grapple with today.
With the help of Laurence Creider and George Hardin Brown from ANSAX-L, a summary of Bede’s theological explanation for human infirmity and some hints of where else to look for Bede’s views turned up. Bede gives five theological reasons for human suffering in his Commentary on Mark and in his homily on John 5: 1-18 (homily I.23). These two lists more or less match and may be the basis for Bede’s explanations scattered throughout his works. I’m sure if we take all of Bede’s historical works examples of all five can be found; a couple occur in his Life of Cuthbert alone. Here is a paraphrase from a rough translation sent to me by Dr Creider from the Commentary on Mark, the examples are mentioned by Bede.
Five reasons for human infirmity:
- To increase the merit of the righteous (ex. Job, Tobias, countless martyrs)
- To protect the virtues against pride (ex. the apostle Paul 2 Cor 12:7)
- To correct our sins and reform our behavior (ex. Miriam sister of Aaron and Moses & paralyzed man healed by Jesus)
- For the glory of God or his servants to shine through healing (ex. man born blind and Lazarus)
- To begin the torment of those damned (ex. Antiochus and Herod)
In his homily, Bede gives what is listed above as 1 and 2 using the more practical phrasing of increasing patience and humility respectively. Oddly he also says that many people suffer for the greater glory of God, essentially to be fodder for the healing virtues of the saints.
In the homily Bede raises the question of how does one know which of these five reasons explains your own infirmity. He responds by saying that we can not know and therefore we must be prepared. When we are ill we must examine ourselves and repent any sins that might have offended the Creator. Then he says something startling:
“Nor should we seek a remedy for the body before we recognize that we have arrived at a pure state of the internal man, lest perhaps after we take care of curing the flesh, the bad health of the mind which lies hidden within, may be an obstacle to us. Let us learn how to bow humbly before the scourge of [our] benevolent Maker, aware that we suffer less than we deserve, and always mindful of the statement that blessed is the man who is rebuked by the Lord.” (homily I.23; p. 229)
The dangerous bit about Bede’s advice is that if you delay seeking medical treatment, such as it was, for a couple days while you concentrated on spiritual health it could be too late for many infections, not just plague. I wonder if Bede considered visible injuries like abrasions or indeed boils to be different than invisible, internal illnesses. If someone gets a cut in the barnyard or on the battlefield, it wouldn’t make sense to examine your spiritual health before cleaning and dressing the wound. Infections from these simple injuries probably killed as many or more than large epidemics.
The number five here is not by chance. In his homily on John 5:1-18 (homily 1.23) Bede explains the symbolism of the five porticoes around the pool of Bethesda where the sick gathered to be washed in the water that had washed the temple sacrifices. These five porticoes symbolize Jewish law contained in the Torah that keep the Jewish people spiritually healthy, if they follow it. It is hardly a coincidence that Bede then finds five reasons for sickness.
It has been suggested that Bede took this list from Gregory but no one has been able to find it in Gregory’s works. Augustine has been suggested as another possibility. This would be in keeping with DeGregorio’s recent article (2010) on the difficulty of outlining Bede’s relationship to Gregory and the other Fathers and how to cope with his ‘spiritual affinity’ with Gregory.
Scott DeGregorio, 2010, “The Venerable Bede and Gregory the Great: exegetical connections, spiritual departures” Early Medieval Europe, 18: 43-60.
Bede, Laurence Martin and David Hurst, trans. (1991) Homilies on the Gospels: Book One Advent to Lent. Cistercian Publications.