Contra plagam & other medieval prayers against plague

burying plague dead in Tournai about 1353

In the mid-ninth-century Carolingian empire, the eminent Irish scholar-cleric Sedulius Scottus urged God to spare the people from plague. He prayed to God with a poem entitled “Against the plague {Contra plagam}”:

Would not your people have to drink
now the cup of your anger, deserved wrath.
May you shine upon us your former compassion;
we beg you, you hear us.

Destroy our evil deeds, we pray;
save us, blessed prince.
Disperse dark shadows covering our minds,
faithful light of the world.

Holy of Holies, Lord of kings,
may your right hand be with your lowly ones,
may your serene face look upon us,
or else we perish.

{ Non propinetur populo tuoque
nunc calix irae, meriti furoris.
clareant priscae miserationes;
quaesumus, audi.

Deleas nostrum facinus, precamur;
nosque conserva, benedicte princeps.
mentium furvas supera tenebras,
lux pia mundi.

Sancte sanctorum, dominusque regum,
visitet plebem tua sancta dextra,
nos tuo vultu videas serenus,
ne pereamus. } [1]

Sedulius’s prayer in humility acknowledges the wrongs that he along with the people have done. They don’t even count on their own strength to repent. He prays that God will “destroy our evil deeds {deleas nostrum facinus}.” As a matter of justice, Sedulius recognizes that they deserve to be punished by God. Yet “we beg you, you hear us {quaesumus, audi}.” God in Hebrew scripture again and again in various contexts declares:

If he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

In distress you called, and I rescued you. I answered you in the secret place of thunder. [2]

{ צְעַק אֵלַי וְשָׁמַעְתִּי כִּֽי־חַנּוּן אָֽנִי

בַּצָּרָה קָרָאתָ וָאֲחַלְּצֶךָּ אֶעֶנְךָ בְּסֵתֶר רַעַם }

In biblical understanding, God is by nature compassionate and merciful. The people experienced God’s compassion in the past. They cry out to God to experience that compassion again. The right hand of God represents the strength of God. The serene face of God represents the people seeing God blessing them. If God, the light of the world, doesn’t dispel the fear of the plague, the shadows covering their minds, they will perish.

The Great Plague that struck Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century killed roughly half of Europe’s population. Devastating plagues continued to strike European cities periodically up to the eighteenth century. A medieval prayer against the plague appealed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, with explicit reference to the plague:

Star of Heaven,
who nourished the Lord
and rooted up the plague of death
which the first parents of humankind planted;
may this star now deign
to hold in check the constellations
whose strife grants the people
the ulcers of a terrible death.
O glorious star of the sea,
save us from the plague.
Hear us: for your Son
who honors you denies you nothing.
Save us, you to whom
the Virgin Mother prays.

{ Stella celi extirpavit
que lactavit Dominum
mortis pestem, quam plantavit
primus parens hominum.
Ipsa stella nunc dignetur
sydera compescere;
quorum bella plebem cedunt
dire mortis ulcere.
O gloriosa stella maris,
a peste succurre nobis.
Audi nos: nam Filius tuus
nihil negans te honorat.
Salva nos, Jesu, pro quibus Jesus,
virgo mater te orat. } [3]

This prayer depicts Mary as a star restraining the effects of a pestilent constellation of stars. That’s a learned figure. Ancient Indian, Persian, Greek, and Egyptian thinkers described astrological effects on human health. Asaph’s Book of Medicines exemplifies the reception of that learning in medieval Europe.[4] This prayer thus draws upon highly respected, ancient non-Christian knowledge.

A Christian believer unaware of its non-Christian intellectual context could still appreciate this prayer. It invokes the Virgin Mary to intercede with Christ on behalf of her imploring Christian children. Intense devotion to the Virgin Mary was prevalent across all strata of medieval European society. Moreover, a Franciscan friar probably composed this prayer to fit a popular melody. Persons differing widely in social status and learning read and sung this prayer across Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.[5]

In mid-fourteenth-century Italy, a priest wrote a relatively unsophisticated prayer for popular use against the plague. According to liturgical instructions that accompany this prayer against the plague, the dawn Christmas Mass was to be said at dawn on three consecutive days. All the people were to attend, including “babies sucking at their mothers’ breasts {enfans tetans sian a las messas}.” The people were to hold candles in their hands during the Mass. During those three days, they should make a general confession and fast. At a certain point in the Mass, all the people were to recite together this prayer:

Lord God, Jesus Christ, merciful redeemer, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord, you hold me in this tribulation, but you have said, “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that one convert and live and confess and make amends for all one’s sins.” I beg you for mercy, Lord. By the love you have for the Virgin Mary, your blessed mother, and by the merits of the blessed martyrs, Saint Sebastian, all the other martyrs, and the virgin Saint Anastasia, save me from this epidemic. Amen.

{ Senher Dieu Jhesu Christ redemptor misericordios, aias merce a mi peccador, que mi tenes en aquesta tribulation, senher, que tu as dich, “Non vuelh la mort del peccador, mas que si convertisqua e viva e que si confesse e si esmende de thozs sos peccazs.” Clami ti merce, senher, que per aquella amor que tu as a la verges Mari, mayre tieua benaurada, e per los meritis dels benaurazs martirs, sant Cebastian e per tozs los autres martirs e per la verges sancta Anastasia, mi vulhas gardar d’aquesta epidimia. Amen. } [6]

This prayer begs for God’s mercy. It cites Ezekiel 33:11 to affirm the possibility of such mercy. The prayer directly and specifically states the urgent need: “save me from this epidemic.”

Saint Anastasia of Sirmium

Christians fearing the epidemic allied themselves with revered Christian foremothers and forefathers. Medieval Christians understood the Virgin Mary to be both the blessed mother of Christ and the mother of all Christians. As Christ’s mother, Mary was thought able to influence Christ more than could any anyone else. Yet dire times require marshaling all important spiritual resources. The eighth-century historian and monk Paul the Deacon {Paulus Diaconus} recorded that prayers to the deceased Saint Sebastian had in 680 freed Rome from a raging pestilence. Saint Sebastian thus became known in medieval Europe as a saint with special power to protect persons from pestilence and plague. Moreover, within the liturgical calendar, the dawn Mass of Christmas Day was extraordinary in commemorating Saint Anastasia of Sirmium. She was born in the second century in what today is Serbia. Her name associates her with Christ’s resurrection. From early medieval centuries she has been venerated as “Medicine for Poisons {Φαρμακολύτρια}.” Calling on all Christian martyrs for additional help implicitly suggests concern to ward off the people themselves becoming martyrs, dying faithfully from the plague.

To pray to God for deliverance from a plague, a person doesn’t need to be extraordinarily holy or pious. A learned Epicurean might reason that praying wouldn’t hurt. In the ninth century, Sedulius Scottus himself followed Epicurus in appreciating the pleasures of eating and drinking. Subtly consistent with his “Contra plagam,” Sedulius in another poem expressed earthy awareness of his own contradictory humanity and implored God for mercy:

I read and write, teach and study wisdom;
night and day I beseech God the High-Throned One.
I eat and drink gladly, I invoke pagan Muses in verse;
as I sleep, I snore; waking, I pray to God.
My mind, conscious of misdeeds, weeps for sins of my life.
O Christ and Mary, have mercy on your wretched man.

{ Aut lego vel scribo, doceo scrutorve sophian;
obsecro celsithronum nocte dieque meum.
Vescor, poto libens; rithmizans invoco musas;
dormisco stertens; oro deum vigilans.
Conscia mens scelerum deflet peccamina vitae:
parcite vos misero, Christe, Maria, viro. } [7]

In this poem, “wretched” in the last line seems to function as a Janus word, an enantiosemic term. Is this man miserable, or not? Deciding that question ultimately doesn’t matter. The point of the poem seems to be that all need God’s mercy.

A plague functions in part as a selection mechanism. Those with stronger immune systems are more likely to survive. Gratitude for life as it is, hope that the future will be better, and trust to the end will boost your immune system. Do whatever, in your best informed judgment, is wise to prevent illness.[8] Then, even if you don’t believe in God, with reason against reason, pray to be spared from a plague.

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Notes:

[1] Sedulius Scottus, “Against the plague {Contra plagam},” incipit “Set free the lowly ones who serve you {Libera plebem tibi servientem},” st. 3-6 (of 6), Latin text (with my minor changes to the editorial punctuation) from Ludwig Traube, Poetae Latini aevi Carolini (1886) vol. 3, part 2, p. 46, via Waddell (1948) p. 124, my English translation benefiting from that of id., p. 125, and the partial English translation by G. Hunter. Here’s the full Latin text.

“Contra plagam” is written in classical Sapphic stanzas. Sapphic stanzas are now most prominently associated with Horace’s Odes. On the prevalence of Sapphics in early medieval poetry, Daintree (2000).

Sedulius Scottus was an Irish monk living in mid-ninth-century Iceland when invading Norse Viking drove him and his compatriots to continental Europe. Sedulius probably was in Liège when a plague struck that city. In pleading for patronage to Hartgar, Bishop of Liège, Sedulius described himself and two fellow Irish scholars as “learned grammarians and pious priests {doctos grammaticos presbiterosque pios}.” See “Gusts of the north wind are blowing and there are signs of snow {Flamina nos Boreae niveo canentia vultu}” v. 14, Latin text and English trans. from Godman (1984) pp. 286-7. In a Christmas poem written in Liège about 850, Sedulius likened himself and his fellow Irish scholars to the Wise Men of the Gospel:

Out of the east came the Magi bearing gifts, hastening in their journey to the Christ child; but now Irish scholars arrive from western lands, bringing their precious gifts of learning

Trans. Doyle (1983). pp. 112-3, via Anglandicus. For notes and corrections to Doyle’s translations, Ziolkowski (1986) and Lofstedt (2001).

Sedulius Scottus’s works survive in very little more than just one manuscript, Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 1061. Modern philologists have scrutinized that text with pain-staking concern for accurately transmitting to the present Sedulius’s precious, ancient intellectual work. See, e.g. Ziolkowski (1986). Shanzer (1994), and Lofstedt (2001).

[2] Exodus 22:27, Psalm 81:7, Hebrew text from the Leningrad Codex via Blue Letter Bible. On God hearing the cry of the victim, Kugel (2003) Ch. 5. Kugel himself has failed to hear the cry of the massacred men of Shechem.

[3] “Star of Heaven who rooted out {Stella celi extirpavit},” Latin text from the York Book of Hours {Horae Eboracenses} of the early-sixteenth century, via Macklin (2010) p. 4, English translation (with my modifications) from Horrax (1994) p. 124. For manuscript witnesses from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Macklin (2010) Appendix, pp. 27-31.

In fifteenth-century England, John Lydgate reworked “Stella celi extirpavit” in his poem “Thou heavenly Queen of grace our lodestar {Thow hevenly quene of grace owre loodesterre},” and perhaps also in a variant, “O blessed Queen about the starred heaven {O blissid queen a bove sterrid heuene}.” Lydgate also wrote another poem against the plague, “O Heavenly Star most comfortable of light {O hevynly sterre most Comfortable of lyght},” also known as “On Holy Mary against the pestilence {De sancta Maria contra pestilenciam}.”

[4] The medieval medical doctor Simon de Covino of Liège wrote a lengthy allegorical poem concerning the plague. It’s entitled On the Judgment of the Sun at the Feasts of Saturn {De judicio Solis in conviviis Saturni}. Simon’s poem uses traditional Greco-Roman deities to explain the plague. Written in hexameters, Simon’s poem witnesses to the eagerness of many medieval scholars to display their classical learning. Simon explained the meaning of his poem in a lengthy prose prologue:

In case the material in this little book should seem too burdensome, I here explain it in four parts. — In the first I describe, in the manner and fashion of poets, how Saturn prepared a great feast in his own house and invited all the other gods. This description signifies how all the planets were in conjunction with Saturn in his own house of the Zodiac, that is Aquarius, in the three months of 1345 — January, February, and March. That is not to say that all the planets were in conjunction with Saturn at once, but one after on various days in those three months. My main intention is to describe the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which only happens in Aquarius every ninety years; a conjunction which, according to philosophers, signifies great and amazing upheavals. Aristotle in his book on the properties of the elements says that because of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Aquarius kingdoms have been emptied and the earth depopulated. … In the fourth part I deal with the remedies given against such mortality {mortality from death-bearing plague (“pestis mortifera”)}. And the poem treats of the three fatal goddesses — Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho, who holds the distaff of life, represents generation; Lachesis, who draws out the thread of life, represents the span of human life from birth to death; Atropos, who breaks the thread of life, signifies corruption and death. And therefore I treat of remedies in this fashion, putting them poetically into the mouth of Lachesis, who represents the lengthening of life and the means whereby that can be achieved. And she seeks these remedies to prolong life in opposition to her sister, Atropos, who represents decay. And although doctors arm her with remedies to fight against her sister, those arms, that is the remedies of doctors, are of little worth to her.

{ Ne materia libelli videatur onerosa, ipsam declaro divisam per quatuor partes. — In prima quidem, secundum morem et ritum poetarum describo Saturnum magnum convivium fecisse in sua propria domo, et omnes deos ad suum convivium invitasse. Et ista descriptio significat omnes planetas fuisse conjunctos Saturno in propria domo Saturni, quae est Aquarius anno Domini millesimo CCCXLV, in tribus mensibus, scilicit januario, februario, et martio; non tamen quod simul fuerint conjuncti Saturno, sed unus post alium in diversis diebus illorum trium mensium. Et maxime in ea intentio est describere magnam conjunctionem Jovis et Saturni, quae non evenit in Aquario in nongentis annis nisi semel. Et ista conjunctio habet significare magnas et mirabilies mutationes rerum secundum dicta philosophorum. Unde Aristotiles in libro de proprietatibus elementorum dicit quod propter conjunctionem Jovis et Saturni in Aquario, regno vacua facta sunt et terrae depopulatae. … In quarta parte tracto de remediis datis contra hujusmodi mortalitatem. Et primo quia apud inferos poetae descripserunt tres deas fatales esse, scilicet Clotho, Lachesis et Atropos; ita quod Clotho, quae portat colum vitae, significat generationem; Lachesis, quae trahi fila vitae, significat productionem vitae humanae a principio usque ad mortem; Atropos vero, quaa rampit fila vitae, significant corruptionem et mortem, idcirco tracto de hujusmodi remedis, et hoc poetice sub nomine Lachesis quae dicitur productio vitae et quae habet producere vitam. Et ista querit remedia ad prolongationem vitae contra sororem suam, scilicet Atropos, quae dicitur corruptio; et qualiter medici armaverunt eam suis remediis ad pugnandum contra sororem suam, et qualiter ill arma id est remedia medicorum parum valuerint ei. }

Latin text from Littré (1841) pp. 206-8, English translation from Horrax (1994) pp. 163-7. Geoffrey de Meaux, a former court official apparently writing at medieval Oxford, similarly emphasized the effects of the stars and focused even more on classical authorities. For some analysis, Johnson (2009) pp. 11-2. On these authors in relation to “Stella celi extirpavit,” Macklin (2012) p. 21.

Concern for the stars in explaining the plague wasn’t only a tendency of medieval scholars with a classical orientation. The medical faculty of the University of Paris in October, 1348, issued a lengthy, scholarly report on the plague. This report declared in its first chapter:

We declare that the distant and first cause of this pestilence was and is the configuration of the heavens.

{ ‘Dicamus igitur quod remota et primeua causa istius pestilentie fuit et est aliqua constellatio celestis.}

Latin text from Hoeniger (1882) p. 153, English translation (modified slightly) from Horrax (1994) p. 159. In her book on the fourteenth-century plague in Europe, Horrax put this report first in a chapter entitled “Scientific explanations.” Her explanatory preface observed:

This is the most authoritative contemporary statement of the nature of the plague and therefore forms an appropriate introduction to this section.

Id. p. 158. In today’s scientific perspective, that day’s scientific perspective has a mythic character similar to medieval Christian beliefs about the plague.

[5] This poem appears frequently in late medieval English Books of Hours. It also exists in the “Adoration of the Shepherds” play in the N-Town mystery cycle and in fully notated polyphonic collections of pre-Reformation English vocal music. Macklin (2010) pp. 5-6. “Stella celi extirpavit” probably was circulating some time before its earliest surviving written record, dating to the period 1415 to 1430. Id. p. 12. On Franciscan friars composing such a hymn as a contrafactum, id. pp. 13-21. Here’s a performance of “Stella celi extirpavit” by the Binchois Consort (Andrew Kirkman, director).

[6] Old Occitan text and English translation (with my modifications) from Paden (2014) pp. 677-8. Paden presents evidence that versions of this prayer were known at Piacenza in northern Italy in 1348, at the prior of Jenza in Auvergne in south-central France in the fourteenth century, at Toulon in Occitania in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in Occitania in the fifteenth century, and at Tarragona in Catalonia in the sixteenth century.

Facing the horror of a plague, medieval Christians most often prayed to the Virgin Mary. Saint Sebastian followed in popularity for help against a plague. From the fifteenth century, Saint Roch also became prominent in appeals. On medieval saints called upon to prevent or lift plagues, Ortega (2012) and the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Saint Anastasia was not distinctively associated with relief from plagues.

Church officials established special liturgical events to address plagues. See, for example, the directive of William Zouche, Archbishop of York, calling for special public processions in 1348. Here’s a prayer book from about 1500 with specific prayers for use against plague.

[7] Sedulius Scottus, “I read and write {Aug lego vel scribo},” full poem quoted, Latin text from Traube, Poetae, via Godman (1985) p. 282, my English translation, benefiting from those of id. p. 283, Waddell (1948) p. 123, the Lion of Chaeronea, and Alistair Ian Blyth at Dialogue on the Threshold {Диалог на пороге}.

[8] I regard the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of the U.S. federal government, as the most authoritative U.S. source for information about COVID-19 and associated mitigation strategies. However, relevant reality should be recognized. Leading public health authorities, including the U.S. Surgeon General, have performed disastrously badly in communicating basic facts about domestic violence. In response to prevailing political sentiment, they have propagated grotesquely false and hugely damaging myths about domestic violence. Truth thus isn’t necessarily what leading authorities proclaim. Commitment to honoring truth is a tenuous social norm. Everyone has responsibility for earnestly and sincerely seeking to know the truth. Doing so builds up social respect for truth.

[images] (1) Burying the dead from a plague in Tournai (in present-day Belgium) in 1349. Illumination by Piérart dou Tielt in a chronicle of Gilles li Muisis. Made about 1351. On folio 24v of Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique MS. 13076-13077, via BALaT of the Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage {Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium / Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique}. (2) Icon of Saint Anastasia of Sirmium. Made between the end of the 13th century and the first half of the 15th century. Preserved as catalog # 94.С.254 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) The Virgin Mary, Saint Sebastian, and Saint Roch beg the angy God the Father to stop a plague. Two wings from a plague alterpiece from the Augustianian Monastery at Wenden (Ulm, Germany). Made by Martin Schaffner, 1513/14. Preserved as item Gm1103 in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Nuremberg, Germany).

References:

Daintree, David. 2000. “Non omnis moriar: the Re-emergence of the Horatian Lyrical Tradition in the Early Middle Ages.” Latomus. 59 (4): 889-902.

Doyle, Edward. 1983. Sedulius Scottus. On Christian Rulers and The Poems. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 17. Binghamton, NY: State University of New York.

Godman, Peter. 1985. Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance. London: Duckworth.

Hoeniger, Robert. 1882. Der schwarze Tod in Deutschland; in Beitrag zur Gesch. des vierzehnten Jahrh. Berlin: Grosser.

Horrox, Rosemary, ed. and trans. 1994. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Johnson, Rebecca. 2009. “From Sin to Science: Astrological Exlanations for the Black Death, 1347-1350.” Ex Post Facto (Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University). 18: 1-16.

Kugel, James L. 2003. The God of Old: inside the lost world of the Bible. New York: Free Press.

Littré, Emile. 1841. “Opuscule relatif à la peste de 1348, composé par un contemporain.” Bibliothèque De L’école Des Chartes. 2 (1): 201-243.

Lofstedt, Bengt. 2001. “Notes on Doyle’s translation of Sedulius Scottus.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 41-4 (3): 413-415.

Macklin, Christopher. 2010. “Plague, Performance and the Elusive History of the Stella celi extirpavit.” Early Music History. 29: 1-31.

Ortega, Jessica. 2012. Pestilence and Prayer: Saints and the Art of the Plague in Italy from 1370 – 1600. B.A. Honors Thesis. University of Central Florica. HIM 1990-2015. 1367.

Paden, William D. 2014. “An Occitan Prayer against the Plague and Its Tradition in Italy, France, and Catalonia.” Speculum. 89 (3): 670-692.

Shanzer, Danuta. 1994. “A New Edition of Sedulius Scottus’ Carmina.” Medium Ævum. 63 (1): 104-117.

Waddell, Helen. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

Ziolkowski, Jan. 1986. “Review: On Christian Rulers, and The Poems, by Edward Gerard Doyle.” Speculum. 61 (2): 465-466.

Virgin Mary, Saint Sebastian & Saint Roch plead to God to stop plague

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