From Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury: Pray Devoutly and Incessantly

Ralph of Shrewsbury

Almighty God uses thunder, lightning and other blows which issue from his throne to scourge the sons whom he wishes to redeem. Accordingly, since a catastrophic pestilence from the East has arrived in a neighbouring kingdom, it is very much to be feared that, unless we pray devoutly and incessantly, a similar pestilence will stretch its poisonous branches into this realm, and strike down and consume the inhabitants.[1]

Thus Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury wrote to the archdeacons of his diocese on 17 August, 1348.

Unfortunately, the prayers and the processions that he ordered failed to prevent the Black Death crossing the Channel from France. A year later the Prior of Canterbury asked the bishops in the southern province to take action:

“Terrible is God towards the sons of men, and by his command all things are subdued to the rule of his will. Those whom he loves he censures and chastises; that is, he punishes their shameful deeds in various ways during this mortal life so that they might not be condemned eternally. He often allows plagues, miserable famines, conflicts, wars and other forms of suffering to arise, and uses them to terrify and torment men and so drive out their sins.”[2]

The populations suffering the devastating pandemics of the fourteenth century were at once powerless and active agents in their own destiny. All were exposed to the wrath of a vengeful God, but through prayers, penitential processions and reformed morals it might be possible to hasten the end of a plague and delay its recurrence.

Over the succeeding centuries, the practical task of managing populations and devising cures in a pandemic has gradually transferred to governments and scientists. The moral drama of sin, retribution and repentance, has, however, continued in a new form.

Successive outbreaks of respiratory diseases in this century have been blamed on man’s increasing exposure to infected wildlife. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012, and now Covid-19 have crossed the species barrier, probably from bats which carry a wide range of pathogens. An increasing body of literature, together with organizations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, have warned that, like the Black Death in the fourteenth century, one pandemic is almost certain to be followed by another in a matter of years.

Animals may be the proximate cause, but the fundamental problem is the behaviour of people. Land is cleared for population growth, the exploitation of raw materials, and for dairy and meat farming, and as a consequence there are lethal encounters with hitherto isolated reservoirs of viruses. The risks are compounded by the rapid increase in international travel and commerce. The pandemics thus become a metonym for the ecological crisis more generally. As the Professor of the History of Medicine at Oxford writes, “‘emerging diseases’, as they are often termed, have been seen as Nature’s retribution for environmental degradation.” [3]

Mankind has misbehaved, is being punished, and, with increasing urgency, is seeking effective forms of repentance.

The Christian churches, pushed to the side-lines by the secular response to disease, are seeking to reclaim the leadership of what they see as a new moral crusade. “I think the future we are called to build”, writes Pope Francis in response to Covid-19, “has to begin with an integral ecology, an ecology that takes seriously the cultural and ethical deterioration that goes hand in hand with our ecological crisis.”[4]  The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in 1375 that, “in our modern times, alas, we are mired in monstrous sin and the lack of devotion among the people provokes the anger of the great king to whom we should devote our prayers. As a result we are assailed by plagues or epidemics”.[5] In a pale echo, we have the words of the 105th incumbent: “Around the world, climate change is affecting food security, creating social vulnerability, and disrupting peace and security. There is no doubt we need to act.”[6]

This time, praying will not be enough.

February 10


[1] Register of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, Somerset Record Society X (1896), 555-6, cited in Rosemary Horrox, trans. and ed., The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 112. Despite his title, Ralph, formerly Chancellor of the University of Oxford, was Bishop of Bath and Wells, where he was described by the Dictionary of National Biography as “a wise and industrious bishop, learned and extremely liberal.”

[2] D. Wilkins, Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae (1739), vol. II, p. 738, cited in Horrox, Black Death, p. 113.

[3] Mark Harrison, Disease and the Modern World. 1500 to the Present Day (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), p. 189. See also, Mark Honigsbaum, The Pandemic Century. A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19 (Penguin: London, 2020), pp. xiv-xv, 280.

[4] Pope Francis, in conversation with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream. The Path to a Better Future (London: Simon and Schuster, 2020), p. 35.

[5] Wilkins, Concilia, III, pp. 100-1, cited in cited in Horrox, Black Death, p. 120

[6] https://www.churchofengland.org/about/policy-and-thinking/our-views/environment-and-climatechange/why-you-should-act.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: London. Gloomy, close and stale

Little Dorrit (first edition image in public domain) ‘Damocles’

June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate.  He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:

“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale.  Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous.  Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency.  In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round.  Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people.  No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.  Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.  Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.

It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society.  That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850.  At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.

Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time.  As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event.  In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification.  And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society.  What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive.  They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.

In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments.  But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service.  As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent.  In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year.  The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores.  USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.”  Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.

We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through.  And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.

from Eileen P. in Murcia, Spain: No Semana Santo this year

April 9, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the most important holiday in Spain. Despite Spain becoming more and more secular they still maintain their religious traditions. Most of Spain closes down for the week and all cities organise processions every night. The most famous processions are in Cartagena, Seville, Malaga and Salamanca. Brotherhoods are formed to prepare all year for the occasion.

Processions can last 3 hours and huge edifices are carried through the streets with bands and 100´s of penitents walking in between them. The penitents wear robes coloured in accordance to their brotherhood, purple, brown, black, white, green, with large Ku Klux Clan type headgear disguising their faces. The edifices can weigh up to 1400 kilos with 140 men carrying it on their shoulders with generators often trailing to provide the necessary lighting.

Each night has a theme according to the Easter story, Good Friday being the most solemn, with no bands only a sombre drum playing. Crowds line the procession route with restaurants renting tables and chairs and the City Hall lining the later part of the route with seats which can be rented, as it goes well on into the night.

Easter Sunday is the pinnacle of the week with a joyous theme parading during the day.