Bubonic Plague in Wycliffe's England--excerpt from The Revolt

"Lord Jesus, turn us to you, and then we shall be turned. Heal us, and we shall be truly whole. For without your grace and help no man may be truly turned or healed."( John Wycliffe)

The following is an excerpt from chapter 15 or THE REVOLT, my novel set in Wycliffe's 14th century England. Listen daily to my read aloud of The Revolt at bondbooks.net.

...Over the next weeks, I came to know fear. Like I had never known it before, I came to feel it gnawing deeply within my bosom. I lay awake in my bunk at night, my stomach churning, wondering who was next. Which one of us would be the next to die? I clamped my hands over my ears in an attempt to block out the cries of other people's terror, the wails of their denial when first they discovered the dreaded buboes on their glands. I was in torment.

My mind cast about for some solace, to make sense of it all. Was it the especially bad ones who died first in a pestilence? I felt it must be so. So I determined to be good, to pray, to confess, to give alms, anything to win the favor of God and avoid dying. I made promises to God if he would spare me. I begged. I cajoled. I cried and wept and begged some more. I feared dying like I feared nothing in all the world. Death hung all about me. I could think of nothing else.

It was when Alfred stopped jesting, and I first saw real fear in his eyes, that my horror was complete. Everyone had their cure and clutched at the tiniest thread of hope. For Alfred it was fresh strew on the floor. For others it was leeches; it was beer, specially brewed with certain herbs; it was flight. Everyone cast about for something on which to pitch their hope. Hope that plague would pass them by. Hope that it would lay hold of another. Hope that they had done something good enough that the death angel would pass over them and fall upon some other soul--but not on them.

Some blamed it on the conjunctions of heavenly bodies, some claimed it was caused by the winds bringing foul contagion from the French, others said it was the street filth, still others said it was from the rats, and the horrible stench they gave off in death, the miasmas from their rotting flesh. Furiously we dug holes and entombed rats--hundreds of rats.

Still others claimed the contagion was from the wrath of the Almighty for our sins. And so I fortified my efforts, renewed my determination to put off my sins, vigorously bent my will to doing good works that would appease the wrath of God, divert his rage from me to fall upon my less-vigilant neighbor, so I hoped, and so I labored to outdo my neighbor in being good.

Then the news arrived, bitter news it was to me. Thomas Bradwardine, newly installed archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Profundus himself had succumbed to plague. I cannot describe the gut-wrenching torments of the days that I endured after hearing the news. If such a one as His Holiness, Thomas Bradwardine, fell under the dreaded curse of the pestilence and died of plague—who could escape?

Despair followed, despair and still more dread, a fear I could taste, the only taste I had in those months. My breathing came in shallow gasps, and I never felt I was getting enough air inside me. I vacillated from frequent and minute inspection of my armpits and groin for buboes, to supreme avoidance, never once in a day, in a week, so much as touching myself. As the death toll mounted, and new reports of the afflicted and the dying came to my ears, I fell into the very dregs of despondency.

Most people stayed indoors, fearing contact with other human beings, ones who might be carrying the disease, paralyzed with the fear of breathing miasmas from the pestilence in the street. The wealthier fled to the countryside leaving the poorer people to take the brunt of the plague on themselves and on their children. Those who had silver, the priests and friars--many of them, though not all--were first to turn their backs and flee. Their money could buy for them lodging far from the dreaded contagion. While their flocks faced the agonies of dying alone, of perishing in unresolved iniquities, safe from it all they would live, take their ease, and be merry.

It was during these months of pestilence that the first seeds of resentment toward the clergy began germinating in my heart. I had, heretofore, pushed such thoughts aside with violence. That now ended. As I watched yet another of my fellows gasping for his final breaths, his eyes casting about in horror, the frantic clutching of his fingers at the bed clothes, the sheen of sweat and blood on his brow, the blackness closing in, the cries, the moans--I felt that I hated all friars and their kind still the more for their abandonment. And then I feared it was a mortal sin to hate them, and surely I would be damned for it.

I could discover but one source of comfort during those horrific months. My school fellow John of Wycliffe. His was imperfect comfort, to be sure; death was soul-numbingly real, and he had his own fears. I observed, however, that he faced the imminent horrors of plague like few other men. He seemed at his best when on his knees. Make no mistake, I prayed. I prayed like I had never prayed before. But I prayed as an act, a good work by which I desperately hoped to win the favor of the Almighty. My attempts at praying were poor, infrequent, and, at times, nothing short of hysterical. At other times, when I managed to calm myself sufficiently, I made to ape the pious incantations I had heard recited since my boyhood in church. I clung to the hope that God would deliver me by these my praying efforts.

But John of Wycliffe's praying was of another order. One morning in November of 1348, I awoke to hear him at his bedside. I propped myself up on an elbow and studied him as he did it. I confess that my motive was to learn from his method, from his technique, and thereby improve my chances with the Almighty.

Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at bondbooks.net

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