A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.
Roman Plague of AD 590
If you’ve ever seen dragons being flushed out to sea by a flood, you’re going to relate to the people of Rome in 590 AD. This particular plague, I’m going to suggest, had a bit of a positive effect. Just a bit.
It’s 589 AD. Your pope is Pelagius II. When the Tiber floods, your grand old town is out a whole lot of grain. Gosh darn it if you didn’t see serpents and dragons in those waters, hitching a ride to the sea.
Flood waters are good at destroying food stores, and they’re also pretty good at spreading diseases, including today’s disease (by now an old favorite): bubonic plague. Gregory of Tours dubbed this bout of plague “the plague of the groin” (lues inguinaria, which also sounds awful). People died quickly, and all kinds of people got sick and died.
Your pope is brought down by the plague of the groin. No shade, it’s just what happened.
The people chose (drum roll): another Gregory. (There are only four people in this story, and two of them are named Gregory.) This Gregory is not the Tours one. Here’s how you know it was a great idea to make him pope: he did not want to become pope. He liked being a monk. He was a monk at the monastery he founded himself. In fact, he was the first pope to have been a monk.
Pope Gregory is now (yep) Saint Gregory I. What are his bona fides for sainthood? (Other than the fact that sainthood was a family business, with his mother and two of his aunts getting their halos and his great great great grandfather having been pope.)
Well. You shouldn’t laugh about this, because it’s not funny, but it’s kind of funny: Pope Gregory led people in a procession of prayer to repent of their sins, in hopes that the plague would abate, but while they were marching, 80 people dropped dead.
People still liked him! They were encouraged! Maybe because only 80 people dropped dead? I mean, I find myself feeling good about the fact that Central Park no longer contains overflow morgues, so I understand that shitty times call for strange gratitude.
As they marched on, losing people along the way in a manner I find funny the same way I find it funny when one of the rowers in the Roman galley in “Ben Hur” falls over, they approached Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Pope (later Saint) Gregory saw Michael the Archangel putting his sword away, which Gregory figured meant that the plague was over.
I mean, an archangel sent the plague to Rome and decided it was over? Well, anyway.
Pope Gregory was a good one: he fixed up the Catholic liturgy (perhaps actually writing the liturgy eastern Christians use even today), he defended Italy from the Lombards, and he cleaned up the bureaucracy in the pope’s territories so things were going much more smoothly. Here’s an English teacher’s favorite thing: he started a genre! A genre! The genre of saints’ lives. Which is not just a genre, but a pretty fun genre, edifying, maybe, entertaining, absolutely.