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Plague and the comforts of history From Bede to T.S. Elliot, suffering in the face of overwhelming terror is what links us

Churches, such as St Bartholomew the Great, more than any other kind of building, bear the imprint of the past.

Churches, such as St Bartholomew the Great, more than any other kind of building, bear the imprint of the past.

March 24, 2020   5 mins

“History is a pattern / Of timeless moments.” So wrote T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding, the greatest work of literature to have been inspired by the Blitz. Written at a time when it seemed that Britain would lose the war, and civilisation itself be lost to ruin, the poem offered no easy comfort.

Eliot, who worked as a firewatcher on the rooftops of London, knew what it was to stare crisis in the face. The bomber and the terror it brings are a menacing presence throughout the poem. Flame descends through the darkness, and then, in the uncertain hour before the morning, smoke raises from rubble. Dead leaves rattle like tin. Dust hangs in the air, marking “the place where a story ended”.

Yet agonised and unflinching though the poem is, it does not eschew redemption. If history is a pattern of timeless moments, then an end can also be a beginning.

“We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration…”

Perhaps it is not surprising that Eliot should have felt this particularly strongly in a church. In part, of course, this was due to his profound Christian faith: to his conviction that fire might purge and purify as well as consume. The secluded chapel of Little Gidding, the tiny village outside Huntingdon which gives the poem its name, is a fitting place for a Christian poet to pray — and believe — that all manner of thing shall be well.

Yet the church offered Eliot something more as well: the trace elements of a previous time of crisis, of a previous period of war. Charles I had visited Little Gidding three times. On the last occasion, in 1646, it was as a refugee from the battle of Naseby. Even in as isolated a hamlet as Little Gidding, the drum of war had once been heard. Yet it is not to diminish the horrors of the Civil War, Eliot argues, nor the violence of the convictions that had fuelled it, to recognise, at a distance of 300 years, that all who had fought in it were “united in the strife which divided them”. So too, in death, are they “folded in a single party”.

Churches, more than any other kind of building, bear the imprint of the past: of what Eliot would call the pattern of timeless moments. Those that have stood for centuries have borne witness to birth and death, joy and suffering, peace and war, over the course of many generations. And borne witness as well, of course, to epidemics. A church like Saint Bartholomew the Great, the oldest in London, and a rare survivor of both the Blitz and the Great Fire, has heard the lamentations of those who lived through the Spanish flu, the plague of 1665, the Black Death.

To watch the live-streaming of Eucharist from its altar last Sunday morning was to hear the raising of prayers in the time of coronavirus against the backdrop of the tomb of Rahere, the prior who back in 1123 had founded the Priory of the Hospital of St Bartholomew. A favourite of Henry I (and reputedly at one point the king’s jester), he had fallen ill in Rome, been healed courtesy of a supernatural intervention by St Bartholomew, and returned to London where, on the personal orders of the saint, he had set to serving the sick. Today, two churches and a hospital still stand in Smithfield as markers of just how faithfully he kept his vow.

But to watch the live-streaming of the service was also to feel the bonds that join us in our own time of sickness and dread to even earlier times. The few officiants at the Eucharist all stood six feet apart; the rector, preaching his sermon on Mothering Sunday, did so to an empty church.

The scene was one that echoed a similar one from the very beginnings of English Christianity. In 686, plague devastated Britain. In the recently founded monastery of Jarrow, just south of the Tyne, so many monks perished that only the abbot and one small boy, “who had been brought up and taught by him”, were left.

For a week, the abbot and the boy recited the psalter, but without the antiphons that should properly have accompanied the psalms — “but at length, with tears and lamentations, the abbot could bear it no longer, and so he decided that that psalms should be sung with antiphons, as before.” History is now and England.

But not just England. The small boy in that plague-stricken monastery was almost certainly Bede, who would grow up to become the greatest scholar of his day, and the author — among many other works — of the first history of the English church. As such, he knew as well as anyone that the bringing of his people into membership of the universal Church had been thanks to a pope in distant Rome: Gregory I, ‘the Great’.

Why had Gregory sought to bring them to salvation? Because, Bede wrote, he had seen blond-haired boys for sale in Rome’s market and, struck by their beauty, asked from where they came; then, on being told that the slaves were Angles, made a fateful pun. “It is fitting,” he said, “for their faces are those of angels – and so they should properly share with the angels an inheritance in heaven.”

This wordplay, not surprisingly, would come to be much cherished by the English. When Judgement Day came, they claimed, it was Gregory who would stand by Christ’s side and make plea for them. Meanwhile, in the libraries of English monasteries, there was no Father of the Church more cherished or studied.

“Behold, this is a bright star that we observe in heaven so that we may travel our dark path without stumbling.” So Gregory, in the introduction to an exhaustive commentary, described the example of the protagonist of the Book of Job: a righteous man who, although innocent of fault, has all his worldly goods destroyed and his children slain, and then falls grievously sick.

Why? Job, lying hunched among ashes, is approached by three friends, who after sitting with him in silence for seven days and seven nights, seek to make sense of the torments afflicting him. God, they assure him, only ever punishes wrong-doers: Job, then, must have offended Him. Job himself, however, dismisses this. “Why do the wicked live, grow rich and gather wealth?” Most startlingly of all, the story ends with God Himself speaking to Job from a whirlwind, and flatly rejecting the proposition put forward by his companions.

“You have not spoken rightly of Me,” He informs them, “as did My servant Job.” Yet to the question of why — despite his innocence — Job had been punished so cruelly, no answer is given. He never doubts God’s power, only His justice. On that score, God has nothing to say.

Gregory, who had himself lived through a terrible plague, and seen the pestilence-arrows rain down on Rome, had good cause to meditate on the Book of Job. In doing so, he provided a link in the great chain of shared experience that, spanning millennia, joins the 21st century experience of epidemic to that of the distant Iron Age.

To find in this a source of comfort would be, of course, to repeat the glibness of Job’s friends. Perhaps there is no meaning to be found in our vulnerability to infectious disease that is capable simultaneously of offering consolation. For all that, though, it may be there is an assurance to be discovered in the record of past generations. Their hopes were not easily won. Yet still — despite sufferings often far worse than our own — they were won. Perhaps, then, the labour of searching for them can serve as its own reward.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX


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Don donfriend
Don donfriend
4 years ago

Very well-written and illuminating.

4 years ago

I, too am not an actor. Not intentionally . Thank you for your heart warming piece . Regards from Auckland. (The antipodean one!)

J Cor
J Cor
4 years ago

“All manner of things shall be well” — a quote originally from Julian of Norwich, who stands apart from every single other one of the 11 people you quoted and referenced in this article in one obvious yet invisible way.

4 years ago

Wow…thank you. That is penned with heart-felt pain. I stand daily on my soap box, it seems, and lament my own sufferings. The mature and faithful duty is to accept without understanding in silence. I appreciate you writing. Thanks again. Bless.

Just Cheryl
Just Cheryl
4 years ago

How did I find this? Feeling that this virus is but a prelude to a climate catastrophe bringing us all to the end of something, I’ve been starting to see the whole of this story of civilization as all one thing which we are, sadly, witness to and participants in the last days. It all seems intensely connected to the here and now, in the foreshortening perspective of a hindsight to our history. I was thinking of using part of ‘The Hollow Men’ in a medly between World Party’s ‘Is it Like Today’ and ‘Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew’, a lament for this ending. And so, I found the writing of Tom Holland (not the actor), starting with this fine heart-wrenching piece. Let’s don’t dream it’s over — though perhaps it is.