With Christmas upon us, I thought I’d
I have condensed the essay. Be nice about typos. In Oxford, I became eager to get my essays over with, so I’m sure there are imperfections.
This may be my last post until after Christmas. May the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord be a special one indeed for all of you.
Medieval Resiliency in the Face of the Black Death
Certainly, the most devastating event or series of events in the Middle Ages was the Black Death that struck in 1348-1351, then recurred again through the rest of the Middle Ages and beyond. How did Medieval English culture respond?
Among the most striking indications of medieval response is the architecture of the time. And the most important statement we can make about medieval architecture is: it did not stop.
Now that may at first seem rather unimportant, banal even. But let us reflect a little. When a society has less people, there is less need for buildings. Further, there are less workers to erect buildings. So one would think if a society suddenly lost roughly half of its people, that would bring building to an equally sudden halt.
But that halt did not happen.
Yes, there were buildings in which progress ceased or was delayed. Here and there still are oddly proportioned parish churches with missing aisles or ghost transepts that were suddenly finished in an unfinished state. Ashbourne Church, Derbyshire, the Delamere Church, Northborough, and Medbourne Church, Leicestershire are among the examples. Other churches, Patrington Church, Queen of Holderness being one, began in exuberant Decorated Gothic style pre-plague only to be finished in more austere early Perpendicular fashion post-plague after the available workers skilled enough for elaborate carving died.
But even the most cursory look at the architectural history of Britain reveals building as a whole most definitely did not stop. In the half-century after the plague already, there was building in the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury, and York. Richard II built his landmark Westminster Hall. In some places, building even boomed. Two such places were the Universities of Oxford and of Cambridge.
In Cambridge, the colleges of Gonville, Trinity Hall, Corpus Christi, and Clare Hall were founded from 1348 to 1362 in the wake of the plague. Geoffrey Tyack has described Corpus Christi College as “a monument to the Black Death.” It was founded in 1352 by a town guild – unique for either Cambridge or Oxford – as a collegiate chantry to pray for the souls of deceased guild members.
In Oxford, William of Wykeham founded his monumental New College, along with Winchester College in Winchester to in effect be a feeder school for New College. In founding the colleges, William specifically cited the shortage of clergy brought about by the plague as a chief reason for founding his colleges.
New College was innovative in a number of ways. It was the first college built from the beginning as a whole piece in Oxford, and the first to use the quad design. The design greatly influenced later Oxford building. All Souls and Magdalen even have their chapels and halls connected on the same side of their main quads, as at New College. Other innovations included the size of the choir, which the statutes specified would include sixteen boy choristers, more than was customary at the time. Further, this was the first choral foundation of the Oxbridge colleges. The statues were demanding in a number of other ways as well even in such details as Latin being the language of conversation at mealtimes. William of Wykeham’s answer to death and its ravages was innovation and excellence.
There was another reason William founded his colleges, that they would be chantries praying for his soul in perpetuity. Those who could afford it often made provision that their souls be prayed for. For most, this entailed making arrangements that a priest be paid to say masses for the benefactor’s soul. But some of the wealthier built more tangible chantries of stone within churches or in the form of new churches and chapels.
The practice of setting up chantries of various sorts, both in stone and simply by arrangement, was already popular before the plague. The Church’s official recognition of Purgatory was the great initial spur to this popularity. But suddenly being surrounded by the sudden death of the plague “concentrated minds,” as Colin Platt has noted, on making preparations.
They looked death in the eye and made serious preparations for it -- and that not with despair but with hope. For them, there was hope after death through faith in Christ and through the prayers of priests and of the community.
That is the most important way English and Northern European Christian culture responded to the Black Death – they did not give up. Nor did they look the other way from death in a sort of denial those in the modern West oft indulge in with their make up and cherry red sports cars. No, medievals looked at death very realistically, which the plague gave them much opportunity to do, and they got ready, often in very tangible ways, such as architecture, that enrich us to this day.
Again, that readiness was not that of despaired resignation. Death was not the end, but a transition, a transition in which one could hope in the living Christ and in the prayers of the living community one leaves behind.
Moreover, to the medieval, one doesn’t really leave the human community. Medieval culture didn’t see the divide between the living and the dead as the great gulf we often do. Graves were right by or in the church reminding friends to pray for you (unlike the ancient pagan practices requiring removal of the dead to outside city walls). The dead were a familiar part of everyday life. As well, the liturgy saw worship and prayer as something the whole church, living and dead, participated in together, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” No, death wasn’t the end, nor did it divide one from the community of God and man. Should one trust in Christ and make preparations, there was hope, a great hope of being forever joined with God and with each other. That hope permeated the culture and architecture of the late Middle Ages.
But did the Black Death mark a turning point in medieval culture? That question has been much debated in recent decades. But we shouldn’t look so much at the question of the Black Death as turning point that we miss the more important point that, even in the face of a third, a half or even more of the population being wiped away, the religious culture did not respond to the plague with despair but with resolution, often a very creative and productive resolution as at Oxford and Cambridge. Instead of descending into dark ages, Christian Europe rose again with glory.
And that determination to deal with death and get ready has living echoes that enrich English and Western culture to this day. We will conclude with an example particularly meaningful to this student.
We mentioned the founding of New College and Winchester College. In the next century, pious young Henry VI founded Kings College, Cambridge and Eton College. He, too, sought to increase the numbers and learning of the clergy and to provide prayers for his soul while also extirpating heresies.
King Henry was frequently in Winchester on royal business. And he took the opportunities to visit Winchester College and examine the charters and statutes of it and New College. He was so impressed by what he saw, he changed the founding documents of Kings and Eton to be more like those of New and Winchester. He linked his two colleges as Wykeham had linked his. He expanded the number of scholars at King’s from twelve to Wykeham’s seventy. Henry’s founding documents even ended up having identical wording to those of New and Winchester Colleges for long stretches.
Henry sought even to excel William of Wykeham. The Chapel of King’s College is the great monument to that aspiration, though not even nearly completed in Henry’s life. Nor was his vision of a huge quad completed until centuries later in very much altered form. Fortunately for us, Henry’s devout conviction that death was not the end turned out to be very tangible reality at King’s College.
There’s one other aspect of Kings Henry’s founding of King’s influenced by New College – the choir. Again imitating William of Wykeham, it was the first choral foundation in Cambridge and was to have sixteen choristers as well. Those the least familiar with English choral music know to what glories the Choir of King’s College would ascend. Strange as it may seem, because of King Henry VI’s imitation of William of Wykeham in founding King’s College and its Choir, we can in part credit the Black Death and determined English response to it for the music from King’s we still enjoy today.
So when on Christmas Eve, we with millions around the world listen intently for the voice of a lone boy on the radio or perhaps in the Chapel of King’s College itself . . .
Once in Royal David’s city . . .
. . . Our thoughts probably do not turn to the Black Death, nor to the resolute response that created the Choirs of New College then of King’s College. More likely, we rejoice quietly in the joy and hope that the Child born in the City of David brings to us.
But we should not forget the resolution with which William of Wykeham, Henry VI, and late medieval England as a whole faced the devastation of the Black Death. Their joy and hope was in the Christ Child as well and in the life he brings even in the midst of death. To their hope, that blessed hope, we and our culture remain, even today, deeply in debt.