The Pope and the Plague

by Frans van Liere.
Woodcut of plague victims, some dead on the floor, some dying in bed, while a doctor wearing a mask tends to them.

Medieval plague victims, Woodcut, 1532.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1349, a terrible epidemic arrived in Avignon. It had spread from Italy, but its origins were somewhere in Central Asia, on what is now the border between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan. For the next seven months, the Black Death ravaged this small city on the Rhone river in southern France, and some historians estimate that half the population died.[1]  “Such was the fear,” says one eye-witness, “which invaded all, that as soon as an ulcer or bump appeared in someone’s groin or arm pit, this person would be completely shunned, even if he was a close relative. Father left son, and son left father lying on his cot. No wonder, for as soon as someone in a home had caught the disease and died, often all others were infected too and died a similar sudden death, even (horrible to hear!) dogs and cats and chicken.” Out of fear of contagion, many of the dead were left unburied or thrown into the river.

Photograph of the city of Avignon

The City of Avignon
Photograph by Frans van Liere

At the time of the plague, Avignon was not the sleepy provincial town it is now; it was a center of power in late medieval Europe, as the seat of the papal curia. The man who had the misfortune to be pope during this arguably deadliest-ever world pandemic was Pierre Roger, who bore the papal name Clement VI.  He had a reputation for luxurious living, and some critics say he gave the papacy a bad name. “My predecessors did not know how to be popes,” he allegedly countered.[2]

Woodcut drawing of Pope Clement IV

Portrait of Clement VI.
Image source: ArtStor

Clement’s role during the Black Death is assessed differently by historians. Some say he rose to the job, while others accuse him of lack of empathy and leadership. One medieval chronicler tells how the pope, “shut up in his room, with a large fire continually going, gave no one access” while the plague raged. Unfortunately, this one statement from an “acrimoniously anti-papal”[3] source has been given disproportionate weight by modern historians, giving a one-sided picture of Clement’s attitude during the epidemic.[4]

Fourteenth-century papal biographers, however, give a somewhat more nuanced description of Clement’s behavior during the disaster.  One anonymous biographer tells us that the “pope in Avignon acted very charitably.” He ordered his doctors to visit the sick, and made sure the poor received all necessities. For the needy, he arranged for burials, and even bought a piece of land to be used as a plague cemetery. Of course he was also a spiritual leader, and he alleviated some of the spiritual anxieties by instituting a special Mass for the cessation of the plague, and, more importantly, he provided a general absolution of all sins for victims of the plague who had died without proper confession or receiving the last rites.

Painting of people dressed in tattered cloths, whipping themselves and bleeding

Procession of flagellants, by Francisco de Goya.
Source: ArtStor.

Spiritual anxiety abounded during this disaster. A movement arose in Germany that claimed that the disease was caused by the God’s displeasure at the sins of mankind, in particular the violation of the Day of the Lord, breaking the fast, usury, blasphemy, and adultery. Members of this movement went around in large processions carrying crucifixes and stripped to the waist, while lacerating themselves with whips with iron hooks, stopping in towns to preach penitence to the bystanders. With this self-torture they hope to stave off the wrath of God. In 1349, they visited Avignon. Clement was not impressed with their theology. He issued an official condemnation on October 20, 1349, and ordered the movement to disband.

Even more troublesome was the attempt to find scapegoats for the plague. The fourteenth-century world chronicle of Albert the Monk tells us that, while many said the pestilence was caused by “a corruption of the air,” others said that “Jews, wanting to extinguish the whole of Christendom, had started poisoning wells and springs everywhere with a horrible poison.”  And indeed, soon the first Jews confessed under torture to having “boiled spiders and toads in a pot” in order to carry out this evil plan. “As evidence of the truth of this vile plot, several sachets of poison were found near wells and springs,” Albert assures readers. Soon, pogroms against Jews ensued throughout Germany, “few places excepted. Many of the Jews accepted baptism, but not for the sake of God, rather out of fear of death.”

Not all believed in the Jews’ guilt. The anonymous author of Clement’s Life tells us how “many innocent and inculpable people, both Christians and Jews, were burned to death, slaughtered, and mistreated, while in truth nothing caused [the plague] but a [unlucky] constellation of the stars, or divine displeasure.”

Clement condemned these mass murders, which historians now call pogroms, in the strongest terms. “It has come to our attention”, he says, “that Christians, at the inspiration of the devil, have falsely imputed this pest, which God has inflicted on all Christians as a due punishment for their sins, to the Jews.” He continues: “No Christian should dare to harm, kill, or take the possessions of the aforementioned Jews, without due judgement of the Lord of the region,” and “no Christian should compel a Jew to accept baptism by means of violence.” In a later bull, Clement admonished all archbishops, bishops, and church leaders to denounce the slaughter of the Jews, and threatened anyone who harmed the Jews with a papal condemnation. He personally took into his protection those who had suffered persecution.[5]

While the current coronavirus threat is arguably not as grave as the medieval Black Death, some of the human reactions are disconcertingly similar. Even antisemitism is rearing its ugly head. Despite the bad reputation of the Avignon papacy (wholly undeserved, as I have argued elsewhere), Clement VI offered a model of sound church leadership. He provided for the poor and needy, and offered spiritual guidance, while denouncing religious mass hysteria and scapegoating. If the story of his locking himself inside the papal palace is true, it may show that he, too, was afraid of the contagion. But compared with the other responses of his contemporaries, was this really reprehensible? The pope’s death would surely have brought still further harm to Christendom. Perhaps Clement’s social distancing was really one of the more sensible responses to the crisis.


Matthias of Neuenburg’s Chronik, Fassung WAU, edited by Adolf Hofmeister, in MGH, SS rer. Germ., N.S. 4, 422 (Munich, Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1924-1940); Albert the Monk’s Weltchronik, edited by Rolf Sprandel, MGH, SS rer. Germ., N.S. 17, 110 (Munich, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1994). The Vita Prima of Clement VI can be found in Stephanus Baluze, Vitae Paparum Avenionensium, ed. Guillaume Mollat (Paris, Letouzey & Ané, 1914–22), vol. 2:251-252. The bulls of Clement VI can be found in Odorico Raynaldo, Annales Ecclesiastici: ab anno MCXCVIII, ubi card. Baronius desinit (Rome: Mascardus, 1646–77), 16, 181 (ad annum 1349, 33).

[1] John Kelly, The Great Mortality. An Intimate History of the Black Death. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 161.

[2] Yves Renouard, The Avignon Papacy, 1305–1403, trans. Denis Bethell (Hamden: Archon Books, 1970), 47.

[3] Guillaume Mollat, Les Papes d’Avignon (1305–1378) (Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1949), 566.

[4] Robert E. Lerner, The Powers of Prophecy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 116; Joëlle Rollo-Koster, Avignon and Its Papacy, 1309–1417. (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 84.

[5] Mollat, Les Papes d’Avignon, 89.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two sons, and two cats named Pippa and Emma.

Photograph of the city of Avignon

The City of Avignon
Photograph by Frans van Liere

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“Digging In” to a Company’s History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen
Black book cover with the title "Braen: A History Built in Stone"

Braen: A History Built in Stone.
This coffee table book commemorates the 115th anniversary of the Braen Stone Company.

During the spring of 2017, I received a request to help compile the history of the Braen Stone Company, headquartered in Haledon, New Jersey. The company has been in business since 1904, owned by the same family for five generations. The owners hoped to mark their 115th anniversary with a coffee table book on the history of the family and their company.

In an article published a few years ago, I had detailed the Braen company as an example of how Dutch immigrants in New Jersey had found an economic niche in the construction business. The first of the Braens was a shoemaker who arrived in Paterson, New Jersey in 1851 from the Netherlands. One of his grandsons founded the Braen Stone Company.

A page from the book, with a black and white image showing a group of miners in the stone quarry.

Sam Braen and some of his workmen. From the book Braen: A History Built in Stone

My assignment was to provide the narrative and help locate many of the illustrations. The book tells the company’s story in the context of both Dutch immigration and New Jersey’s transformation from a place of farms and forests to first an industrial hub and then a residential region.

To celebrate the anniversary and the publication of the coffee table book, Braen Stone Company put together a commemorative video. I had the opportunity to take part and share some of the Braen story, including some of my own memories of growing up near the quarry. The video was shot on location during November of 2019, and shown at the company’s celebration in December. Take a look:


Robert Schoone-Jongen is emeritus professor of history at Calvin University. Before his retirement, he worked with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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Recovering Lost Stories

by Frans van Liere
Carved image of 4 armored men on the back of a single horse.

The Four Sons of Haymo depicted on a building in Maastricht. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The story of the Four Sons of Haymo was widely popular in the late middle ages and Renaissance, especially in France and in the Low Countries, where I grew up. As a boy in school, I learned a song about the “Vier Heemskinderen” (as it is called in Dutch), and their magical horse Bayart. “Gable stones,” decorative stones sometimes found on medieval and renaissance era Dutch houses, depict the four youths sitting nicely lined up on their one large horse. The Flemish city of Dendermonde has a whole festival dedicated to the four heroes.

I stumbled upon a manuscript fragment of this medieval French poem thanks to Vern Wiering, a Calvin graduate and bookbinder who often repairs books for me and for Calvin’s Hekman Library. Two years ago Vern, one of the finest craftsmen I know, showed me some strips of parchment that he had uncovered while repairing a sixteenth-century book from Calvin’s Meeter Center collection. The strips, recycled materials from a medieval book, contained some writing that he could not identify. I took the fragments home and started trying to decipher them. After some detective work, I was able to identify the fragments as part of the twelfth-century French chanson de geste “Renaud de Montauban,” the medieval version of the story of the Four Sons of Haymo. Palaeographical analysis suggested that the fragments might date to the thirteenth century, making it one of the oldest written versions of this text. A medievalist friend and specialist in Old French, Margriet Hoogvliet, identified the dialect as originating in Picardy, the region in the North of France bordering Belgium.

Fragment of manuscript with handwritten text

One of the manuscript fragments. (Photo by Frans van Liere.)

The fragments Vern gave me only contained about a hundred lines of this massive poem, which comprises about 18,000 lines of verse. Some of them were only legible with the help of a UV lamp, borrowed from Calvin’s Biology lab. (Thank you, Lori Keen!) They hold considerable interest for scholars, because they are among the oldest surviving written versions of the text (or as scholars say, “witnesses to the text”), and they contain some variations that do not occur in any of the other surviving manuscripts. This might indicate that some of these versions were written down as records of an oral performance of the poem, rather than as exact copies of its written form.

The story features the four sons of Haymo, one of Charlemagne’s vassals. All are valiant knights, but they have their faults. Renaud, the oldest, is known for his temper, and during a game of chess he gets into a fight and kills one of Charlemagne’s other vassals. Charlemagne demands revenge, and the four brothers have to flee for their lives. They are aided by their uncle, the knight-wizard Maugis, who helps them hide. But Charlemagne persecutes the brothers relentlessly, unwilling to accept any kind of reparation or satisfaction. Even his most faithful vassals (such as Turpin, the archbishop, and Roland, the eponymous well-known hero of another chanson de geste) start to be uncomfortable with Charlemagne’s bullying behavior and his unwillingness to be reconciled. Renaud eventually surrenders, however, and takes a vow to redeem himself by going on a pilgrimage. In other versions, he spends the rest of his life aiding in the building of Cologne cathedral.

The story does not end well for Renaud’s horse, Bayard. He is surrendered to Charlemagne, who demands that he be drowned in the River Rhine (or Meuse, or Mosel, depending on which version you read). The horse is too strong to be drowned willingly; only when Renaud turns away from him, the faithful animal believes himself to have lost his master’s approval and surrenders himself to the waves.

Some stories are so engrained in the educational canon that we can easily forget that their survival into the modern age was precarious. Beowulf and the Song of Roland, two of the most widely read medieval texts today, are each found in only one manuscript. In the case of Beowulf, that manuscript was almost lost to fire in the seventeenth century. By contrast, the story of the Sons of Haymo is so widespread that there are multiple versions. By the late Middle Ages, versions of the poem existed in German, Dutch, Italian, and English, in addition to a French rendering into prose. Only a handful of manuscripts from the thirteenth century survive, and they already show considerable differences between the versions. Finding one more manuscript fragment can thus shed valuable light on the origin and early dissemination of the text.

The Renaud is far less prominent today in both education and popular culture than Beowulf or the Song of Roland. But it deserves more attention. It is a tale of murder and redemption, rebellion and abuse of authority, and even the bond between human and animal. It has heroism, friendship, and even magic. It might even make a good mini-series, like the Arthurian teenage TV Epic Merlin. The more widely read Song of Roland, by contrast, is about a go-at-it-alone hero who by his willful pride gets the whole rearguard of Charlemagne’s army killed. It is a story that glorifies Jihad – by Christians against Muslims— and ends with Roland’s suicidal “martyr’s death.” I see more inspiration in Renaud’s story of transgression and redemption. He kills a man in anger, underestimating his own strength, but eventually turns his life around by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Medieval literature has lots to teach us about restorative justice. The Renaud also grapples with the question of how far rightful authority can reach before it becomes oppressive and needs to be resisted. The German occupation forces in Belgium in World War II knew very well the power of stories, and tried to suppress the tale. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce this text to the canon of World Literature.

The author of the post seated at a desk with the two small fragments of manuscript displayed on it.

Frans van Liere with the manuscript fragments in their new home at WMU. (Image source: Special Collections & Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University)

What happened to the actual manuscript fragments? Calvin’s Meeter Center graciously agreed that they should be donated to our southern neighbor, Western Michigan University, which has an excellent M.A. program in Medieval Studies (as several Calvin graduates can attest), and a great medieval book collection. As Manuscript 191, they are now accessible to be studied by all.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two sons, and two cats named Pippa and Emma.

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