“WE ALL WALK,” the saying goes, “under God’s heaven; our lives are in the hands of the Lord.” It’s something our people have become so accustomed to hearing, they cease thinking about it. Nobody questions it. Nobody gives it a second thought.
Then someone dies—at which time, those remaining will recite: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.” Yet their lives go on unchanged. Only if the death is sudden and unexpected will they be frightened into paying full attention. Even that isn’t for long. So quickly they move on with a shrug: Whatever must be, must be; it’s all in the Lord’s hands.
I, however, am convinced that much more depends upon you and me in this matter than we realize.
The Lord in his mercy revealed this to me when I was twenty years old—which is a fact, something as certain as the truth of my having reached age eighty-eight, and that I write these words in the city of Geneva in the year of our Lord 1416. Sixty-eight years ago this revelation to me took place—in the Year of the Black Plague.
It happened in the Swiss Alps, in the village where I was born: Rundschau, in the District of Rundschau, Canton of Schwarzwald. At the time of my youth, hardly three hundred people lived in our village. Not many more than that live there even now—though if not for the Lord’s mercy, most likely not a single living soul would be left.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rundschau is our district’s capital, but only because the surrounding villages (of which there are many) are even smaller. We have a town square with parish church and town hall, just as you’d find in any proper town; still, it’s only a village.
All around this village, nature is rich and bountiful, by the grace of the Lord. Rising slopes are adorned by creeks and waterfalls whose flow is pure and delicious and cold. Meadows are bordered by forests of beech and pine and fir, full of wild game. In higher elevations, one finds sheep farms; in the valleys, wheat is grown and cattle are raised.
Since our district is encompassed on three sides by mountain ranges, there’s only one main road; it goes directly through Rundschau village toward Linden, and across the Schwarzwald valley, across Switzerland, and on to Rome itself.
There in Rundschau I was born, in the year 1328, to a family of good Christians. That’s what most people in our village considered themselves to be— “good Christians”—right up until that very outbreak of the black plague. Being a good Christian meant weekdays of earning one’s daily bread by the sweat of one’s brow, weeknights of drinking away those earnings in Rundschau’s tavern, Saturdays of beating one’s wife, then going to church on Sundays to partake of the body of Christ. It meant remembering: “Do not steal,” “Do not kill.”
It meant living like everyone else.
Just as with life and death, so also with the subject of what constitutes true Christianity: people of Rundschau preferred not to give it much thought. They each thought they’d been living a godly life from their very birth. But in the year of our Lord 1348, when the black plague entered our land, the events that followed opened everyone’s eyes.
When my mind goes back to that time, I try piecing together exactly how God used those events to bring about our new understanding. For some, the explanation starts by assuming that the plague was God’s instrument to shake our souls, to punish his children and set them straight. Learned clerics expressed it this way, and most people took their words on faith without question.
To me, however—if I may be so blunt—that answer is unfair to the nature of our merciful Lord. Yes, I’m only the unschooled son of a harness-maker, but I’ve often heard how our Lord is compared to a shepherd, and we to his sheep. Lothar, my closest friend, had been tending sheep since childhood, and since I often helped him in his work, I became fairly good at caring for a flock. One thing I learned is that punishing alone will not get you far. In fact, it frequently causes more harm than good. What’s better is to get the sheep following you on their own—which happens only if they’ve come to know you, specifically your good side. Then you can guide them with only your voice and the sound of your piping; you rarely if ever have to resort to your shepherd’s hook.
One afternoon, two of our sheep got lost. It was nearly nightfall when my friend Lothar and I finally found them in a remote and twisting ravine. The poor things were bleating anxiously and thrashing about. Lothar did exactly what any good shepherd must: he plunged into the ravine and called out their names. The sheep rushed toward the familiar voice. Lothar embraced them, kissed them on their snouts, and whispered comforting words in their ears. On our way back in the darkness, those sheep stayed as close as if they were roped to us.
And so it was, I think, with Rundschau’s frightened villagers when our Good Shepherd came to our rescue—though we scarcely imagined this when the plague erupted in our district, bringing terror-filled air, and wagons on the road full of refugees and corpses, and the utter failure of the doctors’ heroic efforts to halt death’s march.
All of which came so unexpectedly.
It was years later before I learned more about the plague’s beginnings. It was said (and I’m inclined to believe it) that the plague came by way of the Genoese and their commercial tradings far off on the Eastern Seas. There in the East a great famine befell some nomadic tribes in 1347, and the Genoese took advantage of this to buy up the nomads’ children for a pittance, then sell them into slavery at many times the price—some to Turkey, some to Egypt, some to Moorish Spain and Africa. This was undoubtedly a great abomination in the eyes of the Lord, and his vengeance was swift.
These nomads, it so happens, had been subjects of the Emperor of the Mongols, who was enraged when he learned what the merchants had done. He sent an army to besiege the Genoese in their easternmost fortress at Caffa, which was deemed impregnable. The defenders were certain of their stronghold’s invincibility; the Lord judged otherwise. Plague suddenly flared up inside the encircled city. Caffa quickly surrendered; the surviving Genoese rushed homeward to Europe, but it was already too late: the epidemic traveled with them.
Port cities were the first to fall. Before the first Genoese ships landed on the Italian shore, the plague already raged in Constantinople and Sicily. Waves of refugees streamed inland along the roads, spreading the pestilence everywhere. There seemed no escape.
For the person afflicted, it went like this: he would feel a slight malaise, which suddenly transformed into terrible fever and weakness. Hard nodules would swell under the arms, in the groin, on the throat, in the elbow joints. Dark spots would appear on the face. Diarrhea and vomiting would ensue. Death came within three days.
We in Rundschau heard of these things; soon our talk was of hardly anything else. A scourge of the Lord had been sent to earth to remind us: the cup of our sin has overflowed.
Looking back, I think this was only fair, for is it not better for the one living in sin to die from plague than to keep sinning without repentance for a hundred years? How unwisely we had failed to take into account the eternity awaiting us!
Across every land the plague fell, and no one knew how to combat it. Doctors, trying to relieve the victims’ suffering, succumbed to the disease themselves. Rulers ordered troops to block borders and roads so no one could leave infected areas, but refugees escaped through forests and over mountains, spreading the affliction ever farther. It reached the palaces of the rulers themselves, to consume them along with their families. The nobleman and the beggar alike trembled before this unprecedented invasion of death; all were equally helpless before it.
Throughout the early months of 1348, rumors made their way to Rundschau of entire cities wiped out in neighboring nations. Our Switzerland lies far from the wasted seaports and plains, but in time the calamity would surely threaten our mountain homeland as well. In summer, when the plague reached Paris, our authorities ordered Swiss borders closed. Almost immediately, the infection flared up in Lausanne. Our authorities were too late.
Still, we in Rundschau and nearby cantons were the most protected by the Alps. If we were destined to suffer the same fate as everyone else, at least we’d be last in line.
Early in September news arrived that Zurich and Bern were infected, then Geneva, then Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz. By mid-September, Unterwalden and Basel had fallen.
In Rundschau, some of our villagers who returned from travel beyond our district’s borders reported roads jammed with refugees. They’d seen corpses lying along the road; had these died from the plague, or simply from exhaustion and starvation?
It was still September when the first refugees appeared in Rundschau—they didn’t actually stay with us, but moved farther upland, as if to let the mountains hide them from the wrath of God.
Then one day Johann Holgert—our mayor and district judge, the most educated man in our village, who’d graduated from the University of Bologna—returned from administrative business in the neighboring district. His face ashen, he spoke to us in a quavering voice: “The plague is in Linden.”