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Between 75 million and 200 million people died from the Black Plague that
swept through Asia and Europe in the 14th century. It is estimated than anywhere
between 30% and 60% of Europe’s total population was wiped out. And all from
a pandemic that originated in Central Asia and was carried out from there by
Oriental rat fleas living on the black rodents that infested ships trading between
Asia and Europe.
Millions of terrified believers and non-believers alike turned to prayer,
beseeching protection. In the case of the non-believers it was an early foretaste
of the World War 1 aphorism coined by an unnamed chaplain: “There are no
atheists in the trenches.” (That was adapted in World War 2 to “There are no
atheists in foxholes.”)
As has been written by a quote investigator, “When exposed to extreme
peril, many people reflect on the spiritual or supernatural dimension of
existence.” Which is just another way of saying, “They turn to the Almighty for
The upheavals caused by the Black Plague — one of the most devastating
pandemics in human history — were not only of a social and economic nature,
but also of a religious nature. The fanaticism that exploded saw widespread
persecution of groups such as lepers, friars, Jews, pilgrims, and foreigners. In
Europe sufferers from skin diseases like psoriasis were, in some instances,
Religious fervour in Germany, at first in the Rhineland area, resulted in a
group of saints being named “The Fourteen Holy Helpers”. They enjoyed a
collective cult, and devotion to them spread to the rest of Germany, Hungary, and
Sweden. These saints were selected because of the efficacy of their intercession
against various diseases. I’ll revisit them later in this series.
One of the 14 was a former physician/doctor and Bishop of Sebaste, the
city in Armenia where he was born. He was a man who, during a time of
persecution, lived in a cave, and was a healer of men and of animals. Animals, it
was said, used to come to him on their own for help, but would never disturb him
if they saw he was in prayer.
His name was Saint Blaise. Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth,
was very young when consecrated bishop. His parents were rich and noble
Christians, and Agricola, Governor of Cappadocia, targeted them. He had come to
the area specifically to persecute Christians.
Agricola sent a group of huntsmen into the forests of Argeus on a search for
wild animals to be used in the Roman arena games. They were looking for
hyenas, wild horses, antelopes, and wild asses. Eventually they came across a
number of animals grouped outside a cave, waiting. Inside the cave the men
found Blaise, kneeling in prayer.
When they took him back to the Governor, Agricola tried to coerce,
persuade, bully him into recanting his faith. But Blaise, who as a bishop,
instructed as much by his example as by his words, was having none of it, so
Agricola said, “Throw him into prison. I’ll deal with him later.”
As the huntsmen hauled and dragged and pulled and pushed and punched
Blaise on their way to the jail, a distraught mother, carrying her child who was
choking to death on a fishbone, laid the child at Blaise’s feet. She begged for help
through his intercession.
Blaise was touched by the woman’s anguish, and he immediately prayed for
mother and son. The soldiers jeered and shouted in derision, and hit Blaise even
more viciously. But the little boy was cured on the spot. And there was more to
come. Further along the route to the prison, an old poverty-stricken woman
whose only possession of any value, a baby pig, had been snatched by a wolf,
crossed their path and, like the woman with the choking child, this woman, too,
beseeched Blaise for help. According to legend, Blaise again prayed. A miraculous
thing took place — the wolf came back and laid the unhurt and undamaged baby
pig at the woman’s feet, and then sloped off into the trees.
The cell Blaise was thrown into was dark and damp and fetid. The old lady
visited the jail one day, and asked to be allowed to see him. Surprisingly, they let
her in, mocking her. She had brought with her two wax candles that she give to
Blaise, saying she hoped they would relieve a little of the gloom that shrouded
the filthy space.
To this day, the custom of having throats blessed on St Blaise’s feast day,
February 3, involves the priest using two crossed candles, and using the
following blessing: “May Almighty God, at the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop
and Martyr, preserve you from infections of the throat, and from all other
afflictions.” Then the priest makes the sign of the cross.
Saint Blaise was beheaded in 316 AD.