Emerging as we are following two years of worldwide pandemic, the modern mind can scarcely imagine the world experienced by out medieval ancestors, afflicted with the Bubonic Plague. Yersinia Pestis.
Peaking between 1346 and 1353, the “Black Death” was the most deadly pandemic in human history, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million at a time when worldwide population stood less than a half-million.
European populations took 200 years to recover.
Even so, this was far from the first. Modern research points to the existence of Y. Pestis in ancient Swedish tombs, indicating a possible role in the “Neolithic Decline” in which European populations collapsed, some 5-6 thousand years ago.
The Plague of Justinian (541–542 CE, with recurrences until 750) was the first worldwide pandemic brought about by Y. Pestis. Populations from China to Roman Britain were decimated with particular emphasis, on the Sassanian and Byzantine empires. While numbers are uncertain, Procopius wrote of 10,000 dying every day in Constantinople, alone.
In 590, Pope Pelagius II succumbed to the “Black Death” leading to the election of Gregory I, one of the last popes to retain his baptismal name.
Fun Fact: In the early centuries of the Roman church, popes retained baptismal names. In 533, Mercurius was elected head of the worldwide Catholic Church. Deeming it inappropriate that the Bishop of Rome carry the name of a pagan Roman god, Mercurius adopted the papal name John II in honor of his predecessor, venerated as a martyr. Since 1555, all Popes have adopted a Pontificial name as well as an Italian name, in honor of Vatican citizenship.
Today we remember Gregory also for the Gregorian chant, but not for the eponymous calendar. That would come to us from a later Gregory.
Around the time of Gregory I, it was believed (with some justification) that sneezing spread the plague. Many believed in addition, that the soul briefly departed the body during a sneeze, rendering the…err…sneezer, temporarily vulnerable to demonic possession.
So it was on this day, February 16, 600, Pope Gregory I issued a papal bull. A decree, requiring all Christians to invoke the blessings of God, when in the presence of anyone who sneezed.
“The phrase, God bless you, became a sort of protection or verbal talisman to protect the sneezer. We see similar practices in other cultures. For example, the Spanish “Salud” (health), German “Gesundheit” (health), Gaelic “Dia dhuit” (God be with you), and Bengali “Jeebo” (stay alive) are all responses to sneezing”.H/T compellingtruth.org
While the origins are murky, it seems ol’ Gregory didn’t invent the idea. He just…ordered it. So it is by the year 750, “God Bless You” became the near-universal response to a sneeze and remains so, to this day.
No fewer than 97 languages from Amharic (yimarish for women and yimarih for men) to Māori (manaakitia koe) to Yiddish (tsu gezunt) and even Esperanto (Sanon) offer similar blessings, for those who sneeze.
Today, a sneeze is understood to be the body’s way of ejecting an irritant. But, did you know? An estimated 18% to 35% of the population sneezes, when subjected to sudden, bright light. Gesundheit.
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