Letter from William Zouche, Archbishop of York, to his official at York (1348)
Since the life of man on earth is a war, no wonder if those fighting amidst the miseries of this world are unsettled by the mutability of events: now favourable, now contrary. For Almighty God sometimes allows those he loves to be troubled while their strength is perfected in weakness by an outpouring of spiritual grace. There can be no one who does not know, since it is now public knowledge, how great a mortality, pestilence and infection of the air are now threatening various parts of the world, and especially England; and this is surely caused by the sins of men who, while enjoying good times, forget that such things are the gifts of the most high giver. Thus, since the inevitable human fate, pitiless death, which spares no one, now threatens us, unless the holy clemency of the Saviour is shown to his people from on high, the only hope is to hurry back to him alone, whose mercy outweighs justice and who, most generous in forgiving, rejoices heartily in the conversion of sinners; humbly urging him with orisons and prayers that he, the kind and merciful Almighty God, should turn away his anger and remove the pestilence and drive away the infection from the people whom he redeemed with his precious blood.
Therefore we command, and order you to let it be known with all possible haste, that devout processions are to be held every Wednesday and Friday in our cathedral church, in other collegiate and conventual churches, and in every parish church in our city and diocese, with a solemn chanting of the litany, and that a special prayer be said in mass every day for allaying the plague and pestilence, and likewise prayers for the lord king and for the good estate of the church, the realm and the whole people of England, so that the Saviour, harkening to the constant entreaties, will pardon and come to the rescue of the creation which God fashioned in his own image.
And we, trusting in the mercy of Almighty God, and the merits and prayers of his mother, the glorious Virgin Mary, and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy confessor William and of all the saints, have released 40 days of the penance enjoined by the gracious God on all our parishioners and on others whose diocesans have approved and accepted this our indulgence, for sins for which they are penitent, contrite and have made confession, if they pray devoutly for these things, celebrate masses, undertake processions or are present at them, or perform other offices of pious devotion. And you are to ensure that these things are speedily put into effect in every archdeaconry within our diocese by the archdeacons or their officials. Farewell.
The significant widespread practice of public penance, seen in The Seventh Seal with the flagellants, is well-documented in medieval Europe. This 1348 letter, written by the Archbishop of York William Zouche to another official, reflects one of the many medieval Christian responses to the threat of plague. This illuminates several important aspects of ecclesiastical reactions to the plague. First, Zouche sees the plague as sent by God to punish sinners. Zouche’s reference to the “sins of men” puts the blame squarely on the English people, while implicitly absolving the Church itself.
Second, if sin is the cause of the plague, the natural prescription is redemption through penance. That, at least, is the logic behind the Archbishop’s call for public processions, which are penitential acts signaling the contrition of the whole community. Indeed, Zouche includes a call for a specific prayer against the plague. Zouche hoped that such measures would draw God’s mercy and forgiveness for the very sin which had brought supposedly brought about plague in the first place.
Penitential processions can be seen in The Seventh Seal in scenes involving flagellants, who are the repentant Christians wandering the town whipping themselves. While Zouche does not call for acts of self-inflicted violence like flagellation, the processions he calls for are similar acts of public penitence to those seen in the film. Self-flagellation and these processions are two expressions of the same drive; namely, to appease God so as to bring an end to the plague. The presence of such reactions across Europe speaks to the immense spiritual anxiety caused by plague, and the influence of the Church in shaping expressions of penitence.
,” Medieval Hollywood, accessed April 5, 2020, http://medievalhollywood.ace.fordham.edu/items/show/73.