It is the 29th of September 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1349.
The year started ominously as a massive earthquake hit the Italian Peninsula. Many earthquakes would rock Europe in this fateful year. If you’ve ever seen the Roman Coliseum, you likely remember that a large section of the outer wall has been demolished. This happened during an earthquake in 1349. The marble and brick that collapsed were collected to construct homes and other buildings in Rome. While the earthquakes were monumental, the medieval estimation of the significance of the colosseum was minimal. It was treated like a public nuisance rather than the esteemed symbol of Roman greatness, as is estimated by some today.
But the earthquakes were overshadowed in 1349 by the Black Death. The pandemic, caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacterium, would signal the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages, where the economy and populations were so transformed that a new age was almost inevitable.
As the plague began to spread across Central Europe this year, the Jewish population received the harshest treatment. They needed a scapegoat for why the epidemic occurred or looking to appease God and keep the plague from coming. In 1349 the Christian populations in many cities rioted and executed thousands of Jewish people in Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and Erfurt, just to name a few.
For those under quarantine or self-exile during a time of plague, this could be a time for creativity. In this year, Giovanni Boccacio began to work on his masterpiece, “The Decameron.” The story begins with ten Florentines who have escaped the plague to wait it out in a villa in the Italian countryside. The friends go on to tell stories or have conversations on various topics. The book was considered immoral and blasphemous, and this likely helped its success. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Moliere, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth all borrowed or retold various stories from “The Decameron.”
And it was in 1349, as so many were dying from the plague, and on this day, Richard Rolle—the English hermit, mystic, and author—died. Richard Rolle was born in 1300 in Yorkshire. He attended Oxford but found religious zeal and piety to be lacking amongst the students and professors. He left without taking a degree and began to travel the country, looking for a hermitage, and attracting attention as a wandering holy man.
His significance lies in his correspondence and friendships with religious communities across the country. His relationship was especially close with the nunnery at Hampole and their Anchoress Margaret Kirkby. Rolle was known for his letters and spiritual advice, but for these women, he composed a small devotional in the vernacular entitled “Fire of Love.” This work was part autobiographical and part practical devotional manual. Rolle takes on the trope of the “bad hermit” in his autobiographical section. He writes at some length about his past mistreatment of women and how women should be treated as spiritual equals. While this esteem of women might seem pedestrian, it was almost unparalleled in medieval theological treatises.
Rolle lived a largely peripatetic life, but in the 1340s, he settled back home in Yorkshire at a Cistercian Nunnery where he was a spiritual adviser. Although many speculated that he succumbed to the Black Death, the exact cause of his death was never known. The church of England remembers this mystic on the 20th of January, and the Episcopal church remembered him yesterday. Here at the Almanac, we remember him on the likely day of his death. Richard Rolle died at the age of 49 on this day in 1349.
The reading for today comes from the 19th-century poet James Montgomery. This is his “Come To Calvary’s Holy Mountain.”
Come to Calvary’s holy mountain,
Sinners, ruined by the fall;
Here a pure and healing fountain
Flows to you, to me, to all,
In a full, perpetual tide,
Opened when our Savior died.
Come in poverty and meanness,
Come defiled, without, within;
From infection and uncleanness,
From the leprosy of sin,
Wash your robes and make them white;
Ye shall walk with God in light.
Come in sorrow and contrition,
Wounded, impotent, and blind;
Here the guilty, free remission,
Here the troubled, peace may find
Health this fountain will restore;
He that drinks shall thirst no more.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of September 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man considered immoral and blasphemous, which likely has contributed to his own success—Christopher Gillespie The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.