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I’ve often wondered how medieval Christians dealt with the plague, and how it compares to the way we deal with the coronavirus today. The three volumes of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, set in 14th-century Norway, don’t answer the question. This is a historical novel, not description of fact. Still, the way Undset imagines medieval Christians responded to the plague is instructive and moving.

The high point of the novel, I think, is the last few chapters, which depict Kristin traveling to take up religious life in Rein Abbey near Trondheim in Trøndelag, halfway up the coast in Norway (some spoilers to follow). Shortly after her arrival, the plague breaks out. Undset’s descriptions of both fear and courage brought tears to my eyes.

I have long thought our reactions to COVID to be mostly cowardly. We have left elderly people isolated for months on end in long-term care facilities; we have let them languish and die there. Many of our elderly parents must have wished they were dead already, to avoid being left to die alone in their old-age hovels. Our hospitals have refused family access to people with COVID. Priests were unable—and sadly, often unwilling—to visit the sick. Many died without last rites or final prayers with loved ones and pastors, because we were too cowardly to allow visitation. We even denied people dying with COVID decent funerals for fear we might catch it ourselves.

So far, I have read few reflections on our moral failings—as individuals, as pastors, and as policymakers. We seem to think that fear of risk, no matter how minimal, always and necessarily carries its own justification. 

Here’s how Kristin Lavransdatter ends. One of her sons, Skule, is visiting the abbey where his old mother has settled. Kristin overhears him talking with the abbey’s priest, Sira Eiliv. Skule explains to Sira Eiliv that one of his seamen died when his ship put in at the wharf. Kristin realizes what this means and utters “a little involuntary cry of fear.” Skule then admits to her that five of his men have already died. Kristin suggests that he should stay in town rather than go back to his ship. But Skule recognizes this won’t make a difference. “Oh, I think soon it won’t matter where I am. It's useless to be frightened; fearful men are half dead already. But if only I was as old as you are, Mother.” Skule refuses to cave in to fear, while at the same time lamenting his short life.

Two weeks later, two fishermen come to the convent, carrying a dying man in a sail. “The lay sisters and servingwomen all had fled into the buildings, but the nuns—a flock of trembling, terrified, and bewildered old women—were clustered near the door to the convent hall.” Despite the fear spreading through the abbey, the abbess herself knows what’s demanded by her faith. “‘In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,’ she said clearly, and then swallowed hard. ‘Bring him to the guesthouse.’” Together with Sister Agata, Kristin cares for the dying patient. When Sira Eiliv comes by later that evening, he reprimands Sister Agata for not wearing a mask, “a linen cloth, dipped in vinegar, around her mouth and nose. She murmured crossly that it would do no good, but now both she and Kristin had to do as he ordered.” Masks were controversial in 14th-century hygiene, much as they are today.

The nuns themselves get sick. Sister Inga “was so terrified of death that it was a horror to see and hear.” As she lies prostrate with a burning fever, blood seeping out of her skin, Kristin’s heart is “filled with dread; no doubt she would be just as pitifully frightened when her turn came. It was not just the fact that death was certain, but it was the horrifying fear that accompanied death from the plague.”

The abbess’s example gives the nuns “new courage” in nursing the sick in the convent. But not everyone responds in an equally courageous manner. Kristin hears a bad report about her son Skule. Like many other young people, out of despair he throws himself into wild living. “They said that whoever was afraid would be sure to die, and so they blunted their fear with carousing and drinking, playing cards, dancing, and carrying on with women.” Sira Eiliv, who keeps a steady, Christian perspective throughout, “told Kristin one day that the agony of people’s souls was worse than that of their bodies.” One’s response to the plague matters eternally.

When a bunch of locals bury alive a young lad, believing that this will persuade the Devil to leave the area, Kristin interferes despite fierce opposition from some of the local loudmouths. One of them shouts at her, “Isn’t it better to sacrifice one than for all of us to perish?” Kristin courageously lifts the boy out of his grave just in time. She then learns his mother died about two weeks ago, her body still lying in her hovel. “‘She was lying there?’ Kristin gave the men a look of horror. ‘Didn’t anyone bring a priest to her? Is . . . the body . . . still lying there? And no one has had enough mercy to put her into consecrated ground? And her child you were going to . . .'” Lack of courage typically results from lack of mercy.

Kristin, with the help of her former servant Ulf Halderssøn, decides to give the woman a decent burial, no matter the danger to herself. As they carry the body to the convent, Kristin feels the sickness pervading her own body. When Sira Eiliv and others relieve her from the heavy burden of the body, she nearly collapses.

This leads to one of the most moving scenes in the book.

Sira Eiliv was about to catch her when she said quickly, “Don’t touch me. Don’t come near me. I can feel that I have the plague myself.” But Sira Eiliv put his hand under her arm all the same. “Then it should be of comfort for you to remember, woman, what Our Lord has said: That which you have done unto one of my poorest brothers or sisters, you have also done unto me.”

The next thing Kristin feels is an unthinkable, piercing pain, as her mouth fills with blood and vomit covers her robe. We then read: “Ulf Haldorssøn lifted her up in his arms and carried her.”

Did the plague induce fear in people? Of course it did. But committed Christians such as Kristin, Ulf, and Sira Eiliv did not let go of their Christian calling—no matter their fear. Bodies deserve care and respect, even after the point of death. Priests and religious—indeed, even ordinary folk such as Ulf Halderssøn—have a duty to help the sick, irrespective of the risk to themselves.

Fear may be powerful, but courage is called for all the same. During a pandemic, we are to keep our eye on the soul, for pandemics can harm the soul even more than the body. Perhaps more than anything, we need to recover a sense of horror at a culture that allows our fears to trump every sense of obligation to the dead, the sick, and the elderly.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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