The procession against the plague

La processione contro la peste

It seems anachronistic, but perhaps not too much so considering the times in which we live, to speak of a ‘procession against the plague’… When the plague reappeared in Europe in 1348 after an absence of almost six hundred years, few could have imagined that the outbreak would continue to haunt the continent for the next four centuries. A number of factors made the disease truly horrific: it recurred in unpredictable cycles; it produced grotesque symptoms, such as boils and necrosis of the extremities; it had a very high mortality rate; it spread easily and killed quickly (Boccaccio writes that plague victims ‘having breakfasted in the morning with their relatives, acquaintances and friends, dined that same evening with their ancestors in the next world!’). Moreover, unlike other diseases such as leprosy, the plague did not mark individuals, but rather besieged entire populations. This last attribute of the plague had important moral implications. If the disease, as was thought, was ultimately a divine punishment for sin, then it followed that the plague challenged not only the virtue of an individual, but the collective morality of a community. Corrective action, therefore, had to be carried out communally.

Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan during the city’s epidemic of 1576-78, used the ritual of the procession against the plague as a response to the problem of collective sin; music was a central component of the procession because it interacted with other elements of the ritual to facilitate corporate worship while strengthening the civic bonds of the processional community. However, large congregations of people in processions exacerbated the very real threat of contagion and contravened the medical and civic rules of isolation. Borromeo addressed this struggle between piety and public safety by moving the procession from the public streets to private homes when the parishes were quarantined. In Borromeo’s programme of ‘ad hoc devotion’, most of the ritual elements were eliminated, leaving music as the primary instrument through which the people of Milan were able to maintain their corporate devotional activities and to erase the boundaries between public and domestic worship.

The liturgical-musical elements of the procession against the plague worked in tandem with the other ritual elements to propitiate the deity and unify the community. On the basis of the priestly books of the time, the ritual core of emergency processions, such as those for rain or for the cessation of the plague, followed the form of the Major Litany. In general, the psalms (usually one of the penitential psalms, 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142) and antiphons were performed at the point of processional departure. During the actual ambulation, the litanies, usually the Litany of the Saints, were sung together with other Psalms and repeated if necessary. At the conclusion of the rite, prayers at the final gathering point renewed the previous petitions, and a Missa contra pestem was to be celebrated. Special booklets containing the prayers of processions were sometimes published, which can now help us to define the liturgical programme of a particular procession. For the Milan rite, Borromeo published the Antiphonae, psalmi, preces, et orationes ad usum supplicationum tempore pestis, a palm-sized booklet (21 sheets, 13 cm by 7.5 cm) that could easily be carried in processions. The book opens with a selection of seven antiphons and the seven penitential psalms, to be performed ‘pro arbitratu’. This is followed by three more psalms (94, 87 and 90) and two biblical readings (Jonah 2 and Isaiah 38), again to be performed as the participants see fit. The Litany of the Saints comes next, followed by a reprint of Psalm 50 and then a series of five short prayers, the first of which is simply a rubric instructing supplicants to perform a prayer to the saint in whose church they are (de Sancto, in cuius Ecclesia supplicationes fiunt). The rest are prayers of mercy and protection.

I leave it to you to make your own personal reflections, of whatever kind, on what has been written….

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