The year 590 CE started with floods on the River Tiber. Rumors of dragons as big as tree-trunks flowed with the rising waters. Much relied-upon granaries were destroyed. Churches that were the spiritual, political, and logistical heart of Rome’s many communities collapsed. Even the sea monsters drowned, “smothered among the rough and salty waves of the sea and cast up on the shore,” as the seventh-century chronicler Gregory of Tours reports.
The devastation was considerable. Then came the plague. Moving from house to house, the plague consumed Rome. The city handled it with all the messiness we have come to expect, including, so Gregory of Tours chronicles, a massive seven-part procession that began from churches across the city and converged on the basilica of the blessed Virgin Mary. Social distancing this emphatically was not. In fact, eighty people were said to have fallen dead during the announcement of the grand procession alone.
Plagues came and went throughout the fourteen-year papacy of Gregory the Great (r. 590–604). It is fair to say that Gregory was more apt than we are to see the world as drawing to its end. Plagues were, to use a precise theological term, apocalyptic for Gregory: They literally “unveiled” the true state of the world. That which was previously hidden is now revealed for all to see. In these conditions Gregory saw a world drawing to a close and promoted such visions not only in his ornate biblical exegesis but in the countless letters he wrote to his fellow bishops across Europe and North Africa. In 599, when a plague was spreading throughout North Africa, Gregory encouraged the bishop of Carthage to interpret plagues as one of the things we should expect to happen in the last of days. In an earlier exchange when the plague of 590 was still ravaging the Italian peninsula, Gregory encouraged the bishop of Narni to use the ongoing plague as an opportunity to urge the “barbarian heretics” to convert to the Catholic faith. The plagues were, to put it simply, an opportunity to convert to the Catholic faith rather than perish at the final judgment.