Monday, January 09, 2006

Of gods and germs -- Part 2

For many of us of a certain age, the words "Black Death" evoke images from Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.

Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the story is set in 14th-century Scandinavia. The Black Death is ravaging the land. The cause of the plague, according to the priests, is a wrathful God. People go about inflicting terrible punishments upon themselves to appease God's anger. A young woman suspected of abetting the plague by her commerce with the Devil is burnt alive.

Antonius Block, a knight, has returned from the Holy Lands with his squire. He meets black-robed Death, and is told that his time is up. The knight proposes a chess game as a delaying tactic, and Death accepts. The story unfolds as the fateful game is played.

The knight is a doubter. He cannot understand why a just God would inflict such a terrible punishment upon his creation.

Death asks the knight, "Don't you ever stop asking questions?" To which Antonius Block replies, "No, I'll never stop." For which we should all be grateful. Within the next few centuries, Block's skepticism and questioning spirit led to the Scientific Revolution -- and ultimately to the elimination of the plague bacillus as a scourge of humankind.