Death the real illusion

In this Catholic season of death — All Hallowtide, still within the Octave — one’s thoughts run to the whole history of death, and dead people. This especially in light of advancing age, and the prospect of becoming dead oneself. The topic is so large, a certain focus is inevitable. England, for instance, where I lived as a young man (see last Idlepost) struck me as a country rich in dead things and people. Walking the hedgerows and fieldpaths there, as on the Continent, one encountered death at every turn, as much in the facts of agriculture as in commemorations of church and churchyard. It is a fault of America, and of rural Ontario, that there are few rights-of-way for the long-distance walker. We are stuck in our cars, whizzing through.

The urbane have perhaps always been busy erasing death from their picture of life. We imagine farms as places “full of life.” But the old farmers could tell you that is less than half the story: just a brief passage in the history of death. The groaning table of reunion, at harvest and thanksgiving, is death on turkeys and geese; our daily bread is golden death on the green and waving corn. Finally the grim reaper appears, and it is death on us. Our winter is death; death then resurrection.

Long I have been curious about the Great Pestilence that trimmed the population of Britain and Europe by a third or more, in the fourteenth century. I make too much of it; the plague was a recurring event for centuries before and after. I notice from the tabloids that it is returning, through Africa this time. (Indeed, it is already here, in the form of voluntary abortions.) I know there will be pestilence to come, when we will all think it terribly important. It rivetted attention, I’m sure, in the autumn of 1348, and through the summer of 1349. And yet within a generation it is hardly mentioned.

England, below the Ribble and Tees, is special, thanks to the Domesday Book of the invading, tax-loving Normans, and their general propensity to good record-keeping. The towns and villages ennumerated in 1086 can be traced to the present day; more than nineteen-in-twenty are still there. Having figures to start, and through the parish books later, we can track an economic and demographic history with an accuracy possible in no other country. We can know, for instance, of the population boom through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which had slackened well before the “Black Death.” And with that boom, impressive advances in farming, technology, and building, as today. Nothing conduces to technical improvement, as a bit of crowding.

This proportion I cited — the nineteen-in-twenty — which I have from reading in economic history mostly years ago, fascinates my attention. We know large tracts were depopulated, we find the archaeological evidence easily enough. They were planting rye within the walls of Winchester, and many other towns. Everywhere, they had elbow-room again. Our deep ecologists would have been pleased — those who think life on this planet would be better had a few billion souls not been born, or would politely disappear. As Christianity, and environmentalism, are mortally opposed, and the fourteenth century was overwhelmingly Christian, I expect complaints of overpopulation were differently expressed at the time. Mostly it would have been moaning from younger brothers about the distribution of inherited land.

Always, there have been younger brothers. Always, there have been survivors. What delighted me was the speed with which all the vacant places were filled. As we’ve seen, too, after ghastly wars — or by the immigration after ten-millions of abortions — demography abhors a vacuum.

Death may win in the end, but needs life to sustain it.

I love it when we give death a good run. But a time comes when the contest is over, and we shake skeletal hands. For life is God’s, and He bids us move along.