They came like locusts in the heat of summer, a vast devouring horde sweeping down from the Eurasian Steppes—the Mongols, masters of north-central Asia. During the summer of 1346 they set their sights on Caffa, an innocuous Genoese trading post nestled on the northern shores of the Black Sea (modern-day Ukraine). Caffa was a livewire of culture and commerce, founded under a special trade agreement with the Mongols.
The Mongols besieged Caffa over a murky trade dispute with the Genoese, determined to bring the trading post to its knees. They quivered on the edge of victory when disaster struck. Disease ravaged the ranks, large black lumps broke out all over their bodies, followed by internal haemorrhaging, fever, vomiting and swift, painful death. As the Mongolians began to die, the survivors decided to go down swinging. They loaded the corpses of their dead comrades onto catapults and lobbed them over the walls into Caffa.
Gabriele de Mussis, a mediaeval plague chronicler, described the growing panic inside the city. As bodies fell from the sky, trapped in a city with dwindling resources, citizens were forced to drink from contaminated water sources while inhaling clouds of germs. Soon thousands began to sicken, then die.
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The survivors of both the siege and the plague fled Caffa carrying the plague with them. By 1347 it had reached Constantinople and Italy. Like a sudden explosion, the plague burst across Europe. By the summer of 1348 it reached England, bringing the kingdom to its knees. Within a period of 18 months, nearly 40 per cent of the English population was dead.
ruled by fear
Europe in the 14th century was universally Christian, hunkered beneath the umbrella of a single church. The Mediaeval Church defined every aspect of European society, feeding the masses a steady diet of superstition and fear. The arrival of the plague escalated the existing fear into panic. The church taught people to fear God and so, the plague drove fearful parishioners to appease a vengeful god who seemed set on destroying humanity. They went on pilgrimages, muttered numerous prayers, paid for masses and engaged in strange rituals ranging from self-flagellation to wearing charms.But, there were other responses. One obscure but significant reaction took place in Oxford, England. The plague tore through the University of Oxford in the winter of 1349, decimating the student body. Among the despairing cohort of survivors was a 25-year-old scholar named John Wycliffe. Wycliffe arrived at Oxford ready to conquer the world but the advancing plague stripped away his ambitions, leaving him questioning everything he knew. Wycliffe searched for answers in the unlikeliest place—the Bible. In mid-14th century England, a Bible was a rarity, accessed infrequently by clergy and completely inaccessible to the public.
Wycliffe studied the Bible to find peace and comfort in crisis. What he found was a God of love, completely unlike the angry deity he was accustomed to. This encounter changed his life. The anomaly of a loving God infused Wycliffe with hope, spurring him to share his discoveries. He is known as the “morning star of the Reformation”, the precursor to one of the most powerful spiritual revivals in history.
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a new way
Wycliffe’s preaching discarded the false theory of a vengeful God, presenting instead a God of compassion and goodness. His work revolutionised England, reaching as far afield as Bohemia.
The contrasting pictures of the God presented by Wycliffe and the church reflect two opposing ideological frameworks which originated in heaven.
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, tells the story succinctly but starkly: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, he was thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him (chapter 12:7–9).”
We’re not told if this was a real war with lightsabers, feathered wings and physical combat, but it certainly was a war of ideologies—God’s ideological framework pitted against Satan’s.
Isaiah 14:12–14 explains the ideology of Satan: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, Son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God, I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Satan’s desire for self-exaltation and self-promotion led him to covet God’s power—but not His character. This ideological framework manifests itself in every aspect of human life on planet earth. It is the root principle of social injustice, racism, inequality and hatred in all its forms.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).
Whereas Satan’s ideological framework is governed by selfishness, God’s ideological framework is built on love: the kind of love that embraces humility, self-sacrifice and service. 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” A love that pours itself out for the blessing and benefit of others.
Our lives are made up of choices. We make them every moment of every day. Our choices define us as surely as they impact those around us. The Mongols chose to besiege Genoa and then wage biological warfare on them when their plans failed; the Genoese merchants chose to flee Caffa with an infectious disease; terrified Europeans cowered before an angry God. John Wycliffe dug for the truth until he found it, then shared that truth with millions. Jesus left heaven to die for the people who nailed Him to a cross. What ideological framework have you adopted? What impact are you having on the world around you?
Sukeshinie Goonatilleke is a wife, mother and writer. She published her first book, Sisters in Arms, in 2020. She writes from Melbourne, Australia.