Today’s Factismal: During the plague of 590, Pope Gregory I began the custom of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze and made it mandatory with a Papal Decree in 600 CE.
Sixth century life was tough for a Roman. If Rome wasn’t being sacked, then it was suffering from famine, civil war, or plague. Thanks to the constant danger, Rome had gone from being the center of the civilized world with a population of over 1,000,000 to a backwater city with a population of less than 100,000.
Of course, Rome wasn’t alone in suffering. A series of plagues swept across Europe in the period between 100 CE and 600 CE, causing widespread death and devastation. And while most modern people think of the plague as being just the bubonic plague, or black death, the early Europeans faced plagues of influenza, measles, smallpox, and rubella as well as the bubonic plague.
These plagues would infect a city or region and start killing indiscriminately. The first warning that most people had of a plague outbreak was when their friends and neighbors started keeling over. And that’s what happened during the early part of Pope Gregory I’s rule. A sudden outbreak of the plague began in 590 CE and people started dying faster than they could be sanctified for burial. Because the physicians of the day thought that a sneeze signified the start of the plague, Gregory ordered everyone to start saying “God bless you” after a sneeze as a way of warding off the disease. His order appeared to work; the plague stopped as suddenly as it began and Rome continued its long, slow decline. (It got better.)
A few years later during yet another plague outbreak, Gregory issued a Papal Decree making it mandatory for all those under his rule to bless each other after a sneeze. Though the watchword was somewhat less successful the second time around, it nevertheless remains in use today.
If you’d like to help science prevent modern outbreaks of the cold and flu (or are afraid of getting it), then why not take part in the Flu Near You mapping program?