In 1519, eight years before Martin Luther wrote Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, the Swiss preacher and reformer Huldrych Zwingli faced a deadly outbreak of plague in Zürich. It would have been safer to flee the city, but Zwingli stayed to minister to the sick and dying among his congregation, caught the disease himself, and nearly died.
He wrote a poem, later set to music, chronicling his experience. The ‘Pestlied’ is a rare and visceral first-hand account: ‘Ich mein, der tod | sey an der thür’ (‘I think that death | is at the door’). The lines are both alien and familiar, out of time but topical, the archaic Swiss-German rhymes lyrically captivating but linguistically confusing (Luther once dismissed Zwingli’s dialect as ‘churlish, shaggy German’).
In the quiet, disconcerting days of the first lockdown this year, I heard on the radio that Douglas Hofstadter had collected 88 different English versions of the stylistically constrained poem ‘Ma mignonne’ by Zwingli’s contemporary Clément Marot, to illustrate the inescapable difficulties of translation (never mind the difficulties of understanding the thoughts of someone who lived half a millennium ago). Yet even shorn of its native lyricism and rendered in simple modern English, Zwingli’s lines made me think of our helplessness before events we can’t control, our endless struggle to understand our own mortality.
The poem is structured around three stages of illness: onset, near death, and recovery. ‘Help, Lord God, | Help in this distress!’ it begins (‘Hilff, herr gott, | hilff in diser not!’). Zwingli asks Christ to stand with the suffering, since he has overcome death himself. But the illness becomes a torment – ‘it leaves no time | of quiet or rest for me!’ – and Zwingli sounds scared. The tone of fear and uncertainty is rare in his writing. Most of his work shows an unshakeable conviction, a characteristic that helped to drive his Reformation but perhaps also led to his death on a battlefield in 1531, at the age of 47.
Plague was a fact of life for early modern people, and Zwingli had seen death up close before: as a military chaplain he had witnessed some of the worst fighting of the Italian Wars, where the sacrifice of young Swiss mercenaries fuelled his disillusionment with a militarised and wealthy papacy whose agents he denounced as ‘Menschenmetzger’ (‘people butchers’).
But sickness shook Zwingli, and left him desperate. ‘Pain and fear grip | my soul and body,’ he wrote as ‘the illness grows.’ ‘Do you want | to have me dead | in the middle of my days?’ he asked Christ: ‘I scream out to you | Is this your will?’
When the plague had first arrived in Zürich, Zwingli sent his younger brother Andreas away from the city. Worried by an absence of news, Andreas wrote to Huldrych asking if he was all right and informing him that the plague had now reached their hometown of Wildhaus: seven or eight people had died. Months later, after a convalescing Huldrych was able to reply, Andreas wrote to him of the ‘incredible joy’ of hearing that his brother was regaining health.
Later in 1520, Andreas himself contracted the plague and died. The news left Zwingli ‘bewildered’, and he wrote to his close friend Oswald Myconius in despair. His grief, he said, had led him to ‘wail and moan more than women do’. He admitted his continuing ‘fear of death’, before including the customary update on the plague’s progress: four recent deaths – not statistics but neighbours to be grieved.
In the depths of his illness, Zwingli felt himself losing his place in the world and his ability to understand it. ‘Now it is over. | My tongue is dumb, | unable to speak a word | My senses are all withered.’ He was isolated from the physical world by the terrifying illness. The lines of his poem become short, like struggling final breaths. If it is God’s will, he says, then ‘nothing is too much for me.’ As St Paul wrote to the Romans, it is not for the clay to ask the potter ‘why did you make me like this’, and Zwingli affirms his physical surrender to God’s will: ‘I am your pot | to make whole or break’ (‘Din haf bin ich. | Mach gantz ald brich’).
Zwingli turned to this metaphor again and again in later writings: we were a ‘lump of clay’ in the hands of God, and ‘like the potter with the clay’, he can mould us freely into any shape, regardless of our joy or sorrow. Salvation came only through faith and submission to providence, ideas that ran through the heart of Zwingli’s Reformation. His surviving the plague was confirmation of his evangelical mission: ‘my mouth must,’ he told God, ‘Your praise and teaching | speak out more.’ It was not enough simply to await his fate, even when he felt like clay, thrown and spun on the wheel.