In Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, it is clear that rejoicing during the time of plague is considered rebellious and immoral, to the extent of “lawlessness” (103). But as I was reading the play, I couldn’t help but ask “why is it so wrong?” Loss of beloved ones is surely a mournful thing, but on the societal level, why would it be so grievous when someone dies from plague? Contemplating on the meaning of death presented in this play, I came to the conclusion that the reactions of the readers might differ significantly according to their cultural background, especially how each society views death caused by a plague.
Obviously, sudden death from a plague is deemed negative in many countries. Russian audience, for example, might have found it easy to empathize with the overriding theme in this play. I found a research article in which the writer studies traditional beliefs of Russian peasants regarding death:
The Russian peasants have, from ancient times, divided their dead into two major categories. On the one hand are the “natural” dead, who die of old age at the time appointed by God. On the other are the “unnatural” or “unclean” dead, … this category of dead included those who had met a violent death at the hands of an assassin, those who had died accidentally, by drowning or falling into a swamp for example, by getting lost in the forest or being frozen to death. It also included those struck by lightning or those who had fallen victim to some plague or epidemic. The bodies of such unfortunates were often never recovered and were left to rot unburied or were buried on the spot where the victim met his or her end.
(Elizabeth A. Warner, Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part I: The Restless Dead, Wizards and Spirit Beings)
This passage suggests that in Russian perspective, the death from a plague falls into the category of “unnatural” or “unclean” death, which is against the will of God. Scapegoats of the plague were deemed to be “unfortunates.”
On the other hand, death from a plague was equated with martyrdom in Islamic culture, as mentioned in our previous reading, “New Directions in the Study of Religious Responses to the Black Death” by Stearns. Unlike the Russians who believed the death to be untimely and against God’s wishes, Muslims regarded it as “[giving oneself] wholly to the God against [one’s] own desires” (“Martyrdom” from Oxford Islamic Studies Online). According to the article cited above, those martyrs would be rewarded after their deaths:
Unlike ordinary Muslims, after they die martyrs do not have to undergo the intimidating review of their deeds by the angels Munkar and Nakir. A martyr proceeds directly to the highest station in paradise, near the throne of God (“Martyrdom”).
I’m not trying to make an argument that the Muslims would have thrown a party when someone died from a plague as a martyr–for most of the time, death is the last thing to be wanted. But it was interesting for me to discover that some societies had different beliefs from others regarding deaths from a plague, and to imagine how readers from various cultural background might have reacted differently after reading this play. I hope those articles have provided you with some food for thought.
Interesting set of resources, Mina, and I’m glad you brought up Stearns again. My question is whether anything in Walsingham’s or the other revelers’ behavior could be construed as devotional or as subordinating their actions to God’s will? Martyrdom is rooted in a specific notion of the afterlife: how does the afterlife function for these characters, if at all?