A new novel explores a post-pandemic religious world — set in the 14th century

Peter Manseau’s latest book examines the Black Death for clues to our cultural moment.

(Lynne Sladky | AP) In this November 24, 2020 photo, Kyla Harris, 10, writes a tribute to her grandmother Patsy Gilreath Moore, who died of COVID-19 at the age of 79, at a symbolic graveyard created to remember and honor lives lost to COVID-19 in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. A new novel, The Maiden of All Our Desire, examines the 13th-century plague for clues to the world’s cultural moment.

A million dead and counting. It’s truly unfathomable — both the fact that the pandemic has stolen so many lives and that American culture has largely evolved.

How did we recover so quickly when now 1 in 330 Americans has died from this virus?

For insight I turn to historians, and one in particular who is helpfully also a novelist. Peter Manseau, founding director of the Smithsonian’s Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History, is also an award-winning novelist whose latest work, The Maiden of All Our Desires, is set in Europe 20 years after The Black Death has devastated the populace.

Set in a monastery that holds a secret book of near-sacred scriptures containing the wise sayings of its founder, Sister Ursula, it focuses on the tensions between different types of religious authority. There’s also a generation gap: those who survived the plague are still scarred by their memories, while the merry young adults around them are unable to relate.

This Zoom interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This novel has been in the works for 25 years. Where did that come from?

That was the first book I ever tried to write. I was a student and it was a four-page short story for a creative writing class about a nun in a convent who fell in love with the wind. As my thesis, I extended it to 100 pages. The idea haunted me in my 20s and 30s and gradually evolved into this core of a story about a generation after the plague.

I only thought 2020 [the story] could allow me to write about many of the things we all grappled with in the early days of the pandemic without specifically relating to COVID-19. I didn’t want to write about our own pandemic, but I felt that it raises a universal set of questions that could be addressed through a story set in a time so different from our own, yet so resonant: What does she mean? living through a plague, and what’s next? What happens to the generation that only vaguely remembers the plague, that only lives with it as history?

Your children are old enough to remember this time. How will this memory be for you?

That’s why I wanted to give this story a folkloric or mythical framework. It begins with the approach of a storm that is reshaping the world right now, but in the future is just this vague memory. And that’s what I imagined will happen with COVID-19. Pretty quickly, this moment we experienced that turned everything upside down in 2020 and 2021 will be reflected in the rearview mirror. It could become a “remember when” in years rather than decades, as I paraphrase it in the novel.

So I’m interested in how these everyday, unmissable events become stories that are told. I’m fascinated by the act of making a disaster story. I recently wrote an article in Slate about the many uses we’ve made of the Black Death during COVID and the way our thinking about it has evolved.

How did it evolve?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, articles claimed that the Black Death, which killed half the population of Europe in the 1340s and 1350s, might have had a positive side as it led to the Renaissance and Reformation – that it labor practices altered and shifted authority in medieval Europe. As we entered this pandemic that had (already) killed tens of thousands of people, we were dying to understand that this could all be good.

It’s interesting to me, especially as someone who writes about religion, to see this desire to turn a catastrophe into a redeeming story in real time. This impulse is evidently at the heart of so much religious tradition: “This terrible thing has happened. But what does it mean for us? How can we grow from it?”

Lately we’ve lost patience for it as the numbers have been rising. While we’re still nowhere near the loss humanity suffered during the Black Death, it’s become harder to make those silver lining arguments about a two-year pandemic that has killed a million Americans.

Your novel is about a crisis of authority over whether the monastery should build a wall to keep out the plague. It definitely felt contemporary.

My first return to this story after so many years was probably in the early days of the Trump administration, when we were all talking about building walls and fearing intrusion from outsiders. It was then that I began to add this dimension of a wall being built around this monastery that previously had no wall because it was open to the world.

There is a key scene in which a sister was instructed by the convent’s priest not to open the gates to strangers. But the abbess overrules him, saying that they have never rejected the Rule of St. Benedict and should not begin because of the threat of plague.

I am interested in the clash of different types of religious authority. So this is a moment where it is really dramatized: the sacramental authority of the priest on the one hand and the local, relational authority of the abbess on the other. When in the story they inevitably come into conflict, there is real partisanship. It fragments the community.

What’s next for you in terms of your writing?

My next book is a narrative non-fiction set in a 19th-century workhouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, the town where I grew up. A workhouse built primarily to house Irish immigrants is said to actively starve, abuse and let its patients die – apparently to sell their bodies to medical schools. In the 1880s, it was the country’s biggest health scandal.

It’s a fantastically dark story, and what interests me is that, for the most part, nobody in town remembers it. The only part of the story that some people will know is that Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, was a patient at Tewksbury Almshouse as a child. Her brother died there, but she was eventually able to escape.

When I was in high school and running on the cross country team, we ran through the woods at the bottom of the hill where the state hospital is. Those woods were full of corpses, thousands of unmarked graves. Literally running over graves and not knowing what’s right under your feet is a metaphor for uncovering this story, which could be my own attempt to turn the catastrophe into a story.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service. A new novel explores a post-pandemic religious world — set in the 14th century

Joel McCord

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