A few weeks ago I found myself hunting for material to watch as I eagerly awaited the Season 5 premier of Game of Thrones. I was trolling the free catalog on Amazon Prime as one does on a Tuesday night when I stumbled across the 2010 film Black Death. Now, this movie came out a little less than a year before season 1 of Game of Thrones (April 2011 vs June 2010 for Black Death) but stars a couple GoT all stars in Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Carice van Houten (Melisandre) which certainly caught my eye along with Eddie Redmayne who I personally really enjoy. Tie that to the fact that it was a medieval fantasy movie, and it certainly felt like I had the perfect stop gap to occupy my time before the new season of GoT. What I got, however, was even better than I could have expected.
I expected an action packed swords and sorcery hack and slash thriller, but what I got was a hauntingly dark look into the human psyche and the concept of (specifically but not exclusively Christian) faith which I somehow enjoyed. The film opens in the full heat of the Black Death’s reign of terror over Medieval Europe. Our protagonist is Osmund (Redmayne), a young monk serving in a monastery overlooking a plague ridden English town. Osmund, although he is a monk, has not been fully faithful to his divine vows as he is clearly in love with a woman, Averill, for whom he steals food and whom he encourages to flee the town (in spite of their mutual affection) in order to survive the plague in the remote forest outside of town. She reluctantly agrees to go but only after telling Osmund (who has refused to go with her) that she will wait for him for 2 weeks in the forest. Osmund, in turn, prays to God for a sign of what he should do… stay in the monastery and remain loyal to his vows, or follow his hearth and flee with Averill. His prayers are seemingly answered when Ulric (Sean Bean), a Nobleman sent by the Bishop to persecute a necromancer in a nearby town who has apparently subdued the Plague through the power of Satan. Ulric requires a holy man who can lead his expedition through the very forest where Osmund has just sent Averill into hiding so the party can reach this town in a marsh on the other side of the forest.
Believing he has received the sign from God which he prayed for, Osmund quickly agrees to accompany Ulric, even against the wishes of his Abbot.
On the way to this village, however, Osmund leads the party to the place where he was to reunite with Averill, only to discover that she has apparently been murdered by bandits. Moreover, these same bandits soon ambush Osmund and the party, and one of Ulric’s men is killed in the ensuing combat. Ulric is furious to find out Osmund’s initial intentions for joining them, and even more wroth that Osmund’s selfishness cost him one of his Holy Warriors. Nevertheless, the party, including a now distraught Osmund, continues on with their original mission to persecute the satanic necromancer.
Eventually they reach their destination and discover that the village in the marsh which they have been sent to find appears no different than any other village across the English countryside with 2 exceptions: the Plague has not yet reached them, and their Chapel is abandoned and hasn’t been used in years. Ulric decides that the party should lay low and stay in town for the night until they can discover where the necromancer is hiding. That night Ulric and the other Holy Warriors are drugged while Osmund is lured off by the town’s matriarch Langiva (van Houten). Langiva leads Osmund into the forest where she and her followers are conducting a ceremony to raise someone from the dead.
But it isn’t just anyone, it is Averill. Osmund flees in terror after watching Averill rise from the grave, knowing now that Langiva is the necromancer they have come to kill. Osmund, Ulric, and the others are all captured, tortured, and ordered to give up their faith, declare that God is dead, or be brutally murdered by Langiva and her followers. However, Langiva hasn’t completely given up on Osmund yet. She desperately wants to convince a Holy man to give up his faith, and as such has Osmund meat up with the now resurrected Averill. Osmund, however, seeing that her body lives while her soul is trapped in purgatory, decides to kill Averill in order to free her from the pagans and die himself with his fellow Christians.
While Ulric is being tortured, however, it is revealed that he himself already has the plague, and the entire town is now at risk of infection. In the chaos that ensues following this reveal the other Holy Warriors break free and ultimately Osmund, and one other warrior (Wolfstan) are able to escape, but not before Langiva reveals to Osmund that everything she did was a sham. She is not a sorceress, but rather simply drugged Averill and gave her the antidote in order to trick the townsfolk and Osmund into thinking she had raised Averill from the dead. Osmund, then, murdered a living and healthy Averill. Upon realizing this he becomes distraught, allows Langiva to escape, and his forcibly dragged out of the town to safety by Wolfstan.
What was so spectacularly interesting to me about this movie, then, is the questions it asks about faith (specifically pertaining to Christianity in the Middle Ages, but also being applicable to the concepts of faith and belief at large). It is faith in God which initially separates Osmund and Averill, and which ultimately results in Osmund murdering his beloved. It is faith in God that drives Ulric on his quest for the Bishop . And it is faith in the false sorceress Langiva and her power to drive away the Plague that drives the people of the village to murder for her and serve her.
In this sense, then, belief and faith are incredibly powerful things which can ultimately result in a great deal of harm. The Black Death was described as many things in the Middle Ages: God’s Wrath for human sin, the Devil’s Work running rampant among mankind, or even the work of individual human witches doing Satan’s work among mankind when in fact it was simply a disease spread by nature. However, belief and fear drove the people of Europe to lash out at themselves (in the form of the flagellants pictured in the film) or one another as we see when Ulric’s party encounters a group of townsfolk burning a suspected witch. In the case of this second scenario Osmund begs Ulric to help the girl as she is clearly innocent, and in the end Ulric gives her the only help he can. He kills her so that she doesn’t need to suffer by being burnt at the stake. The townsfolk’s belief in her guilt is too strong for her to be saved regardless of her guilt or innocence.
Moreover, the faith of the marsh villagers drives them commit horrible crimes against Christians because they believe that she keeps them safe from the plague and even raises them from the dead. In the end, however, she reveals herself to be a deceiver who acts how she does for no reason other than her own lust for power. That is what is truly horrifying about her. She merely does what she does out of a hatred for the society around her and her own desire to control others. And even some of her followers simply follow her only because “she is pretty” and “she is there” when God remains intangible and distant. It is much easier to have faith in someone who is right in front of you and employs trickery than something ethereal.
The truth about the plague free town was simply that the marsh surrounding it kept plague carrying fleas from entering the village. It was not Langiva who kept the pestilence away just like it wasn’t witches who caused it. Nature was guilty in both respects, and humans simply took advantage of the situation and ran away with matters to create something evil out of it. Faith drove them to horrible ends. Indeed, even Ulric’s final act of sacrifice becomes confused between good and evil. Ulric exhibits blind faith that his side is right throughout the movie even though his wife and child were killed by the the Plague. In the end he agrees to act as a time bomb sent by the Bishop to destroy this supposedly demonic and Godless town by carrying the Plague across their protective marsh in his own diseased body.
Buboes, caused by the Plauge, commonly formed under the armpits so seeing them there when Ulric reveals that he has the Plague is no surprise, but in a twist that was certainly no accident, the bleeding buboes end up resembling the wounds, inflicted by a Roman spear, on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion which pierced the His sides.
This immediately solidifies Ulric’s own role as a Christ figure and martyr willing to die for his faith. However, in the end all he has really done is bring death to a group of people formerly spared from its ravages. It is true that this town gave up their Christianity and were deceived by an evil woman, but Ulric’s actions, though driven by faith in God, may have resulted in the murder of them all. The film implies that human actions are simply left up to chance, and that faith, though powerful, is more often than not simply misplaced and a dangerous tool abused by those in positions of power, be they a bishop or a supposed sorceress.
What the film does so spectacularly is make the viewer suspend reason and believe in magic for a short period of time before bringing reality crashing down over your head and make you feel foolish for getting as caught up in your belief as the characters in the film do in theirs. Anyone with a casual knowledge of the story of The Black Death in Medieval Europe is aware that the people of the day tied the pestilence closely to their religion, murdering innocent girls as witches out of fear of the spreading disease. As such the viewer initially enters into this film fully prepared to be skeptical of all things religious, magical, and faith oriented. As the film drags on, however, you eventually buy into the magic of the world and the power of the Devil vs. God on Earth as we witness the Dead rise or faith in God prevail, only to have your belief ripped away at the end as you come to your senses are realize that these are just people doing what people do to one another. Judge, persecute, murder. Faith can quickly become corrupted one someone craving power such as Langiva becomes involved, and the fate or happenstance of natural life can quickly be manipulated to one’s favor.
In the end only two members of Ulric’s party survive; Osmund and Wolfsan.
Moreover, their losses are not justified as they even failed in their mission to apprehend the necromancer. Langiva escapes, and instead Wolfstan captures Langiva’s main henchman Hob, and brings him back to the bishop so he can claim his reward. In this final act we can finally see the human side of logic and reason take root in the events we have just witnessed. Two faiths came to clash, and neither came out victorious. Instead humans brought destruction upon one another and in the the last man standing covers up the disaster with a lie to gain his Earthy rewards out of an event which turned into a religious travesty. In the end Osmund loses everything he once loved, including his faith when trying to remain true to his beliefs. Misplaced faith can easily lead one astray and create havoc and destruction, and if one isn’t careful faith can become hate, and overcome reason. The time of the Black Death was an era of rampant hate and fear when faith comforted some and drove others to anger, but th emost important thing to remember is that in the end nature and fortune often act out of randomness without any calculated plans. Somethings things just happen, and there is no reason, and to try to create justifications can create far more harm than good.