Fortress Press

Fleeing Plague: Medieval Wisdom for a Modern Health Crisis

Fleeing Plague

Medieval Wisdom for a Modern Health Crisis

Martin Luther (Author), Anna Marie Johnson (Introduction and notes by), Mary Jane Haemig (Volume Editor)


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Bubonic Plague was an ongoing epidemic that sickened and killed many in Europe and beyond beginning in the mid-fourteenth century and continuing in the days of Martin Luther's sixteenth-century Germany. The pneumonic form of the disease was particularly dangerous because it entered the lungs and was spread by coughing. When this happened the fatality rate was nearly 100%.

Martin Luther's treatise on whether one may flee when plague strikes was prompted by a request from the clergy of Breslau, who wondered whether a Christian could flee home and labors on account of the plague. Luther's pragmatic response focused on a Christian's responsibility to care for the sick and to use the means God gives to limit the plague's destruction. He lauded those who can face the plague without fear of death, but he emphasized that those with "weak faith" can flee in good conscience as long as they are not needed to care for someone or to maintain a public service. Luther used the occasion for the treatise to talk about the need for hospitals and public cemeteries outside the city center.

Anna Marie Johnson introduces Luther's treatise and provides insightful annotations to help the reader understand Luther's text and his sixteenth century context. The parallels to the recent Covid pandemic and other epidemic diseases are striking. Though science and medicine have advanced greatly today, questions of ethical responsibilities are still with us, and Christians continue to wonder what faithful responses to pandemic should be.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9781506488387
  • eBook ISBN 9781506488394
  • Dimensions 5 x 7
  • Pages 68
  • Publication Date February 14, 2023


"Wisdom from the past is the tonic that this little book offers to our Covid-weary society. What Luther's treatise from the sixteenth century lacks in scientific knowledge, it more than makes up for in pragmatic advice for ordering a disordered situation. Kudos to Anna Marie Johnson for bringing this gem to light at this time."

Rev. Dr. Gordon L. Isaac, Berkshire Professor of Church History and Advent Christian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

"Put this book into any pocket! Luther is not contemporaneous to us, as the introduction and notes by outstanding expert Anna Marie Johnson show excellently. But his wisdom helps to put a pandemic in its theological place. In respect for God's power, love binds us to our neighbors, who need our hygienic precaution as well as pastoral and health care. Luther guides us to find a prudent way through a pandemic--in the Middle Ages, in our time, and in the time to come."

Dr. Volker Leppin, Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology, Yale Divinity School

"Even as our Covid pandemic persists, our need for wisdom in how to deal with it in Christian faith and love only grows. Anna Marie Johnson is to be commended for providing such wisdom. This edition of Luther's ever-timely and ever-poignant 'Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague' is a gift from the Reformation past to the present."

Dr. Ronald K. Rittgers, chair in Lutheran studies and professor of the history of Christianity, Duke Divinity School

"Reading Luther has never been more applicable. With five hundred years of distance, he gives timeless advice about handling epidemics with 'love of neighbor as guiding principle.' A popular and widespread pamphlet in its own time, which ought to be read again today. The edition is carefully introduced and annotated by Anna Marie Johnson."

Dr. Anna Vind, associate professor, Section of Church History, Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen