"God Bless You" Sneeze Response: A Pope, A Plague, And A Proclamation
1950s woman preparing for a sneeze. (Photo by Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
With the common cold, the flu, coronavirus, and goodness knows what else running rampant right now, sneezes are on the rise. As a result, proper old ladies can hardly keep up with the demand for them to say "God bless you," but have you ever wondered why they do it? It seems like an odd thing to say in response to a common bodily function, but there is a sound reason for saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes. It all has to do with a pope, the Plague, and an edict made on this day, February 16, in the year 600.
Sneezing was one of the first signs of plague. (vivecamino.com)
The Black Plague
Several times in European history, the Plague swept across the continent, killing as much as one-third of the population. Among the first symptoms of the Plague were sneezing and coughing, soon to be followed by boils, fever, breathing trouble, vomiting blood, and necrosis of the skin tissue, causing the skin to turn black. Usually, the victim was dead within 7–10 days.
The beak of the plague mask was filled with pungent herbs to ward off the illness. (newsweek.com)
Combating The Deadly Disease
Without modern medicine or any understanding of epidemiology, people in ancient times did the best they could to combat the Plague, but most of what they did was woefully ineffective. They relied on prayers, herbs, and bizarre folk remedies like rubbing a chopped-up pigeon on a patient's boils and rashes. When these measures didn't work, the Pope had to step up.
Pope Gregory I became pope after his predecessor died of the Plague. (mycatholiclife.com)
Enter Pope Gregory I
Pope Gregory I, who was also called Saint Gregory the Great, was pope from September 3, 590 to March 12, 604. Pope Gregory did a number of things during his tenure as the head of the Catholic church that endeared him to history, such as being the first pope to launch a mission (known as the Gregorian Mission) to convert the people of the British Isles to Christianity. He is also the namesake of Gregorian chants, but weirdly, not the Gregorian calendar. That was the work of a later pope who was also named Gregory. It's all very confusing.
The Pope issued an edict asking the people to say a quick blessing when someone sneezes. (catholic.org)
Pope Gregory's Edict
The tenure of Pope Gregory I coincided with one of the Plague pandemics. In fact, he got the job because the previous pope had a fatal run-in with the Plague. On February 16, 600, Pope Gregory I issued a papal edict ordering everyone within earshot of a sneeze to immediately issue a short, three-word prayer asking God for his blessing upon the unfortunate person. Gregory hoped that if a sneezing person was bombarded with blessings, the collective prayers and good vibes would save the person from the full onset of the deadly disease. "God bless you" became a standard response to hearing a sneeze.
Even the Seven Dwarfs knew how to respond to a sneeze. (dailybreak.com)
Saying a quick blessing after a sneeze was not a new idea in Pope Gregory I's time. The practice actually predates him by hundreds of years, when people believed that a sneeze sent a person's soul hurling out of their body. This left the temporarily soulless person in a vulnerable position in which the devil or evil spirits could leap in to claim their mortal shell. Saying "God bless you" both scared off the evil entities and served as a brief prayer to God to give the person their soul back.
This might seem laughably naive, but urban sneezing myths exist today, too. Some people still believe that a person's heart stops beating during a sneeze, and saying "God bless you" gets the organ up and ticking again. Let's hope they never sneeze when they're alone.
In many cultures, the proper sneeze response is "health." (drogi.ch)
Sneeze Etiquette Around The World
Saying "God bless you" isn't the only common response to a sneeze, but the rest of them all pretty much translate to "health." The ancient Romans had a word, salve, which meant "good health to you," while the ancient Greeks used "long life" as their sneeze response. The Hebrew laBri'ut, the Spanish salud, the Irish slainte, the Russian bud' zdorov, and the Arabic saha all translate to "health." You have probably used the German gesundheit a time or two, which also just translates to "health," because the Germans never met a word that had enough syllables.