Why do we say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes?

It comes from a papal decree issued on 16 February 590

It’s a common, polite saying, almost a reflex – when someone sneezes, we say ‘Bless you’.

But have you ever wondered how this fairly religious platitude came into the vernacular of English-speaking Western society?

Well, it actually has its roots in an era not dissimilar to today, when a plague ripped through the Roman Empire in 590 AD.

The background

The plague, most likely Bubonic, spread quickly, killing more than 100 million Europeans. One of the earliest victims was the Bishop of Rome, Pope Pelagius II, who succumbed to the plague in February 590.

He was replaced by Pope Gregory I, who is best known for later coordinating the first large-scale mission from Rome to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

Some bad ideas…

As the plague raged across the Empire, Gregory had a number of ideas for combatting its spread.

Some of these ideas we would regard as very unwise, knowing what we know today about the spread of infectious disease.

For example, Gregory arranged for seven large processions to take place through the streets of Rome, segmented into groups of people including clergy, abbots and monks, abbesses and nuns, men, married women, widows, and children. The groups processed to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, chanting Psalms and “Lord, hear our prayer”, in an effort to appease the wrath of God that Gregory determined must be the cause of the plague.

Of course, bringing large groups together and chanting are, as we know now, very unwise during times of disease spread! In fact, during the processions, 80 participants collapsed and died of plague.

A better idea!

But Gregory did have some better ideas about controlling the plague. He recognised the power of prayer, and therefore on 16 February 590, he issued a papal decree that anyone who sneezed be immediately blessed with the short phrase ‘God bless you’, because sneezing was often the first sign that someone was infected.

Saying ‘bless you’ today

Over time, as society has become more secular, the ‘God’ part of the phrase is often dropped. But the blessing remains common.

While the meaning behind saying ‘Bless you’ may have been largely lost today, it is still a polite way to acknowledge another person’s presence in a shared space – and perhaps, we can use it is a reminder to pray for those who are unwell, just as Gregory ordered, and as God commands!

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. – James 5:14-15