When did people start responding “bless you” to sneezes?


Olivia Howell, Copy Editor

When someone sneezes, the automatic response is to say “bless you”, but why do we say this? What are the historical roots for this phrase and how long does it go back?

There are multiple theories on the history. One says that people used to believe that sneezing would remove your soul from your body. Saying bless you would keep something evil from stealing your soul. 

Another says that sneezing would expel evil spirits from your body so saying “bless you” would prevent the spirits from going into your body.

The most interesting, and the one most likely based in fact, has to do with Rome, the Bubonic plague, and the Pope.

During the 500s, an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague called Justinian’s plague was racing across Europe. While most would think of the Black Death of the 1400s as the most deadly plague in history, Justinian’s plague killed a higher percentage of the world’s population. About half of the population died during Justinian’s plague compared to about 30 to 40% during the Black Death. 

So many people died during the plague that there were not enough to bury the dead, and they piled in the streets and caused the cities to smell very bad. This most likely caused more sickness than was already around. 

The plague also caused other issues. So many farmers died that fields were left abandoned and the farmers were left had to pay higher taxes to their governments due to the plague. This led to a shortage of food, which led to worse nutrition than there already was and made it more difficult to fight off infection.

All of the socio-economic impacts of the plague were quite worrying to the church. The world was in the first hundred years of the dark ages and events like the fall of Rome caused people to worry that God had abandoned the world. 

The part that deviates this theory from pure historical fact is that one day in February of the year 600 the pope supposedly declared “bless you” the proper response to the sneeze because it was believed that God would protect you from getting the plague.

There is no concrete historical evidence that the pope actually said this, but it is the most accepted theory. So next time you hear someone sneeze, you’ll know the history.