On this day in the year 600 AD, Pope Gregory the Great declared “God bless you” to be the correct response to a sneeze.
It was once thought that sneezing was an omen of death, since many dying people fell into sneezing fits. The Pope introduced the response of “God bless you” when the plague was at its height in Europe, hoping that the quick prayer would protect the sneezer from sickness and death.
At the time the decree was issued, the bubonic plague was spreading across Europe.
During this period the plague killed between 25 and 50 million people.
It was believed that sneezing spread the disease and in order to protect themselves from the illness Christians would invoke God’s blessing.
Some also believed that the act of sneezing left the body unguarded for a moment and this could be enough time for the Devil to enter a person’s soul.
Requesting God’s blessing at this moment of vulnerability would protect the person who sneezed from such a fate.