The Effects of the Black Plague on Christianity By Marilyn Griffin REL 387 AL Christ’s People through the Ages 10 October 2011 The Effects of the Black Plague on Christianity The Black Plague, also known as Black Death, the Great Mortality, and the Pestilence, is the name given to the plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351. It is said to be the greatest catastrophe experienced by the western world up to that time. In Medieval England, the Black Death killed 1. 5 million people out of an estimated 4 million people between 1348 and 1350.
There was no medical knowledge in England to cope with the disease. After 1350, it stroke England another six times by the end of the century. The Black Plague is said to have been caused by fleas carried by rats that were common in towns and cities. The fleas literally injected their victims with the disease by biting them. The symptoms of the Black Plague were terrible and swift moving. The symptoms included: painful swellings (known as buboes) of the lymph nodes. These swellings would appear in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin. A bubo was at first red in color.
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It later turned a dark purple color or black. There were other symptoms, as well: a very high fever, delirium, vomiting, muscular pains, bleeding in the lungs, and mental disorientation. It also produced an intense desire to sleep, which could quickly prove fatal, if yielded to. Victims of the plague died quickly, usually between 2-4 days after contracting the disease. There were three forms of Black Death:”The bubonic, the pneumonic, and the septicemic plagues” (www. wordfocus. com). According to the website, “Focusing on Words”, the bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate is said to have been 30-75%. The symptoms included enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes around the arm pits, neck, and groin” (www. wordfocus. com). The plague had severe consequences. In his book The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol. 1, author Justo L. Gonzalez states, “Economically, all Europe was disrupted. Entire markets disappeared. Unemployment increased drastically in areas where mortality had not been as high as in the rest of Europe. This in turn created political turmoil, riots, and farther economic disruption.
After such drastic effects, it would take Europe several centuries to find a measure of demographic and economic stability” (391). No one knew the exact cause of the Black Plague. It was interpreted in many ways. Millard Meiss explains, in her book, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion, and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century, “Some writers attributed it to astrological influences (the conjunction of the planets), others to climatic conditions (the corruption of the air)” (75).
Of all the different speculations, the most common belief was that “like the Biblical flood, the Black Death was caused by the moral corruption of man and the ensuing wrath of God” (Meiss 75). Although “religious thought throughout the Middle Ages had dwelt on the brevity of life and the certainty of death, no age was more acutely aware of it than this” (Meiss 74). If the plague was a manifestation of divine anger, then it would only stand to reason that Christians would do all they could to lessen or eliminate that anger. From this thought came the flagellant movement.
The flagellants were bands of people who wandered through towns and countryside doing penance in public. They inflicted all sorts of punishment upon themselves as a way of atoning for the evil in the world and as a sacrifice of self for the world’s sins in imitation of Jesus. The flagellants marched barefoot throughout Europe whipping themselves with scourges, or sticks with spiked tails. Enormous crowds gathered to watch the ritual, complete with hymns and prayers of God’s forgiveness. The pope, who was initially tolerant of the movement, denounced them in 1349.
People who survived the Black Death era generally suffered a communal crisis of faith. Rather than becoming more religious in thanksgiving to God for survival, people began to harbor doubts. They would turn to the church for an answer to the plague, and the church was unable to help. According to Robert S. Gottfried, author of the book The Black Plague: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, the Black Plague had a huge impact on human behavior and psychology, “the mechanics and commonplaces of everyday life simply stopped, at least initially “(77-78).
With the devastation of the plague, “peasants no longer ploughed, merchants closed their shops, and some, if not all, churchmen stopped offering last rites” (Gottfried 78). In his book The Decameron, Boccaccio described many of the responses of the people during this time: “Because of such happenings and many others of a like sort, various fears and superstitions arose among the survivors, almost all of which tended toward one end-to flee from the sick and whatever had belonged to them. In this way each man thought to be safeguarding his own health.
Some among them were of the opinion that by living temperately and guarding against excesses of all kinds, they could do much toward avoiding the danger; and in forming a band they lived away from the rest of the world. Gathering in those houses where no one had been ill and living was more comfortable, they shut themselves in. They ate moderately of the best that could be had and drank excellent wines, avoiding all luxuriousness. With music and whatever other delights they could have , they lived together in this fashion, allowing no one to speak to them and avoiding news of either death or sickness from the outer world”(Gottfried 78).
On the opposite end of the spectrum were those who believed that they should live life to the fullest degree. They held that: “Plenty of drinking and enjoyment, singing and free living and the gratification of the appetite in every possible way, letting the devil take the hindmost, was the best preventative of such a malady; and as far as they could, they suited the action to the word. Day and night they went from one tavern to another, drinking and carousing unrestrainedly.
At the least inkling of something that suited them, they ran wild in other people’s houses, and there was no one to prevent them, for everyone had abandoned all responsibility for his belongings as well as for himself, considering his days numbered. Consequently, most of the house had become common property-and strangers would make use of them at will whenever they came upon them even as the rightful owners might have done”(Gottfried 78). However, even through what some may consider an irresponsible way of life, they still did their best to avoid the infected.
The Black Plague also had a negative effect on divine and human law, “for its ministers and executors, like other men, had either died or sickened, or had been left so entirely without assistants that they were unable to attend to their duties. As a result, everyone had leave to do as he saw fit” (Gottfried 78). Many followed a middle ground, “neither restricting themselves in their diet, like the first, nor giving themselves free rein in lewdness or debauchery like the second but using everything in sufficience, according to their appetites.
They did not shut themselves in, but went about, some carrying flowers in their hands, some fragrant herbs, and others divers kind of species which they frequently smelled, thinking its good to comfort the brain with such odors, especially since the air was oppressive and full of the stench of corruption, sickness, and medicines”(Gottfried 79). And, still others choose to abandon their city, maintaining that “no remedy against plagues was better than to leave them miles behind” (Gottfried 79).
Encouraged by this belief, men and women, “caring for nobody but themselves, abandoned the city, their houses and estates, their own flesh and blood even, and their effects, in search of a country place…It was as if [they believed that] God’s wrath in seeking to punish the inequity of men by means of plague could not find them out wherever they were, but limited itself to doom only those who happened to be found within the walls of the city. They reasoned as though its last hour had struck, and therefore no one ought to be there” (79).
Among the psychological changes brought on by the Black Plague was a new sense of time. “Traditionally, merchants and churchmen had had a different sense of the temporal. To the churchman, time was infinite, the domain of God. To the merchant, time was finite, a function of distance” (Gottfried 80). The Black Death changed this, bringing about a sense of urgency. The Black Plague was viewed as, “that sudden precipitous painful and omnipresent killer” and it “intensified the medieval preoccupation with death, judgment, heaven, and hell” (Gottfried 82).
Salvation became more important because death was nearer. During this critical time, it was essential that people were given the last rites and had the chance to confess their sins before they died. Because the spread of the plague was quick and the death rate almost 50%, there was not enough clergy to offer the last rites or give support and help the victims. The situation got so bad that Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who had died of the Black Death. Victims were also allowed either to confess their sins to one another, or a woman.
Several accounts showed that many friars, priests and nuns gave their lives in faithful service. Some even perished administering the sacrament In the same room as their patients. By law, no one other than immediate family could accompany the body to the cemetery and many city governments forbid the ringing of parish church bells, believing it would discourage the sick and dying multitudes. When facing death, medieval society looked to the church for rituals of comfort, “Death was a ravishing monster, an enemy to be feared.
How the disease tortured and humiliated the human body was no secret” (faculty. cua. edu). However, the Black Plague had a profound effect on Christianity. In part because the institutional Christian church had begun to decline at least two generations before the Black Death, at the time of the pontificate of Boniface VIII (1294-1303)” (Gottfried 83). Nevertheless the “principle failure of the Christian church was in not providing the necessary solace or support during the crisis” (Gottfried 84). This failure was two-fold.
First, “the church supervised the education and licensing of physicians, almost all of whom were clerics” (Gottfried 84) and because “virtually all medical advice proved to be useless” (Gottfried 84) the church shouldered much of the blame when physicians failed “to assuage the pain of the plague” (Gottfried 84). Secondly, and most importantly, “the church did not provide adequate spiritual comfort” (Gottfried 84). In fact, “many parish priests fled, leaving no one to offer services, deliver last rites, and comfort the sick” (Gottfried 84).
Given these circumstances, “many Christians continued to follow their own path to salvation even after the plague had subsided and their priests had returned” (Gottfried 85). One direction that these Christians took was “a strong reinforcement of the traditional idea that works, as well as faith, would help in attaining salvation” (Gottfried 85). One of the most popular of these good works was pious charity, “which blossomed after the Black Death and remained popular until the early 16th century” (Gottfried 85).
Churches and religious societies “were showered with bequests willed to them by people dying, or expecting to die, of the plague (Meiss 78). In some cases, “pious charity was the only income religious houses had for years after the Black Death” (Gottfried 86). Charity to hospitals was especially beneficial because, “it provided for an institution that helped plague victims and it was the kind of good work that counted toward salvation, but could be done directly, without clerical involvement” (Gottfried 86). In the years immediately following the Black Death, Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti , a Florentine merchant, whose wife had died of the plague, gave a considerable portion of his future to the Dominicans of S. M. Novella for the construction of a new chapter-house (the ‘Spanish Chapel’)”(Meiss 79). This would undoubtly be a costly investment for one man. There was also an “increased popularity of the concept of purgatory, that halfway house where those who would eventually be saved were made to serve time in hell-like conditions in order to purge themselves of sin before they were permitted to enter heaven” (Gottfried 85).
This time in purgatory could be shortened by “private masses or any number of good works” (Gottfried 85). Pilgrimage to a religious shrine was another popular “good work”. This, too, was a direct religious act, “using a saint rather than a priest to intercede in their behalf” (Gottfried 86). First rank pilgrimages included places such as “Rome, Jerusalem, or St. James Compostela in Galicia” (Gottfried 86). Or believers could attend “local shrines that contained relics or anything else of religious importance” (Gottfried 86).
Pilgrimages were not easy to take and could, in fact, become a dangerous task. There was the “deplorable condition of late medieval roads” as well as “the threat of brigands and pirates” (Gottfried 86). Because of the conditions that believers had to endure, pilgrimages were “considered one of the most important good works and counted a great deal toward salvation” (Gottfried 86). Beginning in the 1350’s, new stress was put on indulgences. These were “grants of time off purgatory bestowed by the church” (Gottfried 88).
Indulgences “were not given freely, but usually in anticipation of a gift of money; always mindful of turning a profit, church leaders began to sell them in increasing numbers to a richer public” (Gottfried 88). Although not the only thing that disturbed Martin Luther, the use and sale of indulgences “inspired him to nail up his 95 Theses” (Gottfried 88). Many Jews were persecuted during this time. Mainly, because Christians could not understand why the plague made less of an impact in Jewish neighborhoods. At this time, “Some came up with the simple explanation that Jews had poisoned the wells from which Christians drank.
The result was violence and massacre” (Gonzalez 392). There were massacres of Jews in various European communities. Jews were killed by the thousands: “The entire Jewish community of Basel was burned alive in a structure built expressly for the purpose. The 2,000 Jews of Strasbourg were taken to the burial ground where they were given a chance to convert; those who refused were tied to the stakes that awaited them and burned, as well, before the plague ever reached the city”(Snell, 1). Those who tried to stop the persecution were either thrown from power or were themselves endangered.
When the Black Plague subsided in 1351, so did the persecution of the European Jew. Yet, “for a year or two following the appearance of the plague, the massacre of Jews was exceptional in its extent and ferocity”(www. historyguide. org). When coupled with the plague, the persecution of Jews wiped out entire communities: “In all, sixty large and 150 small Jewish communities were exterminated. Between 1347 and 1351, there were recorded more than 350 massacres which ultimately led to permanent shifts of the Jewish population into Poland and Lithuania” (www. istoryguide. org). In conclusion, the church lost many people, but the institution became richer through bequests. It also grew richer by charging more money for its services, such as saying mass for the dead. The failure of the clergy to help the suffering during the plague, combined with its obvious wealth and the incompetence of its priests, caused resentment among the people. The intensity of the plague and the horrors it brought forth had long term effects for people during this time period, both subtle and severe.
Overall, the plague revealed the Church’s human side and left such a traumatic impression on minds of the people that it influenced martin Luther and the Reformation movement. Works Cited Focusing on Words: The Black Death. Part 1 and 3. Web. ;http://www. wordfocus. com/word-black-death-pt1. html;. Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. 1. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. 390-92. Print. Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe.
New York, NY: The Free Press, 1983. 77-103. Print. Meiss, Millard. Paintings in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion, and Society in the Mid-Fourteenth Century. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951. 74-93. Print. Snell, Melissa. The Great Mortality, Part 2: God’s Wrath and the Devil’s Triumph. Web. ;http://historymedren. about. com/od/theblackdeath/a/greatmortalityb_2. htm;. The Black Death and Religious Impact. Web. ;http://faculty. cua. edu/pennington/churchhistory220/lecturen/blackdeath;.