The Bubonic Plague, also known darkly as the Black Plague, has been known as one of the most destructive, devastating, and catastrophic outbreaks in recorded human history. It has resulted in the death of about 75-200 million people, and even have some traces still present in today’s world. The Black Plague occurred in years 1346-1353 over the continent of Europe. The church was the main voice in telling what is right, what is wrong, how people should act, etc. In such a time where the Church was such a commanding and formidable presence in society, it was hard for the people of Europe to comprehend the reasoning behind such the tragedy. This led to people believing that the plague and its fatal affects was the work of God, and he was punishing the people for all the bad they have done. Obviously so now, that was not the case. But that is what Catholics believed. Therefore, they went to the Church for answers. Why God is punishing us, they asked. Since the plague was a physical and tangible disease and not some magical, sacramental punishment, none of the priests could cure the affected, or give a valid and comprehensible explanation as to why. This resulted in the loss of a lot of Catholics, and ultimately a sense of confusion and questioning of the Church and its powers. The Black Plague, morally, challenged a lot of the Church’s teachings, along with bringing pressure to the Church to find a solution to the ever-growing issue. The main difficulty people found in trying to make sense out of the plague was if God is a loving God and Europe is a Catholic place, how and why did this happen?
The Black Plague during its vicious course managed to sweep throughout the entire continent of Europe within two years from 1389 to 1350. It first began traveling south in the form of physical contact with rats and fleas, when it eventually turned pneumonic and traveled through way of air. The Black Death entered south-western England during the summer of 1348 very similarly to infamous diseases today. a few years ago, the H1N1 virus swept the attention of the media and citizens of the United States. Rumors of its fatal effects scared every person concerned with their health and resulted in everyone getting flu shots. Unfortunately for the people of England, there weren’t any warnings, any flu shots, so they were left to fend for themselves and figure out how to make any sense of the tragic plague sweeping their country. One account from Grey Friar’s Chronicle, Lynn deposes “In this year, 1348, in Melcombe in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol, came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence, and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.’ Bristol, England, which is in the southern part of the United Kingdom, further proves the Black Death started from the south. Bristol was the second largest city of England and inhabited 10,000 tightly packed Britains, making it incredibly easy and challenging to avoid the Plague (Ibeji: The Plague). The Plague, as so disgustingly described by The English Medieval Town, (1990) as “‘Filth running in open ditches in the streets, fly-blown meat and stinking fish, contaminated and adulterated ale, polluted well water, unspeakable privies, epidemic disease, – were experienced indiscriminately by all social classes.” People of all statuses became infected with the disease, not only the poor. No matter how rich you were, how secluded and stored away your home was, there was no avoiding it since it was already airborne. The polluted well water also made it virtually impossible to live without coming in contact with the disease. Families must use water to bathe, cook, wash clothes, clean, etc. Wells in these times were the only source of water since they did not have the sophisticated water system we have today in the United States. The physical land of the area was affected as well. Grass was described as “several inches high” (Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae). Contaminated meat and fish cost economically the people of Britain a lot since meat back in these medieval times was rare and used sparingly. Nonetheless, the Plague took its course and took everything in its path with it.
It eventually struck the major Britain city of London in September 1348 and spread into East Anglia into the new year of 1349 (Ibeji: The Plague). A further descriptive explanation of the Plague from ‘The World Upside Down’, Black Death in England by J. Bolton, ed. Ormrod and Lindley: ‘Sometimes it came by road, passing from village to village, sometimes by river, as in the East Midlands, or by ship, from the Low Countries or from other infected areas. On the vills of the bishop of Worcester’s estates in the West Midlands, they (the death rates) ranged between 19 per cent of manorial tenants at Hartlebury and Hanbury to no less than 80 per cent at Aston…. It is very difficult for us to imagine the impact of plague on these small rural communities, where a village might have no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants. Few settlements were totally depopulated, but in most others whole families must have been wiped out, and few can have been spared some loss, since the plague killed indiscriminately, striking at rich and poor alike.’ Going by that quote alone, it is pretty clear how easy and contractible the disease came. People in your village easily would’ve spread it around to everyone else in the vicinity since it spread through oxygen. Families who had an affected member could’ve very well bet their lives that they would also come down with the disease. Children of affected parents did not even visit their sick parents due to their fear of contraction. This is an excerpt explaining the devestation that the Black Death brought upon families: ‘In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world. So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books. For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God’s command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death. Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.’ John of Fordun (d.1384), Scotichronicon. The extent of the ferocious wave of death is often misconstrued and underestimated. An excerpt from D. Hawkins, The Black Death and the new London Cemeteries of 1348 describes it as “‘The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints 1st Nov and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemass and Easter 2nd Feb-12th April more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other graveyards in the city.” London at this time was especially overcrowded and unsanitary. NYC now can probably compare to the over crowdedness of then London. In 1349, King Edward III ordered the streets to be cleaned of any and all mess, but the only issue with that was that all the street cleaners had already died from the plague… ironic.
From 1348 to 1350, an estimated 30-45% of the general population in England died from the Black Death. An even staggering statistic is that in a few villages, upwards of 80% of inhabitants died. In the village of Kilkenny, 100% of the people died (Ibeji: The Plague). Several more plagues struck England, but none with as massive force as the Black Plague.
To those lucky people who managed to survive the Black Death, they were seen as some type of divine and holy people. This idea came through the notion that God was the one behind the Plague as some type of punishment. Therefore, those who were not “punished” were the ones who survived. Peasants especially benefitted from this, since they were still in feudal times where they needed permission from their Kings to leave the premise and go elsewhere. They often roamed the countryside looking for higher wages for work, and so the government passed the Statute of Labourers in 1351 (C N Trueman “The Black Death of 1348 to 1350).
The economy of every area affected by the Black Death plummeted significantly following the Plague. Because of the irrigation and crops being contaminated, that meant that people could not buy and sell crops. Crops at this period were the main component in trade and bartering, unlike now where any and everything can be traded and valued at a certain price. Workers became scarce to the previously mentioned point where the peasants demanded a pay raise since they were often the ones who avoided the Plague. This eventually led to the Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381 where the peasants feared that the feudal Kings would take back their privilege of being paid more than usual and for their enhanced freedom.
The effects of the Black Plague were much more than simply physical and tangible. There were a variety of different reactions, which included one of contrition and prayer, sinful behavior, sinful behavior, blaming of the Church and or God, and more. Since there weren’t any specific cures, people often relied on the power of prayer to cure themselves and others. This has long been a method of recuperation, and even today people heavily rely on the power and love of God to help them get through tough times. Obviously, prayer did not work in this case, but this was what people thought would genuinely and wholeheartedly help. Another superstitious method of attempting to treat the disease was by ringing church bells, which at this period was a common practice.
The notion that God was punishing Europe through the spread of the Plague led to the Flagellant Movement. Flagellation is the act of self-mutilation through way of whipping one’s own body. Flagellation processions began in 1348 when a group of men would travel town to town whipping themselves with leather thongs in order to “stop the wrath of God” (Deathblack.wordpress). Ironically, the flagellant participators actually made things worse by doing these fanatic gestures by spreading the disease that they already carried to potentially plague free people.
The Black Death’s cultural effect on the church lasted much longer than the actual disease itself. Previous to the Plague, doctors and priests were known sacredly as those who were sent to earth to guide and treat those ill, necessary of aid, or the poor. After the Plague and much of the blame going towards the Church since it had absolutely no answer for it, doctors and priests lost much respect from the Catholic community. Despite their appreciated and calculated efforts to the cure, it simply had no antidote, and left everyone, including themselves, struck in awe. Priests tried using different methods of prayer, but it simply never came through. Most of the priests, if not already dead from the disease, fled their posts, and were never heard from again (deathblack.wordpress). Eventually, having to address this crisis in some form, Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to every person who died in the Black Death and allowed for people to confess to one another, and even to women (deathblack.wordpress). Burials became some sort of unavoidable, unattracting event, when prior to the Black Death, burials were seen as a “bridge to the underworld”. They were sacred, divine, holy, and peaceful affairs where the masses respected and enjoyed the ceremonies, and after the Plague, they lost all sense of divinity simply due to their frequency, almost 200 a day at one point. The reputation of the Church also took a hit because of the lack of priests available. The new priests were often less experience, knowledgeable, and inexperienced as the ones who died; lowering the prestige of the Church.
All in all, the Black Plague affected more than simply the physical health of the people of the Medieval times of Europe. It had major effects on the areas it occupied, culture, religion, the Church, the economy, and faith. The land affected by the plague became ransacked with disease which made the soil and dirt unusable due to their contamination, and most crops were rendered useless since they also became touched by those with the disease. The culture of Europe changed drastically from its Catholic state to a grand mixture of people. There were those who completely disregarded the Church since it had absolutely no answer for the Plague. Also, there were heretics who tried to say that the Plague was the work of God as “punishment”, which is completely false. The church was under constant fire for their lack of an answer, and the number and availability of priests diminished incredibly. The economies of the affected areas crashed due to all the crops being damaged and leaving millions of people starving. The Black Plague, Black Death, Bubonic Plague, whatever you want to call it, will forever be known as one of the most destructive pneumonic plagues in the history of the modern world and its effects will forever be felt.