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Between the years 1346 and 1353 Europe has suffered from a massive pandemic of a plague that took millions of lives. This event had major consequences for every part of life in the middle ages. One of the fundamental changes that were brought by the plague was a change in the religious attitudes of the people.
Christianity was gradually losing power during these years, people of Jewish faith suffered major persecutions, and heretical movements have become much more common during this time. The reasons for these outcomes are varied, but the widespread of the disease and the lack of effective help from the religious and political leaders facilitated many of these changes. This paper will show that Black Death had a strong effect on religion in Europe.
Before the Plague
To fully understand the impact of the Black Death pandemic, it is important to establish the power of the Catholic Church in the years before the appearance of the plague. In the centuries prior, various denominations of Christianity reigned supreme over Europe, with the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire having the most religious power in the area. In the 11th century, Pope Leo IX declared papal authority to be absolute in all spiritual matters, which would lead to a variety of conflicts among different denominations.1
It was also the start of the crusades, as the Emperor Alexius I called for the help of Pope Urban II to help stop the Muslim aggression. The start of the crusades marked a turning point in Papal authority, as it showed that the Roman Catholic Church can amass a serious army capable of both defensive and offensive actions. The idea of Crusades was not unopposed, with religious critics seeing various issues with it. However, the declining power of the Byzantine Empire and the promise of regaining the Holy Land was enough to gain widespread support in Europe when the crusades have proven to be fruitful.2
This success inspired Christians with radical views to organize pogroms against the Jews. Many violent acts were committed against the Jewish population of Europe, as well as the Eastern Orthodox Christians. However, these actions were not supported by any religious leaders, and many churches gave sanctuary to the Jewish people that were targeted by the mobs.3
The 12th century would see the crusades continue, with progressively lesser results. During this century, crusades have spread outside of the Holy Land into the Baltic lands, such as Russia, Norway, and Sweden. Despite the lack of satisfactory results from the later Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church did not lose the support of the people, leaving Christianity with significant political and spiritual power.
The 13th century did not continue this trend as the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the Holy Roman Empire fragmented into less powerful states. Crusades during this century have led to the fall of Islam in many regions, but the Northern Crusades became a failure that led to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. This situation has left the Roman Catholic Church woefully unprepared for the crisis that would become the Black Plague.4
At the end of the century, people have already lost a part of their belief in the power of Christianity, which would only grow weaker in the coming decades. Popular opinion has started to go against the extravagant nature of the Catholic Church, its focus on wealth and political power, as well as the actions of the Inquisition that was feared by the populous. The hierarchical bureaucracy has started to deteriorate, and with the arrival of the Black Plague, the response from the Church was much too ineffective to reinforce the people’s belief in its power.
The Weakened Structure
The plague spread fast and had a strong effect not only on the general populace but also on the clergy. Catholic Church relied on its complex hierarchical system to exercise its power over Europe. Local Christians would trust their priests and other clergymen in times of need and would have general respect towards them. When the Black Plague first struck, people would go to their priests for spiritual guidance and support.
However, no priest had a viable solution for this, and could only provide a promise of prayer. This would be the first step in the events that led to the loss of belief in Church authority. Many clergymen were responsible for performing last rites to those who passed, did not know how the disease spreads. They were exposed and infected with the plague when performing the last rites. The number of clergymen has quickly reduced over the first years of the plague, leaving many positions in the hierarchy empty or filled with people who were unqualified for their positions.5 Many church institutions would be almost abandoned, as no one was able to fill them.
Some regions have lost up to 70 percent of all the clergymen.6 Areas such as Barcelona, Winchester, and Exeter have lost the majority of their religious infrastructure. Moreover, the sheer amount of dead people in need of religious burial ceremonies gave the church much more responsibilities than it could answer.
The death toll affected the Church not just by the number of clergymen who died, but also by killing many of the most valuable and experienced members. Even the more privileged classes of religious workers were affected by the plague, and many monasteries would see their population reduced by thousands. Many of them would never be able to recover from these losses, and the lack of resources often prevented the inclusion of new members in those communities.7
An important fact to note would be that the religious faith itself has not faltered among the population of Europe. The horror of the plague has led many people to believe that these events are the representation of hell on earth which would lead to the second coming of Jesus Christ. This idea has become more widespread with time, and the need for salvation was paramount among the believers. The members of the Catholic Church were aware of this and tried to reduce the panic among the population. These attempts were highly risky, as every failure to help people was accompanied by a massive loss of Church authority.
With death becoming a part of everyday life, the notion of the afterlife became more prominent than ever, which made the religious ceremonies of transition from life to the afterlife even more meaningful than previously thought. After some time, the number of bodies became too high to bury them in individual graves on the church property. The bodies would be either buried in mass graves outside of town or left unburied, often in the fields, and even on the streets.8 Often, priests were either infected or too afraid of being infected to be present even for the final confession of the person.
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The opportunistic attitudes shown by some members of the clergy have also benefited the decline of people’s belief in Church authority. Many clerics saw a decrease in the clerical population to be an opportunity to demand higher wages for their work.9 This was against the will of the higher members of the Church, but in the chaos of the plague, they were unable to enforce this. What was more distressing is that priests have started trying to gain money not only from their wages but from their services which were supposed to be provided free of charge.10 The focus on profit among the clergymen would later become one of the main arguments against the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation.11
The general populace could not rely on the Church for salvation, forcing them to turn their sights elsewhere. In 1348, a new religious movement started in response to the horrors of the plague. They called themselves the Flagellants. Members of this group saw the Black Death as a punishment by God for all the sins of humanity. Therefore, they adopted the practice of flagellation. It involved purposeful wounding of their bodies as a religious penance for their sins.
The movement quickly spread across Europe as the fear of the plague grew among its citizens. People were desperate to find a way to protect themselves, and the Flagellant movement was seen as a new alternative to the Church. Their early acceptance was aided by the Pope’s blessing of the movement during its early days. However, their actions soon became very aggressive and dangerous, both to the populace and the authority of the Church. This would lead to a complete denouncement of the movement, but as with all the other operations of the Church during the plague, it has proven to be difficult to enforce.
The power structure among the Flagellant groups was not centralized. Many of them were led by independent leaders sharing the same rituals as other groups, but with time their goals differed from each other. However, discipline was seen as the primary aspect of these organizations, and it was one of the reasons behind their popularity. In times of chaos, Flagellants were seen as a sign of order.12 With time they have become a threat to the Papacy due to their high numbers.13
People were starting to lose all faith in the Roman Catholic Church and were likely to choose the Flagellants as the representatives of their religious beliefs. Some Flagellant groups have asserted power over the forgiveness of sins of the people, which became the main reason for their condemnation by Pope Clement VI in 1349. By then, the group was too large, and the Church held almost no authority for its members. The Flagellants preached to their members of the coming end of the world and the second coming of Christ, held no respect for the clergy, and saw themselves fit to perform the duties that were exclusive to the Church. The conflict between them was inevitable, and with the support of the people, the movement survived for years after the end of the Black Death.14
Persecution of the Jewish People
According to psychological research, during the time of crisis, a practice of “scapegoating” emerges among the population. Usually, groups that are considered to be outsiders become blamed for the crisis.15 This theory holds in the case of Black Death. As it was previously mentioned, Jewish people have experienced persecution in the previous centuries despite the opposition of the Pope. These attitudes did not change in the 14th century, and as the Black Death was spreading across the lands, paranoia took hold of people. Jews were seen as outsiders by the Christian community due to their religious differences, and their reputation as moneylenders.
People who held hateful attitudes toward the Jews started blaming them for the plague, arguing that they have poisoned the water in an attempt to exterminate Christians.16 Jews became hunted by mobs of people looking for someone to blame for this crisis. Thousands of Jewish people were murdered by the rioters, often by being burned alive at the stake. These mobs were focused on performing a complete genocide of the Jews, some in hopes of ending the plague, and some to perform violent acts against the opposing religious group.
As with the previous pogroms, the Pope completely opposed these actions. Unfortunately, even during the first outbreak of violence, the Church held little authority among the people. This issue was exacerbated by the Church itself. Although the Pope and many clergymen were opposing these acts, this opinion was not shared by all the members of the clergy. Some bishops supported those acts and had openly agreed with the idea that the Black Death was caused by either the actions or the presence of the Jews.17
Unlike the pogroms after the First Crusade, churches were unable to protect the Jewish people and in some cases would act as supporters of the pogroms. The horror and pointlessness of these pogroms did not soften the negative attitudes of Christians toward the Jewish people. Subsequently, the lack of protection provided by the Church would make it lose more authority, as it was unable to fulfill its promises.
It is possible to assume that the Church would saw a decline in authority even without the effect of the Black Death. The continued crusades and wars that people of Europe had to endure were already proving to be very taxing on the population, and the negative attitudes toward the wealth of the Church have been present before the plague. Perhaps it would take longer to bring it to the post-plague state, but the signs that the Church was losing power were obvious.
However, the main negative opinions of the Church came specifically because it was unable to provide help to the people in need. People stopped seeing the Church as guaranteed salvation and started looking for alternatives because of it. The high death toll of clergymen would also be impossible without the plague. If those people were alive, the Church would have a higher chance of recovery. Therefore it is hard to believe that the Black Death did not have a strong effect on religion in Europe.
The effects of the Black Death were felt across every aspect of life in Europe. The almost destruction of the Church authority is emblematic of this. After the Black Death ended, the Church would try to regain its authority on the region, but mostly in vain. The lack of control and negative perception of the Church later led to the start of the Protestant Reformation, and the eventual acceptance of other Christian denominations in Europe.
Byrne, Joseph Patrick. Encyclopedia of the Black Death. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Interactive, 2012.
Johnston, Andrew. The Protestant Reformation in Europe. London: Longman, 2014.
Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England. Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.
Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
Rosenberg, Sheri P, Alex Zucker, and Tiberiu Galis. Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015.
Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Faber & Faber, 2013.
- Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 29.
- Riley-Smith, The Crusades, 26.
- Ibid., 39.
- Ibid., 308.
- Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2013), 212.
- Colin Platt, King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 97.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 215.
- Ibid., 211.
- Ibid., 214.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 211.
- Andrew Johnston, The Protestant Reformation in Europe (London: Longman, 2014), 12.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 68.
- Joseph Patrick Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Interactive, 2012), 144.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 68.
- Sheri Rosenberg, Alex Zucker, and Tiberiu Galis, Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015), 103.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 74.
- Ziegler, Black Death, 77.