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The Catholic Church and the Black Death in the 14th Century Essay

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Updated: May 28th, 2020


Termed as Europe’s greatest ecological disaster, Black Death plague swept the continent at an amazing magnitude. Evidence shows that Black Death plague became prevalent in the West during the middle years of the 14th century[1]. Generally, when the plague struck no one knew how to prevent or treat the disease but many people resorted to bloodletting, prayers, and concoctions, which proved to be unsuccessful[2]. Estimates show that almost 50 per cent of the Europe’s population was destroyed by the disease affecting government, trade, and commerce activities, which literally came to standstill.

The effects of the disease for a long time affected the European society where for about 200 years; this society lived under the scary effects and implications of the disease. Religion’s role in interpreting the causes and cures for the disease became evident during this period for instance religion became a focal point in providing assurance to the people while at the same time explaining to the people that the disease did not just happen in vacuum but had a genuine cause[3].

For example, one of the earliest written tractate by James of Agramont who was a doctor in 1348 indicated that the disease had come as a result of sins people had committed against God, citing Deuteronomy 24, the doctor noted that, “God promised prosperity to those who keep his commandments, and plague to those who do not”[4].

Therefore, the essence of this research paper is to investigate the role of Catholic Church during the Black Death, specifically paying attention to the steps the church used to prevent the disease, the Flagellants and religious movements involved and lastly the effects of the disease on the Catholic Church.

Religious interpretation of the Black Death

Religion interpretation of the plague was that it was a punishment that God was instituting and directing to humans as a result of pride[5]. According to Konrad von Megenburg who wrote the Regensburg, human in general had become sinful and that the plague was a culmination of God’s anger to the sinful behavior of humankind[6].

The position adopted by of other writers almost indicate similarities to these earlier positions in that they view the plague to be as a result of gross wickedness of human kind and that this wickedness had increased to annihilate God’s universal principles that held the society together. At the same time, other religious sentiments have held the notion that Black Death was inevitable in order to cure the fragmentation of the society that was being witnessed together with sin that existed in large scale[7].

Medieval Christians on their part associated Black Death with the book of Revelation and its aspects of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-pestilence, war, famine and death”[8]. The understanding of these Christians was that there was no much human effort could do to save or prevent the disease since it was a biblical prediction.

While other were contenting with this biblical fact, other groups of Christians were of the view that the plague largely signaled the coming of Jesus Christ to reign the earth and other groups blamed women expressing a lot of pride together with Jews who were fraudsters to be responsible for the plague in Europe[9].

Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies note that European Christians viewed the Black Death to be God’s punishment for humankind due to immense sinful actions man was engaging in with his fellow Christians[10]. This view persisted for a long time although other opinions tried to postulate the role of other causative factors apart from religious ones.

The basis of this argument is that there were many plain communal sins that took place in most societies of Europe; hence, for God to restore His glory on earth, humankind had to undergo severe punishment for his actions[11].

The greater role of religion in interpreting the causes of the plague remain evidenced in contemporary European art and literature, furthermore the chronicles of the 14th century have largely associated the occurrence of the plague to the afflictions to divine retribution for the wickedness of European society.

For instance, Langland puts everything in summary and observes that, “these pestilences were for pure sin”[12].

Strategies used by the Catholic church to contain Black Death

Upon the plague becoming dangerous, the church especially Catholic, which was the main church during the period, put in place some measures that intended to prevent or contain the plague. First, the church limited and regulated movements of people from one city to the other.

This was done through laws that were established and required every citizen of the affected areas to abide and failure to do so attracted fine[13]. For instance, to avoid contracting contaminated substances anybody from the nearby cities and regions bordering Pistoia were not to be allowed into the region.

Violation of this law resulted into a penalty of fine amounting to 50 pounds. At the same time those given the responsibility to guard the gates were given further instruction to ensure that no one is permitted from going or coming out of Pistoia especially from severely affected cities of Pisa and Lucca[14].

Anyone flouting this additional law was required to pay a fine of 10 pounds while at the same time citizens of Pistoia contemplating or planning to travel to the affected regions were required to obtain a license from the Council of the People, which was the highest organ responsible in making decisions.

The second measure instituted by the church manifested itself in a kind of order and obligatory obligation that anyone had to observe. For example, the law made it clear that no any citizen of the regions within the jurisdiction of Pistoia were to bring or participate in activities aimed at importing either linen or woolen materials that could be used as clothing by the two genders or that could be used for bedclothes. Flouting of this order or any attempt to disregard this law attracted a penalty of 200 pounds.[15]

In the same measure, citizens of Pistoia coming back to the country were provided with directives in that they were only allowed to carry with them linen or woolen cloths they had on their bodies and any extra clothing was to be carried in a bag or a small parcel weighing not more than 30 pounds. Those found to go against this order were required to remove or export the extra clothing within a maximum of three days[16].

The third preventive measure postulated that all dead bodies were to remain in their spot untouched until when such bodies have been placed into wooden caskets and covered tightly by a closure that is secured by nails. Anybody family member or close kinsmen of the deceased found or discovered to have flouted the order were required to pay a fine of up to 50 pounds.

At the same time, the dead body was to remain in the casket until when it is buried, and before any burial could take place, officials from the city of Pistoia together with rectors of the parishes found in the city were to report immediately to the government officials of the city of death cases as they occurred. They were to identify the locations in which the dead person lived and did and if any contravention of the order was found to have taken place, these officials were liable for the fine on the dead person[17].

Immediately the report reaches the government about the dead person, the podesta or captain, in whose capacity the reporting takes place, should immediately send an official to the said location where the dead person is and ensure that all contents and other law statutes are being observed in ensuring the funeral takes place within the statutes explained and any flouting of the statutes to be punished.

On a lighter note, the penalty prescribed in the law relaxed on those who were perceived to be poor and miserable in accordance to the declarations and statutes of the city concerning poor people[18].

The fourth law was to be implemented within precepts of ensuring bad smell from the dead bodies was not affected the general surviving population. As a law, all dead bodies were required to be buried in a ditch that was dug to a depth of 2.5 braccia and it was to be within the stated measures prescribed by the city of Pistoia[19]. At the same time, carrying dead bodies to the city of Pistoia regardless of the status, age or role of the person in society was prohibited.

In addition, any person with less regards to his or her authority position was to ensure that no dead body is returned or carried back to the city of Pistoia without first being placed in a casket and upon flouting this requirement the affected individuals were required to pay a fine not less than 25 pounds.

At the same time, gatekeepers from the various cities were instructed to ensure there were no such incidences of returning bodies before first being put tightly in a casket, and when any gatekeeper was found to have allowed such dead body to pass without fulfilling the requirements the affected gatekeeper was also fined[20].

The fifth law outlined and required those who had come for the burial of the deceased to avoid any conduct with the deceased body or close family members of the deceased person except and only in limited measure as to a time when procession to the church was taking place and to the burial location of the deceased. Furthermore, all people were instructed not to go back or come close to the house in which the deceased occupied before he or she died. Going against this order attracted a penalty of 10 pounds[21].

Putting more weight on this law, another additional law was constituted which required that all no any form of gift before or after burial was to be taken the deceased person place and no meals were to be served to those attending the burial except to the family members of the deceased. An abrogation of this law attracted a penalty of 25 pounds[22].

Other measures instituted by the church included a law that banned all gatherings or groupings with intentions of bringing the widow of the deceased person to outside the house unless such gathering was only taking place when returning from church or the cemetery location.

However, the law provided roofer the family members in company of four women to bring the widow out. All those operating butchers were required to exercise and maintain highest level of hygiene by operating in non-smelling environment and failure to observe this attracted a fine of 10 pounds[23].

Flagellants and religious movements

Black Death plague resulted into the development, rise, and spread of flagellants’ religious movements. It is believed flagellants movements started in Northern Italy before spreading to other European nations[24]. This movements attracted and appealed most to the monks who from their tradition had embraced self-mortification which top them was a way of identifying with the sufferings of Jesus Christ[25].

Many monks would whip themselves for thirty-three days, which resembled the years Jesus Christ lived and carried out his work and as atonement for the sins that had resulted into the Black Death. Early literatures on flagellant movements indicates that all classes participated and generally put on white robes and marched in barefoot in procession from one particular town to another while engaged in singing hymns and wielding iron-tipped scourges[26].

After the Black Death, the Jews became victims to the movement anger where the movement would associate the Jews to poisoning of wells[27]. Many members of the movement in instituting the punishing seen and believed to be carried out in order to avert the world from experiencing another disastrous plague would meet in market places and participate in burning up the Jews[28]. Describing the movement after the Black Death, a religious historian, remarked that, “as the fervor mounted the messianic pretensions of the Flagellants became more pronounced.

They began to claim that the movement must last for thirty-three years and end only with the redemption of Christendom and the arrival of the Millennium. Possessed by such chiliastic convictions they saw themselves more and more not as mortals suffering to expiate their own sins and humanity’s but as a holy army of Saints”[29].

The historian further note that the flagellant movement during this period graduated into a complex social phenomenon as its apocalyptic desires largely became manifested as motivation to personal mysticism, anticlericalism, and social revolutionary ideas that among its many issues pivoted on destruction of private wealth.

Further, the movement became the bear or the symbol of European view and reaction to pandemic where they believed it was due to sinful acts of the Jews hence the movement took a greater part in persecuting the Jews[30].

Effects of Black Death on the Catholic Church

Prior to the Black Death plague many Christians were undergoing persecution but a story detailing the tribulation of Sebastian who was a Roman soldier indicate that, after the plague many people resorted to accepting Christianity and abandoning their paganism nature[31].

When the Black Death plague struck, the Catholic Church accelerated efforts to raise money through the sell of masses for the dead and indulgences, which were believed, to pardon dead individual’s sins. Due to these activities, the church became a victim of heavy criticism where many religious leaders not in support of this move accused the church of hypocrisy[32].

In addition, the plague had a long-lasting effect on the religious thought as it resulted into despair throughout the entire family of Christianity. Many people re-visited their relationship with God and looked up to the church to mitigate the effects of the disease but more shocking to the Christianity family was the fact that even clerics died in great number from this disease.

As a sign of lack of faith in church, the Catholic Church lost its earlier “prestige, breaking down blind allegiance to the church and setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation”[33].

As a result of the Black Death plague, the number and the quality of clergy decreased in number as more clergies succumbed to the deaths of the disease leading to the church to scramble in trying to fill the positions[34]. Lastly, the Catholic Church became largely to be associated with scandals that made its followers to severe relationship with the church.

Many looked for new ways of how morality of societal values could be restored and in away to show their lack of faith and trust in the church they explored others avenues[35].


Black Death plague has for a long time remained a significant period in the history of humankind. Its significance is traced to the devastating effects of the plague to the population of the humankind, the art world, and the literature materials. This is a period that Christianity foundations were shaken and severed, leading protestant reformation in later years.

At the same time, this was the period when the flagellant movements translated its values and it become more involved in social issues; while at the same time, promoting persecution of the Jews. What became important feature of this plague is that the role and position of the church in society underwent tremendous transformation. People doubted the powers of the church since prayers seemed not to work and miracles to save people became scarce.

Further, the responsibility of the church to take it upon itself the collection of tithes and sell of masses resulted in more discontent as more reports of corruption and misappropriation of funds became more pronounced among the followers. Attempts to rectify these anomalies failed as struggle for power and enrichment through corruption of alms and tithes heightened, the Catholic Church was unable to glue its fabrics that put it together, and reformations became inevitable which culminated in the split of the church.


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Capinera, John. . NY: Springer, 2008. Web.

Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. . Volume 5. CA: University of California Press, 1975. Web.

Clarke, Howard. : a historical introduction to the first Gospel. IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. Web.

Hatty, Suzanne and Hatty, James. . NY: SUNY Press, 1999. Web.

Horrox, Rosemary. . UK: Manchester University Press, 1994. Web.

Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe. Pistoia ‘Ordinances for Sanitation in a time of mortality’, 1994. Web.

Stewart, Cynthia. . Saint Mary’s Press. 2009. Web.

. Italian Studies Department, Brown University, 2010. Web.

Vidmar, John. . NJ: Paulist Press, 2005. Web.


  1. Joseph, P. Byrne, The black death, (CT, Greenwood Press, 2004), p.33
  2. Joseph, P. Byrne, ibid, p.33
  3. The Decameron Web, Religious Interpretations of the Causes of the Plague (Italian Studies Department, Brown University, 2010.
  4. The Decameron Web, ibid
  5. The Decameron Web, ibid
  6. The Decameron Web, ibid
  7. The Decameron Web, ibid
  8. The Decameron Web, ibid
  9. The Decameron Web, ibid,par.4
  10. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Viator, Volume 5 (CA, University of California Press, 1975) p.272
  11. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ibid
  12. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ibid, p.272
  13. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, Pistoia ‘Ordinances for Sanitation in a time of mortality’ 1994.
  14. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  15. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  16. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  17. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  18. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  19. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  20. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  21. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  22. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe, ibid
  23. Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe,ibid,par.6
  24. Suzanne Hatty and James Hatty, The disordered body: epidemic disease and cultural transformation (NY, SUNY Press, 1999) p.118
  25. Howard W. Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and its readers: a historical introduction to the first Gospel (IN, Indiana University Press, 2003) p.229
  26. Howard W. Clarke, ibid, p.229
  27. Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (UK, Manchester University Press, 1994) p.157
  28. Howard W. Clarke, ibid
  29. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ibid, p.273
  30. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ibid
  31. Louise C. Slavicek, The Black Death (NY, Infobase Publishing, 2008) p.98
  32. Louise C. Slavicek, ibid, p.98
  33. John L. Capinera, Encyclopedia of entomology (NY, Springer, 2008) p.1814
  34. John Vidmar, The Catholic Church through ages: a history (NJ, Paulist Press, 2005) p.157
  35. Cynthia Stewart, The Catholic Church: A Brief Popular History (Saint Mary’s Press, 2009) p.221
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