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. 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,...