One of my first reviews for Amazon was The Great Mortality (2005) by John Kelly, the story of the Black Plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 through 1352. This catastrophe which claimed about 50% of the European population had immense impact upon the Church in terms of contributing to events that would make the Reformation something of an inevitability.
I am going to switch the format today, suggesting that you read my review of the account of the plague, now thirteen years old. The link is here. What follows is my own recent take on the plague and its relation to the Reformation.
In my review, I did observe the loss of many of the best clergy, who remained to comfort, nurse, and bury their parishioners, and who did not flee to the rural mountains with other clergy and nobles. What I did not know then was the dating of the “Little Ice Age,” a meteorological shift toward generally wetter and cooler conditions, beginning around 1300, which impacted food supplies and farming in much of Europe. By the time of the arrival of the Great Plague in 1347, not only were there significant weaknesses in the economy, but also a general weakening of the collective immune system. It is doubtful that even the most robust medieval peasant or worker could have withstood the initial onslaught of this Y-Pestis bacteria unaffected, but the recurrence of the plague in waves over five years resulted in a human death toll akin to those related to earthquakes and aftershocks.
Every enterprise of European life was severely strained and interrupted, and it is not much of a stretch to speak anachronistically of a PTSD impact. Kelly’s description from medieval accounts emphasize (1) the grotesque impact of the infection at onset, and (2) the sudden onset of death. A man infected at noon might die by nightfall. Our term “bubonic plague” comes from “buboes” or ugly swellings in the body; the 1347 strain was particularly gruesome in this respect.
Medieval peoples were no strangers to plagues and sudden deaths, but the events of this magnitude led to apocalyptic fears and confusions. Even before the plague, bands of flagellants (i.e., those who whipped themselves in public) roamed the continent under no ecclesiastical supervision in an active moral crusade against sin. During and after the plague many pious and fearful souls took refuge in extremist forms of religious experience to save themselves. The intensive fear of death and punishment after the grave never receded, and by 1500 the quest for safety and certainty led to a hearty trade in relics and indulgences.
If some looked inside of themselves for a relation to what could only be described as a mighty reaction of the anger of God, a good many others looked to outside scapegoats. The Plague unleased a wave of anti-Semitism, already a grave sin in the Western Church. Christians had always held the Jews guilty for the death of Christ, but as Kelly records, violence against the Jews became more deadly and universal when some Christians expounded the theory that the plague was an organized plot by European Jews to destroy Christianity. Like Hitler’s era six centuries later, murder and other mayhem against Jews was condoned with little or no intervention of church and state.
In these circumstances the movement toward Church reform was significantly sidetracked. Of the few groups emotionally removed from the suffering, the cardinals and popes [then living in Avignon, France] continued their exertions relatively unimpeded. If they considered the plague a curse of God, there is no record in the several councils prior to Luther that the bishops established any substantive plan for their own reform. It would not be until 1563 that the Council of Trent would mandate exacting reforms of residential bishops, and this was prompted by Protestant rebellion, not Y-Pestis.