The Impact of the Black Death on the Christian Faith

The time just before the Black Death had already been a time of struggle and calamity, especially for the Christian Church. The French had begun to attack and conquer the coastal settlements along the English Channel, signaling the beginning of the Hundred Year War. It would be one of the many contributions to the devastation that medieval Europe would endure within the next century, including the Black Death and the Little Ice Age.

The Hundred Year War was caused by political and economical problems.

English sheep farmers had traded their long fine wool with weavers in Flanders, across the English Channel. In 1336, French King Philip VI arrested all English merchants in Flanders and took the privileges of the Flemish towns and craft guilds away. The Flemish revolted against the French government and made an alliance with the English. War broke out and lasted through five English and French kings, with a few interruptions in between. The political reason for the war was that the English kings, descendents of William the Conqueror who still spoke French, wanted to rule over France.

(Media, 2003)

Even before the Hundred Year War had begun, Europe was already undergoing a ‘little ice age’, where the economies of the European countries were naturally slowing down due to the undependable warm weather that fluctuated between hot and cold alternatively. This sort of abrupt weather change had been damaging to crops and livestock, and subsequently affecting the economic situation of the European people. There already existed exceptionally grim reports of mass deaths even before the Black Death struck Europe.

Population counts were decreasing due to the generally weakened health of the people in the years of poor crop yield. This decline that had been attributed to the low food levels had begun 40 years before the Black Death had arrived. (Tkachuck, 1983)

As you can see by the mentioned events, the Church was already in troubled times. It is only natural to consider the fact that all these factors that were affecting the peoples of Europe were also inadvertently affecting the Church. The people’s faith in the Church and God were sorely tested.

The purpose of this investigation is to research and come to a conclusion as to whether the Black Death had set back or encouraged the Christian faith in its many long years of pestilence. Before the Black Death, Europe had been in the Age of Faith, known so for the time when the Christian faith in God was very strong and ‘holy undertakings’ such as the Crusades were made. Did the Black Death put doubt into the hearts of people, when God appeared to not be there, or did the Black Death increase the hope that God will save?

The Black Death

First and foremost, as background information on the devastating disease, one of the most vital questions to be asked and answered would be: what was the Black Death, or as it was also known as, the Black Plague? The best description it can be and has always been given was that it was a deadly disease that had rampaged throughout Europe from the year 1345 to 1359 for approximately 14 years, killing close to one third of Europe’s population at the time; which was the equivalent of 20 million people within the long and devastating years. It existed in two different but common forms: the bubonic form, and the pneumonic form. During its time of plague, the Black Death was not known by its name now. In fact, the name of the “Black Death” was only given after its devastating sweep through medieval Europe.

Both these forms of the Black Death, or also Black Plague, were caused by a bacterium called Yersina Pestis. It lay idle in the bodies of fleas known as the Oriental Rat Flea, and also in the bloodstreams of the rats the fleas fed on. The bacteria lived and flourished in the gut of the flea and in the bloodstreams before being transferred by a bite from the flea on a human being or another living animal. Symptoms appeared in days and the victim was usually dead within a week after having been infected by the disease. The Black Death surged through the time period during what was known as the Age of Faith, where the role of the Church played an important part of the people’s lives at the time. (Cartwright, 1991)

The Age of Faith

The time just before the Black Death was called the Age of Faith, or the time of the Crusades, ranging from the year 1071 till approximately just before the Black Death, where the strong belief in the Church had a powerful grip over society. One such definition of the age goes like this: “The 12th century, perhaps more than any other, was an Age of Faith in the sense that all men, good or bad, pious or worldly, were fundamentally believers”. (Britannica, 2006)

The Church was the nurturer of the new civilization, as the “old civilization faded from memory in an abstract pile of corruption, cowardice and neglect, and the clergy rose to defend the regenerated stability of new life” (Kreis, 2006). The Church’s function was to rebuild the demolished foundations of the moral character. It did so by instilling the ideals of social conduct into the people though myths, miracles, fear, hope, and love. This single uniting action by the Church would bring men together once more under a single belief.

The belief, or more appropriately the religion, began with the spiritual hunger of men and women who were drowning, metaphorically speaking, in poverty, wearied by the wars and conflict, awed by mystery and fearful of death. The Church stepped in; bringing a faith and a hope that inspired and brought about the concept of cancelled death with the concept of being able to enjoy eternal life with a firm, strong belief in God. The faith became the people’s most treasured possession that they would die or kill for. On this rock of hope, the [Catholic] Church’s stronghold and foundations were built.

Living through the Black Death

“I say, then, that the years of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty eight, when into the notable city of Florence, fair over every other of Italy, there came to death-dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies or of our own iniquitous doings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God, had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had no unhappily spread towards the West.” (Boccaccio, 1344-1350)

Those were the words of Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian poet who lived from 1313 to 1375, through the Black Death’s rampage through Europe, written in his great work named Decameron. In Decameron, he documented the witnessing stories of seven and three wealthy men and women respectively that had survived and lived through the Black Death. The document gives us an insight into the lives of the people who had lived during the disastrous period and documents their experiences and the things they had witnessed. Naturally, the accounts must be viewed objectively because they represent the points of view from different people, and could be of a biased consideration, thus possibly tainting the accounts.

In the Age of Faith, any sort of wrath from God was deeply feared and many rites were executed in order to prevent this. In their hour of need, the people turned to God, only to fall under the Black Death’s rampage and thus, apparently be “forsaken” by God. For many people, the Black Death was believed to be a sign of God’s wrath upon them for their sins, sent to purge the world of the sinful and the morally wrong. The Black Death was so fatal, sweeping, so unforgiving that the people believed that it could only be the work of the divine. In this context, the Christian belief can be said to have strengthened because of this piece of “mortal” evidence that proved that God existed.

The leaders of the Catholic belief, the Popes, led processions which usually lasted three days and some two thousand followers attended these processions in the hope that they would be cleansed of their sins and the plague lifted accordingly. Rites including the “gnashing of teeth”, the “pulling of hair”, prayer and weeping were performed to implore and beg the mercy of the Virgin Mary (in the case of the Catholics) and God. It was a majority of the people who were convinced that the Black Death was most definitely the work of God, raining punishment down upon them. In September of the year 1348, His Holiness Pope Peter V (1340-1348) made an edict referring to the Black Death as “this pestilence with which God is affecting the Christian people” (Kreis, 2006).

Because the view was widely accepted by the people; that the Black Death was a divine punishment from Heaven, there was a collective guilt in all of Europe. If the plague was divine punishment, then the sins committed to incur such wrath must have been terrible: greed, adultery, fornication, laziness, irreligion, luxury, materialism, blasphemy and lying, as examples (Kreis, 2006). Beneath all that lay the matrix or web of Christianity itself; nothing could escape the psychological and social control of the Church. So, with the Black Death’s grip on society, the people turned to God for mercy and salvation but did not seem to receive His divine mercy. At this point, some of the people might turned away and weakened their belief and faith in the Church, but the vast majority still pressed on faithfully believing that God would save.

The Black Death was thought by everyone to be sent by divine means due to the unavailability of an earthly source. In this time period, no one thought to consider rats as the carrier of the disease, let alone the fleas that inhabited the rats. Theories such as a “Pest Maiden” circulated, but did nothing significant to allay their fears of the Black Death descending upon them.

Social Problems by the Black Death

The overall social effect of the Black Death was tremendously disastrous. The plague was not of the type of disasters that caused people to band together and fight the way wars usually and naturally would, most probably because the people could not protect themselves from it. The scale of its fatalities was such that it did not herd people together, instead it drove people apart.

The Church’s teachings had constantly involved references to quotes such as “love thy neighbor” and “united we stand, divided we fall”. It would have been natural to assume that the natural reaction for people to huddle together in the face of such a calamity as the Black Death. However, the opposite occurred. People ran from people. Social order collapsed. One citizen avoided another, family members hardly, if ever, visited each other. Such fear was struck into the hearts of the people that they neglected their fellow man. Brother abandoned brother. Even parents left their children unattended.

Multitudes of sick and dying men and women were left alone to fend for themselves. Care was unavailable from others, not even servants, even when offered high wages. Most of those who did take up the job of caring the sick and dying did little more than bring the afflicted what they asked for and watch over them as they slowly lost consciousness to the world forever. Also, since the sick were abandoned by family and servants were few, a habit sprung up among them that had never been heard of before.

According to the Church, no private part of one’s body was to be shown to anyone other than one’s husband or wife. However, during the time of the plague, beautiful and noble women, especially, when they fell sick, took to taking a young or old man-servant and exposing every part of their bodies to these men as if the men were of the same gender. Perhaps they had been compelled by the sickness to do so, but this action resulted in the significantly looser morals in the women who had survived the Black Death. Such events are mentioned here because the Church had had to deal with more unscrupulous behavior in the aftermath of the plague, showing its weakening hold over the people’s faith.

In the midst of all that was happening, the order of human and divine laws had almost dwindled to nothing. The officers that enforced both types of these laws were either sick, dead, or shut up away with their families to protect themselves from the plague. Every man was therefore able to do whatever he pleased. Many adopted a way of life that was between the good and bad side of the now practically non-existent law. They did not restrict themselves merely to their food provisions nor did they allow themselves to be swept up in drunkenness, for instance.

Others took a different approach or had a different reaction to the plague. Some thought that living a hermit live away from the rest of the people would protect them from the epidemic altogether. They would shut themselves up in houses together where there were no traces of the plague and believed that the way to keep the plague away was to celebrate life, God’s gift to man. These people thought that by doing so, they would manage to put themselves in God’s favor and thus, make Him keep the disease away from them. Even with all the death around them, this particular group of people did not seem to cease believing in the power of God and the Church.

The sick and dying would of course wish to divide their belongings among the remainder of their families, repent and confess their sins to God so that He may allow them into Heaven after their earthly departure. Their faith in the clergy and those of noble vocations and occupations such as magistrates and priests seemed ungrounded as the men who played such roles in people’s lives simply refused to execute their duties. They “turned away from the care of their benefices in the fear of death by contagion”. Magistrates did not write up the wills of the dying, priests did not listen to the confessions. As Boccaccio wrote in his introduction to Decameron, “charity was dead”.

Amid death and fear of the plague, the sick died without proper burial rites and prayers. This was a prospect that terrified the last hours of those afflicted with the disease. Priests, bishops and clergy members abandoned their duties of listening to the people’s confessions. Pope Clement VI even found it necessary to grant that all sins committed by those who died of the disease to be considered forgiven because of the clergy’s abandonment.

No one could really blame the clergy. The mortality rate among the clergymen was naturally and already high because of the nature of their work, having to enter the houses of the sick and dying and contracting the disease themselves and dying within the week. Out of 24 physicians in Venice, 20 were believed to have died after coming into contact with the diseased to treat them. A great number of doctors were dwindled to almost nothing. As physician Simon de Covino reported: “Hardly one of them escaped”. (Tuchman, 1978, pg 100) Still, people prayed for deliverance from the agonies of the disease, for the clergy to at least manage to say a short prayer for them before they departed the world.

Though a high mortality rate was reported among the clergy, it varied with the rank of the clergyman. For example, the lower-ranking priests in the Church would come into contact with the peasants more often than the Pope would, therefore the mortality rate among the lower ranking priests would be markedly higher than that of the bishops and popes. Even with all this death in the clergy and in the countryside among the peasants surrounding the people, no one wept over the dead, because it was to be expected. The plague took so many so quickly, questions were raised as fast as the people died.

The Jews – Scapegoats

Everywhere in Europe, people looked for divine answers to their questions: where did the plague come from? Why was it here? Was this God’s punishment? Such questions could not be answered by the Church. A scapegoat was needed because the people’s anger and frustration had to be focused on something. The Church could not be blamed because it was also suffering from the Black Death’s effects; clergymen were also dying. Europe was full of scapegoats, though. The extermination of the Jews living in Europe began in the spring of 1348, on the charges that they had poisoned the waters with the “intent to kill and destroy all of Christendom”.

The situation became such that the Jews living in France were pulled from their houses and then subsequently thrown into fires to be burned alive. The Jews were to be under punishment from the people who were under punishment from God by His divine means of the Black Death. It had been already generally accepted that the Black Death was God’s punishment upon man, but man could not simply be angry towards God lest He decided to deal further punishment towards His people. Therefore the Jew, the eternal stranger in Christian Europe, was the next obvious target of anger and frustration. The Jew was the one who willingly separated himself from the rest of the Christians.

In 1320, there was a leprosy epidemic that lasted had lasted a year, but in its wake, hundreds of lepers had perished. It was believed that the Jews were to blame for the deaths. Twenty-five years later, the Black Death arrived and again, the Jews were put to blame for the plague. With this these demonstrations, it can be inferred that the belief of the people in God Almighty had become even stronger. They were, in a way, defending God’s laws in an almost fanatical manner and killing off the Jews, whom they believed to be sacrilegious blasphemers by rejecting the Christian doctrine.

Because of this rejection by the Jews, the Church had decided to fight back by denying the Jews their civil rights since the 4th century. Even with their basic rights taken away from them, the Jews maintained their trade as moneylenders within society. The Christians believed that the Jews reenacted the crucifixion by performing the ritual murder of Christians. This further alienated the position of the Jews in medieval Europe, causing serious discrimination against them.

Scholastic vs. General Public Theories

But even the burning of the Jews could not seem to stifle the wrath of the Black Death. Something was still missing from the Divine cause to obtain the mercy of the Lord God Almighty. Pope Philip VI requested of the University of Paris’ medical faculty to report and make clear what the cause of the affliction that seemed to threaten to eradicate human existence actually was. They came up with the theory that the Black Death was due to a “triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius, said to have occurred on March 20 1345. The theory involved the scrutinizing of the heavens, indicating a natural God-seeking instinct of the people in that time.

The theory was adopted by many different nations within Europe, and because of the subject’s level of interest, the translations of it caused the use of national language. In that one respect, it brought people back together due to the healthy discussions involved with the theory instead of shunning each other in fear.

The general public could accept and only one explanation as a majority – that the Black Death was the representation of the wrath of God. Scientific explanations involving things beyond the vision or imagination of the peasant people appealed only to those who were educated enough to understand the theory. God was closer to the average man. As mentioned before, the Black Death was already believed to be a part of the Divine punishment God had created to punish the world of sinners; God’s terminal disappointment.


By considering every aspect of every event and put it into a religious context, it appeared that all the Black Death had done with Europe was to crush hope and faith in the Church. The Church had not been able to do much, seeing that their representatives too had succumbed to the plague. In its wake, the Black Death left death and maybe even more possibilities for infection by other diseases because of the dank smell of death on the air and the piles of corpses in the streets of the towns in Europe.

The social effects of the Black Death were amendable as the disease seemed to die out, the people started to return to their homes and the brotherhood that they had shared before the calamity began to reform itself. However, the economic effects of the Black Death stood to the fore. One third of Europe’s population, equivalent to approximately 20 million people, had died of the disease and had therefore, lessened the quantity of manpower that was available to resume farming and increase the food output once more to be able to sustain a smaller yet still large European population.

Though the attempts to remove oneself from the wrath of the Black Death was quite remarkable, it seemed that very few of the peoples of Europe actually turned away from God. In fact, in the face of death, the people turned even more strongly towards the Church’s guidance. Not once, in all the examples of challenges faced by the European peoples had they turned away from their religious ways, the farthest example of the people having turned away been their living in moderation between the religious actions and those considered morally bad.

With the Black Death now metaphorically like a dust ball in the corner of civilization, the peoples of Europe began to band together to rebuild the foundations that had collapsed in the wake of the plague. Perhaps God’s mercy had finally rained down upon Europe after the long years of the plague’s pestilence, perhaps God had decided that enough punishment had been dealt to His people. Nevertheless, the Black Death never fully went away. It is still around in very remote areas of the world.

Some of the problems encountered while researching this paper was the fact that there were very few, if any, references to specific events during the Black Death to be able to provide a proper argument. This is most probably due to the lack of records from the time period. The people during this time were quite ineffective in book-keeping. I understand that my essay would be much better if I had specific examples to drive my argument home, but I was unable to do so.

However, due to my research on this paper, I can conclude that the Black Death did not discourage the Christian faith as it is quite apparent that in today’s world, the belief is still strong and even growing rapidly. Even so, the Church must have experienced a weakened chapter of belief in the medieval period due to the plague ravaging the people and the lack of mercy from the Almighty God.

A new question has emerged from my research though, because I had found some interesting informational sites such as The History of the Black Death by authors Christopher Duncan and Susan Scott, who seem to doubt that the bubonic plague and the Black Death were one and the same. Were the two diseases one and the same? Or were they two completely separate cases?

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