Revisiting Catastrophe: a Black Death Research Paper on Societal Responses and Theological Debates

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There is no escaping death, it is a fate everyone must accept. Death can strike in ways that are detrimental not only to a select few, but an entire population as a whole. This is the case with the Black Death, where a plague of epic proportions swept through the continents of Europe and Asia claiming the lives of millions. The Black Death is known as perhaps the most devastating global epidemic that struck the aforementioned areas in the middle fourteenth century. Its destruction stands out as one of the most dramatically life altering events in history. This was a widespread pestilence starting in Asia and then continuing through Europe at an extremely rapid pace. With such an event comes peoples demand for an explanation. In his book, The Black Death, John Aberth explores the causes of, and reactions to the Black Death through a series of accounts taken during that time. The Black Death caused a great deal of frantic confusion in medieval Europe, and a debate between religious explanations for the plague and scientific explanations ensued. The responses to the Black Death and the medieval relationship between Christianity and science is very interesting and is worthwhile to dissect.

The Black Death is an epidemic of the plague, a horrendous disease caused by the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis (Aberth 14) which takes three forms: septicemic, pneumonic, and bubonic. Louis Sanctus worked in the papal office and provides legitimate examinations of autopsies conducted by the Catholic Church. In an excerpt from his Letter written in Avignon the papal see at the time, Sanctus discusses the three types of the plague and their horrifying realities. He mentions that bubonic plague is the main focus of the Black Death as it is this form of plague that is known for being so extreme and so deadly. The bubonic plague as it was contagious and had no quick remedy, poised the biggest threat to humanity during the Black Death. Symptoms a person could have seen or felt as a result of the plague included: pain in their lungs, coughing up blood, and a respiratory infection followed by death within two to three days after contraction. The pneumonic plague was another type of plague that had a more grotesque physical appearance. Sanctus describes seeing people with tumors that would appear on both armpits and would become extremely infected from which men would die without delay (Document 4). The septicemic plague was similar to the pneumonic plague in that tumors would form at the groin and death would follow. Yersinia pestis is carried by small fleas which normally feed on rodents, however they did bite humans as well. The rats that were infected with this bacterium would often venture to heavily populated areas such as cities making the spread of the pestilence that much easier. The origins of the Black Death are explained by Michele de Piazza a Franciscan friar who records what may have been the first arrival of the plague on European soil:

It so happened that in the month of October in the year of our Lord 1347twelve Genoese galleys, fleeing our Lord's wrath which came down upon them for their misdeeds, put in the port of Messina. They brought with them a plague that they carried down to the very marrow of their bones, so that if anyone so much as spoke to them, he was infected with a mortal sickness which brought on an immediate death that he could in no way avoid. (Aberth, p. 1)

While no one at the time knew exactly what was going on, theories and explanations were being thrown around to explain the pestilence. Scientific theories such as the poison thesis was one of these explanations. The poison thesis suggested that people became infected because their bodies became contaminated by food and water they consumed, or the air they breathed. This was a more logical explanation as it left the door open for medicines and other such remedies in an attempt to cure the plague. Other such theories included some of a more religious standpoint. Medieval Christians were taken aback by their fear of God as one example of this as they believed God was angry with them and the plague was a display of his wrath on humanity. The Book of Revelation also played a key role in developing a reason for the pestilence as in the book it describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, plague, death, and war. These theories for the cause of the Black Death caused mass hysteria and forced medieval Christians into repentance for their sins, but as time went on not even the priests would want to go out in public to risk becoming infected with the plague.

Medieval Christians during the Black Death understood the pestilence to be something of great concern, and as mentioned earlier, theories were brought about to explain the plague. The rationalist approach of scientific reasonings behind the plague take aim at concrete displays of what occurred in medieval Europe during the middle fourteenth century. Medical reasons and environmental explanations are what take the helm of the argument for the scientific mentalities of how the Black Death began. Alfonso de C??rdoba was a Spanish master of the liberal and medical arts (Document 8) who examined the cause and nature of the Black Death. He describes the epidemic in his Letter and Regimen concerning the Pestilence as one not of natural causes, but of an artificial nature caused by humans. He offers assistance in this troubling time.

And there is another cause besides the natural one, and for this reason and out of compassion for the [Christian] faithful who chiefly suffer from it, I have written down this letter and regimen, along with its medicines, so that pious and good people may not be subjected to so many dangers and may know how to prevent the great dangers and evils that threaten Christians in this pestilence. (Document 8).

At the time, all of Christendom was taken over by the spread of the pestilence. Cordoba takes matters into his own hands by recommending what Christians must be on the lookout for. For instance, he recommends that to prevent the dangers that threaten Christians, people must be aware of their food and water as it may already be infected. While he denies there being any sort of astrological phenomena causing the plague, he does claim the plague to be airborne. Cordoba states, The wise counsel of doctors does not profit or help those in the grips of this most cruel and pernicious disease. (Document 8). C??rdoba goes on to recommend the best solution to the plague is to flee the areas affected by the pestilence. Infected air is another major factor of the plague, and C??rdoba prescribes his pestilential pills (Document 8), glass flasks filled with a concoction as they may protect the immune system from the polluted air. He gives recipes for the pills and suggests sterilizing and purifying the air in which people live with the pills by burning them with hot coals.

In a Muslim account of the Black Plague, Abu Ja'far Ahmad Ibn Khatima gives his take and diagnosis of the plague from the region of Almeria, Spain. Khatima speaks of the plague from his first-hand experience with the epidemic. His work is one of the most detailed accounts of the Black Death and is worthwhile to compare and contrast to the Christian means of diagnosis and medical response to the plague. He states the plague is a malignant, and continuous fever (Document 6) which was airborne and heightened by the combination of heat and moisture in the area. These environmental conditions make The first signs of the plague included a fever along with anxiety and increased sweats. The following day, a person would become disoriented and their fever would continue to rise. One interesting point that Khatima brings up is how countries heightened the security of their borders so that a person who came from a region where the plague was, was not allowed to enter. The measures taken by these nations show just how serious the pestilence was considered to be. However, matter what precautions people took to prevent the plague the illness would still strike. If anyone came into contact with a sick man, they would themselves become stricken with the plague. According to Khatima, this is all followed by cramps, vomiting, and lesions on the skin. Khatima goes on then to acknowledge how the infection was spreading rapidly across the European continent, and how deadly the plague was stating: It will not be long before a healthy individual who lives in the vicinity of a sick manis stricken to the core and afflicted with the same disease (Document 6). Khatima also says that the plague was an act of God as a manifestation of His almighty greatness (Document 6). This begs the question of whether the plague was thought to be a punishment from God upon the people of Europe? While many people looked to science to be the means to explain and solve the Black Death, more Christians looked to their religion for clarity.

It is estimated that the Black Death killed off nearly half of Europe's population person who was in medieval Europe and Asia from 1347-1350, the plague infected nearly every person did not spare those of any age or fortune (Document 1). Signs that a person had contracted the pestilence which led to an early death, were tumorous outgrowths on the thighs and arms which bleed out profusely and would take the life of a person in a matter of days. People of medieval Europe and medieval Christians in particular sought religious counsel. John Aberth the author of the book The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents discusses in the introduction how some authors describe the origins of the disease in apocalyptic language, may be simply referencing the Old or New Testament (Aberth 11). He is talking about the books of Exodus and Revelation which describe plagues themselves. The book of Exodus talks about the ten plagues in Egypt while the Book of Revelation speaks of seven plagues. What makes the book of Revelation even more serious is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, war, death, and conquest. With that said it is no surprise that medieval Christians believed they were being punished by the wrath of God as they could relate back to these scriptures, what they had read was now a horrifying reality.

The plague created mass confusion and psyched out medieval Christendom as a whole. Being as such, many Christians believed God was not pleased with humankind, and he sent the plague as punishment. With such madness surrounding medieval Europe in the middle fourteenth century, many extreme Christians emerged with their own form of penance for their sins. Fritsche Closener was a priest in Strasbourg who details the manic responses to the plague that he witnessed in the city in his document Chronicle. Flagellants are those who follow an extreme penitential guide and take the means of religion to the most radical forms. Many of these included public beatings with whips as part of their discipline and devotional practice. The flagellants were at the peak of their existence during the mid-fourteenth century. The flagellants would go about this as they feared God sent the plague as a punishment for humankind. Closener describes them as, wearing overcoats and hoods with red crosses (Document 23), they would even chant such statements that would want them to suffer as Christ suffered. One important chant that stands out is Now we lift our hands and pray/ O God take the great death away! (Document 23). In the Chronicle, Closener condemns these proceedings and describes them as heretical. It is frightening to see such extreme measures taken by medieval Christians, however it is not surprising. When you have run out of hope for humanity after witnessing such devastation, one cannot blame the flagellants for taking their religion literally by reenacting the events of the Passion of Christ.

Amongst all of the horror that was the Black Death, were the obvious searching for a scapegoat which medieval Christians wasted no time in finding. A vast majority of medieval Christians put the blame of the Black Death on the Jews in Europe by accusing them of poisoning various wells around Europe in what is known as the poison conspiracy (not to be confused with the poison thesis). Konrad of Megenberg, a scholar and priest, comments on the poison conspiracy concerning the medieval Jews at the time. During the Black Death, Jewish communities throughout Europe were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the plague. From these accusations, Jews were put to death by the thousands. The belief was that the Jews did this in order to wipe out the Christians and become once again the chosen people of God. Konrad of Megenberg reasons that even after all the Jews in many places have been killed and completely driven outthe Death still strikes these same places with a strong hand (Document 27). Konrad believes that the Jews are not responsible for the pestilence that had taken over the European continent. He knows that even if all the Jews are wiped out, the plague would still overpower the world.

Finally, the Black Death caused such a ruckus that even the clergy did not know how to handle the situation. The Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Islip, comments on the fear that struck the hearts of parish priests. He explains how in the time frame of a year (1348-1349), the Archdiocese of Canterbury saw the deaths of three of their archbishops. All of the archbishops were victims of the plague. In his document Effrenata, Islip discusses how the plague started to drive parish priests away from their home churches to find more worthwhile opportunities in private chapels away from the pestilence. Parishioners were the main source of income for the priests and now that they were being wiped out by the plague, not as much money was being brought in by the Church. Archbishop Islip condemned such actions as they mirrored the deadly sin of greed, and so went so far as to say that such priests directly go against God's will by abandoning their people and parishes. He states, priests are unwilling to take on the care of souls and to bear the burdens of their cures in mutual charity, but rather they wholly abandon these to devote themselves to celebrating anniversary masses and other private services (Document 18). The unfortunate proceedings of these priests are quite disgusting as they would rather abandon their parishioners who needed them as a source of hope and penance to avoid the fiery gates of Hell in order to make more money.

The Black Death is known as perhaps the most devastating global epidemic that struck the Europe and Asia in the middle fourteenth century. Its destruction stands out as one of the most dramatically life altering events in history. There were conflicting ideas as to how this pestilence came to be as there are both scientific and religious explanations. Most medieval Christians understood the Black Death as a punishment from God for their sins and searched for a scapegoat to relieve them of their worry. For the most part, only those who were educated understood that the plague was not the wrath of God, but rather an epidemic which could be explained through medicine and autopsies. In his book, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents, John Aberth explores the causes of, and reactions to the Black Death through a series of accounts taken during that time. The Black Death caused a great deal of frantic confusion in medieval Europe, and a debate between religious and scientific explanations for the Black Death ensued. The responses to the Black Death and the medieval relationship between Christianity and science was very interesting and was worthwhile to dissect. In the end, neither the scientific nor religious cures were beneficial to humankind as hundreds of millions of lives were claimed by the Black Death. It is a shame that medieval Christians who were alive during such a disturbing time had to suffer through so much and witness such horror. Europe and Asia would not recover from the number of people lost from the Black Death until a few hundred years in the future.

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Revisiting Catastrophe: A Black Death Research Paper on Societal Responses and Theological Debates. (2019, Jul 03). Retrieved May 30, 2024 , from

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