Satan Triumphant: The Black Death
---Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron
Imagine, that a mere five days after having read this that all of your best friends have succumbed to an illness which cannot be explained. Imagine also, that all the residents who live on your street have died under similar circumstances in the same amount of time. If you can conceive of such a dreaded act occurring within your experience than you may have some glimpse into the mindset of the mid-14th century European who was unfortunate enough to have experienced the BLACK DEATH.
In October 1347, twelve Genoese trading ships put into the harbor at Messina in Sicily. The ships had come from the Black Sea where the Genoese had several important trading posts. The ships contained rather strange cargo: dead or dying sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg located in their groins and armpits. These swellings oozed blood and pus. Those who suffered did so with extreme pain and were usually dead within a few days. The victims coughed and sweat heavily. Everything that issued from their body -- sweat, blood, breath, urine, and excrement -- smelled foul.
The disease was bubonic plague and it came in two forms. In cases of infection of the blood stream, boils and internal bleeding were the result. In this guise the plague spread by physical contact. In the pneumonic phase, the plague was spread by respiration (coughing, sneezing, breathing). The plague was deadly -- a person could go to sleep at night feeling fine and be dead by morning. In other instances, a doctor could catch the illness from one of his patients and die before the patient.
The Italian poet, GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO (1313-1375) has left us a chilling account of the plague as it struck Florence in 1348. His Decameron relates the story of seven ladies and three gentlemen who leave the city for their country villa for a period of ten days. They each take turns telling stories, one hundred in all, in the garden. Many of these are licentious while others are full of pathos and a poetical fancy. The backdrop of the first story is the plague and it is here Boccaccio relates that:
Rumors of a plague supposedly arising in China and spreading through India, Persia, Syria and Egypt had reached Europe in 1346. But no one paid any attention. Of course, there have been plagues throughout European history. Homer relates one such plague in the Iliad. Athens was struck in the 5th century, Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries, and more recently, a plague in India raged from 1892 to 1910.
By January 1348, the plague had penetrated France by way of Marseilles and North Africa by way of Tunis. Both Marseilles and Tunis are port towns. The plague then spread west to Spain and and North to central France by March. By May, the plague entered Rome and Florence. In June, the plague had moved to Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and London. Switzerland and Hungary fell victim in July. JEAN DE VENETTE, a French friar, has left us a chronicle about the progress of the plague as it moved through Europe.
In any given period, the plague accomplished its work in three to six months and then faded from view. The plague came and went like a tornado -- its appearance and movement was totally unpredictable. In northern cities, the plague lay dormant in winter and then reappeared the following spring. In 1349, the plague reappeared at Paris and eventually spread to Holland, Scotland and Ireland. In Norway, a ghost shipped drifted offshore for months before it ran aground with its cargo of death. By the end of 1349, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, Iceland and Greenland felt the full effects of the plague. The plague left nearly as quickly as it had appeared. By mid-1350, the plague had completed its deed across the continent of Europe.
In enclosed places like monasteries, nunneries and prisons, the infection of one person usually meant the infection of all. Of one hundred and forty Dominican friars at Montpellier, only one man survived. Watching family and friends suffer and succumb to violent deaths, men could not help but wonder whether this pestilence had been sent to exterminate all sinners. After all, hadn't this happened once before?
By the middle of the 14th century, the largest cities of Europe were Paris, Florence, Venice, and Genoa. These were cities with populations in excess of 100,000 people. London, Ghent, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Naples, and Cologne all had around 50,000 people. Smaller cities such as Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseilles, Barcelona, Seville, and Toledo contain 20 to 50,000 souls. The plague raged through all these cities killing anywhere between thirty and sixty percent. To make matters worse, in January 1348 -- remember, this is the month the plague first appeared on the continent -- a serious earthquake hit an area between Naples and Venice. Houses and churches collapsed, villages were destroyed, and foul odors emanated from the earth.
The death rate from the plague was erratic and ranged from twenty percent to one hundred percent. For the area extending from India to Iceland, it can be assumed that between thirty and thirty-five percent of Europe's population disappeared in the three years between 1347 and 1350. This meant about 20 million deaths out of an estimated population of 70 million (see MAP).
Rich or poor, young or old, fit or ill, man or woman -- the plague made no distinction when it came to choosing its victims. The plague, like a tornado, will strike when and where it wants. For every case in which a healthy child was the only survivor of a family of twelve there are other cases in which the family elder was the only survivor. The plague could take out an entire side of one street or the entire street or just one house on the street. It oftentimes happened that a victim would catch the plague but recover. On the other hand, most people who caught the plague were dead within a few days. "To the cure of these maladies," wrote Boccaccio:
Trying to determine the number of people who died with any accuracy is difficult given the status of record-keeping at the time. However, historians do have some records at their disposal which shed some light on the numbers of people who met this awful fate. In Avignon, 400 people died daily over a period of three months (36,000 out of a population of 50,000). A single graveyard received more than 11,000 corpses in six weeks. In a three month period in 1349, 800 people died daily in Paris, 500 daily in Pisa, and 600 daily in Vienna. In Frankfurt 2,000 people died over a period of ten weeks in 1349 and in that same period 12,000 lost their lives in Erfurt. Marchione di Coppo Stefani, who wrote his Florentine Chronicle in the late 1370s, related that:
Amid the accumulating death and fear of contagion, people died without being administered the last rites, in other words, they were buried without prayer. Such an act terrified other victims since there seemed to be nothing worse in the Age of Faith than to be buried improperly.
How did men and women react to the plague? What was their response? You would expect those who remained to join together for mutual support. What happened was the exact opposite. The plague forced people to run from one another. Lawyers refused to witness wills, doctors refused to help the sick, priests did not hear confessions, parents deserted children, and husbands deserted their wives. In the words of the Pope's physician, "charity was dead." Boccaccio tells us that "various fears and notions were begotten in those who remained alive . . . namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself."
In some villages it was reported that several villagers danced to drums and trumpets. They believed that after seeing their family, friends, neighbors and perhaps their priest die each day that in order to remain immune, they must enjoy themselves. "They lived remotely from every other," recorded Boccaccio,
Flight from infected areas was the most basic response, especially among those who could afford to flee. The idea was simple enough -- remove yourself from those areas which were affected. This usually meant fleeing from the city to the countryside, as did the wealthy storytellers in Boccaccio's Decameron. But things could be just as bad in the countryside. Peasants fell dead in their homes, on the roads and in the fields. Wheat was left unharvested, and oxen, sheep, cows, goats, pigs and chickens ran wild, and according to most contemporary accounts, they too fell victim to the plague. English sheep -- the primary provider of wool to Europe -- died in great numbers. One report specified that five thousand lay dead in one field. All this led to a sense of a vanishing future and created what historians have referred to as a "dementia of despair." One German observer wrote that "men and women wandered around as if mad and let their cattle stray because no one had any inclination to concern themselves about the future."
General ignorance about the causes of the plague did nothing to dispel fear and terror. The carriers of the plague -- rats and fleas -- were not suspected for one very simple reason: rats and fleas were common and familiar to the 14th century. Fleas are not mentioned in the records of the plague and rats only incidentally. The actual plague bacillus, Yersina pestis, was not discovered until the middle of the 19th century, 500 years too late! Living in the stomach of the flea or in the bloodstream of the rat, the bacillus was transferred to humans by the bite of either the flea or the rat. The plague's usual form of transportation was the rattus rattus, the small medieval black rat that was a constant companion of sailor's on board sailing vessels. The death of the rat caused the relocation of the flea, and if its next host just happened to be a human, then contagion was the result.
Medieval men and women were quite resourceful, however, in determining the cause of the plague. The earthquake of 1348 was blamed for corrupting the air with foul odors, thus precipitating the plague. The alignment of the planets was specified as yet another cause: Saturn, Jupiter and Mars aligned in the 40th degree of Aquarius on March 20, 1345.
For almost everyone, the plague signified the wrath of God. A plague so sweeping and unforgiving could only be the work of some species of Divine punishment upon mankind for its sins. Popes led processions lasting three days and which were attended by two thousand followers, according to some accounts. The people prayed, wept, gnashed their teeth, pulled their hair, imploring the mercy of the Virgin Mary. The majority of people were convinced that the plague was certainly the work of God. And in September 1348, the Pope agreed. In a papal edict he specifically referred to "this pestilence with which God is affecting the Christian people."
The widespread acceptance of this view created an enormous sense of collective guilt. If the plague had descended upon mankind as a form of divine punishment, then the sins which created it must have been terrible: greed, usury, worldliness, adultery, blasphemy, falsehood, heresy, luxury, irreligion, fornication, sloth and laziness. Beneath all of this was the matrix of Christianity itself -- nothing escaped the psychological and social control of the Church. Even the boiling of an egg was timed according to the time it took to say a prayer.
Efforts to cope with the plague were fruitless. Both the treatment and prevention offered little in the way of immunity, cure or hope. The physician's primary effort was to burn aromatic herbs and purify the air. Their role was to relieve the patient since each victim's fate was in the hands of God alone. Victims of the plague were treated by blood-letting, purging with laxatives and the lancing of the plague-boils. Victims were washed in vinegar or rose water, given bland diets and told to avoid excitement. Regardless, if a patient suddenly recovered, his recovery owed less to the care of the physician that it did to luck.
People looked for answers. They needed answers to questions: where did the plague come from? why is it here? why am I alive? A scapegoat was needed since anger and frustration had to be focused. And Europe was full of scapegoats. On charges that they had poisoned the water with the "intent to kill and destroy all of Christendom," the extermination of European Jews began in the spring of 1348. Jews from Narbonne and Carcassone in France, were dragged from their homes and thrown into bonfires. It was commonly accepted that the plague was God's punishment. But anger could not be directed toward God. The Jew, as the eternal stranger in Christian Europe, was the most obvious target. He was the outsider who willingly separated himself from the Christian world.
During the epidemic of 1320-1321, hundreds of lepers died and it was believed that the Jews had caused the deaths of these unfortunate souls. When the plague came twenty-five years later, the Jews were once again the target of blame. Why did this occur? According to the Church, the Jews had rejected Jesus as their savior -- they refused to accept the Gospel in place of Mosaic law. In the early 4th century, the Church denied Jews their civil rights. But the Jews maintained a role in medieval society as moneylenders. They were excluded from all crafts and trades. There was also the belief that Jews often performed the ritual murder of Christians, in order to re-enact the Crucifixion.
Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries the Church issued laws that isolated the European Jew. Jews could not own Christian servants, could not intermarry and could not build new synagogues. They were, furthermore, barred from weaving, mining, metalworking, shoemaking, baking, milling and carpentry. At the 4th Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent III forced the Jews to wear a yellow badge in the shape of a coin. By the following century, other outcasts such as Muslims and prostitutes were also forced to wear a similar badge. The Inquisition stepped in and in Savoy in September 1348, the first trial was held against the Jews. Their property was confiscated while they remained in jail. Confessions were obtained by torture and eleven Jews were burned at the stake. At Basle in Switzerland (January 9, 1349), several hundred Jews were burned alive in a house specially constructed for this purpose. A decree was passed that ordered that no Jew could settle in Basle for two hundred years. In February 1349, the Jews of Strasburg, numbering two thousand, were taken to the burial ground and burned at the stake en masse. And, in early 1349, at Mainz in Germany, Jews took the initiative and killed two hundred Christians. The Christian revenge was horrible -- 12,000 Jews were slaughtered.
When the Black Death subsided in 1351, so too did the persecution of the European Jew. But for a year or two following the appearance of the plague, the massacre of Jews was exceptional in its extent and ferocity. Coupled with the plague, the persecution of the Jews nearly wiped out entire communities. In all, sixty large and 150 smaller Jewish communities were exterminated. Between 1347 and 1351, there were recorded more than 350 massacres which ultimately led to permanent shifts of the Jewish population into Poland and Lithuania. It is a curious comment on human nature that European men and women, already overwhelmed by one of the greatest natural calamities, should seek to rectify the situation with their own atrocities.
One of the more interesting and bizarre episodes of the Black Death was the FLAGELLANT MOVEMENT. In 1348, processions of men, initially well-organized, walked two by two, chanting their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias, passed through Austria, Hungary, Germany, Bohemia, the Low Countries and Picardy, summoning the townspeople to the marketplace. At the head of the procession was the Master and his two lieutenants who carried banners of purple velvet and cloth of gold. The marchers were silent, their heads and faces hidden, and their eyes were fixed on the ground before them. Word would travel ahead and the news of the procession usually brought out all the townspeople. The church bells would ring and announce their arrival.
The marchers, once they had arrived, would strip to the waist and form a large circle. The flagellants marched around the perimeter of the circle and at the order of the Master, would throw themselves to the ground. The Master walked among them, beating those who had committed crimes or who had violated the discipline of the Brotherhood. Following this ceremony, the collective flagellation took place. Each brother carried a heavy leather thong, tipped with metal studs. With this they began to beat themselves and others. Three Brethren acted as cheerleaders while the Master prayed for God's mercy on all sinners. During the ceremony, each Brother tried to outdo the next in suffering. Meanwhile, the townspeople looked on in amazement -- most quaked, sobbed and groaned in sympathy. The public ceremony was repeated twice a day and once at night for a period of thirty-three and a half days!
The Flagellant Movement was well-regulated and sternly disciplined. New entrants (mostly laymen and unbeneficed clergy) had to make as confession of all sins since the age of seven and then flagellate themselves for thirty-three and a half days. Each member also vowed never to bathe, shave, sleep in a bed, change their clothing or converse in any way with members of the opposite sex. If that wasn't enough, they also had to pay a small fee! The payment of a fee tells us that membership in the Brethren was not for everyone. Excluded were those people who could not afford to pay a fee, therefore, the Brethren was clearly an exclusive organization and membership to the poor was out of the question.
The public usually welcomed the procession of flagellants into their villages and towns since it served as a major event in the otherwise drab life of the peasant. But the flagellants also served as an occasion for celebration. Those who attended the processions could work off surplus emotion in a collective fashion. Although we may tend to laugh at the flagellants and read them off as lunatics, they did help medieval men and women cope with the ravages of the plague. After all, taking part in a procession served as an inexpensive insurance policy that God would forgive them. "Before the arrival of the Death," writes historian Malcolm Lambert, "flagellation was one of the few outlets open to a fear-ridden population; after it had arrived, the worst could be seen, and there were practical tasks, such as burying the dead, available to dampen emotions." (Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, 1992, p.221.)
By 1349, the flagellant movement came into conflict with the Church at Rome. This clash was perhaps inevitable. After all, the Masters were claiming that they could purge sinners of their sins, something the Church claimed it could do alone. The German flagellants began to attack the hierarchy of the Church in direct fashion. In mid-1349, Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull denouncing the flagellants as a heretical movement. The flagellants had formed unauthorized associations, adopted their own uniforms, and had written their own church statutes. Numerous princes in France and in Germany began to prohibit the entrance of the Brotherhood into their provinces. Masters were burned alive and the flagellants were denounced by the clergy. By 1350, the flagellant movement vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.
It is easy to make fun of the flagellants as misguided fanatics but in general they did accomplish something. In the towns they visited they brought spiritual regeneration for people who needed it. Suffering the anguish of losing your family and friends in rapid succession, medieval men and women needed some sort of mechanism to purge themselves of both guilt and anger, and the flagellants provided one such path. Adulterers confessed their sins and thieves returned stolen goods. The flagellants also provided a kind of diversion for the public and held out the promise that their pain might bring an end to the greater suffering of the living victims of the plague. "We all recognize the late Middle Ages as a period of popular religious excitement or overexcitement, of pilgrimages and penitential processions, of mass preaching, of veneration or relics and adoration of saints, lay piety and popular mysticism," wrote William Langer in 1958. "It was apparently also a period of unusual immorality and shockingly loose living," he continued,
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis