Education + Advocacy = Change

Click a topic below for an index of articles:

New Material



Alternative Treatments

Financial or Socio-Economic Issues


Health Insurance



Institutional Issues

International Reports

Legal Concerns

Math Models or Methods to Predict Trends

Medical Issues

Our Sponsors

Occupational Concerns

Our Board


Religion and infectious diseases

State Governments

Stigma or Discrimination Issues


IIf you would like to submit an article to this website, email us at for a review of this paper

any words all words
Results per page:

“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


The Church's involvement in the Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague, caused by the bacillus Yersinia Pestis, was known as the most fatal disease of the Middle Ages (Biel, 1989). The bacillus enters the blood stream going directly to the lymph nodes. Enlarging and inflaming of the glands causing buboes to appear in the groin, armpit, or neck. The plague is transmitted by the rat flea (Xenopsylla Cheopis). The flea gets the bacteria from a rat, and the flea then spreads the disease to humans. The bacteria completely fills the stomach of the flea making it so the flea can no longer digest any blood. The flea is so hungary that it sucks blood into the already full stomach forcing the flea to regurgitate, thus spreading the bacteria (Walker, 1992). The first symptoms of the Bubonic Plague are headache, nausea, vomitting, and aching joints. The lymph nodes become painfully swollen and the average temperature raises between 101 degrees and 105 degrees F. The person becomes very exhausted and a purple tint in the victim's skin becomes present due to resperstory problems. Death comes in about four days after contracing the disease.


In the year 1347, in the southern Ukraine near the Black Sea, the native people began dying of a mysterious disease. They suffered from headaches, weakness, and staggering when they tried to walk. Lymph nodes in the groin and underarm areas begin to swell to the size of hen's eggs. These swellings were called buboes and led to the official name of their aillment, the Bubonic Plague. These natives called the plage the pestillance and were often dead by the fourth day of contraction.

Original drawing based on a work by Biel, 1989.

Fear and anger at the disease gave way to accusation. The natives of the land began to blame the Italian traders who traveled in and out of their ports. The natives soon took up arms and attacked the ports; and after a week of fighting, the natives found their soldiers dying of the disease. Hoping to infect the Italians, the natives threw the dead and dying bodies over the barrier; they succeeded. When the traders fled to the island of Sicily, they carried the plague. The plague arrived in Messina, Sicily, in October of 1347. The twelve Italians on board the ship were forced to stay on board, officials were hoping to contain the disease, but black rats carrying fleas contaminated with the Plague scurried off the ship and within eight months spread the Plague throughout the island and boarded ships for mainland Italy and the rest of Europe.


The Plague spread so rapidly in cities for many reasons. There were no regular garbage pick-up days, and rotton food stayed around homes for weeks. Left over meals were thrown onto the ground for the animals, also feeding rats and fleas. Wet and muddy rushes were used instead of rugs; and with no running water, bathing was a rarity. This gave fleas a breeding groung no only in rats, but in humans.


The Plague was a desperate time for Europeans as the terrible disease rapidly spread. People sought answers for the destruction of life. The so-called cures of medieval doctors failed to soothe their worries as many people doubted the Black Death was spread by a black cloud. There was a frenzy to find a cause, and anyone could be blamed.

The Middle Ages marked a time of strong religious convictions, and it was during the Bubonic Plague that anger toward the Roman Catholic Church and the persecution of Jews intensified. The church played an important role in the lives of the people of the 13th and 14th Centuries, and it was forced to intervene when Christians demanded help. The most significant action taken by the church involved causes of the Plague as it was forced to defend itself and other religious groups. Victims of the disease often stayed in monasteries and hospitals run by church officials.

In the forefront of medicine was Galen's theory that disease was spread by miasmas, or poisonous vapors coming from swamps which corrupted the air. Poeple were urged to leave low, marshy places or to at least stay inside their homes, covering the windows and trying to keep cool (heat was also a believed cause of the disease). People were urged to wash their hands and feet regularly, but not to wash their bodies because this would open the pores, another way for the disease to enter the body. Sleeping on your back was discouraged because this allowed the foul vapors to enter noses more easily. Because people believed foul smelling air caused the Plague, many walked around carrying flowers to their noses. After the Plague was contracted, death was almost sure to follow, but still physicians worked. They bled near the heart, to get the over heated blood out before it could circulate through the entire body. They bled near the buboes , to heal the infected areas. This bleeding, meant to cool down the body, only weakened the patient. The only other cure was to light a large bonfire and make sure that the miasmas didn't get near you.

Unfortunately, these methods provided little relief, and the Church, too, was in a frenzy. As Boccaccio noted,"Even the authority of divine and human law had crumbled and fallen into decay. For its ministers and executors, like other men, had either died or sickened...everyone had free rein to do as he saw fit.(Biel, 1989, p.32). As the number of infected clergy increased, many individuals began to suspect that it was the Church officials who were responsible for the spread of the Plague. Frightened men and women left their own families in order to escape the Plague, and the abandonment of their trust in the clergy seemed to be next. The Church offered little comfort to victims or their families to combat their fears.

Original drawing based on work by Biel, 1989. A group of individuals known as flaggelants emerged whose aim was to dispel fear of the clergy. The flaggelants placed blame on Gods wrath, and insisted that it was the sins of men and women that compelled God to punish them. The efforts of the flaggelants began in Perugia and Central Italy in 1260, and their message soon spread north to other parts of Europe. Groups of these religious fanatics traveled from town to town trying to persuade villagers to join their cause. Each flaggelant carried a scourge, a wooden stick with three or four leather pieces attatched to one end. A sharp iron spike about an inch in length adorned the end of each leather whip. The flaggelants would congregate in the center of a town or village and form a circle. Each participant would stripe from the waist up and would then begin to whip himself/herself with his scourge. The pace and severity of the beatings increased with time. The ritual occured at least once a day for three days in a row before the flaggelants would move on to the next village, hoping to convert a few more individuals. The flaggelants' "cure" failed to ease the minds of many people. In many instances, cases of the Plague rose in towns through which the flaggelants had passed (Biel, 1989). Becasue the actions taken by the flaggelants became too radical, in 1349, Pope Clement VI declared them to be heretical, and efforts were made to surppress the spread of their message.

The blame that the flaggelants placed on the Jews continued after their group dissolved, despite the efforts of Catholic officials and attempts of secular authorities to prevent their outbursts (Strayer, 1983). The flaggelants had helped to spread the belief that Jews infected cities' wells with the Plague element through the use of contaminated vials. Fears were heightened as it was discovered that Jews would not take water from city wells. (In order to keep Jewish kosher laws, Jews had to draw water from country springs.) In September, 1348, eleven Jews were charged with contaminating a well in a small southern German town. The men were tortured, and each eventually confessed (falsely) to the deed. Their trial and executions set off a wave of terrible acts against Jews in Switzerland and Germany. Zurich was the first city to take action against the Jewish community by voting never to admit Jews into thier city (Giblin, 1995). Jews in Basel, Strasburg, and Brussels were herded into wooden barns and burned alive. Others in Germany were burned at the stake. Pope Clement VI asked that gentiles treat Jews with tolerance, but this request was not granted. The Church had lost authority during the Plague, and now had few loyal followers.

The results of the Church's role in the Black Plague are unclear (Strayer, 1983). Church documents note an increase in gifts to religious institutions, but a shrinking number of churches. Historians point out a general decline in moral standards, but at the same time, a flowering of personal piety and a revival of individual spiritual fervor.

Anxiety about the effects of the plague on religion was not restricted to the demographic aspects. Many works of art by amateur painters depicted fear and confusion as the results of the Bubonic Plague have been uncovered. Grotesque images of infected men and the ritual beatings of the flaggelants reveal a strong sense of struggle in the minds of the common people. Death was depicted differently also. Instead of heavenly beings calling the dead to heaven, death was represented as an elderly woman in a black cloak and "wild, snake-like hair... and a scythe to collect her victims" (Strayer,1983, p. 226).


· Biel, T.L. (1989). The black death.San Diego: Lucent Books.

· Clare, J.D. (1993).Fouteenth-century towns.San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich Company.

· Corbishley, M. (1993). The medieval world.New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

· Day,J.(1989). The black death.New York:Bookwright Press.

· Gibbin,J.C.(1983).When plague strikes: the black death, smallpox, AIDS.New York: Harper Collins publishings.

· Strayer,J.R.(1983).Dictionary of the middle ages.New York: Charles Scribers sons.

· Twigg,G.(1985).The black death; a biological reappaisal.New York: Schocken Books.

· Walker,J.(1992).Famine, drought, and plagues.New York: Gloucestu Press.

This page was created by K. O., S. B. & S. G., 5/22/97, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.