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
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.
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).
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Clare, J.D. (1993).Fouteenth-century
towns.San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich
Corbishley, M. (1993). The medieval
world.New York: Peter Bedrick Books.
Day,J.(1989). The black death.New
Gibbin,J.C.(1983).When plague strikes:
the black death, smallpox, AIDS.New York: Harper
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