Before the Black Death hit Europe, almost all things, especially elements of daily life, were under the influence of the church. In medieval times, even boiling an egg took “the time to say a prayer”. But the most important thing was that the church had always told people right from wrong. Since the afterlife was judged more important than the actual lifetime, it was considered essential to be given the last rites and to confess sins before dieing to be sure of salvation.
When the plague arrived, people believed it to be a punishment of God. Therefore, they often turned to the Church for help. But since the priests and bishops could not actually offer a cure or even an explanation, the Catholic Church lost a lot of its influence and for many people, their view of the world changed drastically.
REACTIONS TO THE PLAGUE
People reacted differently to the mysterious disease. While some people turned to contrition and prayed for salvation, others turned to debauchery and increased sinful behaviour; they argued that nothing mattered anymore if everyone was to die anyway. Superstition, scapegoats, religious fervour and fanaticism were only some of the things that were considered a possible solution to the problem of the Black Death. Some believed that ringing the church bells (which was done in all kinds of crises) would drive the disease away. Others expressed their feelings and thoughts about death and the afterlife in art (like poetry, sculpture or painting). Yet another way to cope with the Black Death was shown up by the flagellants. But even with different reactions, everyone felt the wave of fear, hysteria and panic that swept over Europe and that even the almighty Church was unable to stop.
Flagellant processions started in 1348. These men travelling from town to town hoped to be purged in order to stop the “wrath of God” by whipping themselves with leather thongs. Usually, the men were welcome in the towns because the represented a major event in the otherwise dull city life. In 1349, the movement clashed with the Church at Rome, since both claimed to have found the only right way to be purged from sins. When the plague diminished in 1350, the processions vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared.
On the one hand, the flagellants are seen as fanatics that actually spread the plague even further because they carried the dangerous bacteria with them. But on the other hand, they might have helped the people to cope with the Black Death. Many citizens had lost their friends and families and needed a way to purge of guilt and anger or just a diversion from all the suffering. And it is said that some people did confess their sins or gave back stolen goods because the flagellants made them regret. Finally, there were miraculous tales like those of a child being revived from the dead or a talking cow. They encouraged the idea that flagellants were more effective than church leaders and gave the people something they could still believe in.
EFFECTS ON THE CHURCH
The formerly good reputation of doctors and priests declined as they did not know what to do.
They experimented with different measures and while some of them actually did help, most of them only added to the confusion. And even though there are some stories about doctors and priests caring for the sick selflessly, there were far more about those who deserted their posts, about doctors who only told people to go to confession and about priests that refused last rites.
Most of the clergy that had not fled their posts contracted the deadly disease when taking care of its victims. With fewer priests but more and quicker deaths, Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the Black Death and allowed confession to one another or „even to a woman”.
But the sick and the dead were still not properly cared for concerning religious matters. There were too many bodies so that mass graves were dug. These were against the teachings and beliefs people had had before. But they did not know any other solution and often just did not care about those teachings anymore, since the plague seemed to show that they had not been right.
The new priests after the epidemic were often less educated and more inexperienced than their predecessors. This also led to a worse reputation of the church.
Another important aspect was that the church became richer. On the one hand, there were lots of bequests to the Church. On the other hand, the church started to charge money for some of their services.
So overall, there were three big aspects leading to a decrease of belief in the Church. First, there was the failure to help the suffering, then the incompetence of the new priests and finally the wealth while everyone else was suffering.
Since there had been neither help nor explanation from the Church, nor had promises for cures been kept, people started to question religion or even started to revolt against the church. These were the seeds for the Reformation.
Of all the Church members lost during and after the time of the plague, not all were actually victims of the disease. Some only turned away from the church that had always seemed powerful but could not offer any help at the time of an enormous crisis.