Pestilence in Europe between 1345 and 1355 is said to describe one of the biggest catastrophes in human history. Millions of people died, alone, right in the midst of enormous widespread deaths. Moral values and the sense of responsibility were abrogated due to panic and immense fear of dying. This and added mercilessness, as well as the well-understandable attempt so save oneself caused avoidance of other people and huge brutalization of society and conventions.
But trying to escape death and disease by searching shelter in religion, trustfulness and self-flagellation brought no safety. Many people stayed in church all day, others began to confess their sins and started self-chastisement, prosecution of Jews came up, pets were slaughtered, looting was at the order of the day.
All this because people believed, that the wrath of God came over them. Antics didn’t know about the principle of the contagion, they had to revert to the knowledge of the antic physician Hippokrates and his successor Galen, who thought this infection to be a mixed compound of the four humours blood, mucus, yellow and black gall. So medieval doctors couldn’t imagine a contagion from animal to a human being – they rather believed that bad smelling winds, so called miasmas, carried the disease out of Asia to Europe or that it was caused due to steams out o the interior of the earth. Others said, that the Black Death was to be traced back on evil humours carried in the air or earthquakes releasing poisonous fumes. In Europe, even Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells, an explanation which was impossible for the outbreak of pestilence in England thanks to Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews in 1290.
It was also blamed on sin.
If one was asked, what the cause of pestilence was, what its physical cause was, one would get the answer that sin was the cause. If one was asked by what means could someone save himself from it the one would that it arises from the sea, as the evangelist says: “There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves.”
There was strange advises about what to do:
- Windows should only be opened in a northward direction
- Day sleeping as well as hard work should advance the breakout of the disease and be avoided
- A wet and sticky climate and wind from the south was supposed to be dangerous, as well as the air above stagnant waters in general.
Black Death was supposed to be attracted by the beauty of young girls. Actually more men than women and more young than old people died.
The devil was of course also taken as a reason for the outbreak of pestilence. By the power committed to him he makes the seas rise up high, and by this is voiding his poison, sending it forth to be added to the poison in the air, and that air spreads gradually from place to place and enters man through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, pores and other orifices.
Now the church got into the action: If man had a strong constitution and a strong belief in god, nature could expel the poison through ulcers, and if the ulcers putrefy, are strangled and fully run their course, the patient will be saved, as can be clearly seen.
But if the poison should be stronger than man’s nature, so that his constitution couldn’t prevail against it, the poison instantly lays siege to the heart and the patient dies within a short time, without the relief that comes from the formation of ulcers. These, altogether superstitious attempts were seen as scientific explanations through the whole of Europe. Most of the people believed Jews to be the reason for the disease. There were rumours about Jews poisoning the wells and springs in the beginning of the year 1348. By this the belief of the Jews to be helpmates of the devil also became popular, at latest when they, under torture admitted to be guilty. So, superstitious attempts in medieval times were the first step to Anti-Semitism and all kinds of aggressions, as well as pogroms against Jewish people in the 20th and the 21st century.