Black Death and Church


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.



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.




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.


Published in: on 12/18/2008 at 12:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pogroms against Jews

Pogrom gegen Juden im Jahre 1349 – Darstellung einer jüdischen Chronik

Pogrom gegen Juden im Jahre 1349 – Darstellung einer jüdischen Chronik


Pogroms against Jews


The divine and secular powers lost their authority because of them being helpless faced with the epidemic. This affected mostly those people who belonged to a cultural Minority in the medieval society. So there were many pogroms against the Jewish, which couldn’t be suppressed by the divine and secular powers and which led to the result that after 1353 only a few Jews lived in Germany and the Netherlands anymore.

The pogroms started after there were rumours about the Jews being the cause of the disease and the confession of Jews, who told under torture that they were to blame. Following you can read the confession of a tortured Jew:


The Confession of Agimet of Geneva, Châtel, October 20, 1348

The year of our Lord 1348.

On Friday, the 10th of the month of October, at Châtel, in the castle thereof, there occurred the judicial inquiry which was made by order of the court of the illustrious Prince, our lord, Amadeus, Count of Savoy, and his subjects against the Jews of both sexes who were there imprisoned, each one separately. [Jews were sometimes imprisoned separately to prevent suicide.] This was done after public rumor had become current and a strong clamor had arisen because of the poison put by them into the wells, springs, and other things which the Christians use-demanding that they die, that they are able to be found guilty and, therefore, that they should be punished. Hence this their confession made in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons.

Agimet the Jew, who lived at Geneva and was arrested at Châtel, was there put to the torture a little and then he was released from it. And after a long time, having been subjected again to torture a little, he confessed in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons, who are later mentioned. To begin with it is clear that at the Lent just passed Pultus Clesis de Ranz had sent this very Jew to Venice to buy silks and other things for him. When this came to the notice of Rabbi Peyret, a Jew of Chamb6ry who was a teacher of their law, he sent for this Agimet, for whom he had searched, and when he had come before him he said: “We have been informed that you are going to Venice to buy silk and other wares. Here I am giving you a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather-bag. Distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which you go, in order to poison the people who use the water of the aforesaid wells that will have been poisoned by you, namely, the wells in which the poison will have been placed.”

Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there near the German House, in order to poison the people who use the water of that cistern. And he says that this is the only cistern of sweet water in the city. He also says that the mentioned Rabbi Peyret promised to give him whatever he wanted for his troubles in this business. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. He confesses also that he put some of this same poison in the well of the streets of the city of Ballet.

He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know. And now by all that which is contained in the five books of Moses and the scroll of the Jews, he declared that this was true, and that he was in no wise lying, no matter what might happen to him.




The confessions led to many assaults in Germany and Switzerland – especially in Alsace and alongside the Rhine.

On 9th January 1349 in Basel a part of the Jewish inhabitants were murdered – although the Basel city council had banned the worst baiters out of the city before, they had to annul this ban under pressure by the inhabitants of the city and instead ban the Jews. A part of the displaced persons were arrested and banned into a house on an Isle in the Rhine, just build for this purpose.

Also in Strasbourg the city council tried to secure the Jews living there, but they were displaced by the votes of the guilds. The new council brooked the following massacre, which killed in February 1349, when the Black Death hadn’t even reached the city almost half of the Jewish citizens.

In March of the same year 400 members of the Jewish community of Worms burned themselves to avoid forced baptisms; four months later the community of Frankfort did the same. In May 1349 Jews defended themselves in Mainz by killing 200 attacking citizens. Even this community killed itself later on by burning their houses. It was the largest community in Europe.

These pogroms didn’t stop before the end of the year 1349. It is said for many cities that so called flagellants (castigators) agitated part of the inhabitants to kill the Jewish for poisoning the wells. But new research believes that this passing on of the blame was rather a convenient attempt of justification by the historiography of the 14th century.

Besides the search for a scapegoat and a increased intolerance of the church for people of different faith, also cupidity was a big motive for the killings.  Many people thought that this way they would get rid of their creditors. For example the mayor of Augsburg head a high owed them a lot and thus led the murders happen very readily.

A lot of persons tried to advert to the situation. Already in 1348 pope Clement VI living in Avignon called the accusations “ridiculous” , because on the one hand the Black Death spread also in regions where no Jews were living, on the other hand killed the disease even the Jewish themselves.  He demanded that the clerics should protect the Jews, and forbid to kill Jewish without a court or to plunder them. But this only worked out in the area around Avignon and nowhere else.

Published in: on 12/11/2008 at 1:51 pm  Comments (4)