“A New Relationship with Death: A Synthesized Experiential Portrait and Analysis of Mid-Fourteenth Century Medieval European Society’s Reception of, Responses to, and Reflections on the Black Death” by Diane Bani-Esraili
Introductory Remarks, A Synthesized Experiential Historical Approach, and Statement of Purpose
Spanning the years between 1346 and 1353, a dreadful disease swept over Western Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, causing cataclysmic loss of life both in the countryside and in towns and cities. So graphic and deadly was this plague that the great contemporary Florentine author Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) legitimately worried that future generations would mistake historical eyewitness accounts of the event for tall tales. In a correspondence with a friend, Petrarch wrote: “O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.”
The reference here is, of course, to the Black Death. It was only many centuries after the fact, however, that the plague gained its now popularly known and used name. Contrary to the popular assumption, the term ‘Black Death’ has nothing to do with the diagnostic symptoms of the plague; rather, it is a merely the result of a mistranslation. Atra mors is the Latin expression contemporaries used to describe the calamity that befell them. The word atra has two meanings—terrible and black. Atra mors was mistakenly translated as ‘Black Death,’ rather than as ‘Terrible Death,’ and the term stuck. Despite its haphazard derivation, this nomenclature is perfectly suitable in the drama and doom it conveys. What better descriptor for the plague that has earned eternal notoriety as one of the greatest-ever demographic disasters?
Undeniably, the greatest trauma to ever befall medieval European society, the plague caused the graphic and painful death of between one third and one half of Europe’s entire population. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the subject of the Black Death caught the attention of both contemporary writers and their nineteenth and twentieth century successive scholars. Much scholarship exists on the symptoms of the disease, on its transmission, and on the death toll it took. This paper will cover these topics in order to provide background, but it will not stop at this quantitative and qualitative level. Rather, it will—in the style of Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages (which examines the morbidity and angst of the period)—delve into the realm of the experiential. It will reconstruct medieval European society’s experience of the Black Death—its reception of, various responses to, and reflections on the trauma. In so doing, it will answer the question of how the Black Death affected and shaped the development of subsequent medieval European society. My argument will be that while the Black Death left many marks, the most indelible one, was psychological.
Several different kinds of primary sources will be examined in support of this thesis. Among them are: chronicles including Geoffrey the Baker’s Chronicon Angliae, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Agnolo di Tura del Grasso’s Cronaca Senese, Jean de Venette’s The Chronicle of a French Cleric, and others; various administrative and religious intuitional records; various works of art from the fourteenth century. Connie Willis’s fictional account of time travel, Doomsday Book, written in 1992 will be comparatively examined with respect to the aforementioned primary sources. This science fiction novel deals with Kivrin, a young twenty-first century Oxford historian who is ‘dropped’ into the fourteenth century by way of time travel for the purpose of research. She finds herself living through the historical terror of the Black Death. The purpose of incorporating this modern and fictional source is twofold. First, in combination with the primary sources, it will help synthesize a fuller experiential understanding of this historical event than strictly historical records would alone. Second, in doing so, it will demonstrate the relationship between fiction and history and the fact that the analysis of ‘responsible’ fiction can aid the construction of historical understanding. In other words, such a synthesis is the closest we, modern students of history, can get to time travel and to experiencing this history for ourselves (while keeping a comfortable degree of distance, unlike Kivrin).
The discipline of history boils down to the study of change over time. By piecing together the chosen primary sources and cautiously filling in the gaps historical accounts leave with the worthily chosen non-historical account, one gets as complete and as clear a view of the past as possible. It is through this method of synthesis that this paper will analyze the change the Black Death brought over time. Again, while this paper will touch on various effects of the plague—social, religious, cultural, etc.—it will argue that the most profound and long-lasting change of all was eschatological. After all, there can be no change that is more deeply and permanently etched that the change in a society’s collective psyche, its mental focus, its very understanding of the world in which it exists.
Explaining the Relationship Between History, Fiction, and Art and Qualifying Their Synthesis
Before presenting the historical accounts, works of art, and a modern fiction that will provide background information and support for the argument, itself, it is necessary to explain the relationship between these sources and qualify their juxtaposition. What is the relationship between history and fiction? To answer this question, one must first define the two different types of sources. A historical source can take two forms—primary or secondary. A primary source is a historical record that was compiled contemporarily and with proximity to the event in question. A secondary source is a summative and analytical piece compiled after the fact (often centuries after) by a historian or scholar of the event/period in question. Fiction, on the other hand, is usually not regarded as a ‘source’ that can be used as support for a point outside its own. Rather, it is considered a fabrication, devoid of any truth that could be deemed useful in shedding light on a broader issue. All too often, those who study history buy into this definition of fiction and in fear of projecting a bias or muddling the facts limit their study to the hard facts, to strictly ‘historical’ sources. That is to say, the orthodox relationship between historical sources and fictional sources is nonexistent. The question then becomes, what should be the relationship between history and fiction?
As was explained in the introduction, my paper will deploy a myriad of primary sources—literary, administrative, and artistic—as well as a work of fiction so as to paint an experiential rather than solely quantitative and qualitative picture of the Black Death. The relationship between history and fiction should be symbiotic, provided that the fiction being juxtaposed to history is responsible in its portrayal of a historical event. The constant comparative juxtaposition of Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book to the primary sources of Geoffrey the Baker, Giovanni Boccaccio, Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, Jean de Venette, and Medieval England’s Royal Chancery this paper will feature will show that the two sorts of sources are consistent in their quantitative and qualitative description of the Black Death and, therefore, that Willis’s book is safe to use.
But why use Willis’s fictional source at all, when there is such a wealth of primary, firsthand accounts? It is necessary to synthesize the Huizingan experience of history. Though the majority of the primary sources being used here are themselves chronicles and far from dry and lifeless records, to the modern reader, Willis’s account, through its modern language and suspenseful prose, draws the modern reader closer to the experience. With any luck, the following pages will follow the example of The Autumn of the Middle Ages and transport the reader to mid-fourteenth century Europe to experience and drawn conclusions about the events of the period as they’ unfold before their eyes.’
Again, not all fiction is conducive to historical analysis, but Willis’s work is because it remains faithful to the historical episode as it really happened (probably because the subject matter itself needed no extra graphic or dramatic embellishment). A historically responsible work will surely enhance the modern reader’s experiential understanding of history; on the contrary, a historically irresponsible work will surely destroy the validity of a historical portrait. Thus, the juxtaposition of this carefully chosen, historically responsible fictional work to the several primary sources at hand is not only qualified, but also necessary to the reconstruction of the Black Death experience. And it is only through the reconstruction of the experience of the episode that this thesis about the plague’s most profound effect on medieval European society can be forcefully argued.
Setting the Historical Stage: Conditions Upon the Plague’s Arrival—The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century
Now that the approach of experiential synthesis and supporting sources of evidence for the thesis have been qualified, it is time to set the historical stage. Before going into an examination of the plague itself, one must first understand the context in which it arrived. The fourteenth century was a time of crisis in Europe; before the plague struck, European society was already weakened and enveloped in uncertainty, demographically, economically, and politically.
The Medieval Warm Period ended at the end of the thirteenth century and the period of climatic change known as the Little Ice Age ensued. The Little Ice Age brought harsher winters and, consequently, reduced harvests. Technological advents, such as the heavy plough and the three-field system, while effective in the Mediterranean, were ineffective in Northern Europe due to the fact that the north had poor, clay-like soil. Food shortages and inflation devastated Northern Europe in the decades leading up to the strike of the plague. Perhaps the most catastrophic famine that resulted was that which occurred between 1315 and 1317. Aptly called the Great Famine, it claimed the lives of ten percent of those in the region it struck. Those the famine did not wipe out suffered from malnutrition, which in turn increased their susceptibility to infection and illness. This compromised immunity would have far-reaching consequences. When the plague struck, Europe was extra vulnerable, and it would be nearly impossible for those who were infected to recover.
To worsen matters, only a year before the first wave of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War reached a peak. The Hundred Years War was the series of armed conflicts waged between England and France (and later in the fourteenth century between their respective Burgundian and Armagnac allies/proxies) for control of the French throne, which had recently become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings. The House of Valois controlled France in the wake of the House of Capet, claiming the right to do so under Salic law. The House of Plantagenet, the Angevin family that ruled England since 1154, claimed the throne of France based on Edward II of England’s marriage to Isabella of France. The Hundred Years War began in 1337 and would continue through and well past the peak of the plague (1348-1350) for more than a century until in 1453, the English lost their conquests in northern France. In addition to being a time of serious political instability, the Hundred Years War proved to be a calamitous time for soldiers who experienced particularly high mortality rates due to the new and widespread use of gunpowder and heavy artillery in the conflict. Moreover, the war ravaged (particularly) French lands and property.
Considering these circumstances and the death and devastation that they brought, it should come as no surprise that fourteenth century Europe saw several mass movements and popular uprisings. The poor were particularly hard-hit, but the whole of society was evidently afflicted, weakened, and shaken with uncertainty. The effects of weather change, famine, and war would come to compound the severity of the impact of the plague; it would become the final nail in the coffin.
Reception of the Plague
a) Arrival and Demographic Impact
The bubonic plague was introduced by caravans coming from China to the Crimea and then by ship to Sicily. The plague reached Sicily in October 1347, transported by twelve Genoese galleys and spread throughout the island. Galleys from Caffa arrived with the plague at Genoa and Venice in January 1348. A few weeks thereafter, the plague arrived in Pisa, which became the epicenter from which the disease emanated and spread through northern Italy. By the end of the month, one of the galleys was expelled from Italy and arrived in Marseille, bringing with it the plague. Indeed, it was from Italy that the disease spread throughout northwest Europe. The plague reached France, Spain, Portugal, and England by June 1348, only six months from its date of arrival in Italy. Then, the plague spread east to Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350. Only a few parts of Europe, like the Kingdom of Poland and remote parts of Belgium and the Netherlands were spared from the devastation of the plague.
The populations of “some cities and villages,” including most of the major ones, “in areas as far removed from each other as England and Italy, fell…by seventy or eighty percent.” According to Herlihy, Europe around 1420, a few decades after the plague struck, “could have counted barely more than a third of the people it contained one hundred years before.” One example (out of many) of how historical administrative records buttress these claims of high mortality is the English record of the lay subsidy of 1354. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, the proceeds of the Statute of Labourers were used to give relief to the vills most adversely affected. The following extract is about half of the complete list of the vills in Harthill wapentake (i.e. an administrative sub-division of the county) with the sum they were expected to pay and (in the second column) the amount of relief granted. The ones marked with an asterisk had ceased to exist as settlements by the late sixteenth century.
As this record shows, almost every vill of the county of Harthill was granted some relief, which indicates that almost every vill within the county was hard-hit by the plague, demographically (and indeed otherwise). While the exact mortality rate and other quantitative indicators of devastations are still debated by historians today, there is not debate over the fact that this was the largest-ever demographic disaster in European history.
Such staggering death tolls beg the question: how was the disease transmitted so rampantly? Could the plague not be contained? Multiple researchers have successfully extracted the genetic code of the bacterium Yersinia pestis from Black Death burial sites in France, which date back to 1348-1350, the years during which the plague peaked. This modern analysis of ancient DNA from plague victims has conclusively revealed that the pathogen responsible for the disease was the Yersinia pestis bacterium. This culprit bacterium was carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that lived on merchant ships that set out to the Mediterranean for trading purposes. Propagated by fleabites, prevalent wherever there were rats, carried in the air by sneezing and coughing (and other forms of human contact), and exacerbated by the poor hygienic practices and standards of the time, the plague wiped out entire communities in one fell swoop.
In crowded cities, the mortality rate was especially high (as mentioned before, as high as seventy to eighty percent). Europeans living in isolated areas suffered less, whereas monks/priests (who did not flee) and Jews were especially hard-hit since they lived in crowded, closed quarters. In enclosed places, the “infection of one person meant the likely death of all…entire monasteries were wiped out.”
In Willis’s Doomsday Book, once Kivrin realizes that the clerk has the bubonic plague, she commands Father Roche to “keep the others from his room” and to “tell them they must stay in the house and let no one in…and [that] if they see a dead rat not to go near it.” Kivrin also dictates that they “must wash the bowls and spoons [they] used to feed him…and burn the cloths and bandages,” because the “plague is in them.” The fact that the villagers do not understand Kivrin’s warnings and instructions highlights their lack of understanding of the contagious and infectious nature of disease. In medieval times, physical ailment was only secondarily considered in medical terms, if at all. Affliction was primarily understood not in terms of the logical transmission of germs, but rather in punitive, religious terms (this religious viewpoint and reasoning will be discussed at length in subsequent sections of this paper). Another important thing to understand about the plague’s transmission is that once one contracted the disease, he would be dead in a matter of days. Very few who were infected had the immunity or systemic strength to overcome the bubonic plague, especially in during a period in which famine was the norm (as was discussed in Chapter III).
c) Symptoms and their Psychological Impact
It is important to understand how the plague manifested itself and how the grotesque and graphic symptoms of the plague terrorized the whole of society. It is no exaggeration to say that every last individual living in plague-ridden villages was visually terrorized, if not physically, as well. Ruiz and Winks describe how “[d]eath from the bubonic plague was particularly horrific, with very painful boils beginning in the groin, armpit, or on the neck. These boils would be “followed by bleeding under the skin,]” which would result in black spots for which the plague is named. In addition, symptoms included “spitting of blood, uncontrolled excrement, heavy sweating, and blacked urine.” Because medical science of the time failed to answer so many questions, individuals within society formulated reasoning of their own—all of which were wrong and counterproductive. The response of rationalization will be discussed in great detail later in the paper. For now, it should be pointed out that the need for explanation has everything to do with human psychology. If one could explain the disease, he exercised at least some level of control over his affliction.
In Willis’s fictional account, the clerk is the first to be infected. Kivrin identifies his disease as the plague based on his symptoms of high fever, swollen tongue and eyes, black hemorrhages on his arms and skin, and buboes or swollen lymph nodes under the arm and near the groin. His buboes are described as “bright red and nearly as large as an egg,” his lips and tongue are covered with a brown slime, and he coughs watery spittle that is streaked with blood. In a similar case, when Kivrin is treating diseased Rosemund’s bubo, she comments that it feels “like a rock embedded in the skin” and that she is “not sure the knife would even cut into it.”
The symptom descriptions in Willis’s writing correspond with those noted by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron. Boccaccio reports his first-hand observations of the manifestations of the plague in Florence:
First…the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew
as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less… black spots or
livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now
few and large, the minute and numerous.
The Sienese Agnolo di Tura del Grasso writes in his Cronaca Senese, “the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits and in their groins and fall over dead while talking.” Once one was infected, he or she usually showed symptoms within hours and died within two or three days. Indeed, the plague was swift in killing its victims. It should be noted that medieval Europeans had no way of identifying the (now known) various forms of the plague. The categories and causes of plague were not discovered until the late nineteenth century. Before moving on to the next chapter, I would like to highlight how the combination of primary source material and fictional narrative bring the mere factual record of plague symptoms to life. Indeed, this approach of unorthodox source integration sheds light on the psychological impact and experience of the Black Death in a way that neither type of source could ever achieve alone.
Responses to the Plague
a) Attempted Methods of Prevention and Treatment
Willis’s Doomsday Book, given that it inserts into the mid-fourteenth century a character from the future (the year 2054) masterfully captures the discrepancy in medical understanding and the ineffectiveness of the so-called treatments that were available and used during the time of the plague. As Kivrin takes on the role of resident medic, she has to think of a course of treatment but is restricted to the use of only the knowledge that has been accumulated up until that point in history. She desperately tries to “remember what remedies the contemps [sic] had tried… They had carried nosegays of flowers and drunk powdered emeralds and applied leeches to the buboes, but all of those were worse than useless.” Indeed, the most common methods of treatment were herb lore—infusions of leaves and seeds, poultices—and bloodletting by means of cutting or leeches (in accordance with the then-prevalent, but useless medical theory of the four humors).
Advice dispensed by medical practitioners at that time included avoiding sex, bathing, and excessive exercising. The University of Paris also recommended bloodletting, sleep, sweet smells and fleeing the afflicted area. These, however, did not do much good, but this did not dampen the resolve of others to give advice. Another esteemed doctor of that time Gentile da Foligno recommended drinking fine wine in order to increase good cheer or joy. This mood-oriented advice underscores the prevailing gloom of the time.
Kivrin recalls “Dr. Ahrens [saying] it wouldn’t have mattered what they had tried, that nothing except antimicrobials like tetracycline and streptomycin would have worked, and those had not been discovered until the twentieth century.” Kivrin resorts to simply administering “liquids and keep[ing] [those sick with the disease] warm.” Without the modern medical knowledge, without the discovery and availability of antibiotics, the plague was effectively untreatable. As it became exceedingly clear that treatment of the plague was practically impossible, extreme measures were adopted in an attempt to prevent the spread of infection. Among these measures were corpse burning, quarantining, abandonment of the sick, and flight. For example, it was common practice to gather and pack corpses, as well as living, infected bodies into houses and burning them to the ground.
Many have associated the rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” (also known as “Ring Around the Rosies”) with the Great Plague and understand it as a description of the symptoms of, dealings with, and result of the pestilence. The English rhyme goes as follows:
A pocket full of posies;
We all fall down.
Peter and Iona Opie remark: “A rosy rash was a symptom of the plague, posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease…and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.” The line “‘Ashes, Ashes’ is claimed to refer variously to the burning of infected bodies, the burning of victims’ houses, or [the] blackening of their skin…”
In addition to burning, another way of dealing with the seemingly infinite number of corpses was the digging of massive burial pits. It was not uncommon for these mass graves to overflow. Thousands upon thousands of corpses filled village streets because there were simply not enough people alive and willing to bury or burn them. Of course, the fact that diseased corpses littered the streets only exacerbated the spread of the plagues.
Quarantine, abandonment, and flight were three other major methods employed in the attempt at prevention of disease spread. As Boccaccio writes in The Decameron, the only help for sickened people was the aid of friends or servants who were few and far between. He writes: “what is…almost incredible, parents avoided visiting or nursing their very children, as though these were not their own flesh.” Guy de Chauliac, personal physician to Pope Clement VI (1342-1352), also reports on this phenomenon: “A father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead.” In Doomsday Book, after Eliwys’s eldest daughter presents symptoms of the plague, she shuts herself, her daughter, and her mother-in-law barn’s loft without “even a backward glance at Rosemund.” Rosemund dies a slow and painful death, as her loved ones isolate and abandon her in the hopes of surviving themselves. As Ruiz and Winks put it, “[p]arents abandoned their children and fled for their lives. Children abandoned their parents, husbands, and wives.” Selfishness was necessary for survival. Indeed, separating oneself from the infected people and villages, no matter how closely related or beloved, was the only real chance at survival.
Willis’s writing underscores the fact that flight was only an option for the more privileged people of fourteenth century European society, only for those who had the financial means and access to transport. Once they discover the clerk is infected, Kivrin realizes that the bishop and the wealthy elite have left the village on horseback to avoid infection. The Pope’s method of survival is yet another example. The Pope, who is a figure of virtually unlimited means, is able to afford his own survival. Willis writes:
During the Black Death, the Pope’s doctor made him sit in a room between two huge bonfires, and he had not caught the plague. Some historians thought the heat had killed the plague bacillus. More likely his keeping away from his highly contagious flock was what had saved him.”
The poor peasantry was at a tremendous disadvantage, relative to nobles, high clergy, and royals who had the means to flee and/or isolate themselves. Proportionally, “the poor died in greater percentages than the rich (50 percent versus 25 percent).” The fact that only one reigning king, namely Alfonso XI of Castile, died of the plague underscores the fact that people of different social standing and means had vastly different degrees of agency in maintaining their health and securing their personal survival. As far as personal survival went during the time of the Black Death, perhaps the most widely applicable and revelatory statement is that “[s]elflessness usually ended in death. Selfishness, fleeing the illness, was often rewarded with life.”
b) Common Reactions and Coping Mechanisms
In the face of the trauma of the Black Death, members of medieval European society reacted in two general ways. They either engaged in extreme religiosity or in mad revelry. The first coping mechanism—that of extreme religiosity—involved things like partaking of confession, dedicating one’s life to prayer, and even public flogging (including self-torture) in repentance for one’s sins. Ironically enough, the processions of flogging that occurred in heavily populated streets did the opposite of prevent the plague—they were the perfect environments for disease transmission.
The second general coping mechanism was mad revelry, this involved engaging in acts of intense, bodily passion and sensual desire. “Each person lived according to his own caprice, and everyone tended to seek pleasure in eating and drinking, hunting, catching birds, and gaming.” This approach of engaging in the joie de vie or ‘joy of life,’ of carousing and indulging one’s whole being in the pleasurable offerings of life came out of the realization that no one was safe from the plague and that life is fleeting.
Levenstein sums up the pervasive sense of human helplessness with respect to containing the disease through the lens of the case study of Boccaccio’s Florence:
The plague Boccaccio describes in the introduction to Decameron [could not] be
controlled by any human act. Municipal ordinances regulating the transport of refuse
from the city and limiting the movements of the afflicted [did] not prevent the spread of
the disease; devout prayer [brought] no improvement to the suffering city. The responses
of the Florentines to the threat of the epidemic– inducing seclusion, flight, herbal
remedies, and continual carousing, neither guarantee[d] health nor accelerate[d] illness:
regardless of their behavior, all Florentines [and all those in infected areas of Europe]
[we]re equally susceptible to the disease.”
Suspected Reasons and Rationalizations
Contemporaries of Giovanni Boccaccio, Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, and Jean de Venette, who lived through the Black Death by and large suspected three types of reasons or causes for the terrorizing plague: religious, celestial, and malefic or wrought of ill-will. Doomsday Book appropriately places the experience of the Black Death in the context of a religious European (specifically, English) society. Medieval Europeans turned to religion to rationalize the terror that befell them and to reassure themselves in a very uncertain world. Willis notes that during the 1300s, there was no concept of germs and “contemps [sic]… believed the Black Death was a judgment from God.” Perhaps it is worth explicating that in Christian belief, doomsday is the day of the Final Judgment and, effectively, the end of the world. Indeed, this pestilence was widely understood as ‘Doomsday’ or ‘Judgment Day.’
In Doomsday Book, Imeyne, blames the arrival of the plague on her daughter-in-law, Eliwys, claiming that Eliwys’s sin of adultery has brought punishment upon them. When her granddaughter, Rosemund, falls ill, Imeyne pronounces, “There is no help…it is God’s punishment.” Another example of this prevalent religious reasoning is when Lady Imeyne berates Agnes for disturbing Kivrin. “You are a wicked child,” she says. “God punishes those who bear false witness with everlasting torment,” that is the eternal pain and torture of hell. Jean de Venette echoes the widespread reasoning that the plague was God’s punishment for ‘unbelievers.’ He writes of flagellants who tortured themselves publically in a procession in the streets. These flagellants would engage in such self-injury, usually by means of whipping, in the belief that this expression of repentance and devotion to God would reverse the plague, which they believed to be punishment from the divine. The first of the following images depicts a flagellant procession and the second exhibits their tactic of self-whipping. Both pieces’ authors are unknown, but both are known to date back to circa 1350.
Image retrieved from http://www.eyewitnesshistory.com/flagellants.htm.
Image retrieved from http://www.eyewitnesshistory.com/flagellants.htm.
Another common rationalization was that the plague was the work of the Devil. In Doomsday Book, Father Roche and Kivrin entertain the question of whether it was God or the Devil who sent the plague. Much of Europe believed this was the source of the plague. Consequently, searches were conducted for Satan’s malefic agents. In The Chronicle of a French Cleric, Jean de Venette posits that the plague was caused by an “infection of the air and waters” and notes that many people had accused the Jews of perpetrating this infection and devastation. Jean de Venette’s chronicle points to one of the most disturbing responses to the plague, that of blaming those on the margins of society for the calamity. Lepers, Jews, and Muslims (in the case of Iberia), were accused of poisoning Christian wells and of other malefic deeds. Such discriminatory scapegoating was rampant well before the plague, particularly in the Spanish and German kingdoms, but spiked upon the plague’s arrival. Putting all the blame on a particular disenfranchised subgroup of society, and, moreover, insisting that they acted calculatedly, was an easy way of providing answers in this time of crisis. The violence perpetrated against the wrongly blamed Jews, in particular—the response of bigoted scapegoating—reveals that, all too often, terror begets terror. Those ‘on top’ will exert their power to ostracize and impose blame and responsibility on those on ‘the bottom,’ ‘the others.’
Giovanni Boccaccio suspects two causes—either the plague was “disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God.” Jean de Venette also posits that the people of France saw the pestilence as the consequence of a “bright star” from the heavens, which broke over Paris and spread the plague in rays. Another celestial theory was that the astral alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn diseased the air. Others yet believed that winds had brought the disease from distant lands or that previous earthquakes had released the disease into the air from the center of the earth. Seeing as fourteenth century European society lacked the biological knowledge to understand the plague’s causes and nature, it is impressive that at least this set of explanations reveals a basic conception of airborne disease transmission. It is the juxtaposition of these various (and usually separated) sources that affords the modern student of history the most complete possible experiential understanding of the rationalizations contemporaries had with respect to terror that befell them.
Effect on the Institutions, Organization, and Attitudes of Medieval European Society
a) Ramifications for of the Church
Europeans who lived through the Black Death (as do people living in the present day) sought God and religion to cope with the terror and uncertainty they faced. Simultaneously, however, the structure of the Church weakened. Several issues related to the clergy came to light during this ruinous episode. On the most elementary level, it became exceedingly clear that prayer and religious rectitude were not the answer to avoiding this perceived ‘punishment.’ As Ruiz and Winks point out, appeals to God brought no relief, whether one was a pious peasant or a pious monk.
Even clergy, God’s supposed servants, were not exempt from contracting the deadly ‘punishment.’ Jean de Venette reports in his The Chronicle of a French Cleric that the plague “attacked several cardinals and took them from their…household.” In Willis’s Doomsday Book, Father Roche selflessly fulfills the role of caretaker of the afflicted, refusing to abandon his parish to avoid contracting the disease himself. His selflessness, his piety, his being a good Samaritan does not exempt him from disease contraction, but rather costs him his life in the most agonizing and inglorious of ways. Of course, Father Roche’s selflessness is the exception, rather than the rule. Many clergy members did not comport themselves in an upright manner; they, representatives of the Church, acted as hypocrites, thus contributing to the weakening of the Church’s status.
The monks who arrive in Kivrin’s town in Doomsday Book drink excessively and appear to be the opposite of selfless. In one particular scene, the monk was leering at Maisry, and the clerk, drunk when he arrived was nearly under the table.” The monks in the novel are portrayed as drunks who purposefully abandon the sickly clerk, for example, leaving him at the manor at which Kivrin is staying. Not only do they not tend to or pray for the towns’ afflicted, but they also neglect to take responsibility for one of their own, leaving him at the manor without warning or permission.
Whether clergy died or simply abandoned their posts out of their own selfish interests, the fact remains that the dioceses were left without priests to attend to disease-stricken parishioners. In Doomsday Book, a letter from the local bishop that is delivered by messenger to the village, relays that the local diocese lack clergy and instructs that dying individuals should make confession to their peers in hope of salvation. Here, we see how during the Black Death the Church was left with no choice but to concede the crucial role they play in Christians’ life courses. More specifically, the Church effectively forfeited its theretofore-exclusive right to administer the Last Sacraments. The forfeit of the exclusive right to administer the Last Sacraments, effectively meant that Christians were no longer dependent on the clergy to get to enter heaven.
While the reasoning behind the falling clergy during the Black Death may be multifaceted and complex, it is safe to say that the clergy, and therefore the Church, was tremendously weakened in the wake of the Black Death. Boccaccio aptly sums up the Black Death’s ramifications on the status of the church in The Decameron: “Even the reverend authority of divine and human law had crumbled and fallen into decay, for its ministers and executors, like other men…were unable to attend to their duties.” It is abundantly evident from the previously discussed examples that the plague ultimately “weakened the church’s long-held grip on European beliefs and loyalty.”
b) Changes in Social Composition
The Black Death changed the composition of fourteenth century medieval European society, as well as its members’ general approach to life. The plague seemingly came out of nowhere and attacked “the lord in his castle as readily as the serf in his hovel.” With this lack of immunity across the board, the plague called into question the theretofore-rigid hierarchical divisions of European society. In terms of the composition of medieval European society (rather than in terms of psychology, which is the focus of this paper) the plague significantly “altered the socioeconomic pyramid and initiated a steady decline in population that lasted until the late fifteenth century.” The plague resulted in a drastically reduced labor force. Due to the scarcity of labor, wages rose. Moreover, many restrictive remnants of feudal society fell to disuse.
A primary example of this is English lords’ difficulty in finding and maintaining tenants. The following extracts from the year 1350, during the height o the Black Death, in the Durham hallmoot book speak to this disruption to the feudal system by which society ran. Summer 1350:
William de Kirkeby, coroner of the ward of Chester le Street, testifies that Thomas Short,
John so of Patrick, William Chir, John son of Richard, Robert Jenkynson, Thomas
Colman, Richard Robertson, Thomas son of Adam, John son of Matilda, the lord’s serfs,
said openly in the hearing of the coroner that they wanted to run away from the lords land
and take holdings elsewhere; and they paid nothing for the term of St. Cuthbert in March
last in the 5th year of the Bishop Thomas.
Boldon, 7 June 1350:
The jurors claim that the whole vill is so weakened that they can pay nothing, nor can any
tenant be found to make a fine for any of the land in the lord’s hand; two of the existing
tenants have offered money to render up there land, but no one has taken it.
Cassop, 23 October 1350:
The jury present that John de Byrden, who took a cottage, has abandoned it and is not living o the prior’s land at Pittington. Therefore be it noted that the coroner is to have his goods and chattels seized until the cottage is rebuilt, because it has been ruinous for a long time.
Those who had survived benefited from the availability of more and better land to cultivate. Despite survivors’ seemingly positive circumstances after plague had subsided, overall, for most people—for lords and serfs in different ways—the world was truly ‘turned upside down.’
c) Changes in the Medieval European Psyche
The plague drastically altered medieval Europeans’ psyche and their overall approach to life. This time period was particularly frightening, given the aforementioned Crisis of the Fourteenth Century and the further blow that came with the Black Death. Not knowing the cause of the plague, such a sweeping, uncontainable disaster, for fact entrenched in society a learned helplessness against the forces of nature. When prayer and religious rectitude proved to be no help, people reverted to immoral activity—to debauchery and the like. Moreover, this human helplessness and overwhelming sense of uncertainty led to the bigoted scapegoating and persecution of innocents. Like the Church, governments proved to be inept in dealing with the crisis and in safeguarding the population’s welfare. European society of this time was marked by tremendous uncertainty and, as a result, presented moral fraying and organizational crumbling.
Another critical change was that death became the focal point of the social conscience and members of society became fascinated by the rituals of death and dying. By the fifteenth century, the physicality of death, of bodily decay became an omnipresent obsession in Europe. The cult of death developed further every time the epidemic manifested itself again (for example, when the Black Death erupted again between 1388-1390). “Dance, decoration, art, and public ceremony”—all integral parts of fourteenth-century medieval society—thenceforth used death as a centerpiece. This new relationship with death and its artistic legacy is the focal point of this paper’s argument, and its profundity in terms of lasting and impactful change that the Black Death brought will be discussed later at great length.
Instances of Resultant Beneficial Change
a) The Evolution of Medicine and Hospitals
The Black Death, though undeniably disastrous and devastating overall also served as the impetus for some positive change in certain sectors of medieval European society. In the mid-fourteenth century, France was known as the medical hub of the world. The faculty of the Paris College of Physicians was considered the ultimate authorities in medicine. When the Black Death arrived, King Philippe of Valois ordered that the members of this institution come up with an explanation and plan of action with regard to the pandemic. The faculty promised to illuminate the causes of the plague “more clearly than could have been done according to the rules and principles of astrology and natural science.” They proposed in a written declaration to the king basing causation on the movement of the stars, the influence of the sun on the ocean, and the resultant product of toxic vapor in the air. They insisted that everyone “should protect himself from the air; and…kindle a large fire of vine-wood, green laurel, or other green wood; wormwood and chamomile should also be burnt.” Of course, this explanation and method of prevention were worthless.
As disappointing as this explanation and preventative method might sound to the modern person’s ears, it is understandable and, perhaps more importantly, sheds light on the fact that medicine was largely manipulated and seen through the lens of superstition. Superstition played a major role in medieval life and not even the most esteemed doctors of the day were exempt from enslavement to such persuasions. Indeed, there was a major reason why doctors of the day were so helplessly misinformed and that reason is the control exercised by the Church over medical institutions, education, and practice. All universities were under the jurisdiction and domination of the Church. Men of God considered the science of medicine of next to no importance because of its focus on the physical body and lack of attention to the spirit. The Church dictated that the first duty of a physician making a house call was to inquire if the patient had confessed and received the holy sacrament. If the patient had not, the doctor was to make him promise to do so. If the doctor failed in securing that promise, he was to abort treatment. Of course, the Church’s jurisdiction and dictates made sense in the context of a medieval European society. Society was largely religious and held the view that sickness was a manifestation of God’s wrath, a punishment for sin. So, in this context it was more urgent that a sick man’s soul be cleansed and treated than his body be cleansed and treated.
Society’s failure to treat or cure the disease led to the search for new remedies and, thus, kick started the professional evolution of medicine. Older practitioners of ‘traditional’ medicine and clergy capable of hearing confession died of the plague and as a result there was a deficit of healers. Surgeons began to emerge on the scene at this time. By 1390 the medical faculty at the University of Paris invited surgeons to join the faculty. Thus, surgeons usurped power and prominence in the medical field (and in society, at large).
Access to health education and hospitalization for the purpose of actual healthcare did not exist prior to the Black Death; they were introduced into medieval society only after, in light of the lessons of the plague. Laypeople demanded that treatises on medicine and health be written in the vernacular, so as to be accessible and understandable by those outside the medical profession. With respect to hospitals, prior to the plague, those who were hospitalized were “treated as though already dead”—their property was sold and all. After the plague, people were admitted to hospitals for actual treatment and physicians’ goal was to cure the patient, rather than to chaperone him as he or she died. Moreover, after the plague, hospitals were organized into distinct wards. Patients with infectious diseases, for example, were kept and treated separately from those with only broken bones.
b) A More Secure Social Position of Women of the Middling Sorts
Women of the middling sorts, particularly those from England, benefitted in the aftermath of the plague from what some scholars have labeled a ‘golden age.’ This ‘golden age’ spanned from 1370 to 1470 and is often explained as a consequence of depopulation. Because the plague had killed such a substantial portion of the population, women’s social roles were bumped up, so to speak. Circumstances forced society to allow women to assume roles theretofore out of bounds. Taking on these new responsibilities afforded women the chance to prove their worth as workers in the labor force and as executors in the realm of estates and property. Previously, women were legally viewed as ‘one flesh’ with their husbands. In the latter decades of the fourteenth century, it was within a widow’s legal means to break free from this state of ‘one flesh.’ A widow could “make a will and testament; in London especially she could continue her husband’s business and occupy the family house (whereas elsewhere and earlier widow had to vacate her dead husband’s home in forty days).” What is more, these women were able to join in the social and economic life of guilds, companies, and fraternities. They were, however, still denied a political role in any and all of these realms.
It is important to understand that shortly after women of this particular sector of society gained their enhanced social positions, Europe’s population began to recover—that is, new life began to replace the lives lost due to the plague. With demographic recovery came a general reversion to the precedent social norms. The virulent misogyny and the targeting of women that pervades the poetry and romances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries evince this reversion. So, too, does the fact that the witch craze (which began toward the end of the fifteenth century) overwhelmingly targeted women (especially elderly women). These examples indicate that the ‘golden age’ of women was indeed short-lived and far from permanent.
Perspectives on Rebound and Recovery
Jean de Venette’s The Chronicle of a French Cleric presents an interesting explanation of the plague: one generation’s destruction makes room for a subsequent generation, which will thrive. After the end of the epidemic, the surviving men and women married and had children. Women in the aftermath of the plague were not sterile, but rather extremely fertile, as evinced by the subsequent surge in pregnancies. This upswing in pregnancy came as a celebration of surviving the plague, as a celebration of fertility and the ability to proliferate. Europe’s population rebounded surprisingly quickly. The fact that a large fraction of the population had been eliminated meant more work, land, and food for those who survived, and this allowed for the high rate of reproduction and subsistence.
Jean de Venette’s perspective on the destruction-reconstruction pattern of the plague is very much in line with the ideas that English economist and clergyman Thomas Malthus would formulate centuries later. In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus argues that without the practice of “moral restraint” the population tends to increase at a greater rate than its means of subsistence, resulting in the population checks of war, famine, and epidemic. This idea is often referred to as the ‘Malthusian Limit’ and many scholars have used it to explain some of the terrors of history. Until the fourteenth century, the population of Europe had increased steadily from its low point in the centuries immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Particularly from the eleventh century on, landlords tried to raise their income by bringing new land into cultivation. By improving farming technology, building dikes, draining marshland, and clearing forests, European peasants produced much more food, which permitted more people to survive and multiply. That advance in population tapered off by the early fourteenth century.
In The Black Death; A Turning Point in History?, Herlihy comments that “the Black Death’s pivotal role in late medieval society…[is] now being challenged.” He goes on to say: “If the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier,” as a direct and immediate consequence of the population growth that occurred years before the outbreak of the plague. Herlihy’s conclusion is sound. He concludes, “The medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis,” but rather “a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period.”
To expand on Herlihy’s argument, the Black Death was, in addition to a demographic stalemate, a social stalemate. It was neither a demographic nor a social turning point in the long-term, in the wide view of medieval history. The previously discussed ramifications of the plague on medieval society (i.e. the weakened status of the Church, the improved status of status of English women of the middling sorts, etc.) were indeed significant, but many of the changes were relatively short-lived (except in the case of changes in medical practice, which has continued to evolve). It should be considered, though, that in terms of history, ‘short-lived’ means decades-long or even a century long (unlike in the span of human life) mean decades. Though the blow was particularly hard and though there were many changes brought on by the Black Death, very few shaped European society long-term. Overall, medieval institutions and people rebounded within a relatively short period of time. Institutions and outside systems bounced back to normal, but the inner workings of the medieval European mind were changed forever. This is the basis of this thesis: to find the longest-lasting, most engrained change the Black Death brought, one must look to the inner life of the medieval European individual—to the change in his psychology and mental focus. What one will find is that this shift reverberated throughout various communities, and evidence of it can be found not just in literary works, but also in the extant art this generation left behind.
The Shift In Mental Focus
In his essay “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities,” Lerner explains, “as there is a ‘Richter scale’ for measuring earthquakes, there is now a ‘Foster scale’ for measuring disasters.” Canadian geographer, Harold D. Foster has “maintained that disasters ought not to be ranked solely b their toll in lives but also by the physical damage and emotional stress they create.” Using this framework, the Black Death falls two-tenths of a point short of being the worst disaster in history, second only to World War II (and only barely—11.1 versus 10.9). Though one could question this ranking and how emotional stress is so finitely quantified, the bottom line is that the disaster was of epic proportions on both the mortality front, as well as on the trauma front. That is to say, those who lived through the plague were inarguably scarred by the disaster they witnessed. The previous section of this paper has already determined the fact that the plague’s psychological impact was the longest lasting, the most difficult for society to ‘bounce back from.’ Because the Black Death struck a religious, Christian society the natural next question is how did the plague place in terms of eschatological thought? This chapter will focus on answering this question.
At a time and in a society where the populace genuinely believed in the end of the world and in the Last Judgment, how did they interpret the greatest calamity ever to befall their society in its entire history? How did the Black Death, in other words, figure in their conception of Christian salvation?
Undoubtedly, many medieval Europeans took the event of the Black Death for an eschatological sign. Many were of the same opinion as the Swiss Franciscan John of Winterthur, who believed that the Black Death was a precursor to the slew of terrible events that God warned would take place before the Second Coming of Christ. Matthew 24:7 and Luke 21:11 are the verses containing this admonition. Of course, not everyone in Europe who faced the plague thought about the Second Coming and about salvation, but it is clear that for a significant portion of the effected population, mental focus shifted to eschatology.
b) Flagellants, Macabre Processions, and Chiliasm
Processions Perhaps the most blatant and bold enactment or manifestation of this mental shift is the macabre processions of the flagellants who lived through the Black Death. The response of self-flogging was briefly discussed in Chapter V in the section entitled “Common Reactions and Coping Mechanisms.” The term ‘flagellant,’ of course, refers to those who sought to purify themselves in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ by means of self-flagellation. Scholar Herman Haupt draws the connection between the flagellant macabre processions and eschatological prophecies, explaining that “the flagellants felt called upon the prepare the way for the coming kingdom of God.” The flagellants legitimately felt that is was upon them, that they were responsible for the proclamation of a new time. They were to proclaim that the time had come for the preparation for the end of the world.” To them, the plague was a clear sign of God’s displeasure with humankind’s sins. Norman Cohn has also commented on the flagellant movement. According to Cohn, they were “eschatologically inspired hords” whose behavior and actions were reflected what was essentially a “militant and bloody pursuit of the Millennium.”
Some argue that the flagellants were not a millenarian movement, because though they read the plague as the antecedent to the Second Coming of Christ and believed that there would be a thousand year reign of peace on Earth penultimate to the Final Judgment, they also believed that the penultimate age to the end of the world could yet be avoided. Were this not the case, they would not have resorted to such extreme forms of repentance. Irrespective of what is their technically correct classification, the flagellants are a central example of how the Black Death was psychologically received, understood, and acted upon.
The millennialism or chiliasm of the mid-fourteenth century, and of the Middle Ages in general for that matter, took two different forms—first, post Anti-Christ and second, pre Anti-Christ. The former believed that the period of peace would be preceded by the appearance of the Anti-Christ and the latter believed that peace would come before the arrival of the Anti-Christ. Among the two, the most prevalent was the latter. These strains of chiliasm will be explained in the following section.
The post Anti-Christ idea of Chiliasm is based on the Bible as mentioned in Revelations 20 and other sections. It was also prevalent because it was what majority of religious writers would write about. Eminent writers like Joachim of Fiore wrote eloquent and prophetic treatises on this form of Chiliasm. There were also others like Hugh Ripelin who wrote that there would not be immediate judgment after the Antichrist’s death. There would be a period of peace first that would herald the refreshment of the saints and the conversion of the Jews and triumph of the Church all over the world. Again, this surge in chiliast action and though should come as no surprise considering the context of pestilence and mass death. In terms of psychology, this shift of mental focus on eschatology provided witnesses to the Black Death with a shred of clarity in a time of total lack of control, as well as the sense that at least salvation was imminent.
The post Anti-Christ Chiliasm movement then was not too popular among the masses for one reason. It was the domain of the literate elite, which was mostly the clergy, or those attached to them. Many of the people then were not literate and could not access their teachings. The pre Antichrist movement of Chiliasm on the other hand was quite popular due to its accessibility to the masses. This was because many of their writers would play into the ignorance of the masses and their feelings. Most of the work found like the “Tiburtine Sybil” were altered and suited to the prevailing feelings of the time. Some would even be altered to include the Black Death into their scenarios in order to make the prophecies timely. However, a closer look at their literature would reveal that they were more flights of fancy written by charlatans rather than scholars. An example would be one purporting the birth of the Anti-Christ who was already ten years old and another who was born among the Tartars instructed in Christianity who would defeat him. There were tales of travels to faraway lands by the writers who gave inconsistent details. Be that as it may, chiliastic movements gave hope to the suffering people of the time and helped inspire penance and faith. It makes sense that the Black Death, certainly medieval Europe’s greatest disaster, caused the masses to consider how the present related to the future and, at that, in a markedly Christian sense. Expressions of chiliasm pervaded everywhere “from Italy to England and from Austria to Catalonia.”
A New Relationship with Death, As Seen Through Fourteenth Century Literature and Art
The medieval experience was, in the long-term view of European history, a demographic and social stalemate; it was not unrecoverable. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the Black Death tainted the European psyche for many subsequent generations. The flagellants are just one immediately subsequent example of a newly shifted mental focus on death. The artwork of contemporaries and even subsequent generations—including works classified as part of the Renaissance, which had its beginnings in roughly at the time of the plague—seem to urge contemporaries “it is good to think on death.” These works are predicated on the new relationship with death the Black Death induced. The fact that even plague witnesses’ posterity perpetuated the trope of death in their art, in these articulations of European culture, proves that the psychological impact and the change in mentality were by far the most indelible marks the Black Death left.
It took a while for reflections on the plague to appear in the form of art. The explanation for this lag-time is simple. First, it would take some time to recover from the traumatic blow would-be artists faced. Second, the production of art would have to await an economic recovery. Though it took a bit of time before works of art reflected the mental shift toward death that the plague brought to medieval European society, which is not to say that the conversation itself had not gained prevalence earlier. In fact, before the plague struck, Benedict XII (1334-1342) issued a papal bull that asserted that man upon his death would be judged twice. The first judgment would come right after death and the final judgment would come during the end of time. Benedict XII’s papal bull also increased emphasis on the soul of man rather than the body of man. The timing of the issuing of this papal bull was particularly convenient with the Black Death coming only a few years later. What did this mean in terms of the production of the art of this period? For one, such a declaration, coupled with the event of the Black Death, irrefutably renewed interest in topics such as the salvation of man and the destination of the soul after death. Moreover, it underscored the relative insignificance of the vessel of body post-death. Because the corpse was no longer a revered object, it became an acceptable artistic subject. That is to say, the papal bull, in combination with the familiarity with mortality in which the Black Death resulted essentially paved the way for the production of art that was explorative and interpretive of the corpse and of death, in general.
‘Plague Art’ is the term used to describe art during and especially after the period of the Black Death. There are many facets of the art, some are gruesome while others depict the psychosocial responses of people to the plague and yet others have deep religious symbolism, which points to hope. In terms of imagery one of the most common in Plague Art is the arrow, which is the symbol for divine punishment. The mid-fourteenth century fresco, The Black Death, is a depiction of just such imagery. It features a divine and imposing figure in the center holding bundles of arrows in each hand. The group of people surrounding her is visibly comprised of members of different social classes and the arrow of divine punishment afflicts all of them; no one is spared. It is interesting to note that many of the arrow wound sites are the very sites where the buboes of the plague were known to appear—primarily, in the under the arm region.
Anonymous, The Black Death, Lavaudieu, France, St-André.
In addition to the image of the arrow of divine punishment, the metaphorical image of the game of chess also speaks to post-Black Death medieval European society’s attitudes toward and relationship with death: life is a game of chess, and encountering the plague is checkmate. This metaphor is central to the poetry of John Lydgate, a monk from Bury St. Edmunds, England. In the early 1430s, John Lydgate translated a French poem, La Danse Macabre (translated as the ‘Dance of Death’), in which two of the characters label themselves as “checke-mate[d]” by the plague.
Depictions of this overwhelming morbidity, this intimate interaction and relationship with death, even infiltrated religious institutions, themselves. Through the 15th century, the image of La Danse Macabre was very common. A fresco of the Danse Macabre appears on the walls of a cloister in the background of Simon Marmion’s St. Bertin Altarpiece of 1459. Here is yet another example: At the turn of the 16th century, a sequence of forty-four stained-glass windows depicting the Dance of Death was installed in the church of St. Andrews. The one window that still remains depicts portrays death as a chess player, with a bishop as his opponent.
Anonymous, Death as a Chess Player, Norwich, St. Andrew.
This iconography, which is prominent well beyond the period of the Black Death, involves personifications of death. These appear as portrayals of death as a corpse or a skeleton. These ghastly figures are often depicted as dancing La Danse Macabre through the use of bizarre, exaggerated movements. Their apparently abnormal gestures imitate the uncontrolled gesticulations of victims of the plague. The German woodcut series, The Heidelberg Dance of Death (1485) features, in one part, a circle of cavorting cadavers whose eyes and facial expressions communicate a joyous mania. The ghastly, decaying figures link arms as a drum-playing corpse ushers them around a body that still lies in its grave.
Anonymous, The Heidelberg Dance of Death (woodcut illustration).
Millard Meiss observes that after the Black Death, art—and life—was “pervaded by profound pessimism.” He cites the fresco cycle located in the Composanto at Pisa his principle evidentiary support. According to Meiss, the scenes of the Triumph of Death, which was completed circa 1350, are clearly associated with the contemporary Black Death. In the left corner of the fresco is a scene of three living men confronting three dead men whose bodies are in various stages of decay.
Master of the Triumph of Death, Triumph of Death, Pisa, Camposanto.
One of the victims has recently died, the other is bloated, and the other is a skeleton. The representation of the corpses reveals an awareness of and fascination with decay and serves as an omen to the living of their inevitable fate. On the right side of the Triumph of Death, ten seemingly young and vibrant courtiers are enjoying their time in an orchard, unaware of the black, overhead personification of death that is about to swoop down and snatch them.
Master of the Triumph of Death, Triumph of Death (detail), Pisa, Camposanto.
This representation of death reflects the pessimism about death that the Black Death experience has taught the population; Death swoops in swiftly and mercilessly confiscates the gift of life completely indiscriminately—from the young, the old, the rich, and the poor.
The primary message conveyed through these works of art, which represent the psychology of the period is that death strikes everyone; no one is exempt. In so doing, these works reflect a change in the medieval European psyche. That change, of course, is the shift of focus to the deathly and to an intimate and interactive relationship with death and morbidity. Again, it is important to note that this mental focus on and conception of death with the Black Death ushered in spilled over into generation subsequent to that which eye-witnessed the plague. The fact that the Heidelberg Dance of Death was produced in 1485—more than a century after the Black Death—is enough to substantiate this paper’s claim that the most resounding and long-lasting effect of the event was to do with the mentality and psychology of death.
The term Memento mori, which translates as “Remember your mortality” or as “Remember you will die,” refers to this genre of artwork that serves to remind people of their irrevocable relationship and tie to death. At this point in this paper’s analysis of medieval European society’s post-plague relationship with death, it is almost as though the term demands to be capitalized—which will be done from here on out. Death was not some distant, untouchable possibility, but rather a proximal, tangible, and person or figure with whom the entirety of medieval European society was now intimately, albeit reluctantly, acquainted.
A Tainted and Traumatized Collective Medieval European Psyche
Perhaps the best experiential summation of the plague is that of Agnolo di Tura, of Siena. In Cronaca Senese, he writes that the “mortality in Siena began in May.” Before going on to the rest of his description, it is worth taking a pause and looking at the tragic irony encapsulated in this first sentence. May, naturally a time of spring, of rebirth, and renewal, was for Agnolo di Tura, for all of Siena, and for much of the rest of Europe a time of just the opposite—a time of pestilence, a time of morbidity, a time of terror.
Agnolo di Tura goes on to describe the terror, the trauma: It seemed that almost everyone
became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the
awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The
victims died almost immediately…[the infected would] fall over while talking. Father
abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike
through breath and sight. And so they died.
Those who witnessed the plague were irrevocably traumatized. People were “stupefied seeing the pain.” This emotional and physical scarring must have made it nearly impossible for victims and survivors to process the plague in its full scope.
None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura . . . buried my five children with my own hands . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. Here, Agnolo di Tura’s experiential description points to the plague’s utter contradiction of the natural order, to how it killed any semblance of regularity, stability, and social responsibility. Most illustrative of the latter is how parents abandoned or killed their own children. The morbidity level was so high that many thought they were witnessing the end of the world, or as Connie Willis’s book’s title aptly suggests, doomsday—the day of Last Judgment.
Speaking in terms of psychohistory, the Black Death profoundly traumatized the collective European psyche. This trauma is visible in the literary and artistic works left behind by contemporaries. Moreover, the fact that this trauma bled through to subsequent generations and their works proves the thesis that the psychological impact of the plague—the population’s relationship with death and, in turn, their very outlook on life—was from then on tainted.
Concluding Argument and Lessons About Times of Terror and Human Helplessness
The Black Death completely ravaged the streets and countryside of medieval Europe; 1346-1353 was indeed a period of unparalleled calamity, uncertainty, and distress. This paper covered the qualitative and quantitative facts of the plague—its symptoms, transmission, and death toll. In the spirit of Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages, this paper then delved further—that is into the realm of the experiential. This was made possible only by the synthesis of multiple and various sources. A collage of primary and secondary written and artistic sources was created and, subsequently, excerpts from Connie Willis’s fictional account of the plague were inserted so as to draw the modern reader nearer to what is otherwise a distant history. In so doing, I not only set the stage for my central thesis, but also demonstrated the worth and potential of a symbiotic relationship between history and fiction.
The aforementioned synthesized experiential portrait of the Black Death has illuminated mid-fourteenth century Europe’s reception of, various responses to, and reflections on the trauma and in so doing has answered the question of how the Black Death shaped and developed medieval European society in subsequent years. On this foundation, this paper has constructed the argument that among the various social, religious, and cultural, marks the Black Death left.
Sources like Boccaccio, Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, Willis, and others have illuminated the following responses and reactions to the onslaught of the plague: religion (prayer, confession, flogging), the sensual (mad revelry, debauchery, bodily pleasures), bigotry (scapegoating, terrorizing those already on the margins of society), a changed mentality (a shift toward eschatology and an intimate familiarity with Death), and through art (Momento mori). Thus, this examination of the Black Death has shown results that fit in nicely with Huizinga’s typology of the three general ways in which late medieval European society dealt with the uncertainties they faced—religion, materials goods and enjoyment, and aesthetic or artistic yearnings.
The reaction of bigotry—pointing blame, scapegoating, persecuting and/or executing the marginalized and disenfranchised segments of society—elicits special attention (even though it is outside the scope of the specific argument of this thesis). Bigoted reactions seem to be all too common a trend in the study of historical disasters (and in the present-day, for that matter). It is incredible how in the face of terror, humankind resorts to terrorizing. In other words, societies that are faced with terror choose to perpetuate terror against a targeted group in order to forge some semblance of control and understanding and to assert power. Terror, apparently, begets terror.
This paper has covered, in addition to the responses to the plague, the plague’s positive and negative impacts on medieval European society. I have argued that the most deeply etched change the Black Death brought was that to the individual and collective medieval European psyche. The psychological impact of the plague reverberated for generations and can still be seen in the extant artworks from the period. This is true of the psychological change the Black Death brought, but not of the other changes it brought. In other words, for the extrinsic institutions and organization of society the Black Death proved to be a stalemate, while for the intrinsic mental workings and perceptions of the European psyche, the Black Death brought lasting change. After all, an impact on a way of thinking and on mental preoccupation is far harder to remove, to ‘bounce back’ from. Quite remarkably, this new relationship with Death and its psychological and mental components were transferred to and internalized by subsequent generations who had never first-hand experienced the trauma. As for what it reveals about human dealings with the terror of history, this paper points to a sense of learned human helplessness against nature—a helplessness from which no one was categorically exempt, no matter how religiously upright or socially superior.
Contemporary accounts call the disease “pestilence” or “plague.” Plague comes from the Latin word plaga, which can be translated as “a blow.” Not until the sixteenth century was the pandemic called the “Black Death.”
For this discussion on Petrarch and Altra mors, see Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004), 3.
Geoffery Marks, The Medieval Plague: The Black Death of the Middle Ages (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 5.
Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Ulrich Mammitzsch and Rodney J. Payton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 14.
Wessel Krul, “In the Mirror of van Eyck: Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27 (1997), 41.
For a full discussion of climate change during the medieval period and the resulting Great Famine, see Vincent Del Casino et al., World Regions in Global Context: People, Places, and Environments, 4th ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2010), 36.
Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1969), 13.
Michele da Piazza (Michael Platiensis), Bibliotheca scriptorium qui res in Sicilia gestas retulere, vol. I, 562.
For a chronicle of the spread of the plague and the regions it hit and miss, see Chronicon Flandriae breve (1334-1356), ed. J.J. de Smet, vol II, 15.
For details on the demographic destruction the plague caused, see David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1997), 17.
Rosemary Horrox, trans. and ed., Manchester Medieval Sources Series: The Black Death The Waning of the Middle Ages (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 296.
J. M. Bennett and C. W. Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), 329.
Ruiz and Winks, Medieval Europe and the World: From Late Antiquity to Modernity, 247.
The quotes contained in this paragraph are from Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 422-424.
The quotes in this paragraph are found in Ruiz and Winks, 247. For further detail on the symptoms of the plague, see the aforementioned Marks source.
Anna L. DesOrmeaux. “The Black Death and Its Effects on Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Art,” Unpublished Master of Arts thesis Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College (2007), 63.
The quotes in this paragraph are respectively from Willis, 384 and 448.
Di Tura del Grasso, Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle, 14.
For further discussion on the contents of this paragraph see DesOrmeaux, 63 and 66.
Iona Opie and Peter Opie, The Singing Game (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 365 and 221.
Giovanni Boccacio, The Decameron, from https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/file.php/9939/course_materials/119wk7_8.pdf , xxv.
Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet, The Black Death of 1348 and 1349, 2nd ed. (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1977), 50.
Ruiz and Winks, 247.
The quotes in this paragraph are respectively taken from Ruiz and Winks, 251 and 247.
Di Tura del Grasso, 13.
Jessica Levenstein, “Out of Bounds: Passion and the Plague in Boccaccio’s Decameron,” Italica 73 (1996): 3.
The quotes from this page are respectively taken from Willis, 418, 433, and 159.
Image retrieved from http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/flagellants.htm. De Venette, 15.
De Venette, 15.
De Venette, 15.
De Venette, 15.
Ruiz and Winks, 251.
Ruiz and Winks, 251.
For the full version of the official records, excerpts of which are employed on this page, see Horrox, 327.
For the full version of the official records, excerpts of which are employed on this page, see Horrox, 330.
For more information on the ‘cult of death’ and death’s centrality to life and culture in medieval Europe during this time, see Phillip Lindley, “The Black Death and English Art: A Debate and Some Assumptions,” in The Black Death in England, ed. Mark Ormrod and Phillip Lindley (Stamford: Paul Watkins Publishing, 1996), 125.
Marks, 77 and 79.
For further information on the medical faculty at the University of Paris, the change of surgeons’ statuses, and hospitalization during the period in question see Marks, 77 and 249.
Geoffrey Gilbert, introduction to An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas R. Malthus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), xvi.
Marvin Perry, Sources of the Western Tradition Vol I: From Ancient Times to the Enlightenment Brief (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 163-6.
Robert E. Lerner, “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities,” in The Black Death: The Impact of the Fourteenth-Century Plague, ed. Daniel Williman (Binghamptom: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies State University of New York at Binghamtptom, 1982), 77.
Haupt, “Kirchliche Geisselung und Geisslerbruderschaften,” Realencykopadie fur prtestantische Teologie und Kirche, 6 (1899): 437.
Section b of this chapter deals with the flagellant movement and chiliasm of the fourteenth century. It draws information from Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 136-39, 551, 545, 560, and 564.
For a complete discussion on Plague Art see DesOrmeaux, 63.
David Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” ELH 54 (1987): 4. N.B. Lydegate embellished his translation of the poem with some of his own lines.
Sophie Oosterwijk, “Of Corpses, Constables, and Kings: The Dance Macabre in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture,” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 157 (2004), 66. (JSTOR). N.B. The earliest known depiction of La Danse Macabre was a monumental mural that decorated the walls of the cemetery at Les Innocents, a Franciscan convent in Paris. The cycle, now destroyed, was painted between August of 1424 and Easter of 1425.
Sophie Oosterwijk, “Of Corpses, Constables, and Kings: The Dance Macabre in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture,” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 157 (2004): 66.
According to DesOrmeaux, Scholars still debate the authorship of the work of art. Most often, the work has been attributed to Francesco Traini, Buffalmacco, or to an anonymous Master of the Triumph of Death.
Di Tura del Grasso, 14.
Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. From https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/file.php/9939/course_materials/119wk7_8.pdf.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Da Piazza, Michele (Michael Platiensis). Bibliotheca scriptorium qui res in Sicilia gestas retulere, vol. I, 562. De Smet, J.J., ed. Chronicon Flandriae (1334-1356) vol II, 15. De Venette, Jean. The Chronicle of a French Cleric. From https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/file.php/9939/course_materials/119wk7_8.pdf.
Del Casino, Vincent, et al. World Regions in Global Context: People, Places, and Environments. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2010.
DesOrmeaux, Anna. “The Black Death and Its Effects on Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Art.” M.A. thesis, Louisiana State University, 2007. Di Tura del Grasso, Agnolo. Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle. From https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/file.php/9939/course_materials/119wk7_8.pdf.
Gasquet, Francis Aidan Cardinal. The Black Death of 1348 and 1349. 2nd ed. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1977.
Gilbert, Geoffrey. Introduction to An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas R. Malthus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Harrox, Rosemary, trans. And ed. Manchester Medieval Sources Series: The Black Death The Waning of the Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
Haupt, Herman. “Kirchliche Geisselung und Geisslerbruderschaften.” Realencykopadie fur prtestantische Teologie und Kirche, 6 (1899): 437.
Herbert, Bruce. Notes On The Chronicle Ascribed To Geoffrey Le Baker Of Swinbrook. Charleston: Nabu Press, 2011.
Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Huizinga, Johan. The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Translated by Ulrich Mammitzsch and
Rodney J. Payton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Krul, Wessel. “In the mirror of van Eyck: Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 27.3 (1997): 35-85.
Lawton, David. “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century.” ELH 54 (1987): 4.
Lerner, Robert E. “The Black Death and Western European Eschatological Mentalities.” In The impact of the Fourteenth-Century Plague, edited by Daniel Williman, 77-107. Binghamptom: Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies State University of New York at Binghamtptom, 1982.
Levenstein, Jessica. “Out of Bounds: Passion and the Plague in Boccaccio’s Decameron”. Italica 73 (1996): 3.
Lindley, Phillip. “The Black Death and English Art: A Debate and Some Assumptions.” In The Black Death in England, edited by Mark Ormrod and Phillip, 125-46. Stamford: Paul Watkins Publishing, 1996.
Marks, Geoffrey. The Medieval Plague: The Black Death of the Middle Ages. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
Oosterwijk, Sophie. “Of Corpses, Constables, and Kings: The Dance Macabre in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 157 (2004), 66.
Opie, Iona and Peter Opie. The Singing Game. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Perry, Marvin. Sources of the Western Tradition Vol I: From Ancient Times to the Enlightenment Brief. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
Ruiz, Teofilo F. and Robin W. Winks. Medieval Europe and the World: From Late Antiquity to Modernity, 400-1500.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Wessel Krul. “In the mirror of van Eyck: Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 27.3 (1997): 35-85.
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1969.