Christian History Home > 1996 > Issue 49 > When a Third of the World Died
When a Third of the World Died
During the Black Death, the greatest catastrophe in human history, how did Christians respond?
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Yet there were also pockets of extraordinary Christian charity. According to one French chronicler, the nuns at one city hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” New nuns replaced those who died, until most had died: “Many times renewed by death [they] now rest in peace with Christ as we may piously believe.”
Appeasing God’s Wrath
To most people there was but one explanation for the calamity: the wrath of God. A scourge so sweeping had to be divine punishment for sin. One writer compared the plague to the Flood.
Efforts to appease God’s wrath took many forms, but the most common were processions authorized at first by the pope. Some lasted as long as three days, and some were attended by as many as 2,000 (which, of course, just help spread the plague). Penitents went barefoot and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled themselves with ashes, wept, prayed, tore their hair, carried candles and relics. They wound through city streets, begging for mercy from Jesus, Mary, and the saints.
When the plague refused to abate, the processions moved from ceremonies of remorse to self-flagellation. The flagellants believed they were society’s redeemers; they re-enacted Christ’s scourging on their own bodies to atone for human sin.
Stripped to the waists, beating themselves with leather whips tipped with iron spikes until the blood flowed, groups of 200 to 300 (and sometimes up to 1,000), marched from city to city. They begged Christ and Mary for pity, and townspeople sobbed and groaned in sympathy. They performed three times a day, twice publicly in the church square and once in private.
They were organized under a lay Master for usually 33 1/2 days—to represent Christ’s years on earth. They pledged self-support and obedience to the Master. They were not allowed to bathe, shave, change clothes, sleep in beds, talk or have intercourse with women without the Master’s permission.
The movement quickly spread from Germany through the Low Countries to France. Hundreds of bands roamed the land, exciting already overwrought emotions in city after city. Inhabitants greeted them with the ringing of church bells and offered them hospitality. Children were brought to them to be healed. People dipped cloths in the flagellants’ blood and pressed the cloths to their eyes and preserved them as relics.
The flagellants quickly grew arrogant and began overtly attacking the church. Masters began hearing confessions, granting absolution, and imposing penance. Priests who tried to stop them were stoned; opponents were denounced as Antichrists. The flagellants took over churches, disrupted services, ridiculed the Eucharist, looted altars, and claimed the power to cast out demons and raise the dead.
Then the self-torturers and other Christians turned their anxiety upon another group: the Jews. Jews were suspected of poisoning city wells, intending “to kill and destroy the whole of Christendom and have lordship over all the world.” Lynchings began in the spring of 1348 following the first plague deaths. In France, Jews were dragged from their houses and thrown into bonfires.
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