By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
When the Black Death struck the medieval world in 1347, the people who were living through the Great Mortality were surely asking themselves questions like, “Should I squeeze every bit of pleasure out of life, or should I change my sinful ways in the hope that God might be merciful?” The responses were varied.
Varied Approaches to the Black Death
There was an increase in religious fervor among the general populace, with some taking that response to an extreme—praying more earnestly, fasting more frequently, and going on pilgrimage.
Going on pilgrimage was a common enough thing to do even before the Black Death arrived, but when it arrived, people started to do this in larger numbers. But, in the face of the plague, more people decided to do what we could think of as supersizing those pilgrimages—for example, by doing some of it by crawling instead of walking.
Many scholars have long believed that the children’s rhyme, ‘Ring around a rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes we all fall down’, was a response to the Black Death, although there are some today who question if this is really the case.
And, there were the people who just kept on chugging along. In exploring the wide variety of human responses to the death and destruction of the plague, there are some extremes of behavior, but there’s also plenty of people responding in much the same way a doctor might advise today if someone got the flu: rest, drink, get plenty of fluids, eat healthy food, etc.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.
A Letter from Avignon
One of the worst things about the Black Death was that people living in uninfected parts of Europe knew that it was coming their way. Letters, verbal accounts, medical treatises, and pilgrims flocking to holy sites brought stories of death in the most miserable of fashions.
Louis Heylighen, a Flemish man at the papal court in Avignon, wrote a letter detailing his experience with the plague and sent it home. Among other details in that missive, he noted that the people living in Avignon and its environs had taken certain measures to try and avoid getting sick.
Heylighen went on to give advice to his family and friends back home:
I am writing to you, most dearly beloved, so that you should know in what peril we are now living. And if you wish to preserve yourselves, the best advice is that a man should eat and drink moderately, and avoid getting cold, and refrain from any excess, and above all mix little with people unless it is with a few who have healthy breath; but it is best to stay at home until the epidemic has passed. According to astrologers, the epidemic takes ten years to complete its cycle, of which three have now elapsed, and so it is to be feared that in the end, it will have encircled the whole world, although they say that it will affect cold regions more slowly.
Learn more about the plague’s effects on the medieval church.
Flagellant Movement Was Opposite of Keeping Calm
While Heyligen’s letter seems to provide a pretty rational and measured response to the threat of the Black Death, other people opted for more extreme countermeasures. If you’ve seen Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, you may recall the scene when the citizens of the town are all taken aback by what looks like a procession of zombies staggering through the center of the town, whipping themselves as they go. Those were the flagellants.
Although their time on the European stage was relatively brief, they put on quite a show. The chronicler Fritsche Closener adds some interesting details when he describes the flagellant movement’s activities in 1349:
You should know that whenever the flagellants whipped themselves, there were large crowds and the greatest pious weeping that one should ever see. The burghers in the cities gave them money from the city coffers so that they could buy flags and candles. The flagellant brothers also assumed great holiness and said that great things were happening by their will. They said a statue of Our Lady had been sweating.
Learn more about plague saints.
Flagellants Were a Danger to the Church
The flagellants made an appearance in Avignon when the plague struck there, and the pope rather uneasily allowed them to practice this behavior for a very short time. But there was a pretty quick consensus on the part of most church officials that the flagellant movement was excessive and dangerous, and, perhaps most concerning, the participants started to think that they had a right to act as preachers.
In the account from the Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia, we read that many members of the flagellant movement “persistently took upon themselves the job of preaching. They did not think or speak of the clergy and the sacraments of the Church with proper reverence, but rather with contempt.”
Now, this was a serious problem, as it was a usurpation of ecclesiastical authority and a threat to the religious hierarchy. Pope Clement rather swiftly issued a bull against the flagellant movement, and those who refused to submit to his correction were excommunicated.
Common Questions about How Medieval Societies Reacted to the Black Death
In the face of the Black Death, Most people started praying more earnestly and fasting more frequently. Those who went to pilgrimage did it more regularly and even tried to make it harder for themselves, like crawling instead of walking.
Compared to other reactions to the Black Death, Louis Heylighen’s reaction was very measured and responsible. He advised to not mix with people unless you are sure of their healthy breath. He also suggested eating and drinking moderately.
Many church officials during the spread of the Black Death believed that the movement was unnecessarily dangerous. But another reason was that participants in the movement thought they had a right to preach to people. Which, from the church’s point of view, they didn’t.