How the Black Death Devastated the Church


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

The Church was the most prominent landholder in the medieval world. The great scholars in the medieval university system were also holders of ecclesiastical positions—you couldn’t really become one unless you were also the other. But none of these things stopped the Black Death from devastating the church. It wasn’t too long before people had had enough.

Image of a church ruins at sunset.
The Black Death devastated people’s lives and took a heavy toll on a critical institution like the Church. (Image: Droneswerve/Shutterstock)

The Mass Death of Clergymen

Every aspect of people’s lives was imbued with religion. Church rituals and observances structured their daily existence, and the yearly rhythm of life moved in time with the liturgical calendar, so indeed, the Church could now offer some comfort. 

In the first wave of plague, we have evidence that any number of clergymen sought to do their best to comfort their dying parishioners. As you might guess, the outcome of this was that most of these good, sincere clergymen died. Those that remained alive sometimes abandoned their posts out of fear of contracting the plague. 

The Bishop of Bath and Wells criticized priests for not being devoted enough to their duties, and an anonymous monk from Wells Cathedral observed: “In this plague many chaplains and hired parish priests would not serve without excessive pay.” Another monk noted: “Parishes remained altogether unserved and beneficed parsons had turned away from the care of their benefices for fear of death.”

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Shortage of Manpower

Since the plague seemed to affect the clergy in equal if not greater numbers than the general population, the institution of the Church, just like every other organization, started to suffer from a serious shortage of manpower. 

This meant that suddenly the life of cleric, or monk, or priest—a highly desirable, stable, secure life that most people had long considered an ideal option, but that had heretofore been available almost exclusively to members of the nobility—was now open to almost everyone. Almost anyone could become a member of the clergy if he was alive and breathing. 

Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.

A Challenge for the Church

While this sudden fluidity and mobility was an unexpected boon for many individuals, it was not such a good thing for the Church. That institution had long had orderly ranks and standards and hierarchies along which one could progress by doing the expected things—one needed to study, to serve, to learn, and only the best of the best would end up being promoted from the ranks of a monk to a priest or abbot or bishop. 

A priest holding a book and beads.
The clergymen who were sincere in performing their duties died during the Black Death. (Image: Ray Bond/Shutterstock)

But, when plague rages through your monastery and overnight carries off 50 percent of your population—and we know that certain religious houses suffered a 90 percent loss—then you’ve got to get live bodies in the cassocks and up at the altar and leading the processions, and you don’t have time for everyone to proceed through the ranks in an orderly fashion.

In the immediate wake of the plague, all rules of religious ordination were more or less abandoned.

Learn more about the medieval theories on the Black Death.

The Dangers of Ordaining Unqualified Priests

In Winchester in 1349 and 1350, records tell us that 27 new members of the clergy were ordained subdeacons, then deacons, and then priests in the space of a few days. In the normal times, it would have taken several years for an individual to cover this journey. These individuals were then sent out to their parishes and Church offices with almost zero experience. 

The Archbishop of York started holding emergency ordinations. Middle-aged men who had been widowed by the plague turned to the Church and were accepted without hesitation. While this had certainly been an option before the Black Death, a man who had been married and lived an earthly life for decades would usually have started at the bottom rung of the ladder if he entered holy orders. 

The Church was taking everyone it could, and the result was a flood of ill-qualified and unprepared priests who were supposed to minister to a flock that was in desperate need of informed and sincere religious guidance. Clearly, they weren’t going to be getting it, and this caused the reputation of the Church to fall still further in the eyes of the general population.

Far from being experts on matters scriptural or religious, the new crop of priests were often illiterate, and they were poorly suited in terms of temperament for the job they were now supposed to do. It was not sincere belief or faith that had led most of them to seek out ordination, but rather the promise of a secure living—a roof over their head and food on the table.

Common Questions about How the Black Death Devastated the Church

Q: Why did so many clergymen fall to the Black Death?

The clergymen succumbed the Black Death because they had to perform the last rites.

Q: Why did the Church ordain many priests during the Black Death?

The Church had to ordain many priests because a number of clergymen had died due to the Black Death. Also, the masses needed spiritual guidance in such difficult times.

Q: Why did the new priests fail to help the people during the Black Death?

Far from being experts on matters scriptural or religious, the new priests were often illiterate, and they were poorly suited in terms of temperament for the job they were supposed to do during the Black Death.

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