By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
When the Black Death raced through medieval Europe from 1347–1353, it strengthened faith throughout the continent, but it was unlike anything the world had ever experienced. Like almost every other institution, the Church was slow to react and ineffective when it finally did. But just because people became disillusioned with the Church didn’t mean they lost their faith in general.
The Plague Strengthened Faith
The Church’s inability to offer either countermeasures or comfort to those who were suffering dealt that institution a serious blow in terms of how people regarded it and whether they would continue to respect its authority. But still, for answers in the face of the greatest mortality the medieval world had ever seen, many people turned to faith.
As people sought any solution possible to combat the ravages of the plague, there was an intensification, or increase, in many popular religious practices. For centuries, people had gone on pilgrimages to religious sites to seek atonement or healing, to give thanks, or simply to have a deeper religious experience than they might if they stayed at home.
In the wake of the plague, however, pilgrimage numbers increased dramatically. The irony of this, of course, is that this meant that huge numbers of people were trekking hither and yon across the European continent and traveling long distances by boat, which, of course, only contributed to the spread of the very disease they wished to avoid.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
New Celebrities in Town
Several saints also received renewed attention and devotion, and a few were rescued from almost complete obscurity once someone made a connection between them and protection from illness.
For example, when plague struck the port city of Messina in Sicily, one of the first things the citizens did was appeal to the Patriarch of Catania, the highest-ranking ecclesiastical official in Sicily, to bring the relics of Saint Agatha that were kept in Catania to Messina in the hope that this would bring about a miraculous cure. Here we see a perfect example of the struggle between the official Church and popular religious belief.
The patriarch at first agreed to help those of his flock in Messina who were stricken with the Great Mortality, but the citizens of Catania reportedly rose up and protested vigorously, and, in fact, physically prevented him from accessing Saint Agatha’s relics, wrestling the keys to the reliquary out of his hands, according to one chronicle account.
Wanting to carry out his religious duties and protect both the citizens of Catania and those of Messina, the patriarch came up with a compromise: he poured water over Agatha’s relics and then brought this now-holy water to Messina.
We know that no great miracle was brought about—indeed, the patriarch himself was one of the victims of the plague, as were so many Church officials. The fact that the Great Pestilence seemed not to spare the men of God increased the despair of the general population.
Learn more about how the Black Death transformed the world.
Increase in Religious Devotion
But what’s so interesting is that even as it seems very clear that popular estimation of the Church was at an all-time low—even the pope himself condemned other members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy for being far more interested in matters of the flesh than those of the spirit—expressions of religious devotion increased down at the level of the man on the street.
In Italy, for example, 50 more religious holidays were celebrated in the immediate aftermath of the first wave of the plague, and these came about by popular acclamation rather than an official ecclesiastical pronouncement.
Throughout the countryside of western Europe, but most especially in England, there was a burst of construction in the form of chantry chapels. A chantry chapel could be a structure that stood alone, or it could be a dedicated space within an established church or cathedral, or it could be a small structure built so that it was attached to the larger church or cathedral.
Learn more about the plague’s effects on the medieval Church.
The purpose of these chapels was to serve as dedicated spaces where the clergy would sing masses for the souls of the departed. Usually, it was the departed—in his or her will—or family members who would endow the chapel with the specific stipulation that a certain number of masses or prayers would be sung there over a certain period of time—per week or per month or per year.
The idea here was that pretty much everyone was a sinner to some degree or another, and, thus, everyone could expect that his or her soul would spend some time in purgatory before it got to move on to heaven.
It was believed—and this belief was sanctioned by the Church—that those still living on earth could help lessen the time a loved one’s soul spent in purgatory by saying prayers themselves or arranging for a priest to perform masses or say prayers on behalf of the departed.
In order to guarantee this, of course, the chantry chapel needed to be endowed—that is, the departed or his or her family needed to arrange for payment for the priest’s or other clergyman’s services in performing these masses.
Common Questions about How the Great Mortality Strengthened Faith Through Europe
Although the Great Mortality strengthened faith throughout Europe, the Church was unable to offer any useful countermeasures. It also failed to successfully comfort people in the face of death.
The Great Mortality somehow strengthened people’s faith. People started to go on pilgrimages more often which, unfortunately, spread the disease even further. They started celebrating various religious holidays and focused on long-neglected saints.
It was believed that everybody seemed to be a sinner to some degree and the plague had strengthened faith in most people. Thus, the chantry chapels were built to be a place where the clergy could conduct masses for the souls of the dead.