The Black Death and the Established Practices of the Church


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

At the time of the Black Death, when the established practices of the institutions of the Church like monasteries and the office of the parish priest were suffering, a relatively new arm of the Church was gaining credibility and popularity. Although officially part of the Church, they operated somewhat outside its established institutions.

Image of a medieval church in Avignon, France.
Many of the long-standing church officials did not approve of reforms happening during the Black Death, but the papacy in Avignon did not listen to them. (Image: FredP/Shutterstock)

A New Monastic Movement

For most of its history, the Church’s officials, especially monks, had to conform to specific rules of behavior. In addition to poverty, most monks and some other officials vowed to observe the stability of place, meaning they were to stay in their monastery or secure in their parish offices. 

In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, a new reform monastic movement was given license. This was the Friars Minor, one of the first mendicant movements, as founded by Saint Francis of Assisi.

Francis had famously argued that to have a truly Christological experience, monks should rid themselves of all possessions and throw themselves at the mercy of the world. 

Mendicant means begging, and when these orders were approved, there was much grumbling among those who thought that stable, established houses of God were the way to go. But, the argument was that these monasteries had, maybe accidentally, become places of too much comfort, and even luxury, to produce and maintain truly holy men.

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

Birth of the Cistercian Order

The majority of monasteries were Benedictine, and many of them were near or indeed right in large towns and cities. They were, thus, part of the economic and social fabric of the town in which they were located, and they regularly interacted with people outside the monastery.

An image of a Cistercian Order monastery.
The Cistercian Order built their monasteries outside of the secular world. (Image: Fran Villalba/Shutterstock)

Feeling that the Benedictines had become too worldly, the Cistercian order came into being at the end of the 11th century, with the goal of removing the monks and their monasteries from the secular world as much as possible. Cistercian monasteries were deliberately built as far away from civilization as was possible.

However, the Cistercians became victims of their own hard work—especially in raising sheep and participating in the wool trade—and they suddenly found themselves becoming quite wealthy and comfortable. This, in turn, led to yet another reform movement, which was the Friars Minor of Saint Francis.

Learn more about the Black Death in Avignon.

Rise of the Super Monks

These friars wandered the countryside, and in most instances, they really were what you might call super monks. In the beginning, at least, they didn’t have a motherhouse they could return to. They were out in the world in a sincere attempt to save it. 

When the Black Death started ravaging the countryside, a potential savior from outside looked like a very attractive option for those who were living in fear. They had seen at home their regular parish priest doing the things he had always done, but which had not able to control the plague.

And into this came the friar. It certainly would have been striking to a community when a devout holy man wandered in from the outside and willingly took on the task of tending to the sick and bereft. 

While certainly the friars contracted and died from plague at the same rates as everyone else, the sincerity and devotion with which most of them approached the challenge at hand would have made a strong impression on those who would survive and later remember who it was that came to help in the darkest hour.

The Threat of the Mendicant Orders

While friars were officially part of the Church, they were so different from what people were accustomed to that their presence and behavior surely seemed like a challenge to the long-standing practices of the institution they were a part of. 

A statue of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Saint Francis of Assisi had argued that monasteries or houses of God had become places of too much comfort that couldn’t produce holy men. (Image: Bikenbark/Shutterstock)

It’s no surprise that those who were members of the established ecclesiastical hierarchy saw the popularity of the mendicant orders as a threat. Indeed, many religious leaders signed and presented a petition to Pope Clement VI in Avignon. 

Learn more about artistic responses to the Black Death.

The Petition and the Pope

In this petition, they asked that he abolish the mendicant orders, or at the very least, forbid them from preaching and hearing confession. This was in 1351 after the worst of the plague had made its way through most of Western Europe, and those who had survived were attempting to get back on their feet. The pope’s response was rather astonishing. He said:

And if their preaching be stopped, about what can you preach to the people? If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, arrogant and given to pomp. If on poverty, you are the most grasping and the most covetous. If on chastity—but we will be silent on this, for God knoweth what each man does and how many of you satisfy your lusts.

Pope Clement VI was by no means a model ecclesiastic. He enjoyed all the comforts that came with his high status and was generally willing to look the other way when it came to infractions of the chastity and poverty clauses of the standard monastic oath. So for him to excoriate the bishops and priests who were appealing to him to kick out the mendicants meant that the state of the Church at this point must have been corrupt indeed.

Common Questions about the Black Death and the Established Practices of the Church

Q: Why were the Cistercian monasteries deliberately built far away from the civilization?

The Cistercian monasteries were deliberately built as far away from civilization as was possible because the order wanted to remove the monks and their monasteries from the secular world.

Q: Why were friars so popular with people amidst the Black Death?

Many people had seen how the established practices of their regular parish priest had failed to save them from the Black Death. It was during these challenging times that the friars took upon themselves to take care of the sick and bereft and thus became popular amongst the masses.

Q: Why were the friars not liked by the long-standing members of the Church?

Friars were challenging the established practices of the past, and this was not to the liking of top church officials. They tried to stop them, but Pope Clement VI didn’t allow it.

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