The Church’s First Response to the Black Death


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

In the Middle Ages, the Church was part of every element of the medieval infrastructure. It imbued and influenced politics, economics, family relationships, scholarly study, friendships, social structures, military conflicts, territorial disputes—the list goes on and on. So the Church’s first response to the Black Death would set an example for all to follow.

An aerial view of a Medieval church with many town buildings surrounding it.
The Church’s influence in every element of the Medieval infrastructure led people to look to the Church for guidance. (Image: Fabio Dell/Shutterstock)

When the plague struck the medieval world in late 1347, it was thus, utterly natural that people would turn to the Church for guidance, answers, deliverance, and comfort. In general, the Church sought to respond as effectively as possible, but in the face of such a pandemic with no known treatment or cure, that effectiveness was severely limited—some might say it was nonexistent. 

There was really no Catholic Church with a capital C in the medieval world in the West. There was only the Church. Many scholars even argue that the Church’s inability to offer any remedy against the plague led, eventually, to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

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

The Church’s First Response 

One of the first places struck by the plague was the port city of Messina, on the island of Sicily. In 1347, several Genoese galleys traveling from Constantinople and the area around the Crimea put in at the port there and shortly thereafter spread plague throughout the city. The people turned to their religious leaders for help, and those leaders attempted to oblige. 

The people of Messina appealed to the Patriarch of Catania that he bring the relics of Saint Agatha to their city in the hope that this would affect a miraculous cure. The patriarch attempted to do all he could, but his efforts were useless—the plague raged on and eventually claimed him as one of its victims. 

This very early, highly visible failure of the Church to affect any sort of cure or relief for its flock would be replayed again and again throughout the medieval world. Even the pope himself was advised to wait out the epidemic by staying inside, pacing back and forth between two raging fires that would supposedly purify the air which was infected by miasma. If the pope had to retreat and turn to such extremes to avoid contagion, what hope did the common man have?

Learn more about the Black Death’s ports of entry.

A Reminder to Humanity

When the plague first erupted on the scene, the initial approach taken by Church leaders was to use this horrible event as an opportunity to remind humanity of the grievous nature of their sins. Sermon, after the sermon, described how God had sent the Great Pestilence to teach humankind a lesson. 

The Archbishop of York, William Zouche, offered an official response to the plague. In a letter dated July 28, 1348—so right around the moment the plague first showed up in England—Zouche ordered that the parishes of England should have devout processions:

Every Wednesday and Friday in our cathedral church, in other collegiate and conventual churches, and in every parish in our city and diocese. And a special prayer should be said in mass every day for allaying the plague and the pestilence, and likewise, prayers for the lord king and for the good estate of the church, the realm, and the whole people of England, so that the Savior, harkening to the constant entreaties, will pardon and come to the rescue of the creation which God fashioned in his own image.

Learn more about the first wave sweeps across Europe.

A Letter of Help

A silhouette of a woman kneeling and praying.
Some church officials declared that special prayers should be uttered in the face of the plague. (Image: asiandelight/Shutterstock)

The prior of Christchurch in Canterbury composed a letter to the Bishop of London in which he asked for help in conveying the royal request to other bishops in the realm. 

The letter is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is the lengthy discussion of the evils and sins that the people of England must have committed for God to rain down this affliction upon them:

And so that those subject to you should be made the more eager to do these things, you should arrange to grant indulgences to every one of your flock undertaking the things specified above. You should also tell all the other bishops to add indulgences on their own account, as seems best to them.


The idea of indulgences here is that pretty much every soul will have to spend some time in purgatory after death before getting to go to heaven. Because in order for a sin to be forgiven, the sinner had to have guilt—or culpaand there had to be a punishment of some duration, which was known as poena. So you could be forgiven for the culpa as long as you performed the correct poena, whether here on earth or later in purgatory.

A standard example would be something like, “Say ten Hail Marys every morning for a week and fast for the next two Fridays.” The priest has forgiven the guilt, and the sin can be wiped off the permanent record, so to speak, by the sinner performing the penance with true contrition. An indulgence, generally speaking, meant that the sinner could skip some or all of the penance part.

Indulgences had first become a really key part of the Western Christian belief system during the Crusades when the Church called on soldiers to retake the holy city of Jerusalem and surrounding regions and offered the crusaders full indulgences if they participated and died while on the campaign. 

In other words, as bad as some of the Western warriors might have been in their lives, if they took up the cross and marched on the Holy Land, they got to go straight to heaven and skip purgatory altogether.

Common Questions about the Church’s First Response to the Black Death

Q: Why did the people in the Middle Ages turn to the Church when the Black Death affected their lives?

In the Middle Ages, the Church had something to do with everyone’s lives, and so the Church’s first response to the Black Death was very important to the people.

Q: How did the Church explain the Black Death to the faithful?

In their sermons, the Church officials claimed that Black Death was a form of punishment for humanity’s sins.

Q: When did indulgences first become a part of the Christian belief system?

Indulgences first became a part of the Christian belief system when the Church recruited soldiers in the name of taking back Jerusalem during the Crusades. It became even significant during the Church’s first response to the Black Death.

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