Midweek Medieval Blog: The Black Plague: How the Church Responds to Pandemics

While the Ebola pandemic unfortunately continues in Africa, many people in the USA see it as “contained.” I could write an entire blog about the panic of people here, the fight against Ebola in Africa, groups like Doctors without Borders, etc. I urge people to continue to pray for Africa and their battle with the disease. But for today’s blog post I wanted to examine a similar topic related to the Medieval Era: the Black Plague of the mid-1300s. Historians believe that the Plague killed between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 people in Europe in three years (F. Donald Logan, A History of the The Church in the Middle Ages, 283). There are many sources which examine the Plague from a medical perspective, but I want to discuss the impact that the Plague had upon the Medieval Church.

Obviously, when 30-40% of the people in Europe die in a three year period, the church will be impacted. In fact, whole religious communities perished because their close proximity to one another in such closed-in buildings. The response of the church throughout Europe was varied. In many places, the clergy worked closely with the infected: caring for the sick, performing last rites, and even burying the dead. Other clergy fled to save themselves, often leaving people no one to whom to confess their sins. Some of these clergy advocated confessing sins to other laity as a substitute, and then if the infected survived, confessing sins to a parish priest later (Logan, 283).

Another negative response from the church was to make scapegoats of people groups. Some attacked Muslims, some attacked lepers as if they were responsible, but the most popular scapegoats were the Jews. France and Germany had many instances where Jews were burned alive inside wooden buildings, as Jews were accused of poisoning the water supply (Logan, 284).

One of the more interesting responses was penance in the form of flagellation. Many monks were seen walking into the streets without shirts and whipping each other as a form of retribution. They believed that whipping the flesh would curtail lusts and desires of the flesh, and possibly serve as penance for whatever had brought about the Plague. Pope Clement VI condemned the flagellation movement shortly thereafter, however (Logan, 285-86).

So, what does the Plague of the fourteenth century show us about the Medieval Church? Well, it shows the church’s humanity, both in the fearful fleeing of some clergy and the courageous work of others with the infected. It also shows its propensity to blame others, especially Jews (an issue which would unfortunately continue). Finally, the religious fanaticism in response to such an apocalyptic event also reveals a great deal about the Medieval Church and its fascination with atoning for whatever brought on the pandemic.

In the USA today, we encounter many shocking events, the recent Ebola scare being an obvious parallel. When a nurse flew from Dallas to Cleveland, we saw some of the aforementioned blaming arise. The whole nation was fearful of an outbreak, and people started buying Ebola-proof suits off of Ebay. Fear, blaming, and ostracizing should never be the response of the church to catastrophic events. Prayer, love, compassion, and even people going into harm’s way should characterize the church’s response. The benefit of modern technology allows such a response to be done carefully and in a well-informed manner.

What other parallels do you see today? How can the church respond to other pandemics like AIDS, malaria, and cholera?

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