John D. Young and Professor Larry Bolick, General Education and Honors
The Black Death and subsequent outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague in late medieval Europe violently jarred the European mind-set. Particularly damaging were the intense emotions fostered in the hearts and minds of common Europeans during this pivotal period. By studying the emotional responses to these plague episodes, we may gain a deeper understanding of the medieval European weltanschauung, for the emotionally-charged documents of the plague period reveal much about the values and conventions of medieval society. From these documents we may reconstruct, to an extent, the collective and individual mind-set of plague-stricken Europe.
Extant documents reveal that medieval Christians who faced these terrifying outbreaks felt a great sense of their own fragile humanity. Indeed, the plague brought Europeans to their collective knees, imploring God’s grace to somehow deliver them from this overwhelming, unseen force that claimed unprecedented numbers of lives.
The initial reaction to this shocking realization was most often collective. Towns and villages pulled together, hoping that communal religious responses would quell the wrath of an angry God. In the documents of the period we find priests, bishops and other authorities pleading with the people to forsake their evil ways and join together in penitent expressions of humility.1 These communal events were usually some sort of religious procession, the most inspiring of which were staged by groups of itinerant flagellants.2 These groups wandered from town to town staging their own re-enactment of the passion of Christ by publicly beating themselves with metal-studded whips until their blood flowed freely. The flagellants and those who witnessed their moving display hoped that their spilled blood would somehow atone for the sins of Christendom and bring relief from the pestilence.
Once the collective responses seemingly failed to gain God’s favor, individuals most often turned inward. Though the emotionally-fostered humility of plague sufferers was certainly sincere, it became highly individualized. Indeed, an interesting aspect of late medieval plague that is difficult for twentieth-century minds to comprehend is the individualized nature of these secondary reactions to plague. For medieval man, this struggle often became a one-on-one fight for survival with an unknown monster. Thus, when beseeching God for divine deliverance, it seems each man and woman asked specifically for his or her own deliverance and largely ignored the equal threat to neighbor, sibling, child, or spouse. This medieval religious attitude, though confusing and even appalling from a twentieth-century perspective, seems to explain why nearly every chronicler described the pitiful abandonment on the part of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, or priests and physicians of those under their care.
An interesting emotional repercussion manifest during the most frightening hours of these outbreaks was a fervent wish to die, even to the point of great relief when one finally, seemingly inevitably contracted buboes or other plague symptoms. In the minds of many who found themselves so stricken, their fate, though unpleasant, was at last guaranteed; thus, the emotional stress often subsided and gave way to preparation for death.3
When survival from the pestilence, surely a miracle in the minds of those who lived through the plague, was ensured, many completely abandoned their previous supplication and humility for a carefree celebration of continued life. Since they no longer required divine intervention to miraculously save them from death, they often turned to debauchery.4 Though some of this carousing took place while the plague raged (reminiscent of the Great Plague of Athens recorded by Thucydides), most chroniclers noted the appearance of such behavior after the severity of the plague had subsided. This conduct does not, in my opinion, reveal a shallow medieval religiosity. Rather, this response, manifest most often by survivors (as opposed to mid-plague participants), seems to be again individualized emotional fallout resulting from the highly emotional situation that these people miraculously (in their minds) survived. Post-plague Europeans suddenly found themselves in an entirely new world complete with a readjusted social organization; the adjustment to this new situation was, in my estimation, the primary factor responsible for the temporarily-raucous comportment of many Christian commoners.
According to my research then, the emotional responses to plague in the late Middle Ages followed a four-step pattern: 1) a humbling realization of fragile humanity; 2) communal responses to this realization; 3) individual struggles for life after collective measures seemingly failed; 4) a temporary lapse into depravity when survival was assured. Though this pattern did not apply in every episode or locale, I feel evidence is sufficient to warrant generalization.
One aspect of this fascinating period I have as yet been unable to explore is the emotional responses of plague survivors to subsequent outbreaks in their communities. Élisabeth Carpentier notes that “[late medieval Europeans] were quickly forced to face reality. They now had to endure a solidly entrenched, long-lasting illness that reappeared every ten to fifteen years with implacable stubbornness. This was the veritable drama that marked the entire late medieval period.”5 I hope to carry on with this element of my proposed project in the future.
- See accounts in Rosemary Horrox, ed., The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 110-113.
- See accounts in Ibid., 150-154. There is also an abundance of secondary source material on this movement.
- See Jean de Venette, “The Chronicle of a French Cleric,” in The Black Death: A Turning Point in History?, ed. William M Bowsky (Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger, 1978), 16.
- See Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, “Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle,” in Ibid., 14.
- Élisabeth Carpentier, “The Plague as a Recurrent Phenomenon,” in Ibid., 36.