the black plague: groaning in sympathy

The Black Death came out of Central Asia killing one third of the European population. And among the survivors a new skepticism arose about life and God and human authority.

Most fourteenth-century people regarded their doctor with tolerance and respect but also with an uncomfortable conviction that he was irrelevant to the real problems of their lives. They were, of course, ready to believe almost anything that was told them with authority, but their faith had been considerably undermined by the doctor’s own lack of confidence. Resignation or anguished fear was the only reaction his activities could reasonably inspire.

Pope Gregory the Great leads a litany procession in Rome in 590, praying for an end to the first pandemic plague. This miniature from the Tres Riches Heures of the duc de Berry was painted by Pol Limbourg, whose brothers Hermann and jan, witnessed similar proceedings in Paris during the Black Death Read More:

Boccaccio: “…They did not restrict their victuals so much as the former, nor allow themselves to be drunken and dissolute like the latter, but satisfied their appetites moderately. They did not shut themselves up, but went about, carrying flowers or scented herbs or perfumes in their hands, in the belief that it was an excellent thing to comfort the brain with such odours; for the whole air was infected with the smell of dead bodies, of sick persons and medicines.

Others again held a still more cruel opinion, which they thought would keep them safe. They said that the only medicine against the plague-stricken was to go right away from them. Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country round Florence, as if God’s wrath in punishing men’s wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come.” Read More: a

"A primitive gas mask in the shape of a bird’s beak. A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread by birds. There may have been a belief that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. The mask also included red glass eyepieces, which were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil. The beak of the mask was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or “bad air” which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have dulled the smell of unburied corpses, sputum, and ruptured bouboules in plague victims." Read More:

Germany is of peculiar interest since it provided the setting for one of the Black Death’s most unpleasant byproducts. The Flagellant movement. It was the Black Death that turned the whim of a freakish minority into a powerful international force. At the news that the Brethren of the Cross were on the way, the townsfolk would pour out to welcome them. The first move was to the church, where they would chant their special litany. The real business however, usually took place outside. A circle was formed and the worshippers stripped to the waist. Their outer garments were piled inside the circle, and the sick of the village would congregate there in the hope of acquiring a little vicarious merit.

"The Black Death, earthquakes and clerical scandals brought about a return of the movement in 1349. It spread throughout Europe, reaching Poland, Denmark and England. Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen, a priest and musician, was impressed by what he witnessed, and transcribed the Geisslerlieder that he heard; his work is one of the earliest examples of a folk-song collection: the Chronicon Hugonis sacerdotis de Rutelinga."Read More:

First the master thrashed those who had committed offenses against the order, then came the collective flagellation. Each brother carried a heavy scourge with three or four leather thongs, the thongs tipped with metal studs. With those they began rhythmically to beat their backs and breasts. Three of the brethren, acting as cheerleaders, le

e ceremonies. The worshippers kept up the tempo and their spirits by chanting the hymn of the Flagellants. The pace grew. Each man tried to outdo his neighbor, literally whipping himself into a frenzy. Around them the townsfolk quaked, sobbed, and groaned in sympathy.


The public usually welcomed the procession of flagellants into their villages and towns since it served as a major event in the otherwise drab life of the peasant. But the flagellants also served as an occasion for celebration. Those who attended the processions could work off surplus emotion in a collective fashion. Although we may tend to laugh at the flagellants and read them off as lunatics, they did help medieval men and women cope with the ravages of the plague. After all, taking part in a procession served as an inexpensive insurance policy that God would forgive them. “Before the arrival of the Death,” writes historian Malcolm Lambert, “flagellation was one of the few outlets open to a fear-ridden population; after it had arrived, the worst could be seen, and there were practical tasks, such as burying the dead, available to dampen emotions.” (Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, 1992, p.221.)

"The divine and secular powers lost their authority because of them being helpless faced with the epidemic. This affected mostly those people who belonged to a cultural Minority in the medieval society. So there were many pogroms against the Jewish, which couldn’t be suppressed by the divine and secular powers and which led to the result that after 1353 only a few Jews lived in Germany and the Netherlands anymore. The pogroms started after there were rumours about the Jews being the cause of the disease and the confession of Jews, who told under torture that they were to blame." Read More:

By 1349, the flagellant movement came into conflict with the Church at Rome. This clash was perhaps inevitable. After all, the Masters were claiming that they could purge sinners of their sins, something the Church claimed it could do alone. The German flagellants began to attack the hierarchy of the Church in direct fashion. In mid-1349, Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull denouncing the flagellants as a heretical movement. The flagellants had formed unauthorized associations, adopted their own uniforms, and had written their own church statutes. Numerous princes in France and in Germany began to prohibit the entrance of the Brotherhood into their provinces. Masters were burned alive and the flagellants were denounced by the clergy. By 1350, the flagellant movement vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.Read More:
“We all recognize the late Middle Ages as a period of popular religious excitement or overexcitement, of pilgrimages and penitential processions, of mass preaching, of veneration or relics and adoration of saints, lay piety and popular mysticism,” wrote William Langer in 1958. “It was apparently also a period of unusual immorality and shockingly loose living,” he continued,…

"Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken Artist: Josse Lieferinxe (French, active 1493-1505) Date (Period): 1497-1499 (Renaissance) Medium: oil on wood" Read More:

…which we must take as the continuation of the “devil-may-care” attitude of one part of the population. This the psychologists explain as the repression of unbearable feelings by accentuating the value of a diametrically opposed set of feelings and then behaving as though the latter were the real feelings. But the most striking feature of the age was an exceptionally strong sense of guilt and a truly dreadful fear of retribution, seeking expression in a passionate longing for effective intercession and in a craving for direct, personal experience of the Deity, as well as in a corresponding dissatisfaction with the Church and with the mechanization of the means of salvation as reflected, for example, in the traffic of indulgences.

These attitudes, along with the great interest in astrology, the increased resort to magic, and the startling spread of witchcraft and Satanism in the fifteenth century were, according to the precepts of modern psychology, normal reactions to the sufferings to which mankind in that period was subjected. Read More:

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