Post-classical history


The fourteenth century might rightly be thought of as the century during which the popes lived at Avignon. That story awaits the next chapter. Another, more profound reason commends the fourteenth century to our attention: no century in the Middle Ages was more calamitous in terms of the destruction of human life than the fourteenth century. Twice the scourge of massive mortality struck western Europe, first with a devastating famine and then with the catastrophe of the Black Death. In these tragic circumstances what comfort religion could bring to the dying and to those who mourned them came largely from a belief in an afterlife in which there were not only a heaven and a hell but also a purgatory, heaven’s antechamber, a place of cleansing for good but not perfect souls, a place to which all might hope for admission. Death hovered over this century like no other in the Middle Ages.

The Black Death

The church was not immune to the disasters that beset the society in which it lived. The deaths of millions of Christians in the fourteenth century had to affect the Christian church, and indeed it did. The church, it cannot be too frequently repeated, was not merely a structure; it was that, but it was primarily a community of believers. When that community suffered from catastrophic events, as it did in the fourteenth century, then the church also suffered from those catastrophic events. The actual extent of their effect on the church may be long debated, but that the church was deeply shaken can hardly be denied. It also cannot be denied that there was a fairly fast recovery, yet one that left scars.

Often forgotten in the understandable emphasis put on the plague of 1347–50 was the great famine that began in 1315 and, in its severest impact, continued until 1317 and, in some regions, until 1322. Severe, cold winters and very wet summers combined to reduce the food crop drastically, and the consequence was widespread famine. It affected northern Europe: a line from the Alps westward through Lyons to the sea near La Rochelle roughly marks the southern extent of the famine. It reached as far as the British Isles (only northern Scotland escaping) and eastward through the Baltic regions to southern Scandinavia and even as far as Poland. Germany, northern France and Flanders suffered the most. The wheat yields in France are estimated to have decreased by 50 per cent. Prices soared. In London the cost of wheat at market was nearly 500 per cent higher than in pre-famine years. In Holland the price of fish rose to a similar level. The scarcity of feed for livestock was compounded by diseases that ravaged cattle, sheep and oxen. On three estates of an English monastery (Ramsey) in 1319–20 the number of cattle declined from 64 to 6, from 47 to 2 and from 65 to 9. The human mortality is extremely difficult to estimate, since there were variations from place to place and from year to year. Some estimates run as high as 15 per cent and even 20 per cent in the affected places in the countryside and in the towns alike, perhaps with a somewhat greater impact in the towns. In Flanders, according to reliable figures, the town of Ypres lost 10 per cent of its population from May to October 1316 alone. In Bruges an average of 92 persons died each week during the same period. At Tournai compelling evidence suggests a mortality rate in 1316 which was 250 per cent above the usual, which led one contemporary to observe, ‘There perished every day so many – men and women, rich and poor, young and old, from every rank of society – that the very air stank.’ New cemeteries were opened at Leuven in Flanders, at Brussels in Brabant, at Hamburg in northern Germany, at Erfurt in eastern Germany, at Bratislav in Slovakia and at many other places.

The famine was no respecter of persons. In 1316 alone three abbesses of Reinsburg in Friesland died. In the same year, in what is now Belgium at least six heads of religious houses died and by 1319 eighteen others had died. If hunger and famine-related pestilence struck the leaders of monasteries, what should one infer about the lowly monks and nuns and the peasantry working the fields? Stretched by economic necessities, religious house after religious house sold off lands or went into debt. The records describing this process are abundantly rich for Germany, where they show great houses taking drastic measures to survive. There was, in Professor Jordan’s words, ‘an almost universal crisis for the northern European church’. As drastic as that crisis was, worse – much worse – was to come.

In human terms no other catastrophe in the Middle Ages can come close to matching the plague of 1347–50, known to history as the Black Death. Nature, not always benign, visited western Europe with a tragedy of monumental proportions, leaving in its wake millions upon millions of humans dead. Economic historians debate the impact of the Black Death, at times in a clinical, almost detached way, but there can be no debating that the middle of the fourteenth century witnessed a phenomenon that caused pain, suffering and death to human beings, their numbers so large as to render numbering them almost impossible and their anguish so profound as to defy description. It was nothing less than a human disaster on a horrific scale. Professionally, historians should be neither reverent nor irreverent, but, when it comes to writing about the Black Death, their pens should be shrouded in awe at the human toll taken by that historical phenomenon.

Some news of disease and famine in central Asia filtered into Europe in the 1330s, but it came from a place where, in the European mind, myth and reality intermingled, and, in any case, it was a far-away place. The stories were of drought and famine, earthquake and flood, and then of plague. It is now known that the plague is endemic to the steppeland of central Asia, where it broke out about 1331. From there it became pandemic, spreading east into China, south into India and west towards Europe. This westward arm of the plague reached southern Russia about 1345. It came to Astrakhan at the Volga delta by 1346. Before long the plague spread to the Crimean peninsula. Although it may have been brought west from other sources in and near the eastern Mediterranean, the Crimean source is best described in contemporary and near-contemporary accounts: it may have been the principal source for the entrance of the plague into Europe. At the port of Caffa (now Feodosiya) in the Crimea, Genoese merchants had sought refuge from the khan’s army. A siege lasted for almost three years, since the Western merchants with their back to the sea had access to needed supplies. A contemporary described what happened then:

Disease afflicted the army of the Tartars and everyday thousands and thousands died. It was as if arrows from heaven were raining on them. Medicine had no affect. The Tartars died as quickly as the disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin and then a dreadful fever. The Tartar army, overwhelmed by this disaster, turned away from their siege and had the putrefying corpses catapulted into the city, hoping to kill those inside. The Christians could not escape the torrent of bodies thrown into the city. They tried to dump the bodies into the sea, but there were too many. The stench of the corpses poisoned the air and the water, leaving scarcely one in a thousand able to flee.

There are those who think this a somewhat distorted account, yet there can be no doubt that Westerners did flee Caffa. as the account tells us. A boat, perhaps several boats, sailed from Caffa to Italy in the autumn of 1347. They brought the plague with them. Disease-ridden Genoese galleys arrived at Messina in Sicily in early October, but it is not clear that these were the ships that had left Caffa. At least some of those fleeing Caffa landed at Genoa and, in time, moved on to other ports. We are told,

When the sailors mingled with the people in these places, it seemed that they had a cargo of evil spirits. Every town, every settlement, every hamlet was struck by the contagion, and the men and women who lived there died. Those afflicted in turn afflicted their families so that even those who were burying the dead themselves died. Death came through the windows.

From Italy the plague moved north until nearly all of Europe had been visited, and it was not till very late in 1350 that it passed from Scandinavia. A giant scythe had cut across Europe.

What caused this devastation? The simple answer is yersinia pestis (y-pestis), which is an organism that is resident in the bloodstream of certain rodents and in the stomach of fleas that feed on the rodents. (Attempts to identify another cause have been unsuccessful.) The movement of host rodents and their resident fleas from remote parts of central Asia, probably because of changing ecological conditions such as drought and rodent overpopulation, brought the disease into populated areas. Fleas brought it to humans, and the epidemic had started. It was the black rat (Rattus rattus), in particular, which carried the organism into Europe. The disease-bearing fleas (probably Xenopsylla cheopis) could live outside their rodent hosts perhaps for weeks at a time and could travel considerable distances. It was black rats and their fleas that arrived in Sicily and Italy in 1347. Contemporaries noticed two sets of symptoms, which describe the two forms that the plague took. The most common symptom was the appearance of large swellings, boil-like, the size of almonds, in the area of the groin or armpit or, less commonly, of the neck. These swellings were called buboes, hence bubonic plague. Fever and severe headaches quickly followed, and, in some cases, internal bleeding led to discolouration of the skin. If the bubo ruptured, there was some chance of recovery. But the bubonic form of the Black Death was fatal in most cases and followed within five days or so after the appearance of the buboes. In this form of the plague y-pestisattacked the lymphatic system with its principal nodes at the groin, armpit and neck. The poet Boccaccio described what he had seen with his own eyes at Florence:

The first signs both in men and women were swellings that appeared either in the groin or in the armpits. Some became as large as an apple and others more or less the size of an egg. The people called them gavoccioli [i.e., buboes]. They spread quickly from those parts to other parts of the body. Black or livid spots began to appear on the arms and thighs and elsewhere on the body, some large and others small but numerous. Just as the gavoccioli are signs that death was approaching, so also are these spots.

(Decameron, introduction)

Yet the plague, arising from the same organism, also took another form: it affected the lungs, hence, pneumonic plague. While the bubonic form can be traced quite simply to flea bites, the pneumonic plague arose in a more complex way. The initial infection occurred when, in a person suffering from bubonic plague, the organism attacked the lung and that person coughed or sneezed or expectorated, causing the disease-bearing organism to become airborne. When others breathed it in, it attacked their lungs. Alternatively, and probably less commonly, a person might inhale the faeces left by a flea on bedding. In either case, pneumonic plague was the result. The symptoms were shortness of breath, consequent rapid breathing and the coughing of blood. Death was the only release and came within three days. The obvious virulence of pneumonic plague – it was transmitted not by fleas but from person to person – led contemporaries to describe people who went to bed well at night and were dead in the morning. Fear of contagion, in Boccaccio’s telling, had dire consequences:

Brothers abandoned brothers, uncles abandoned nephews, sisters abandoned brothers, at times wives abandoned husbands, and, as difficult as it is to believe, parents abandoned their own children, leaving them uncared for, unvisited, left to their fate like strangers.

Not merely at Florence but in other towns and even in rural areas, the fear of contagion, fed by no exact knowledge of what was happening, added to the disastrous conditions.

The path of the pandemic can be easily seen. When it struck a place, it remained generally for several months before it subsided. Along the west coast of Italy, Pisa and Genoa were struck late in 1347 and in the east Bari and Venice. From these and other ports it went inland, striking almost everywhere so that by the spring of 1348 all of Italy had been visited by the plague. The majority of the population of Piacenza were wiped out, as happened also at Orvieto, Siena, San Gimignano and scores of other places. Boccaccio’s estimate of 100,000 dead at Florence, while clearly an exaggeration, may not be too wide off the mark. His description of bodies being piled up outside houses, to be picked up like garbage, remains one of the most vivid images of the plague known to us. At Naples, a contemporary put the deaths at 63,000; at Bologna, a chronicler put the figure at 60 per cent. Milan escaped the same fury, although, even there, up to 15 per cent may have perished. At Pistoia, so severe was the threat of the plague that the city in May 1348 issued ordinances, ‘to prevent the sickness now threatening our region from attacking citizens of Pistoia’, yet, despite these precautions, the city was not spared. Exact figures are impossible to get, yet Italy experienced a devastation never seen before or since.

The Alps proved no barrier to the movement of the disease. Through Alpine passes the plague reached Bavaria in June 1348 and Austria in November. Vienna experienced it from the next spring, where, one estimate concludes, over 500 people died each day. The exact routes are not known, but the plague was at Frankfurt and Mainz in the summer of 1349 and soon thereafter at Cologne. Then before the end of the year it was further north at Münster, Bremen and Hamburg; at the latter, half the population are said to have perished.

Through southern ports, particularly Marseilles, as well as through mountain passes, in 1348 the plague reached France. At these ports as well as at ports on the west coast of Iberia, the plague struck savagely. Soon it was at Narbonne, Carcassone, Toulouse and, at length, reached the sea at Bordeaux. Situated, as it is, on the Rhone, Avignon, residence of the popes now for nearly 40 years, was severely affected in the spring of 1348. A letter sent from Avignon at the height of the plague recounted,

At least half the population has died. Within the city walls over 7,000 houses are vacant, emptied of their residents by death … The pope bought land for a cemetery near the church of Our Lady of Miracles. By 14 March, 11,000 victims have been buried there, while many others have been buried elsewhere in Avignon.

North from Avignon to Lyons and eventually, by June 1348, the plague reached Paris, its gates and walls no defence against the disease. Writing ten years after the events, a Carmelite friar, observed,

So many died that for some time over 500 bodies were taken each day from the Hotel-Dieu to be buried at the cemetery of the Holy Innocents.

Estimates suggest that well in excess of half the population of Europe’s most populous city fell victim to the plague. Quickly it spread to Flanders, where at Tournai, a local abbot wrote that at Christmas time in 1348 an enormous number of inhabitants died. Holland was similarly struck, and soon the sea walls encircling the British Isles were breached.

No one knows exactly where the plague first touched England, certainly on the south coast, perhaps in Dorset or at Southampton or Bristol or, most likely, at several places at about the same time, namely, late June or early July 1348. It may have reached London in November, but the city experienced the worst of the pestilence in the next year. Again, no one knows the death toll. The city had a population perhaps between 40,000 and 50,000, and an estimate of one-third mortality is as close to the true figure as we may get. East Anglia, with its close commercial ties with the Low

Map 19 Spread of the Black Death, 1347–50

Countries, was devastated. From chronicle after chronicle one can see the progress of the plague through the land. A cleric of Oxfordshire described its further progress:

The joy of the Scots [at the death of so many English] turned to grief. God’s wrath, having punished the English, now turned to the Scots and punished them with lunacy and leprosy … In the following year it devastated the Welsh as it had the English. Then it travelled to Ireland, cutting down great numbers of the English settlers, but the native Irish were hardly touched.

We know that the pestilence crossed into Ireland in 1349 and that it struck native peoples and settlers alike. A description written by a Franciscan friar, 25 of whose fellow friars had died, bears clear testimony to the devastation, his concluding words being his own epitaph:

I, Friar John Clyn of the Franciscans of Kilkenny, related in this book the things of note that have happened in my lifetime, those which I myself witnessed or those which I have heard about from trustworthy people … Lest this work die with the author, I am leaving space on this parchment for the work to be continued, if anyone should survive and any child of Adam escape this pestilence and continue the work which I have begun.

Another, later hand added, ‘At this point the author apparently died.’

The story is told that a merchant ship sailed out of London in May 1349, and, while the ship was at sea, members of the crew experienced the plague symptoms. By the time the ship reached her destination, Bergen in Norway, the entire crew was dead. Those who went out into the fjord to inspect this ghost ship became infected, and so the plague spread to Norway. Whatever truth there may be to the specifics of this story, the Black Death reached Norway at about this time. In the following year the king of Sweden warned his people, ‘Norway and Holland are being ravaged, and this death is fast approaching our land.’ Ingmar Bergman set his classic film The Seventh Seal (1958) in Scandinavia at the time of the plague. The Black Death had reached Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus and probably even the Dalmatian coast before it arrived in Sicily and Italy. Catalonia was an early casualty. From Austria the plague moved to Hungary and, through routes not altogether clear to us, to Lithuania and Poland. Scarcely no part of Europe escaped entirely, although some regions such as parts of Hungary, Flanders and the lower Netherlands seem to have remained largely untouched.

The recurrence of the plague in 1361, although less severe and less widespread, by ordinary criteria was catastrophic. Another visitation of the plague came in 1369, others in the 1370s and in 1390. Chaucer, writing his famous tales told by pilgrims to Canterbury about 1390, put in the mouth of the Pardoner a tale that took place during a plague:

There came a privy thief men call Death,
Who in this country all the people slayeth …
He has a thousand slain this pestilence.
And, master, ’ere you come in his presence
Me thinketh that it be necessary
For to be wary of such an adversary.
Be ready to meet him wherever you go.
’Tis what my mother taught me; I say no more.

Another episode broke out in 1405. And the plague that struck London in 1665 was the final gasp of this pandemic.

The death toll from the Black Death is impossible to measure with anything approaching exactitude. Contemporary estimates are notoriously exaggerated, yet controls on population statistics are possible, and estimates can and, indeed, are made. At one time the estimate ran to ‘somewhere between a quarter and a third’ of the population of Europe. More recent estimates, based on more local and regional studies, place the death toll between 40 and 50 per cent of the population of Europe. If one accepts a general population of 100,000,000 in Europe, then the Black Death in little over two years took between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 human lives. Although Europe has seen the loss of human life on large, tragic scales, neither before nor since the Black Death has it suffered such a catastrophic loss of human life from natural causes. One economic historian has said that Europe at the time had an excess population and that the plague had a ‘purgative’ effect, a proposition, it is safe to say, that would not find much favour with the tens of millions who perished. It has also been said that in addition to the loss of these lives the most significant historical aspect of the plague was a massive psychological reaction, bordering on societal hysteria and that this was compounded by the fear of the plague returning, as, indeed, it did. Contemporary analysis, at one level, traced the plague to the wrath of God. Some saw in the heavens the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the house of Aquarius, the omen of disastrous catastrophe. At another level, the learned doctors at the University of Paris and elsewhere attributed the plague to bad humours in the air, and, with respect to pneumonic plague, they were not far off the mark. The only remedies were flight and isolation. Massive psychological trauma makes considerable sense, but it is an a priori conclusion – what should have happened did happen – and, although anecdotes about traumatic reactions can be cited, the evidence tends to show that the survivors made fairly rapid adjustments to the consequences of this devastation.

The effect of the plague on the church cannot be totally separated from the general effect on society, so interconnected were they. If one looks merely at demographics, the picture is clear: a large number of clergy and religious died from the plague, probably in a proportion to the general population. Accounts show parish priests acting heroically in the face of almost certain death, as they cared for the dying and buried the dead. At Piacenza a priest and the man to whom he gave the last rites were buried together on the next day. In France, it was said that ‘in many towns and villages priests, acting like cowards, fled and left the spiritual care of the sick to the regular clergy, who showed themselves, on the whole, more courageous’. At Paris, the same commentator writes, that ‘the holy sisters of the Hotel-Dieu, not fearing death, nursed the sick humbly and sweetly, without considering the consequences’. So scarce through death and fear had priests become that the bishop of Bath and Wells told his people,

If the dying cannot find an ordained priest, they should confess their sins, according to apostolic teaching, to any lay person, even to a woman if no man is available.

Although the bishop told them that, should they recover, they should confess these sins to their parish priest, it was an extraordinary step. The archbishop of York appointed an Augustinian canon to a parish usually served by secular priests, stating that ‘we make an exception now because of the lack of secular priests, who have died from the deadly plague hanging over us’. German sources show that one-third of the higher clergy, the ones most able to flee, perished; among the lower clergy the mortality must have been significantly higher. In Sicily, the archbishop of Catania died in heroic circumstances. The bishop of Paris died as did three archbishops of Canterbury. And the list could go on. The religious, living in enclosed communities, were particularly susceptible to contagious disease and suffered perhaps disproportionately. A hundred and fifty Franciscans at Marseilles died, leaving their priory empty of life. One entire priory of Austin friars perished at Avignon as did 66 Carmelite friars. In the far west of Europe, at Coimbra in Portugal, the great monastery of St Peter was devastated. The abbot of Westminster Abbey died as did 27 of his monks. At St Albans the abbot, prior and 46 monks perished. And there was the nun, the only survivor of a small nunnery, who was found 10 years later disorientated, wandering through the lanes of remote Lincolnshire. Reliable estimates suggest that half the religious of England died, monks, canons, friars and nuns, with the friars suffering a somewhat greater loss.

Three further aspects of the plague warrant our attention. In the first place, as in so many massive catastrophes, scapegoats were sought and found. In parts of Spain the Christians blamed the Muslims. Strangers and foreigners were often treated with suspicion, not unlike modern immigrants, with the foreign English suspected at Narbonne and, in Aragon, foreigners and Portuguese pilgrims suspected. More widely, helpless lepers, much reviled as they were, had heaped on them the added opprobrium of spreading the plague. Yet these accusations pale in comparison to those made against the Jews.

Uncoordinated, violent attacks against Jews erupted in many places during the plague. Everywhere the charges were the same. The Jews had poisoned the wells of Christians. It was said that they themselves were taking water from distant streams, which was taken as a clear sign of their guilt. The earliest reported attacks on Jews occurred in the south of France, where, in the spring of 1348, wholesale exterminations took place at Narbonne and Carcassone. At a celebrated trial in September a local Jewish doctor confessed to having imported poison into southern France from Spain, which he then had thrown into the principal wells. At about the same time as this trial, the Jews at Basel were rounded up and put in wooden buildings, which were then incinerated. Burning seemed the usual punishment. In Germany, by early 1349 Jews were burned at Stuttgart, Memmingen, Lindau, Freiburg, Dresden, Worms and Erfurt, to mention only some of the places. The Jews of Speyer were murdered and their corpses placed in wine barrels and dispatched down the Rhine River. In the summer of 1349 the fury had erupted at Mainz and at Cologne.

Some responsible leaders acted with decency and humanity. The pope, Clement VI, threw open the gates of Avignon to Jews fleeing these outrages. He called on Christians everywhere to act with tolerance and threatened with excommunication those who persecuted the Jews. The king of Aragon, Pedro IV, disturbed by persecutions at Barcelona, ordered swift prosecution of the perpetrators there and protection of Jews everywhere in his kingdom. The king of the Germans and the duke of Austria made efforts, which proved largely ineffectual, to stem the attacks. At Cologne, the city fathers also took action to protect the Jews. Neither popes nor kings nor civic leaders were able to stop the fury: it ended only with the passing of the plague.

Secondly, the plague was marked by a religious hysteria, which formed an important, if small part of the picture of the plague years. The hysteria took its starkest form in the activity of the flagellants. As their name implies, they were men who undertook penance by flagellation. Flagellant penance was not new. Individuals had long seen the scourging of the flesh as a means of bringing its lusts under control and of atoning for sins. Yet, as a group activity, it seems to have first appeared in thirteenth-century Italy. As related to the Black Death, this communal penitential scourging was first seen in Germany. Flagellants were soon found in most regions stricken by the plague. They processed from village to village, from town to town, sometimes by the hundreds in a long procession, two by two, clad in hooded garments, led by a cross-bearer and often by banners of penitential purple. They walked silently except when chanting the haunting words of the Stabat Mater, the hymn of Mary’s sorrows at the foot of the cross:

Stabat Mater dolorosa

Stood the mother sorrowful

Juxta crucem lacrimosa,

Beneath the cross weeping,

Dum pendebat filius.

Whilst her son was dying.

Fac me plagis vulnerari.

Make me wounded by his blows.

Fac me cruce inebriari

Make me by his cross inebriated

Et cruore filii.

And by your son’s blood.

Their coming to a village was greeted by the pealing of bells from the tower of the parish church. The parish would come out en masse to see these penitential people. The procession wended its way through the crowds of the pious and the curious to the parish church. There they stripped themselves of their cloaks and stood clothed only with cloths that hung from waist to feet. Taking their whips into their hands, they left the church one by one, the eldest leading the way. The first prostrated himself on the ground, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross. The second beat the prostrated one, then prostrated himself and was beaten by the next. And so it went on. They then formed a circle in the marketplace and chanted and scourged, chanted and scourged, chanted and scourged, the tempo increasing like the beat of a drum and with it the emotion of the onlookers. Some of the onlookers were so overwhelmed that they joined the band of flagellants on their pilgrimage of penance.

By mid 1349 flagellants could be seen on the roads and lanes of Poland and Hungary in the east and of Flanders and the Low Countries in the west. From Flanders about 120 flagellants arrived in England, where a chronicler described them:

They went in procession twice each day, barefoot, showing themselves to the people of London, at times at St Paul’s and at times at other places. Their bodies were bare save for a linen cloth that covered them from the waist down. Each flagellant wore a hood, on which was painted a red cross on the front and on the back, and each one in his right hand had a whip with three thongs. In each thong there was a knot with a sharp piece of metal, like a needle, which was wedged in the knot in such a way that it protruded at each end. As they processed single file, they scourged themselves on their naked bodies, which were soon red with blood … Thrice they prostrated themselves and proceeded to take turns beating each other.

Their stay in England was apparently short, and, few recruits having been made, they returned whence they had come.

At about the same time as the flagellants were scourging themselves in London, the pope at Avignon condemned the movement. In May 1348, Clement VI had actually participated in what were clearly flagellant-like ceremonies at Avignon, but he turned against the movement – was it the religious excess? the lay control? – and, in October 1349, issued a bull of condemnation. By then the worst of the plague had passed except in far northern Europe, and the movement was losing much of its raison d’être.

The third aspect is the danse macabre (dance of death), often associated with the Black Death. It first appeared in verse of the thirteenth century and, later, in both verse and in artistic representations. Its actual performance in the fifteenth century seems little less than a conceit of lordly courts. In its simplest visual form it shows the dead and the living doing a line dance, led by Death. Among the living were bishop and fool, merchant and thief, old man and child and others, signalling the indiscriminate call of Death. An early printed book, Danse Macabre (1485), and woodcuts popularized the image in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It is only by inference that we can – and perhaps should – associate the dance of death with the devastating toll of human life taken by the Black Death.

The religious hysteria soon passed. Religious houses by century’s end recovered to about 75 per cent of pre-plague numbers. The persecution of the Jews abated but did

Plate 20 Women being led in dance to their death, from Icy est la danse macabre des femmes (Paris, 1491); British Library shelf no. IB 39618. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

not disappear. By most standards recovery was fairly rapid. The extent and speed of the recovery should not blind us to the shock that Europe and the church experienced in the mid fourteenth century.

The emergence of purgatory

The stench of death and the sight of the reaper’s scythe cutting down millions indiscriminately focused attention, as nothing else could, on the afterlife. When death comes, is that the end? Do the lights simply go out? The answer was that at this time there was an almost universal belief in an afterlife. In which case, what happens at death? With countless numbers of every age and condition dying from famine and plague, the question had a harsh relevance. Prayers and Masses were said for the dead and alms given in their name, but why? By this time the geography of the afterlife was well established in the belief system of Christians, and it included purgatory. There was heaven for the perfect, hell for the wicked and, in between, purgatory, where the not-so-perfect and the not-so-wicked could be purged of their guilt before entering heaven. It was the waiting room for paradise, and the wait there could be shortened by the prayers and good works of the living.

It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the significance of purgatory in the life of the medieval church, especially in the way that life was lived by individual Christians. The antechamber of heaven where the good but not perfect souls suffer their temporary punishment had a fixed place in the beliefs of virtually all Christians in the Western Church and deeply affected their religious practices. Apart from heretics like the Waldensians and the Cathars and, later, John Wyclif, purgatory was believed in as firmly as the Eucharist, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity and other central beliefs of the church and played a role almost as large as the Eucharist and the Virgin in the daily devotional lives of people. That one could assist one’s deceased father and mother and other loved ones and shorten their stay in purgatory led to the development of a rich variety of religious devotions and practices, from which, it is safe to say, no parish in Christendom was exempt. Pope Innocent IV, in a letter of 1254, described this belief:

The souls who died having repented but not having fulfilled their penance or who die with only venial but not mortal sins on their souls are purged and can be helped by the suffrages of the church.

Two decades later Pope Clement V, in a document associated with the Second Council of Lyons (1274), said virtually the same thing. And Boniface VIII, in calling the Holy Year of 1300, allowed a plenary indulgence of the penance due for sins not only to those who confessed contritely and visited the Roman basilicas but also to those who duly confessed their sins and who died on their way to Rome, an indulgence remitting punishment due in purgatory for penance incomplete at death. During the next two decades Dante was composing his incomparable description in Il purgatorio. The doctrine and belief were firmly established by the late thirteenth century. Yet it had been long believed before either pope or poet discussed it.

The belief in an afterlife is essential to Christian belief. The New Testament recounts Christ’s many promises of a life beyond the grave in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished. (See, for example, Matthew 25, 31ff.) But belief in an afterlife long preceded the coming of Christ. Readers of ancient texts are familiar with incidents of visits to the underworld. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, much of it dating to sometime in the early second millennium BC, we find two such visits. Ulysses in the Odyssey (bk 2) descends into a similar underworld as does Aeneas (Aeneid, bk 6), who meets Dido, whom he had terribly wronged. Although rabbinical teaching fluctuated, the Hebrews had a sheol and a gehenna, places for souls after death. Psalm 116 sings,

I was encompassed in sorrowful death, and I was seized by the pains of hell.

Christ brought a clarity about the afterlife. His teaching had an obvious appeal: the injustices of this life in which the good often suffer and the wicked often prosper will be put aright by an all-just God in the next life. But even this stark clarity of good and evil, heaven and hell, was not without ambiguity. ‘I will raise you up on the last day,’ Christ taught. Then there would be a judgement, a Last Judgement, and the separation of the good and the wicked. What was unclear was what happened between the time of death and the time of the Last Judgement. It was from this ambiguity that the idea of purgatory arose.

Even from early Christian times prayers were said for the dead, which would be unnecessary if the souls were already saved and fruitless if the souls were already lost. A contemporary account describes the vision had by Perpetua as she was awaiting martyrdom in Carthage in 202. In a dream she saw her dead brother in a place of darkness with others; he was ‘all burning and tormented with thirst, filthy of body, clad in rags and his face with the sore he had at death’. He was seven when he died, and in her dream she saw him, still a boy, unable to reach, even on his tiptoes, a basin of water. She prayed night and day for him, and then she had another vision. She saw him, his body and clothes clean, the sore on his face healed and the basin lowered so that he could drink from it. Her prayers had relieved his sufferings in the afterlife. This story of Perpetua’s vision became a familiar story in the Middle Ages, as it was told and retold by preachers and others. It served to confirm the idea that the living could help the dead by their prayers.

The works of St Augustine (d. 430) were second only to the Bible in popularity, particularly among the learned, in the medieval centuries. In his immensely influential City of God (bk 21) he develops his eschatology (i.e., the study of the ‘last things’, death and what follows) and affirms a purgatorial fire which punishes some souls in the interval between death and the Last Judgement. Theirs were minor sins or major sins forgiven but not fully expiated during their lifetime. He left questions unasked, but a purgatorial fire between death and the Last Judgement had by Augustine’s time become a firm part of the geography of the afterlife. St Gregory the Great (d. 604) went further and said that there are two parts to the underworld: upper hell, from which souls would emerge and enter heaven, and lower hell, from which no one would ever emerge. In Gregory’s upper hell we can see an early description of what would later be called ‘purgatory’.

Stories have a way of shaping belief about the afterlife more forcefully than the reflections of theologians. Added to the ever-popular vision of Perpetua was the vision of Dryhthelm, recounted by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (bk 5, ch. 12), completed in 731:

A certain man, already dead, came back to life and told of the many memorable things which he had seen.

Bede goes on to recount the vision of this holy layman. He had died one night and returned to life in the morning. During the night he was taken on a journey to the next world.

My guide was a man of shining countenance, who wore bright robes. We went silently in what seemed to me the direction of the rising sun at the solstice. As we walked, we came to a very broad and deep valley of infinite length. It was to our left. One side of that valley was raging with an exceedingly terrible fire, and the other side was equally intolerable, for it had hail falling furiously and icy snow swirling about and covering everything. Both sides were filled with the souls of human beings, which were thrown from one side to the other as if by the violence of the storm. When they could no longer bear the ferocious heat, the poor wretches hurled themselves headlong into the frigid cold opposite, and, finding no relief there, they hurled themselves back into the ever-burning flames.

Dryhthelm thought he had seen hell, but his guide told him it was not hell and led him on further.

I gradually saw that the place before us, which we were entering, grew darker and darker till there was only darkness. All I could see was the bright garment of my guide. Suddenly before us there appeared balls of fire, first rising and then falling, and then rising and falling again and again. My guide disappeared, and I was left alone and desolate, seeing the balls of fire, spitting up souls like sparks tossed above the flames, only to fall again into the depths.

Dryhthelm then smelled odours of an incomparable stench and heard hideous laughter from evil spirits and horrible lamentations from human souls. He could see the evil spirits dragging souls down into a burning pit. The guide reappeared and led him away from the dreadful scene and placed him on top of a wall.

From there I could see broad and pleasant fields full of fragrant flowers, so sweet that the awful stench disappeared. And there was a brilliant light, brighter even than the sun at mid-day. In the fields were groups of young people in white robes, sitting around in joyful groups.

Dryhthelm thought that he must be in heaven, but the guide told him that this was not the kingdom of heaven.

Now I saw in front of me a light more luminous than what I had seen, and I heard the sweet sounds of singing, and I smelled a transcendently beautiful scent.

His guide would not let him enter these fields and explained to him what he had seen.

The valley that you saw with its bursting flames and frightful cold is the place in which there are tried and punished the souls of those who delayed the confession of their sins until the moment of death. They died before making restitution for their sins. Despite the lateness of their repentance and confession, they will all enter into the kingdom of heaven at the Last Judgement. The prayers, almsgiving, fasting and the celebration of Masses of those who are still alive can help to free many of these souls even before the day of judgement.

Also, that flaming and putrid pit which you saw is nothing else than the very mouth of hell, and those who enter will never leave.

That flowery place where you saw the beautiful and happy people is the place for the souls who practised good works but who are not so perfect as to enter heaven immediately. On the day of judgement all of these will see Christ and enter into the joys of the heavenly kingdom.

Those who are perfect in their every word, deed and thought, once they die, shall enter heaven immediately. This is the kingdom where you heard the sweet sounds of music and smelled the glorious fragrances and saw the splendour of light.

This story, often repeated, provides an afterlife of four places: a heaven for the perfect, a hell for the wicked and two intermediary places, one for the good but not perfect and one for the bad but not wicked. In the course of time, these two intermediary places will be conflated to produce purgatory. What needs underlining is that Bede, as many before him and very many after him, believed that the living can help those souls by prayers, alms and Masses.

Even more enduring and persuasive was the tale told in the late twelfth century and repeated in countless manuscripts, not only in the original Latin but in almost every vernacular language of the West. It was the story of St Patrick’s Purgatory. It is based on a legend that held that the entrance to purgatory was through a hole (sometimes called a well or a cave) on an island, now Station Island, in Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. It was popularly believed that, if a truly contrite person entered that hole and spent a night and a day there, that person would be purged of sins and, barring any future sins, at death would enter directly into heaven. In the twelfth century, a story relating to this popular belief circulated. It tells of a knight who went to Donegal to do the penance. After preparing himself he entered the pit and there had a vision reminiscent of Bede’s Dryhthelm with some added touches. Throughout his journey into the other world the knight was 10 times tormented by evil spirits, whom he dispelled by saying the word ‘Jesus’. He saw an earthly paradise, but it was not heaven nor was it hell (the place of the torments) which he had seen. Two archbishops in the earthly paradise explained to him:

After receiving the faith we have often sinned because of human frailty, and we needed to perform penance for our sins. Yet, since we did not complete all our penance during our lifetime, we did so after our death in the place of torment which you have seen; some stay there longer than others. We came through those torments to this peaceful place. Those whom you saw, excepting those in the pit of hell, will also be saved and come here. Even today some have arrived here. Those suffering such torments know not how long they will so suffer, but Masses, psalms, prayers and alms which are done for them can moderate their torments … Even when they come here, they do not know how long they will be here … After the time set for us has been fulfilled, we will ascend to heavenly paradise. Our numbers here in this earthly paradise are at once increasing by those rising from the torments and decreasing by those going to heaven.

Other legends placed the entrance to purgatory elsewhere. For example, one such legend placed it in a cave on the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily. Such popular stories reaffirmed popular belief in an in-between place in the afterlife, a temporary place for souls neither perfect nor wicked, who could be assisted by the prayers and good works of the living.

No more graphic and eloquent depiction can be found anywhere to compare with Dante’s Il purgatorio in the Divine Comedy, which was completed in 1319. Famously, over the gate of hell the poet reads, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ The detailed sufferings described by Dante in each of the circles of hell, as vivid as they are, do not depict the essential suffering of hell: for the Christian poet hell’s greatest torment is the absolute sense of hopelessness. As Dante, led by Virgil, goes from hell into purgatory, whose sufferings he will describe, he is moving into a place, whose essential feature, amidst these sufferings, is the knowledge that the sufferings will end, that there is hope. The contrast is stark.

How different this entrance
From the infernal one; here through song
Is one greeted, there with ferocious lament.

(12, 112–14)

One might compare the individual punishments in hell and purgatory, but the absence or the presence of hope makes the sufferings essentially different. To show this, the poet, as he is led out of hell, looks up and sees four stars: he is outside under the sky. Purgatory is not underground but is a seven-storey mountain on an island above ground. It is a steep mountain, which Dante and Virgil at times can climb only on all fours, and the ancient poet tells Dante not to veer to the left or to the right but to climb ever forward. At each storey souls are purged of one of the seven deadly sins. First, they are purged of pride, then, in the second storey, of envy, where ‘each soul has its eyelids sewn with iron threads’ (13, 70). In the third storey they are ‘undoing knots of anger’ (16, 24). The slothful purge their sin by rushing about, unwilling to waste even a moment, and the avaricious walk stooped, looking down on the ground, weeping because of their former preoccupation with earthly things. In the sixth storey the gluttons are so emaciated that their faces have skin drawn taut across their bones and their eye sockets look like vacuous jewel settings. And lastly he sees fire purifying souls of their sins of concupiscence. And then he is led to paradise by his beloved Beatrice. Dante affirmed in sublime verse purgatory as a place of suffering and hope, a place which leads to heaven.

Plate 21 Dante and Virgil, wandering in Dante’s purgatory, meet Pope Hadrian V, King Hugh Capet and the poet Stasius (from Il purgatorio), British Library, MS YT36, fo. 100. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

It may long be debated whether the scholarly discussions about the question of purgatory at the schools and, later, at the universities were independent of and parallel to the popular belief of the faithful or, indeed, spurred into action by that popular belief. In either case, theologians seriously addressed the question of purgatory. The agenda for them was set, as in so many other matters, by Peter Lombard in his Sentences (c.1157), which became the textbook par excellence for theology in the universities of the thirteenth century and beyond. For him there are sins of a less serious nature – he calls them venial sins – which can be purged after death and before the Last Judgement, the length of this purging varying from soul to soul, and there is, as a consequence, a single receptacle for medium-good and medium-bad souls in the afterlife. William of Auvergne, writing in the 1230s, argued that purgatory was necessary, for souls dying with unexpiated sins cannot enter heaven immediately and that there in purgatory they suffer corporeally from fire. Alexander of Hales, writing at roughly the same time, discussed the question of fire purging venial sins and the penalties due for mortal sins. His fellow Franciscan, Bonaventure, commented at length about the location of purgatory, while the learned Dominican Albertus Magnus answered questions about purgatory in 12 articles. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), undoubtedly the greatest theologian of the time, accepted the conventional teaching and went beyond to ask further questions such as: does the actual guilt for venial sin, as distinct from the punishment for venial sin, exist in souls in purgatory? (He answered in the negative.) The theologians were discussing details of what had become by this time an accepted belief, and papal statements of the thirteenth century, referred to at the beginning of this section, were merely statements of what was already a fixed part of Christian belief.

To summarize this belief. At death there is a particular judgement, which decides what should happen to an individual soul. Three options are available: heaven for the perfect, hell for the wicked and purgatory for the not-so-perfect and not-so-wicked. The length of one’s stay in purgatory is determined by the number of unrepented venial sins and by the unfulfilled expiation for remitted mortal and venial sins. This time can be shortened by the prayers, Masses and almsgiving of the living. At the end of time, at the final reckoning, in a general Last Judgement, the final Doomsday, God publicly divides the good from the bad, and, as the bad go back to hell, the good, including those souls who were still in purgatory, enter into heaven. The punishment of hell and the joys of heaven are eternal, with absolutely no chance of change. The image of God dividing the good from the bad at the Last Judgement is found illuminated in countless manuscripts and carved in stones over the doors of scores of cathedrals and other churches. The question of one’s final fate was difficult to avoid.

The teaching that the living can help the dead had a major impact on the church. This can be seen from at least the seventh century, and in time a day (2 November) for commemorating all the dead and praying for their souls was universally observed. We can see the influence of purgatory on the religious lives of men and women in richer detail from the thirteenth century onward. Scarcely a family in Europe was not affected by this belief. Relatives would pray for their deceased family members. They would see that their bodies were buried with obsequies for their souls and that Masses would be offered on anniversaries of their death. The wealthy often went beyond the usual practices and founded chantries, chapels with a priest to say Masses for their dead. Some chantries were established as separate churches for the sole purpose of having Masses said for a single person or a single family. More commonly, chantries were set up as altars in side chapels in parish churches with funds for Masses to be said for a definite period (e.g. five years) or in perpetuity. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in one small English county (Cambridgeshire) 66 such perpetual chantries were founded. In 1438 an archbishop of Canterbury even founded an Oxford college in commemoration of all the souls in purgatory as well as, specifically, of kings and warriors of the realm. When the English chantries were dissolved in 1547, there were over 250 in London, 44 of them in St Paul’s Cathedral alone, and for the country as a whole probably almost 3,000: they fell victim in the sixteenth century to a new theology that had no room for purgatory.

Moreover, every guild, merchant and craft, prayed for its dead members and arranged annual Masses for their souls. By their earliest statutes the guild of masters at the University of Paris undertook the remembrance of the souls of their deceased members. In addition, confraternities of lay people, male and female, organized for pious purposes, spread like wildfire all over Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Italy, Florence had nearly 100, while the village of Linari in Tuscany with a population of only 500 people had three confraternities. In France, there were 29 at Rennes, 30 at Nantes and 30 also at Dijon, and at least 25 at Arles. In 1389 King Richard II of England ordered a listing of all such confraternities (often in English called ‘guilds’), and, although returns are admittedly incomplete, they reveal 164 such confraternities in Norfolk and 123 in Lincolnshire. This source and others show that there were 162 in Yorkshire with 14 of these in the city of York. Whatever other obligations the members undertook, without exception they undertook to remember in prayers and Masses the deceased members in purgatory. Invariably they would attend the funerals of fellow members. At least one Mass each year would be said for all deceased members. Some confraternities undertook the trentel (a month of Masses) for each deceased member. Belief in purgatory was an essential feature of these societies.

Thus, woven into the fabric of late medieval religion was the conviction that the living could help the dead. The commemoration of the souls in purgatory took its place with devotion to the Eucharist and devotion to the Virgin as the principal displays of Christian belief from the late thirteenth century through the rest of the Middle Ages.

One cannot leave this subject without discussing indulgences. The teaching on indulgences is based on the twofold consequence of all sins, mortal or venial. In the first place, there is the actual guilt incurred by the sinner in committing the sin. Guilt is removed by sincere contrition and usually by confession to a priest. But something remains after the guilt is removed: the need to make satisfaction for that sin. This was called the temporal punishment due to sin, and it could be satisfied in this life by prayer, pious works and the like. If it was not fully satisfied in this life, then it had to be satisfied in purgatory. Theologians taught that the church as custodian of the infinite merits of Christ could use indulgences to reduce the temporal punishment due to sin. Pope Clement VI, in 1343, expressed what was by that time the accepted teaching of the doctrine of the Treasury of Merits. Since the temporal punishment, by definition, was temporal (in time), it could be given time measurements. Hence the pope could declare an indulgence of, say, 100 days for performing a designated good work, such as donating towards the building of a hospital or visiting a shrine. When the deed was performed, the indulgence was gained and the temporal punishment due to sin was reduced. Exceptionally, those who went on crusade could gain a plenary indulgence, which remitted all this punishment. What is significant about the jubilee indulgence granted by Boniface VIII in 1300 is that it was a plenary indulgence. Still, an indulgence could be earned only for oneself by oneself. In time, however, it could be earned vicariously for souls in purgatory. This was a very late medieval development. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV allowed that the indulgence which was gained by contributing towards the building of a church in Saintes in France could be applied to souls in purgatory. He insisted, as have theologians ever since, that this application was by way of suffrage, which meant that its application depended on God’s mercy and was not assured. Two generations later Martin Luther would inveigh against the indulgence preachers who came to Germany to raise money for the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and who allegedly said that as coins entered the coffers souls would fly out of purgatory. But that takes us beyond the time-limits of this study.

Further reading

Destined to become a classic is William C. Jordan, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century (Princeton, 1996). A starting point for the plague should be Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (London, 1969). Much can be learned from John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (New York, 2005). In addition to containing translations of many relevant sources, Rosemary Horrox’s The Black Death (Manchester and New York, 1994) provides balanced, well-informed introductions to the historical questions that concern students of the subject. She also provides an excellent bibliography. Every student of the subject should read the introduction by Boccaccio to his Decameron for the best-known contemporary, eye-witness account and, as a bonus, the tales told by those fleeing the plague. Various regional studies provide a wealth of material. For England one should consult Colin Platt, King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late Medieval England (Toronto, 1996). On attitudes towards death in the later Middle Ages nothing surpasses Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (tr. Helen Weaver; Oxford, 1981).

The principal work on purgatory is Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (tr. Arthur Goldhammer; Chicago, 1981), which should be read together with the cautionary remarks of Aron J. Gurevich in ‘Popular and Scholarly Medieval Traditions: Notes in the Margin of Jacques Le Goff’s Book’, Journal of Medieval History 9 (1983), 71–90, and of Graham Robert Edwards in ‘Purgatory: “Birth” or Evolution?’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (1985), 634–46. Two studies that treat the emergence of belief in an afterlife are Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Ithaca, NY, 1993), and Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife (London and New York, 2002). Eileen Gardiner, Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante (New York, 1989), provides the most accessible collection of the texts of visions. Takami Matsuda, Death and Purgatory in Middle English Didactic Poetry (Cambridge, 1997) contains a useful summary. For reflections on St Patrick’s Purgatory by a modern poet see Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London and Boston, 1984). See also Eileen Gardiner, The Pilgrim’s Way to St. Patrick’s Purgatory (New York, 2010). There are numerous translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Many prefer the versions of John Ciardi, the poet, or Dorothy L. Sayers, medieval scholar and mystery writer, although the translation and commentary by Charles S. Singleton, The Divine Comedy (3 vols; Princeton, 1970–75) may be preferred by scholars. A most modern access to afterlife matters is Eileen Gardiner’s website "

The literature on confraternities continues to grow. For Italy one can consult John Henderson, Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (Oxford, 1994) and Nicholas Terpstra, Lay Confraternities and Civic Religion in Renaissance Bologna (Cambridge, 1995). The classic work for England is H.F. Westlake, The Parish Gilds of Medieval England (London, 1919). Among more recent studies one will find useful Barbara Hanawalt, ‘Keepers of the Lights: Late Medieval Parish Gilds’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14 (1984), 21–37; Caroline M. Barron, ‘The Parish Fraternities of Medieval London’, in C.M. Barron and C. Harper-Bill, eds, The Church in Pre-Reformation Society: Essays in Honour of F.R.H. Du Boulay (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1985), pp. 13–37; and, particularly for the fifteenth century, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven and London, 1992).

A much neglected subject has been the subject of two books which appeared in the same year: R.N. Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? (Cambridge, 2007), and Robert W. Shaffern, The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom (Scranton, PA, 2007).

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