Post-classical history



The plague not only depopulates and kills, it gnaws the moral stamina and frequently destroys it entirely; thus the sudden demoralisation of Roman society from the period of Mark Antony may be explained by the Oriental plague … In such epidemics the best were invariably carried off and the survivors deteriorated morally.

Times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand. Nor is it necessary to be superstitious or even pious to look upon great plagues as a conflict of the terrestrial forces with the development of mankind …

It may reasonably be felt that Niebuhr was pitching it a little high. It is, to say the least, extravagant to describe as ‘bestial and diabolical, the selfish manoeuvres of the frightened and the hysterical. It is also patently unfair to the many thousands who met the Black Death with courage and charity. But though Niebuhr’s words may seem fantastical he still had a valid and important point. Any history of the Black Death which ignored its impact on the minds of its victims would be notably incomplete. It was an impact whose effects endured. The resilience of mankind is perpetually astonishing and within only a few years the horrors of the plague had been thrust from the forefront of their minds. But no one can live through a catastrophe so devastating and so inexplicable without retaining for ever the scars of his experience.

It is a truism to say that, in the Middle Ages, a man’s mental health and the public and private morality to which he deferred was inextricably involved with his relationship with the Church. His faith was unquestioning and his psychological dependence upon its institutions complete. Any blow suffered by the Church was a direct blow to his own morale. Any discussion of his state of mind after the Black Death must start by considering how far the condition of the Church had been modified by the events of the preceding years. There can be little doubt that it had changed, and changed almost exclusively for the worse.

Fairly or unfairly, medieval man felt that his Church had let him down. The plague, it was taken for granted, was the work of God, and the Church assured him, with uncomfortable regularity, that he had brought it on his own head. ‘Man’s sensuality … now fallen into deeper malice’ had provoked the Divine anger and he was now suffering just retribution for his sins. But the Church must have seen what had been going on over the previous years and decades, yet had given no sign that the patience of the Almighty was being tried too high. It would, perhaps, not have been reasonable to have expected protection from the wrath of God but surely it was not too much to ask that the Church, presumably better equipped than anybody else to predict a coming storm, should have given some warning of the danger that mankind was courting? Instead, there had been no more than the routine remonstrance which made up the repertoire of every preacher. All that the Church had done was wait until it was too late and then point out to their flock how wicked they had been.

The villagers observed with interest that the parish priest was just as likely, indeed more likely, to die of the plague than his parishioners. God’s wrath seemed just as hot against Church as against people: a significant commentary on those preachers who denounced all their fellows with such tedious zest. So little hard evidence survives that any generalization about relationships within society can be little more than guess work. Yet it would have been surprising, in a community so credulous and so deeply religious, if the village priest, the Man of God, had not been accorded, not only the respect due to a figure of temporal power, but also a tinge of awe appropriate to one who enjoyed a special relationship with the Almighty. That the parson was mortal, everyone knew, that he ate, drank, defecated and in due course died. Often, indeed, he came from the same village as his flock and had relations living near him to testify that he was but flesh and blood. Yet, with his ordination, surely he acquired too a touch of the superhuman; remained a man but became a man apart? After the plague, his vulnerability so strikingly exposed, all trace of the superhuman must have vanished.

But he might at least have hoped that what he lost in awfulness he would regain in the sympathies of his flock. The priests, after all, suffered and died at the side of the laity; were always, indeed, among the most likely victims. Yet the slender evidence that exists shows that they lost in popularity as a result of the plague. They were deemed not to have risen to the level of their responsibilities, to have run away in fear or in search of gain, to have put their own skins first and the souls of their parishioners a bad second. It was not only captious critics like Langland or Chaucer who so accused them but their own kind. It was the Bishop of Bath and Wells who taxed them with lack of devotion to their duty;1 a monk who wrote: ‘In this plague many chaplains and hired parish priests would not serve without excessive pay’;2 the chronicler of the Archbishops who complained that: ‘… parishes remained altogether unserved and beneficed parsons had turned away from the care of their benefices for fear of death’.3 Such criticism must have reflected a general view.

One of the most perplexing features of the Black Death is the reconciliation of this criticism with the outstandingly high mortality among the priests. We have already considered the factors which contributed to this high death rate. There is much which remains uncertain. But what seems clear beyond contradiction is that, if the parish priest had chosen to devote his superior wealth and the privileges conferred by his status solely to preserving his own person, he would have stood a better chance than his parishioners of survival. The fact that he suffered more proves that he cannot altogether have shirked his duty. The picture which one forms to explain this seeming ingratitude on the part of the people towards their priests is that of a clergy doing its daily work but with reluctance and some timidity; thereby incurring the worst of the danger but forfeiting the respect which it should have earned. Add to this a few notorious examples of priests deserting their flocks and of conspicuous courage on the part of certain wandering friars, and some idea can be formed of why the established Church emerged from the Black Death with such diminished credit. The contempt of contemporaries may not have been justified but it was still to cost the Church dear over the next decades.

There is little doubt that those who wished to criticize the Church found plentiful grounds on which to do so during the next few years. On the whole, in plague as in war, those who take most care of themselves live on while those who expose themselves perish. The best of the clergy died, the worst survived. Obviously this is an over-simplification; many good men were lucky as well as less noble who were unfortunate. But the abrupt disappearance of nearly half the clergy, including a disproportionately great number of the brave and diligent, inevitably put a heavy strain on the machinery of the Church and reduced its capacity to deal effectively with movements of protest or revolt.

It does not seem that the new recruits who took the place of the dead were spiritually or, still more, educationally of the calibre of their predecessors. During and immediately after the plague the usual rules governing the ordination of priests were virtually abandoned. Many men who found themselves widowed took holy orders when already middle aged. In the diocese of Bath and Wells a priest was admitted to holy orders even though his wife was still alive and had not entered a cloister on the somewhat shaky grounds that ‘she was an old woman and could remain in the world without giving rise to any suspicions’.4 The Bishop of Norwich obtained a dispensation to allow sixty clerks aged twenty-one or less to hold rectories on the grounds, more or less categorically stated, that they would be better than nothing. In Winchester, in 1349 and 1350, twenty-seven new incumbents became sub-deacons, deacons and priests in successive ordinations and thus arrived virtually unfledged in their new offices.5 The Archbishop of York was authorized to hold emergency ordinations in his diocese.6

There is, of course, no reason to assume that a priest will be any the worse for having been married and taken to his new vocation late in life. Knighton it is true, referred to such recruits disparagingly: ‘… a very great multitude of men whose wives had died of the pestilence flocked to Holy Orders of whom many were illiterate and no better than laics except in so far as they could read though not understand’;7 but Knighton, as a Canon Regular, had anyway little use for the secular priesthood. Nor did the fact that some of the new priests were unusually young when ordained mean that they would lack a sense of vocation or fail to become as good as their predecessors when they had gained experience. But, in the unseemly rush to fill the gaps, many unsuitable candidates must have been appointed and many novices thrust unprepared into positions of responsibility. Certainly in the first few years after the plague, when society was slowly pulling itself together, the Church must have been singularly ill-equipped to give a lead.

The ill wind of the plague blew some good even to the clergy. Coulton has calculated that, before the Black Death, the majority of livings in lay presentation were given to men not yet in priests’ Orders, often not even in Holy Orders at all.8 Analysing the figures for four dioceses over a long period before 1348 he found that 73.8 per cent of the parishes were served by ‘non-priests’ unable to celebrate Mass, marry their parishioners or administer last rites. Most of these amateur rectors appointed professional curates to do their work but, though the souls of the parishioners might not be imperilled, the situation whereby prosperous absentees appointed qualified priests for the smallest possible wage to do the work which they were incompetent or unwilling to do themselves was not a happy one for Church or laity. During the Black Death the situation altered. The great majority of institutions went to ordained priests. The change survived the plague and an analysis of the period after the Black Death showed that the percentage of active priests in charge of benefices had more than doubled to 78 percent.

But among these novice priests and the survivors of the plague there was noticeable a new acquisitiveness; a determination to share in the wealth which fell free for the taking after the Black Death. Such a determination was understandable. Many of their demands were anyway perfectly justified; the economic difficulties of certain parish priests have already been mentioned9 and it was often literally impossible for the parson to live on what the plague had left him of his income. But insistence upon his financial due is rarely becoming to a minister of the Church and sometimes they were greedy and excessive in their exactions. ‘A man could scarcely get a chaplain to undertake any church for less than £10 or ten marks,’ grumbled Knighton. ‘And whereas, while there had been plenty of priests before the plague and a man might have had a chaplain for five or six marks or for two marks and his daily bread, at this time there was scarce anyone who would accept a vicarage at £20 or twenty marks.’10 Archbishop Islip had no doubt that ‘the unbridled cupidity of the human race’ was at work among the priesthood. ‘… the priests who still survive, not considering that they are preserved by the Divine will from the dangers of the late pestilence, not for their own sakes, but to perform the Ministry committed to them for the people of God and the public utility’, were neglecting their duties and seeking better paid conditions. So bad had things got that, unless the priests at once mended their ways: ‘many, and indeed most of the churches, prebends and chapels of our and your diocese, and indeed of our whole Province, will remain absolutely without priests’.11

This spectacle of priests haggling for extra pay and abandoning their parishioners if better pickings were to be had elsewhere was admirable material for those who were anyhow disposed to expect the worst of officers of the Church. ‘Silver is sweet’ commented Langland bitterly:

Parsons and parish priests complained to the Bishop

That their parishes were poor since the pestilence time

And asked leave and licence in London to dwell

And sing requiems for stipends, for silver is sweet:

while Chaucer put into the Reeve’s mouth the mocking words:

For Hooly chirches good moot been despended

On hooly chirches blood that is descended

Therfore he wolde his hooly blood honoure,

Though that he hooly churche sholde devoure.*

Some writers have also ascribed to the Black Death the responsibility for an increase in the number of pluralities among those who held benefices.12 It would not have been surprising if the dearth of priests had led to more cases in which a single parson held two or more benefices but, though this seems to have been the result in certain continental countries, in England the ‘great increase in the practice’ to which Gasquet referred did not take place. On the contrary the evidence points, if anything, to the existence of less pluralities after the Black Death than before it. Certainly the great increase in the number of ordained priests appointed to benefices was likely to lead to a smaller proportion of non-resident parsons in the future.


The monasteries, on the whole, were still worse affected than the clergy. Including monks, nuns and friars the total population of the religious houses in England shortly before the Black Death had been something near 17,500.13 Not far short of half these appear to have perished in the two years of the epidemic; probably more than half the friars and rather less than half the monks and nuns. In the seven monastic houses for which Snape has figures, the population dwindled by 51 per cent between 1300 and the end of the plague14 though some of this must be attributed to declining numbers between 1300 and 1348. Numbers were never to rise again to their earlier peak. Some houses, of course, suffered far worse than others; a few were virtually obliterated, a few left almost unscathed. Recovery too was fast in some places while in others it never took place at all. At Durham, Furness and Cleeve, numbers were so reduced that the refectory and dormitory had to be cut down in size proportionately. St Albans fell from a hundred to fifty monks and found even this figure difficult to maintain over the two centuries before the dissolution. Yet two of the greatest of England’s religious leaders came to the fore at this period and new monastic colleges at Durham and Canterbury were founded shortly after it.

But the blow to the prestige and power of the monasteries did not stem only from their dwindling membership. The enormous number of chantries endowed in parish churches during and immediately after the Black Death inevitably detracted from the significance of the monasteries in the eyes of the people.15 The high level of employment and new, exciting opportunities won away many of the more ambitious from spiritual pursuits; hitherto in the Middle Ages the Church, in one form or another, had offered to those who were not of noble birth almost the only prospect of economic or social advancement – now other possibilities were beginning to open. Many of the monks had grown accustomed to a way of life which was always comfortable and sometimes luxurious. With tithes unpaid and manorial incomes crippled, the always precarious economics of the worse-run monasteries slipped into deficit.16 Debts quickly accumulated. More than a hundred abbots succumbed to the plague. Not only did this mean a great loss in financial acumen and expertise but also in revenue, since the Crown took over the monastic income while its leadership was vacant and exacted a heavy fine before the new appointment could be made official.17 The economic difficulties of the monasteries do not stem entirely from the Black Death; some houses were in trouble already while others managed to survive with their affluence unaffected. But the plague was certainly the most dramatic and probably the most important element in their decline.

To lose wealth and worldly power does not, of course, automatically imply a corresponding loss of spiritual grace. It is, indeed, more commonly argued that riches of the spirit accrue in inverse ratio to riches of the world. But there is little reason to believe that the new poverty of the monks brought with it any significant access of religious fervour – on the contrary, such evidence as there is indicates that the reverse was true. Wadding’s denunciation of his own order, the Franciscans, is well known:

It was because of this misfortune [the Black Death] that the monastic Orders, in particular the mendicants, which up to this date had been flourishing, both in learning and in piety, now began to decline. Discipline became slack and faith weakened, both because of the loss of their most eminent members and the relaxation of rules which ensued as a result of these calamities. It was in vain to look to the young men who had been received without proper selection and training to bring about a reform since they thought more about filling up the empty houses than about restoring the lost sense of authority.18

Though the mendicant orders were included in Wadding’s strictures it seems, nevertheless, that they emerged from the plague years with heightened credit. Whether they were really more selfless and courageous than the parish clergy could hardly have been assessed by a contemporary, let alone today. The very fact that they had no territorial responsibility increased their chances of making an impression on the laity. When the parish priest performed his duty he was no more than a familiar figure doing what he had always done. The mendicant friar, descending as from heaven on a beleaguered village, was greeted with an enthusiasm which his better-established colleague rarely knew. But however this may have been, it does seem certain that their way of life precluded the display of materialism and even cupidity which was so marked among the priesthood. It was not only in England but on the mainland of Europe as well that the mendicants gained in authority and wakened the angry jealousy of their rivals.

In 1351 a counter-attack was launched. A petition, signed by a multitude of senior churchmen, was presented to Pope Clement VI, appealing for the abolition of the mendicant orders or, at least, that their members should be forbidden to preach or to hear confession. The Pope’s reply at once defended the mendicants and provided a staggering indictment of the clergy. ‘And if their preaching be stopped,’ he asked, ‘about what can you preach to the people? If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, arrogant and given to pomp. If on poverty, you are the most grasping and most covetous…. If on chastity – but we will be silent on this, for God knoweth what each man does and how many of you satisfy your lusts.’ He accused them of wasting their wealth ‘on pimps and swindlers’ and neglecting the ways of God.19

If there were any doubt that the Church in Europe was not generally admired or, indeed, deserving of admiration, in the years that followed the Black Death it would surely be settled by this astonishing attack delivered by a Pope on his own priests. Clement VI was himself by no means dedicated to austerity and was generally disinclined to rebuke too harshly the peccadilloes of the flesh. To have been provoked into such invective, he must have felt himself tried very far. That he was doing no more than voice the opinion of the people at large cannot be doubted; that he himself, with his superior sources of information and personal responsibility for the doings of the Church, should have endorsed that opinion is a clear verdict of guilty against the priesthood.


Paradoxically, the decades that followed the plague saw not only a decline in the prestige and spiritual authority of the Church but also a growth of religious fervour. One example of this, to which we have already referred, was the large number of chantry chapels which were opened all over England. There was a spate of church building throughout Europe; the Cathedral of Milan is probably the most conspicuous example but the countrysides of England, France and Italy are rich in village churches begun between 1350 and 1375. In Italy, nearly fifty new religious holidays were created; a move presumably inspired by relief at the end of the plague and fear lest, unless propitiated, the Almighty might once more unleash the whirlwind.20 The number of pilgrims to Rome and other centres did not fall off even though a third of those who might have made the journey were now dead. In some cases, indeed, the number rose substantially after 1349 and 1350.21

In Florence, the Company of Or San Michele, a society with various religious and philanthropic functions, received donations worth 350,000 florins during or immediately after the Black Death. Most of this came in the form of legacies.22 Though such generosity on the part of the rich could clearly not continue at a panic level once the plague was over, repeated threats that new disasters were imminent ensured that the flow continued at a healthy level.23 It is easy to portray such charity as no more than the insurance policy of a rich man, well-informed about the dangers of moth and rust and prudently piling up treasure in heaven. So, indeed, it was. But, as Dr Meiss has demonstrated in his brilliant analysis of the impact of the Black Death on the Italian bourgeoisie, the confidence of the wealthy Florentine in the validity of his most fundamental assumptions had been badly shaken. The fortunes which they had amassed seemed more a source of guilt than of security. Their gifts to charity or to the Church were inspired partly by the urge to propitiate the angry god and partly by a shrewd calculation that some minor redistribution of wealth might avert discontent and civil disorders in the future. But they also reflected a strong distaste, a revulsion almost from the prosperity and luxury which they had long been accustomed to cherish as the most indispensable feature of their lives.

Yet, perhaps even more than this, the frenzied charity in which the rich of Europe indulged during and after the Black Death, demonstrated their faith in the one institution where it seemed a proper sense of social discipline survived. Discredited the Church might be in the eyes of many but, to the nobles and the monied élite, it was still the dyke which held back the flood of anarchic insurrection. Unless it were shored up then everything, it seemed, might be swept away. The rich gave eagerly so that the clergy might beautify their buildings and enhance their standing in the world. ‘Their own position seriously threatened, they felt sustained by the assertion in art of the authority of the Church and the representation of a stable, enduring hierarchy.’24

The religious revival had therefore a strong element of the conservative. But this was only one strand in a complex which contained at least as much of the violently radical. The second half of the fourteenth century was marked in many countries by resentment at the wealth and complacency of the Church and fundamental questioning of its philosophy and its organization. In England it was the age of Wyclif and of Lollardy, a new and aggressive anti-clericalism to some extent made use of by ambitious men who envied the riches and influence of the Church, but drawing its strength from the discontent and disillusionment of the people at large. In Italy it was the great period of the Fraticelli, dissident Franciscans who believed that poverty was of the essence of Christ and that a rich church must be a bad one. These rebels, having been denounced as heretics by Pope John XXII thirty years before, now declared the Pope himself a heretic and rejected all sacraments except their own. All over Europe the co-fraternities, the confrèries, grew up, as it were, in the shadow of the great religious orders. In essence they were more movements of withdrawal than of protest; lay groups of simple idealists who sought refuge in their own society from a harsh and vicious world. But their very existence was an implied criticism of the system which they rejected and inevitably they began to evolve habits and strike attitudes inimical to the orthodox organizations from which they had evolved.

Once again, as so often in the history of the Black Death, one must remember that post hoc is not necessarily propter hoc. The second half of the fourteenth century was a time of spiritual unrest, of pertinent questioning of the values and of the conduct of the Church, of disrespect for established idols and a seeking for strange gods. Though the tempo of events would have been different, changes would have taken longer to bring about, resistance would have been more intense and reaction more immediate; in the long run things would have followed the same course, even though there had never been a plague. Dr Levett’s judgement has already been quoted:

‘The Black Death did not, in any strictly economic sense, cause the Peasants’ Revolt or the breakdown of villeinage, but it gave birth, in many cases, to a smouldering feeling of discontent, an inarticulate desire for change…’

Coulton has suggested that the passage would read as well if ‘theological’ were substituted for ‘economic’ and ‘Reformation’ for ‘Peasants’ Revolt’.25 The comment is a fair one. The Black Death did not cause the Reformation, it did not stimulate doubts about the doctrine of the Transubstantiation; but did it not cause a state of mind in which doctrines were more easily doubted and in which the Reformation was more immediately possible? Did it not break down certain barriers, psychological as well as physical, which otherwise might have impeded its advent? Wyclif was a child of the Black Death in the sense that he belonged to a generation which had suffered terribly and learned through its sufferings to doubt the premises on which its society was based. The Church which he attacked was a victim of the Black Death because of the legion of its most competent and dedicated officers who had perished and, still more, because of the honour and respect which it had forfeited in the minds of men. The Church continued as an immensely potent force in the second half of the fourteenth century but the unquestioned authority which it had been used to exercise over its members was never to be recovered. To this decay the Black Death made a signal contribution.

Matteo Villani, the Florentine historian, devoted a passage to the effects of the Black Death on those who were fortunate enough to survive it:26

‘Those few discreet folk who remained alive,’ he wrote

expected many things, all of which, by reason of the corruption of sin, failed among mankind, whose minds followed marvellously in the contrary direction. They believed that those whom God’s grace had saved from death, having beheld the destruction of their neighbours … would become better-conditioned, humble, virtuous and Catholic; that they would guard themselves from iniquity and sin and would be full of love and charity towards one another. But no sooner had the plague ceased than we saw the contrary; for since men were few and since, by hereditary succession, they abounded in earthly goods, they forgot the past as though it had never been, and gave themselves up to a more shameful and disordered life than they had led before. For, mouldering in ease, they dissolutely abandoned themselves to the sin of gluttony, with feasts and taverns and delight of delicate viands; and again to games of hazard and to unbridled lechery, inventing strange and unaccustomed fashions and indecent manners in their garments …

… Men thought that, by reason of the fewness of mankind, there should be abundance of all produce of the land; yet, on the contrary, by reason of men’s ingratitude, everything came to unwonted scarcity and remained long thus; nay, in certain countries … there were grievous and unwonted famines. Again, men dreamed of wealth and abundance in garments … yet, in fact, things turned out widely different, for most commodities were more costly, by twice or more, than before the plague. And the price of labour and the work of all trades and crafts rose in disorderly fashion beyond the double. Lawsuits and disputes and quarrels and riots rose elsewhere among citizens in every land …

Contemporary chronicles abound in accusations that the years which followed the Black Death were stamped with decadence and rich in every kind of vice. The crime rate soared; blasphemy and sacrilege was a commonplace; the rules of sexual morality were flouted; the pursuit of money became the be-all and end-all of people’s lives. The fashions in dress seemed to symbolize all that was most depraved about the generation which survived the plague. Who could doubt that humanity was slipping towards perdition when women appeared in public wearing artificial hair and low-necked blouses and with their breasts laced so high ‘that a candlestick could actually be put on them’. When Langland dated so many of the vices of the age ‘sith the pestilens tyme’ he was speaking with the voice of every moralizer of his generation.

No doubt the rodomontades of the virtuous were often overstated and the plague blamed for much for which it was not responsible. Hoeniger for one has suggested that ‘the low state of morals belonged to the period and was no worse after the epidemic than before’.27 But this cannot be the whole answer, nor was it only the impressionable contemporary chronicler who has recorded the phenomenon. In her study of Orvieto, Dr Carpentier has found ample evidence that the Black Death was followed by an immediate and sharp decline in public morality. There were many more cases of maltreatment of orphans, more people carried arms, the strict rules governing female dress were relaxed and there was a considerable increase in the number of prosecutions and convictions for every kind of crime.28

Such self-indulgence strikes one today as a curiously illogical reaction to the disaster which had been so painfully survived. Medieval man in 1350 and 1351 believed without question that the Black Death was God’s punishment for his wickedness. This time he had been spared but he could hardly hope for such indulgence to be renewed if his contumacious failure to mend his ways stung God into a second onslaught. The situation, with sin provoking plague and plague generating yet more sin, seemed to have all the makings of a uniquely vicious circle, a circle from which he could only hope to escape by a drastic mending of his ways. Yet, undeterred, he continued on his wicked course against a background of apocalyptic mutterings prophesying every kind of doom.

In spite of the diatribes of Matteo Villani and the more prosaic statistics of Dr Carpentier it is difficult to take altogether seriously the sins of the post-plague generation. Laxness there certainly was, but it was the laxness which comes through relief from almost intolerable tension and the enjoyment of more money than one has been used to spending. In a stimulating essay, Mr J. W. Thompson has drawn an interesting if sometimes strained analogy between the reactions of the population after the Black Death and after the Great War of 1914–18.29 In both cases he finds the same complaints about the immorality and instability of those who survived. The gloomy relish with which their conduct was denounced can be matched in the Naples of 1944, the Paris of 1815 or, indeed, in almost any situation where human beings recuperate from some extensive disaster. The decline in morality should not be ignored but nor should it be imagined that the Europeans who survived the Black Death had any very special attributes in the way of wickedness.

Nevertheless, no society could endure the punishment which the plague had meted out and emerge without serious strains. One sign of this, already mentioned, was the damage done to the relationship between priest and laic; another, the tension that arose between different groups within society, in particular between rich and poor. Renouard has examined the result of this in France.30 In the country, he says, the landowner was generally impoverished while the lot of the peasant, on the whole, improved. An up-and-coming peasantry clashed with an impoverished ruling class which sought to regain its former prosperity at the expense of its tenants. In the cities the situation was very different. Here the laws of inheritance ensured that those who survived among the rich accumulated still greater fortunes while the poor, with nothing to inherit, were economically no better off. A newly rich bourgeoisie joyfully oppressed a defenceless proletariat In the countryside the gap between rich and poor narrowed, in the cities it widened; in both cases relations deteriorated as a result. The second half of the fourteenth century in France was peculiarly rich in social disorder and the scars left by the Black Death were at least in part responsible for the rural insurrection of Jacques in 1358 and of Tuchins in 1381, and for the risings of the weavers in Ghent in 1379, of the Harelle at Rouen in 1380 and of the Maillotins in Paris in 1382.

The phenomenon recorded by Renouard seems to have been by no means invariable. In Albi, to take one example, little difference was perceptible in the social structure of the city as a result of the plague. Almost everybody was richer than before but, on the whole, the wealth of the dead seems to have been shared out among the living without any further distortion of what was already a formidably inequitable pattern.31 But even where no extra economic motive arose, the Black Death left a legacy of mistrust between classes. No one could protect themselves against infection but the rich were at least able to take to flight. The bishops, the territorial magnates, the more affluent merchants, took refuge on their country manors and left the city to look after itself as best it could. It was not to be expected that they would meet with much enthusiasm on their return. It was as if Mayfair or the Sixteenth Arrondissement had emptied themselves in time of war and the inhabitants returned when the danger was passed, expecting a welcome from those whom they had deserted.

The impression that the rich escaped the worst of the plague was largely illusory. Many stayed in the cities and, of those who fled, many also found that their rural fastnesses offered no protection. But they did suffer less and their luck was obvious to the less fortunate. An isolated statistical illustration comes from Teruel in Aragon.32 In 1342, 33.7 per cent of those citizens liable to pay tax did not do so because they had so little money that they were exempted. By 1385 the proportion had dropped to 10.4 per cent. One can accept that, immediately after the Black Death, some redistribution of wealth could have accounted for a drop in the numbers of the poor. But so sharp a fall in their numbers, continuing thirty-five years later, suggests strongly that the poor in the city must almost have been wiped out in the Black Death or subsequent epidemics. The victims did little to express their resentment – there was, indeed, very little that they could do – but a new and potentially dangerous element of class hatred had sprung up.

Professor Russell has suggested that, though the numbers of the peasants may have dropped, at least those who were left were likely to be more healthy. Even if the rule of the survival of the fittest did not apply, the extra food available after the mortality would ensure that they would fare better in future. So far as the Italian peasant, at least, was concerned, Professor Russell’s rosy vision was quickly disallowed. According to Miss Thrupp, this unfortunate species suffered, in the fourteenth century, from acute over-exposure and protein deficiency leading to asthma, quinsy, erysipelas, various digestive and intestinal complaints and bad teeth.33 Such complaints could only have been cured by a radical change of diet and of living conditions: the only possible benefit they might have gained from the plague was a marginally larger intake of anyhow monotonous and insalubrious food. The medieval peasant, it is clear, had little in the way of material gain to set against the anguish which he had suffered.

But if one were called on to identify the hall-mark of the years which followed the Black Death, it would be that of a neurotic and all-pervading gloom. ‘Seldom in the course of the Middle Ages has so much been written concerning the miseria of human beings and human life’, wrote Hans Baron, going on to refer to ‘… the pessimism and renunciation of life which took possession of mankind in the period following the terrible epidemics in the middle of the fourteenth century.’34 It was a gloom which fed upon extreme uncertainty and apprehension. The European of this period lived in constant anticipation of disaster. The apparition of Antichrist was announced many times and in many places. Floods, famines, fire from heaven were perpetually around the corner. The Turks and Saracens planned a descent on Italy; the English on France; the Scots on England. Medieval man, in sober fact, had more than enough to worry about. Now his imagination ran riot.

Perhaps the factor which contributed most towards his demoralization was his almost total ignorance of the workings of his world. Severe though the limitations may be on modern man’s ability to control his destiny he now has a rudimentary understanding of the way in which the forces which dominate him achieve their irresistible effect. Once a danger is understood then half its terrors are gone. From the tiny patch of fitful light which played within the circle of their comprehension our forefathers stared aghast into the darkness. Strange shapes were moving, but what they were they did not know and hardly dared to speculate; strange sounds were heard but who could say from where they came? Everything was mysterious, everything potentially dangerous; to stay still might be perilous, to move fatal. The debauchery and intemperance of which we have spoken was the protective device of frightened men who drank to keep their spirits up, who whistled in the dark. And yet their frenetic gaiety only served to accentuate the gloom that lay underneath. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’; but tomorrow seemed very close and the food and drink could never subdue for long the fear of death.

‘Psychologists and sociologists’, wrote Mollaret,35 ‘know that man reacts to violent pain by flight, by violence or by sublimation. The plague stirred up these three reactions. Flight took the form of a stampede towards altars and processions; doctors and quacks; workers of miracles and visionaries. Violence found its outlet in the massacre of the Jews or those believed to have spread the plague, in the hysteria of the Flagellants, often in suicide. Sublimation was the works of the arists …’

It is above all in the works of the artist that the mood of the age finds its most vivid expression. The favourite themes were those of suffering and of retribution; Christ’s passion or the tortures of hell. Orcagna’s great fresco, the ‘Triumph of Death in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, painted immediately after the Black Death though not necessarily directly inspired by it, sets the pattern.36 In this lugubrious composition a king and queen are hunting with their suite. They turn a corner and see three open graves before them. Each one contains a corpse; all worm-eaten, one blackened, one covered with snakes, one with belly distended, all wearing crowns. Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers come to dust. The king, it is clear from his expression, has not failed to draw the proper moral. To the left a party of gay debauchees are holding an alfresco feast and giving every sign of thoroughly enjoying themselves. They do not notice Death, a clawed harpy, preparing to swoop upon them. To the right the lepers and the blind, the halt and the lame plead to be relieved of their sufferings. Death ignores them. Another moral: Death prefers to pick his victims from those who wish to live. Unsubtle, didactic, but terrifying in its force and in its revelation of the fear and hopeless pessimism that occupied the mind of the painter and of his public.

It was characteristic of the age that Christ should often be portrayed as an angry and minatory figure; that Death should be personified in a higher proportion of paintings than before or after, that the cult of St Sebastian should become fashionable, that the story of Job should appear almost for the first time in Tuscan panels and frescoes. In pictures of the Virgin dating from before the plague she is often seen protecting monks and nuns from the wrath of God; significantly, after the plague, her mantle is extended to cover all Christian beings as well.37 Mankind, it is clear, could do with all the protection it could get.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Black Death was solely and directly responsible for the metamorphosis. ‘In the thirteenth century’, wrote Émile Mâle,38 ‘all the inspiring aspects of Christianity are reflected in art – kindness, humanity, love…. In the fifteenth century this light from heaven has long ceased to shine. Most of the works from this period … are sombre and tragic. Art offers only a representation of grief and of death.’ Yet Mâle saw this evolution at its most rapid in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, the fruit not of the plague itself but of the great wave of terror and dismay which engulfed Europe even after the plague was passed. Whatever the exact timing, however, the mood of the age pervades its religious art and the explanation of that mood forces itself upon the historian.

In a relatively primitive society religion and magic are seldom far apart; the shadow of the sorcerer lurks in the churchyard, the relics of the saints and the bones of the witch doctor’s mumbo-jumbo provide alike a picturesque pendant to an inner mystery. The terrors of the Black Death drove man to seek a more intense, a more personal relationship with the God who thus scourged him, it led him out of the formal paths of establishment religion and, by only a short remove, tumbled him into the darkest pit of Satanism. The Europeans of the 1350s and 1360s were no more saints or devils than their ancestors but such emotional disturbance had been generated that they were often within a step of believing themselves one or the other. They had been tested to the uttermost and even a touch was henceforth enough to tip them from their precarious balance. For anyone who had lived through the Black Deaths hysteria could never be far away.


We have already referred to Mr Thompson’s analogy between the after-effects of the Black Death and the Great War of 1914–18.39 In both cases, he says, complaints of contemporaries were the same: ‘economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depravation of morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed, avarice, maladministration, decay of manners.’ In both the immense loss of life and ‘psychophysical shock’ made it a long time before the vitality and the initiative of the survivors was regained. In both the ‘texture of society’ was modified; new openings were created; the old nobility largely passed away and parvenu upstarts took their place; chivalry and courtesy vanished, manners became uncouth and brutal, refinement in dress disappeared. In both the administrative machine and the Church were almost crippled. Thousands of ignorant, incompetent, dishonest men were thrust abruptly into positions of authority far beyond their merit. In both, in a word, the whole population was ‘shell-shocked’, a state from which they were not fully to emerge for many years.

There is, of course, much which is exaggerated or unacceptable in this thesis. Neither after 1918 nor after 1350 did the ‘old nobility’ pass away; chivalry and courtesy did not vanish; dress and manners evolved, perhaps more dramatically than usual, but certainly not with the drastic absoluteness suggested by Thompson. But the analogy is still of value in that it conveys an impression, expressed in contemporary terms, of the magnitude of the experience in which medieval man had been involved. The two experiences are properly comparable but comparison can only show how much more devastating the Black Death was for its victims than the Great War for their descendants. Their chances of death were of course immeasurably higher; even the front-line infantry man had a better chance of surviving the war than the medieval peasant the plague. Another distinction perhaps even more important for the morale of those involved, was the omnipresence of the Black Death. The First World War was more or less confined to contending armies on fixed battle lines; the second cast its net more widely but still left great areas virtually untouched. The Black Death was everywhere; in every hamlet and in every home. No escape was possible.

And then, in the Great War, the warring nations knew their enemies and knew, too, that they were merely mortal. They had a defined target to hate and to contend with. The plague victim could hate only his God or himself, with occasional not wholly convincing forays in persecution of Jews, lepers or other even less substantial surrogates. For the rest his affliction was totally mysterious and far the more dreadful for being so. And finally the Great War was spread over more than four years; for each locality the great pestilence worked its mischief in a tenth the time. It can be argued that protracted agony is worse than a sudden and explosive shock, but if one is considering the impact on the mind of the survivor then it is surely the second which will produce the graver consequences.

The ‘shell-shock’ which Mr Thompson finds in the survivors of the two catastrophes should therefore have been more violent and more lasting among those who endured the Black Death. But is this not particularly striking generalization of any value? What form did the ‘shell-shock’ take? Was it the kind of shock which galvanized into action or which stunned into apathy? Is it possible to detect any significant and consistent change in the attitude of medieval man between the first and second halves of the fourteenth century? Does the statement that modern man was forged in the crucible of the Black Death have any real validity? Does it, indeed, mean anything at all?

To some at least of these questions this book may provide a tentative answer. But it is only necessary to pose them to see how far we are, and will always be from a definitive solution. In a field so amorphous any attempt at the precise or the categoric would be futile. But if one were to seek to establish one generalization, one cliché perhaps, to catch the mood of the Europeans in the second half of the fourteenth century, it would be that they were enduring a crisis of faith. Assumptions which had been taken for granted for centuries were now in question, the very framework of men’s reasoning seemed to be breaking up. And though the Black Death was far from being the only cause, the anguish and disruption which it had inflicted made the greatest single contribution to the disintegration of an age.

Faith disappeared, or was transformed; men became at once sceptical and intolerant. It is not at all the modern, serenely cold, and imperturbable scepticism; it is a violent movement of the whole nature which feels itself impelled to burn what it adores; but the man is uncertain in his doubt, and his burst of laughter stuns him; he has passed as it were, through an orgy, and when the white light of the morning comes he will have an attack of despair, profound anguish with tears and perhaps a vow of pilgrimage and a conspicuous conversion.40

Jusserand’s classic description of the European in the second half of the fourteenth century captures admirably the twin elements of scepticism and timorous uncertainty. The generation that survived the plague could not believe but did not dare deny. It groped myopically towards the future, with one nervous eye always peering over its shoulder towards the past. Medieval man during the Black Death, had seemed as if silhouetted against a background of Wagnerian tempest. All around him loomed inchoate shapes redolent with menace. Thunder crashed, lightning blazed, hail cascaded; evil forces were at work, bent on his destruction. He was no Siegfried, no Brunnhilde heroically to defy the elements. Rather, it was as if he had wandered in from another play: an Edgar crying plaintively, ‘Poor Tom’s a-cold; poor Tom’s a-cold!’ and seeking what shelter he could against the elements.

Poor Tom survived, but he was never to be quite the same again.


1 Wilkins, Concilia, ii, pp.735–6.

2 Willelmi de Dene, op. cit., Vol. I, p.375.

3 Stephen Birchington, op. cit., p.42.

4 Harl. M.S. 6965. fol. 145.

5 Gasquet, op. cit., p.239.

6 Historical Papers from Northern Registers, R.S. 61, p.401.

7 Knighton, op. cit., p.63.

8 Black Death, op. cit., pp. 39–41.

9 p.131 above.

10 Knighton, op. cit., p.63.

11 Gasquet, op. cit., pp.247–8.

12 ibid., p.248.

13 D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, Vol. II, Cambridge, 1955, pp.256–7.

14 R.H. Snape, English Monastic Finances, Cambridge, 1926, pp.21–2.

15 Hamilton Thompson, ‘Gynewell …’, op. cit., pp.328–9.

16 P. Mode, Influence of the Black Death on English Monasteries, Chicago, 1916.

17 C. F. Mullett, The Bubonic Plague and England, Lexington, 1956, p.34.

18 Annales Minorum, Vol. VIII, p.22.

19 Lea, op. cit., Vol. 1, p.290.

20 E. Carpentier, Une ville devant la peste, op. cit., p. 193.

21 e.g. Memorials of Canterbury Cathedral, op. cit., p.148.

22 Matteo Villani, Cronica, Florence, 1846. Book 1, Chap. VII, p.15.

23 M. Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, Princeton, 1951, p.79.

24 ibid., p.73

25 Black Death, p.74.

26 op. cit., Book 1, Chap. IV, p.13.

27 R. Hoeniger, Der Schwarze Tod in Deutschland, op. cit., p.133.

28 E. Carpentier, op. cit., pp. 195–6.

29 J. W. Thompson, ‘The Aftermath of the Black Death and the Aftermath of the Great War’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXVI, 1920/21, p.565.

30 ‘La Peste Noire’, Revue de Paris, March, 1950, p.117.

31 G. Prat, ‘Alibi et la Peste Noire’, Annales du Midi, LXFV, 1952, p.15.

32 J. C. Russell. ‘Effects of Pestilence and Plague, 1315–85’, Comparative  Studies in Society and History, Vol. VIII, No. 4, 1966, pp.464–70.

33 S. Thrupp, ‘Plague Effects in Mediaeval Europe’, ibid., pp.482–3.

34 H. Baron, ‘Franciscan Poverty and Civic Wealth’, Speculum, Vol. XIII, 1938, p.12.

35 H. H. Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossolet, La Peste, Source Méconnue d’lnspiration Artistique, Paris, (Institut Pasteur), 1965, p.60.

36 For a perceptive appreciation of this picture see P. Perdrizet, La Peinture Religieuse en Italie jusqu’à la fin du XIVe siècle, Nancy, 1905, p.47.

37 P. Perdrizet, La Vierge de Miséricorde, Paris, 1908, p.151.

38 Émile Mâle, L’Art Religieux de la Fin du Moyen Age, Paris, 1908, p.75.

39 See note 29 above.

40 J. J. Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages, London, 1891, pp.382–3.

* For Holy Church’s goods should be expended

On Holy Church’s blood, so well descended

And holy blood should have what’s proper to it

Though Holy Church should be devoured to do it!

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