Post-classical history

Chapter Eleven
“O Ye of Little Faith”

LONG BEFORE THE PESTILENCE REACHED THE RHINE, BARRELS with dead Jews inside were floating downstream to the river’s headwaters above Lake Constance. The plague did not arrive in force in Central Europe until the winter of 1348–49, eight months after the well-poisoning rumors began and six months after the first Jews were executed in Vizille. The pestilence seems to have penetrated Central Europe through the Venetian-dominated Balkans. In the Middle Ages, the Adriatic coast of Croatia was home to tens of thousands of citizen-exiles of the

ruler of “half and a quarter and of the Roman empire.” Split—or Spalato, as the Venetians called it—seems to have been the first city in the region struck. On Christmas Day 1347 or thereabouts, a Venetian galley “storm driven from the east” and equipped with enough destructive power to obliterate the Adriatic coast from end to end visited Split. The following April, attracted by the scent of death in the spring air, packs of mountain wolves abandoned their hilly redoubts above the city and descended on Split to attack survivors.

On January 13, 1348, a second major Venetian colony, Dubrovnik—or Ragusa, as it was known—became infected. In a later outbreak of the plague, the city would gain fame as the creator of the quarantine. In the spring of 1348, Dubrovnik established another remarkable, if less imitated, custom. With total extinction looming, in early June municipal authorities ordered every citizen to make out a will. So great was the agony in the city that word of its calamity spread across the Adriatic and up the Alpine passes to Germany, where, later in the year, officials would send a letter of condolence to survivors, expressing sympathy for the “terrible mortality by which the population has been greatly diminished.” Over the summer Istria, farther north on the Balkan coast, was stricken. Then in August, after death had done all that death could do,Y. pestisbade farewell to the Balkans and moved northward into Hungary, Austria, and Germany.

Traditionally, stories about the Black Death in Germany begin on a warm June day in 1348, when a surprise visit byY. pestiskills “1,400 of the better class of inhabitants” in the Bavarian town of Muhldorf. Everything about the story is correct except perhaps the final digit of the date. Apparently intending to write a nine, the chronicler wrote an eight instead. On June 29, 1348, the alleged day of the Muhldorf massacre, the available evidence suggests thatY. pestiswas astride almost every approach to Germany, but yet not in the country. One plague prong was racing eastward across France, another northward through Switzerland, and a third westward from the Balkans via Austria. For a time that fall, it seemed as if the Austrian prong would breach medieval Germany before the end of 1348. In October, after crossing the Brenner Pass in the Alps, the prong arrived just west of Innsbrück; Bavaria was only a few dozen kilometers to the north, but instead of persevering,Y. pestisunexpectedly stopped and made camp for the winter.

Over the next few months, as the Black Death marshaled its forces along the German borders, from the Baltic to Bavaria to the Rhine, an anxious populace waited and watched. No doubt, most expected the assault, when it finally came in the spring, to come from Austria. In April or May, a rested, reinvigorated plague would decamp from Innsbrück and thrust the final forty-five kilometers north into Bavaria. But according to historian Ole Benedictow, who has meticulously reconstructed the Black Death’s movements across Europe, the first breach of German territory occurred in the west. In May 1349, a transport ship or traveler carriedY. pestisup the Rhine from Basel, where despite the winter’s anti-Semitic measures, the plague was raging, to the little German town of Lichtenau.

Some historians have alleged that Germany suffered relatively lightly during the Black Death. But the available statistics—and admittedly, they are not nearly as detailed as those for England—indicate that the national mortality rate was on a par with Germany’s neighbors. Strassburg and Mainz experienced horrible mortalities, as did Hamburg, where as much as two-thirds of the population may have died, and Bremen, where the death toll reportedly reached 70 percent. In Erfurt, 12,000 are said to have perished, in Mainz, 11,000. By comparison, Frankfurt, which was struck later than other German cities, escaped relatively lightly; two thousand deaths in seventy-two days. No one knows the death toll in the Baltic town of Lübeck, where the plague, sweeping down from Scandinavia, opened a new northern front against Germany in the summer of 1349. But the following year, will-making in Lübeck increased by 2,000 percent.

In the spring of 1350 the German countryside bore the wild, hopeless look not seen in Central Europe again until the spring of 1945. A chronicler speaks of “men and women, driven to despair, wander[ing] around as if mad . . . [of] cattle left to stray unattended in the fields, [of] “wolves . . . [coming] down from the mountains to attack sheep . . . [and] acting in a way which never had been heard of before.” Unlike their Balkan counterparts, the German wolves, “as if alarmed by some invisible warning, turned and fled back into the wilderness.”

In Vienna, which was infected in the spring of 1349, and where one out of every three faces would vanish by year’s end, there arose the legend of Pest Jungfrau, a malignant plague goddess who emerged from the mouths of the dead in the form of a glowing jet of blue flame, and who had only to raise her hand to smite the living. There are few eyewitness accounts of Black Death Vienna, but the report of one Abraham Santa Clara, who lived through a recurrence of the plague in the city, gives us some sense of what life was like in the Austrian capital in May and June 1349. Santa Clara writes of “small children [who] were found clinging to the breast of their dead mothers,” and of one fierce little girl, who, as her “dead mother was placed on the cart, . . . tried to accompany her by force, and with a lisping tongue continued to cry, ‘Mammy, Mammy,’ bringing water to the eyes of the rough, hardened corpse bearers.”

Sweeping though Central Europe, the Black Death seems to have stirred some netherworld deep within the turbulent Teutonic soul. Having already given birth to the pogroms, the region now gave birth to another bizarre phenomenon, the Flagellants.

“A race without a head,” the Dominican friar Henrici de Hervordia wrote of the Flagellants, who spread across Central Europe like an exotic jungle growth in late 1348 and 1349, bringing a thrilling eroticism and the specter of salvation to a populace grown weary of death and fear. Describing a self-flagellation, one practitioner wrote of how he had “stripp[ed] himself naked” and beat his “body and arms and legs til blood poured off him.” Then in an ecstasy of pain and joy, he fell to his knees in his cold monk’s cell and “naked and covered in blood,” and shivering in the frosty air “pray[ed] to God to wipe out his sins.”

The Flagellants’ genius was to transform this erotically charged private self-abuse into public theater. During the mortality, troupes of fifty to five hundred Flagellants tramped across the landscape of central and northern Europe, bringing their passion play of blood, pain, and redemption to the multitudes. At each new town or village, a troupe would announce its arrival with a lusty chorus of deep-throated singing. As the sound of a “sweet melody” rose above the tree line like a “Heavenbound Angel,” church bells would peal, windows open, people rush into the streets. Quickly a crowd would gather in the town square. As the singing grew nearer, the townsfolk would grasp hands and begin to sway back and forth in rhythm. Then, just as villagers’ eardrums were about to burst from the roar of approaching voices, a wall of brilliant purple and gold banners would appear at the far end of the village square. At the sight of Flagellants—shoeless, hooded, and dressed in white cloaks, with a red cross on the front and back—shouts of “Save us!” would rise from the crowd. Some spectators wept; swooning women clasped their hands to their breasts; a few people laid their dead in the square for a blessing. If the town had any Jews, they went into hiding; the Flagellants were violently anti-Semitic. As the troupe marched to the local church, their brilliant pennants billowing and snapping in the wind, the members would sing:

Your hands above your heads uplift

That God the plague may from us shift,

And now raise up your arms withal

That God’s mercy on us fall.

Inside the church, the marchers would strip to the waist in preparation for the first part of the Flagellant ceremony, a penitential walkabout. As members walked in a circle around the churchyard two abreast, each man would lash himself violently on his naked torso until it became “swollen and blue.”

“Ahhh!” the crowd would exclaim, when the troupe suddenly fell down, “as if struck by a bolt of lightning.” On the ground, each man would assume the position of the particular sin he was most culpable of: adulterers lay on their stomachs, murderers on their backs, perjurers on their sides with three fingers extended above the head. This part of the performance concluded with the Flagellant master passing among the fallen, lashing the sea of bleeding, sweating flesh beneath him with a scourge one contemporary described as “a kind of stick from which three tails with large knots hung down.” Each knot contained “iron spikes as sharp as needles, and each spike was “about the length of a grain of wheat.” As the master flogged the prone men, occasionally a spike would drive “so deeply into the flesh, [it could] only be pulled out by a second wrench.”

The centerpiece of each performance was the collective flagellation. On the master’s command, the troupe would form a circle around three members designated as cheerleaders. As the men began beating themselves rhythmically on the back and chest, the cheerleaders would exhort individual Flagellants to apply the lash more sternly, igniting furious contests of self-abuse. Gradually, the Ancient Hymn of the Flagellants would rise from the crowd:

Come here for penance good and well,

Thus, we escape from burning hell

Lucifer’s a wicked wight

His prey he sets with pitch alight

At intervals, the troupe would fall and rise; after each interruption, the flogging would grow more intense, eventually attaining a frenzied, tom-tom-like rhythm. After the circle of men had fallen to the ground for a last time, the townsfolk would move among the bloody, sobbing figures, dipping handkerchiefs into raw, oozing wounds. Then, as the spectators stroked their cheeks with Flagellant blood, they would listen to the master read the Heavenly Letter.

Written by God and deposited on the altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1343,* the letter was a stern warning to a wicked humanity. “O ye children of men, ye of little faith, . . . Ye have not repented of your sins nor kept My holy Sunday . . . Therefore, I sent against you the Saracens and heathen people . . . earthquake, famine, beasts; serpents, mice, and locusts; hail, lightning and thunder . . . water and floods.” A few paragraphs later, the letter warned of even greater evils to come, failing repentance. “Thus, I had thought to exterminate you and all living things from the earth; but for the sake of my Holy mother, and for that of the holy cherubim and seraphim [angels] who supplicate for you both day and night, I have granted a delay. But I swear to you . . . , if ye keep not My Sunday, I will send upon you wild beasts such as have never been seen before, I will convert the light of the sun into darkness . . . and I will smother your souls in smoke.”

Long before the Middle Ages, the Indians of Brazil, who whipped themselves on the genitals, and the Spartans, who whipped themselves everywhere, were enthusiastic self-floggers. But whereas the Spartans associated the practice with fertility, in the medieval world flagellation was designed to appease divine wrath. Eleventh-century Italian monks, among the first medieval practitioners, used flagellation to atone for personal sin: by punishing himself for his misdeeds, a sinner could stay God’s vengeful hand.

Flagellation as atonement for collective sin began in 1260, when Italy was visited by a terrible series of epidemics, wars, and crop failures. Convinced that a wrathful God was punishing a sinful mankind, troupes of scarred, sunburned Flagellants began tramping through the devastated Italian countryside. Within a year, the German countryside was also filled with roving bands of men, whipping themselves as they marched. North of the Alps, the movement acquired an organization, rituals, and songs.

The Italian branch of the Flagellants eventually fell under the control of the church, but the German wing, which had a deep anarchic strain, resisted clerical authority and was banned in 1262. However, whenever a major disaster struck, bands of hymn-singing German Flagellants would suddenly appear, Lazarus-like, out of nowhere, as in 1296, when a terrible famine struck the Rhineland, and again in 1348, when the plague swept into Bavaria.

According to legend, the Flagellants of the Black Death arose from a planetary alignment on “the third hour after midnight on March 12, 1349.” Reportedly, a few weeks later—3 a.m. on March 29, to be precise—“gigantic women from Hungary came to Germany, . . . divested themselves publicly of their clothing and to the singing of all kinds of curious songs beat themselves with rods and sharp scourges.”

Whatever its true origins, the Flagellant movement of the Black Death, like its thirteenth-century predecessor, found its true spiritual home in Germany. After building a base in the southern and central part of the country, the movement quickly spread outward: first, to the rest of German-speaking Europe; then to France, Flanders, Holland, and finally, in 1350, to an unreceptive London. The phlegmatic, insular English seemed puzzled by the sight of half-naked men, publicly “lash[ing] themselves viciously on their . . . bodies . . . now laughing now weeping.” What would the foreigners think of next? You can almost see the chronicler Thomas Walsingham shake his head as he wrote, “They do these things ill-advisedly.”

The movement, which was called the Brotherhood of the Flagellants and the Brethren of the Cross, displayed a fair degree of organization. Before joining, an applicant had to obtain the permission of a spouse and agree to make a full confession of all sins committed since the age of seven. New recruits also had to pledge to whip themselves three times daily for thirty-three days and eight hours, the length of time each Flagellant spent on pilgrimage. The pilgrimages were really marches, and their time frame was keyed to Christ’s earthly life—thirty three and a third years. However, since pilgrims were forbidden to bathe, shave, or change clothing, the Flagellant columns that tramped from town to town often became plague vectors. Along with washing, marchers were also forbidden to sleep in a bed or to have sex. Indeed, if a Flagellant so much as spoke to a woman on a march, he was flogged by the master of the troupe, who would conclude the whipping with the words, “Arise by the honor of pure martyrdom, and, henceforth, guard yourself against sin.”

Initially the Flagellants operated with a measure of self-restraint. However, the movement had begun with an implicit anticlerical message—priests are unnecessary for salvation—and as the mortality worsened, and with it, disillusionment with the Church, that implicit message became explicit. Increasingly, the Flagellants began to view themselves not as a selfless sufferers doing penance for a wicked humanity but as a mighty host of glorious saints with divinely endowed powers, including the ability to drive out devils, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Members boasted of supping with Christ and conversing with Mary; there was even talk of extending the pilgrimages to thirty-three and a third years. Fiercely anticlerical, members disrupted Masses, drove priests from churches, looted ecclesiastical property, defamed the Holy Eucharist, and denounced the hierarchy.

A changing demographic may have hastened the turn toward radicalism. As more conservative members of the movement died or were expelled, the Flagellants became increasingly younger, poorer, more criminal, ignorant, anticlerical, and anti-Semitic. For a moment in March 1349 the pogroms seemed about to vanish, but during the spring, as the Flagellants spread out across Germany, the anti-Semitic violence reignited. Flagellant columns killed Jews wherever they found them, including in Frankfurt, where the arrival of a troupe of marchers inspired one of the bloodiest pogroms of the mortality. The local Jewish quarter was sacked, its inhabitants killed, and their goods stolen.

The public seemed unable to get enough of the Flagellants. In 1349 Strassburg played host to a new pilgrimage every week for six months, and Tournai saw a pilgrimage begin every few days. From mid-August to mid-October 1349, fifty-three hundred Flagellants reportedly passed through the town. However, official Europe, sensing the movement’s revolutionary potential, was far less enthusiastic. The magistrates of Erfurt closed the city to Flagellant bands, while Philip VI of France declared everything west of Troyes a Flagellant-free zone, and Manfred of Sicily threatened to kill any member of the movement who so much as set foot in his domain. Despite its members’ brazen anticlericalism, Clement VI seemed prepared to tolerate the movement—initially, at least. It was probably only a public relations gesture, but when a troupe of Flagellants passed through Avignon in the spring of 1348, Louis Heyligen reports that the “Pope took part in some of these processions.”

The turning point came early in the fall of 1349, when a report prepared by a Sorbonne scholar named Jean de Fayt arrived on Clement’s desk. Alarmed at its contents, he issued a stinging denunciation of the movement. “Already the Flagellants under the pretense of piety have spilled the blood of the Jews . . . and frequently also the blood of Christians. . . . We therefore command our archbishops and suffragans . . . as well as the laity, to stand aloof from the sect and never again to enter into relations with them.”

A year later, the Flagellants had “vanished as suddenly as they had come, like night phantoms or mocking ghosts.”

The Flagellants and the pogroms never expanded much beyond the European heartland, but the plague would penetrate to almost every corner of the continent, Christian or otherwise. In the summer of 1349, it arrived in Poland, where King Casimir, influenced by his beautiful Jewish mistress, Esther, offered asylum to Jews fleeing persecution in Central Europe. The communities that the refugees established would last unbroken until the Second World War.

On the other side of Europe, the plague expanded as far west as the Atlantic beaches of the Iberian peninsula. The island of Mallorca, a hundred or so miles off the Mediterranean coast, was a major distribution center for the spread of the plague in Spain. One report has a ship out of Marseille bringing the plague to the island in the bitter December of 1347; if true, the account raises the possibility that the island was infected by a member of the little death fleet, which musician Louis Heyligen says left a trail of contamination along the southern coast of Europe whose “horror can scarcely be believed, let alone described.” From Mallorca, the busy coastal shipping lanes quickly delivered the plague to the shores of continental Spain. By March, Barcelona and Valencia were infected, though judging from contemporary accounts, citizens of both cities remained unaware of the infection until early May.

In the same month, May, a ship from Mallorca heading southward toward the Gibraltar Gap carried the Black Death to Almeria, a principal city of Granada on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula and the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. Islamic law held that since God alone decided who lived and died, in the case of plague, there was nothing to do but wait for Him to render a judgment. However, the citizens of Almeria apparently felt there was nothing un-Islamic in giving God a little help. Active prophylactic measures kept the plague from breaking out of the city until autumn. As the pestilence swept along the golden Spanish coast toward Gibraltar, King Alfonso of Castile, who was besieging the Muslim stronghold, was urged to flee to safety. However, the king, who had lost a future daughter-in-law to the plague two years earlier—Princess Joan of England—insisted on remaining with his army. On March 26, 1350, a Good Friday, Alfonso became the only reigning European monarch to die of the pestilence. In 1350 Spain’s other royal house, Aragon (roughly speaking, Aragon occupied what is today Mediterranean Spain, Castile, and Atlantic Spain) also experienced several deaths. In May King Pedro lost a daughter and a niece to the plague—and in October, a wife.

There is some evidence that the hyperlethal septicemic form of plague was active in Spain. There are several descriptions of what sound like the symptoms of the disease, and a number of Spanish plague stories revolve around almost instant death, which is a characteristic of septicemic plague. One such tale can be found in the chronicle of the old Abbot Gilles li Muisis.

The story concerns a French cleric who visited pestilential Spain on a pilgrimage. One evening he stopped at a little country inn, where he supped with the widowed innkeeper and his two daughters, then booked a room for the night. Awakening the next morning, the Frenchman found the inn empty. Puzzled, he called out to the innkeeper. Failing to get a reply, he tried first one and then the other of his daughters. Again, no answer. Finally, the Frenchman called for the family servant. Silence for a fourth time. Now, deeply perplexed, he began to search the inn.

Encountering another guest, the Frenchman asked after the innkeeper, his family, and the servant. All dead, sir, replied the other guest. The four were taken with the plague during the night and died almost immediately.

The account of Granada physician Ibn Khatimah suggests that pneumonic plague was also active in Spain. For the Muslim physician, the disease’s two outstanding characteristics were contagiousness and a bloody cough.

The Atlantic coast of Portugal marked the westernmost boundary of the plague’s advance, and by the time the disease arrived on the sandy beaches of the region, it was running out of steam. Except for the city of Coimbra, Portugal was lightly affected.

Three other areas of Europe are also supposed to have largely escaped the ravages of the Black Death: Poland, the Kingdom of Bohemia (roughly speaking, modern-day Czech Republic), and an odd-man-out region composed of Flanders and the southern Netherlands. However, new research suggests that, like the perfect guest,Y. pestisconsidered no place in Europe too small or unimportant to visit.

Poland, like Germany, was squeezed by an octopus-type envelopment. In the July 1349, the first wave of plague entered the country near one of history’s favorite playgrounds, the Polish city of Danzig, where World War II (and later the Solidarity Movement) began. In a series of follow-up assaults, the Black Death took the country from the south via a disease prong advancing northward through Hungary from the Venetian-dominated Balkan coast, and from the east via a thrust out of Russia. Then, in 1351, just as the survivors were telling one another the worst was over,Y. pestissent a fourth plague prong across the River Oder from Frankfurt to conduct a mopping-up operation. There are no reliable death figures available for Poland but, tellingly, as in England and France, wages in the country soared after the plague, due to a tremendous manpower shortage.

Bohemia’s supposed immunity also has come under question recently. The kingdom was long assumed to have been spared the worst ravages of the Black Death because of its remoteness from the trade routes that carried the plague through the European heartland, but that view has been challenged of late. According to Professor Benedictow, in the decades before the Black Death, Bohemia, with its lucrative mining industry; gleaming capital, Prague, and energetic population of a million and a half, was one of the most prosperous and bustling regions of Europe, exporting tin and silver and importing salt (for the preservation of meat) and iron (for making farm implements).

As with Poland, no reliable mortality figures are available for the region. But as proof that the Black Death ravaged the kingdom, which was infected sometime in 1349 or 1350, Professor Benedictow points to a story in theChronicle of Prague.It concerns the visit a group of Bohemian students studying in Bologna made to the kingdom in the waning days of the plague. According to the account, the “students . . . saw that in most cities and castles . . . few remained alive, and in some all were dead. In many houses also those who had escaped with their lives were so weakened by sickness that one could not give the other a draught of water, nor help him in any way and so passed the time in great affliction and distress. . . . In many places, too, the air was more infected and more deadly than poisoned food, from the corruption of the corpses, since there was no one left to bury them.”

Recently, there has also been a critical challenge to the third “spared” region, the southern part of the Netherlands and Flanders, but here the revisionists have had less success. A wealth of local data indicates that compared to their neighbors, the two areas experienced relatively low mortality rates. Even Professor Benedictow, a profound skeptic on the subject of spared regions, concedes that “the Netherlands did not suffer such great losses in the Black Death as Italy or England.”

There may be an explanation for this “miracle.” Flanders, which had a relatively low Black Death mortality of 15 to 25 percent, and the southern Netherlands both lost large numbers of children during the Great Famine, and that may have left the two regions with fewer vulnerable adults when the plague struck—that is, adults with deficient immune systems due to early exposure to famine.

However, as a general proposition, it is fair to say that almost no area of Europe entirely escaped the Black Death. In addition to blanketing the continent from east to west, by 1350, the plague would also cover it from north to south.

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