The Black Plague and the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe

Christian communities experienced structural and institutional changes in the years following the fall of Roman Empire 476 CE. Europe fell into disorder. Centuries of political and social strife ensued. Europe had no centralized governments and the situation lasted until the late 14th century. Within that period, Europe underwent political crisis that would profoundly impact the order of societies themselves. Historians agree that the Middle Ages were a period of uncertainty for Europe and Europeans, as warring tribes slaughtered everyone in their paths in a desperate attempt to control scarce resources and establish small communities insulated from the terrors of the outside world. Families and neighbors killed one another for the sake of power, control, and security. Mass killings and political violence within families and small communities were commonplace. The powerful conquered the weak and ruled over them in whatever way they pleased (which was rarely benevolent). There were constant feuds between lords and their citizens, who bristled under the unjust, arbitrary, and practically inescapable authority of their self-appointed rulers.[1]

This widespread chaos explains, in part, why Europeans of the Medieval Period generally lived in small communities consisting of manor homes—castles reserved for feudal lords and their families—and slum-like satellite villages in which the working and lower-class populations lived. Manor homes were built for security: they had massive stone walls and sometimes even moats that promised protection from outside invaders. Within these estates, there was often a church (mostly the Catholic Church) and smaller homes for the peasants and serfs in the Lord’s service.

Although the relationship between lords and their subjects appeared mutually supportive and beneficial in theory, public animosity toward the ruling class was near ubiquitous in feudal Europe. This lord’s engagement with his “constituents” was generally conducted by soldiers called Knights.  Their aim was to instill obedience and conformity within the population—to keep the subservient in their place. The Knights performed military duties as instructed by the lord, called the Chief Commanding Officer, who was in charge. In essence, each lord served as the judge, jury, and executioner of his respective jurisdiction; they were vested with the ultimate authority to mete out punishments or grant pardons to anyone who fell under their rule. Knights were the arbiters of the lords’ justice and were deployed on missions to protect and expand their power.

The peasants and serfs worked the land as farmers and grew crops for free under the assurance of safety and security under their lord’s rule. The violent and generally unstable conditions of the era forced the peasants to turn to feudal leadership for protection. The Church, the seemingly impenetrable castle ramparts and heavily-armed Knights were symbols of safety and security. Salvation in cultural, social and economic contexts, were considered the utmost priority for men in that period, men who were not born into nobility. It was their only avenue of protection for themselves and their families.[2]

Initially, feudal societies survived on collective or communal farming, a system of agricultural production in which multiple farmers share their holdings to achieve a common purpose. At harvest, these farmers took their bounty to the lord, who would then decide how to distribute the food according to an individual or family’s needs. As time passed, lords amassed great wealth for themselves. They grew more politically influential and their estates and resources became more vast; ultimately, they privatized their possessions and subjects entirely. The knights, peasants and farmers would rent the lord’s property for agricultural produce, in an effort to regain control of their own lives. This socioeconomic formula would repeat itself in countless iterations in the centuries to follow.

The Church and the Papacy’s supremacist claim

The chaotic, hopelessly brutal conditions of the Middle Ages proved fertile ground for the development of a new brand of dogmatic Christianity unlike anything the world had ever seen. Like the feudal system, the underlying principles of monotheism offered a warm blanket to the shivering masses (a blanket Marx would later call an “opiate”–a comforting numbness). The Church and the Papacy’s supremacist claim that they alone represented God (the one and only Christian God, that is) and his divine rule on earth was the ideological foundation of the Catholic worldview. Their mandate to the outside world was simple: succumb to our brand of Christianity or face imprisonment, torture, or death. The Church’s political influence was so great that entire empires feared its authority. It established itself as an all-knowing and all-powerful institution; it had a monopoly on truth and precisely how—and by whom—its supposed truths were to be taught. The writings of the Bible (specifically the New Testament and its gospels) were in Latin only, and no translation of it was permitted until the 16th century. Hence, the largely uneducated and illiterate underclass relied on interpretations by priests. In this way, the Church carried on the feudal machinery that forced the powerless into dependence upon their rulers, thus preserving the deep social inequalities that characterized the Middle Ages.[3]

The Church played a crucial role in the day to day lives and functions of the people. Social, cultural, economic and political systems centered around the Church. Many aspects of daily life had spiritual connotations attached. For example, sickness was sometimes regarded as a divine punishment for one’s sins. The single most fatal pandemic in human history, the Black Death (or “the Plague”) is estimated to have killed anywhere between 30% and 60% of the global population in less than two decades (while some historians suggest 80% fatality over four years in Mediterranean regions) .[4] It arrived on the backs of flea-ridden rats and laid ruin to everything in its path. Black tumours the size of apples erupted on its victims overnight, followed by acute fever and bloody vomiting; within days, the infected would almost invariably be dead. To call this type of cataclysmic event a tragedy is a gross understatement. To this day, no single man-made disaster has been as devastating. It is hard to fathom how or why the notion of an all-powerful, all-knowing god could provide any comfort to European survivors of such a disaster. While many did, in fact, begin to question their faith is such an unimaginably cruel universe, the Catholic Church preached that the Plague was a result of the sins of the people. To heal from the sickness, individuals were encouraged to attend the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, to beg forgiveness over the sins committed against God. Failure to honor this sacrament was to invite not only death but eternal damnation – “the everlasting fire” – upon oneself. This kind of unrelenting manipulation is consummate evidence of the widespread psychological chokehold the Church has maintained and refined since its inception almost two millennia ago.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church survived, united only in its unwavering dogma of Catholicism. However, small ideological differences in creeds among followers resulted in distinct branches of Christianity, most notably in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West. The two churches parted ways following the Byzantine Empire’s (330 – 1453)[5] appeal to the West for help wiping out the Arab Muslims, who had captured Jerusalem in 637 AD.[6] This historic relationship changed when the less tolerant Seljuq Turks decisively conquered Jerusalem.[7] When the Byzantine Empire appealed for military help from the West, Pope Urban II (1035–1099)[8] granted their request in 1095. The war turned into a series of “crusades” to “liberate the holy place of Palestine. Participation was framed as a sacred pilgrimage and encouraged by the promise that those who died in an attempt to free the Holy Land would be honoured as martyrs. At the same time, the prospects of worldly adventure and profit encouraged peasants and nobles alike to take the cross.”[9]

The Catholic Church became such an influential political player that it influenced all areas of society, including government institutions and civil authorities. Its power and influence spread in different parts across Europe. As its power and political resources continued to expand, the Catholic Church wanted Europe to be united under one religion – its own. The Church and the belief in Christianity emerged as a uniting and unifying force of European societies. Christianity become a core aspects of the European nation’s identity. Political policies had to reflect Christian value in them. The Catholic Church’s leadership, known as ecumenical councils, appointed the Pope as a representative, the figurehead of Catholicism and the foremost authority on social issues and matters of the church and the Christian community. The Pope’s primary role would be the interpretation of Christian doctrines: he had power (the final say) to determine what constituted Christian values and how these values and the history that informed them should be interpreted. Anything in conflict with his guidance was not “the Christ’s way” and was to be universally condemned.

Until 1231 AD, the Pope and his cardinals and other officials, allowed excommunication to stand as punishment, an attempt to silence freethinkers, and nonconformists. Those who expressed a different point of view, or challenged the authority of the pope and church were called the “heretics”. Heresy was voted by the highest treason against the Christian God. Heretics were therefore, considered a threat to christian values, a danger to national order. They were punished severely. On the topic of “punishing heresy”, Roy C. Amore, et al (2015) explain that:

Beginning in the 13th century, the church undertook a vigorous effort to discover and punish people whose beliefs and practices deviated from Church teachings in any manner. Until the 12th century, the punishment for heresy was excommunication – exclusion from the Church’s community, rituals and practices.  However, by the 13th century, the Church had access to the state’s power, and used it to enforce far more severe punishments. It no longer viewed excommunication as enough; it now decided to threaten the very lives of those who dared to even question the Church’s teachings.[10]

This first Inquisition was established in 1232, after the Emperor Frederick II entrusted the task of hunting down heretics to state officials. Pope Gregory IX, fearing Frederick’s ambitions, claimed this responsibility for the Church, and appointed Papal inquisitors to travel the countryside to look for heretics. After a grace period, during which supposed heretics were given the opportunity to confess and repent, those who had not confessed were put on trial. One famous Inquisition was established by the state to investigate Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity. Queen Isabella—under the Pope’s guidance—appointed Tomas de Torquemada as head of the Inquisition in Spain, she likely had little idea what malevolent force she was unleashing upon her country and the rest of Europe. De Torquemada’s power to condemn those he deemed heretics engulfed Spain and soon extended beyond its borders. He was a zealot of the highest degree, born quite ironically into a family of converts from Judaism. His hateful nature suited the role perfectly: he saw to it that “heretics” were arrested, tortured, and killed with alarming frequency. Under his regime, condemned citizens were forced to wear a mark on their clothing that publicly indicated their beliefs and, ultimately, their impending doom.[11]  All these were done to signal the society, and to warn anyone who associated with individuals who were announced heretics. Penalties for heresy ranged from confiscation of property to imprisonment and even execution. Those sentenced to death were most often burned at the stake.

The Grand Inquisitor, the aforementioned Tomás de Torquemada, ordered more than 2,000 executions, and was a major force behind the expulsion of Jews (of whom more than 40,000 were expelled) and Muslims from Spain in 1492.[12] Muslims who converted to Catholicism, whether sincerely or out of self-preservation, survived the brutal killings. They were called Moriscos, which translates as Moors.

Unsurprisingly, Torquemada also called for the eradication of witchcraft. In 1486, a German Dominican clergyman named Heinrich Kramer published a handbook for Christian witch hunters called Maleficarum, or “Hammer of Witches,”.  The consensus among historians is that the Inquisition officially ended around 1826, nearly 600 years after its fateful inception. Countless individuals in Europe and America died by the far-reaching hand of the Church; in America, the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts mark the most notorious and well-documented example of “inquisitor” cruelty. 

In his book, “The Golden Age of Europe,” Hugh Trevor-Roper (1987), a prominent British historian of early modern Britain and Nazi Germany, questions the pre-eminence of 16th and 17th century European history. He takes issue with the prevalent tendency among historians to label the period between 1559 and 1660 as the critical turning point for our understanding of the historical forces that shaped the world we see and experience today. He writes: “The century 1559 – 1660 is no more homogeneous than any other century, no more submissive to an easy label.”[13] It is the complexity of events and developments that shaped Europe in those years that causes Trevor-Roper to wonder how best to define the period. In his view, defining it as a “century of progress” is not accurate. He dismisses this notion on the grounds that “…not every century, to some extent progressive, can outbid the period of the Renaissance,” which came before it, or that of the Enlightenment, which took place across both periods. Accordingly, it cannot be described as a “century of revolution,” as some historians of his time argued. He thinks it cannot be reduced to such a definitive label given other influential events to consider, including the Protestant Reformation and, later, the French Revolution. He finally settles on the title “the century of expansion,” even though he is not absolutely sure about the accuracy of it. He writes, “The century of expansion then? That would be a possibility, and it is certainly no more false than the other, but it is (necessary) to begin by admitting its imperfection.” Trevor-Roper argue against the term “discovery” on the basis that it implies the inherent passivity of those who were “discovered” – namely the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia, among others.

According to Trevor-Roper, the so-called “century of expansion” is a more fitting description of the period after the Black Death, which saw the Protestant Reformation and consequent development of the Renaissance. This period was followed by a gradually dawning shift toward humanism that influenced widespread changes in European society and internal politics. Put simply, the Renaissance and its newfound sense of humanism signaled a seismic shift in the way human beings related to one another. The relative stability of the Renaissance carried on into the Age of Discovery, or exploration. The internal expansion of Europe involved new systems of government, new national states and provinces,  revolutionary intellectual developments, and the emergence of new cultures. As these changes took place within European, the newly appointed and increasingly empowered political elite began to set their sights on other nations and cultures; emboldened by prosperity at home and new technological innovations such as the compass, the reborn European powers planned the exploration and conquest of foreign lands.

[1] The Middle Ages were undoubtedly the years most clearly defined by bloodshed and suffering; our historical perspective depicts the political systems. The stable western Europe we know today has a long history of conflict and bloodshed that climaxed in the two world wars of the 20th century. It was age of violence and conflict was, in broad terms, defined by an all-encompassing power struggle across various geopolitical fault lines that began at the local level during the feudal periods and reached a near apocalyptic, intercontinental crescendo with the Nazi quest for world domination that became World War II.

[2] We should not consider ourselves so far removed from these times; the modern world is not free of this inequality and its trappings. Marginalized people continue to give up everything to have their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones spared by oppressors. The existence of a ruling class, as well as excessive military power, creates systemic inequality wherever it arises. U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s rise to power is evidence of oligarchies and corruption in even the most affluent nations.

[3] “Inquisition.” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. (June 6, 2019).

[4]Austin Alchon, Suzanne (2003). A Pest in the Land: new world epidemics in a global perspective.

[5] The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople

[6] It is worth noting that, during the initial reign of Arab Muslims, Christians who lived in Jerusalem were tolerated, allowed to practice their faith, and granted access to the city for pilgrimages.

[7] The Seljuk Turks were nomadic horsemen who converted to Islam and recognized the Abbasid Caliph. They usurped power from the Abbasids and then embraced their culture and conquered much of Central Asia and the Middle East. They were named after one of one their early leaders and converted as a group to Islam through the efforts of Arab missionaries.

[8] Pope Urban II, born Odo of Châtillon or Otho de Lagery was Pope from 12 March 1088 to his death in 1099.

[9] Amore, Roy C., Willard G. Oxtoby, Amir Hussain, and Alan F. Segal. 2015. A concise introduction to world religions. Third ed. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press

[10] Amore, Roy C; et al 2015: pg. 175

[11] Tomás de Torquemada: Spanish Inquisitor”. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. (June 9, 2019) 

[12] Amore, Roy C; et al 2015: pg. 175

[13]Trevor-Roper, H. R. The Golden Age of Europe: From Elizabeth I to the Sun King. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987

Published by Gabriel Ndayishimiye

Gabriel Ndayishimiye lives in London, Ontario. He is a writer with a passion to contribute to Black history and literature; and the author of “Run Elvin” (forthcoming), a memoir written for youth from marginalized backgrounds. This book tells Gabriel’s academic/life experiences from refugee camps in East and Southern Africa and now from the metropolis of the western world. The story aims to inspire and motivate such demographic of youth to take up given opportunities to be creative, achieve success, and develop resilience to fight the challenges of life.

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