By Michael H. Brown
MEDIEVAL CHASTISEMENT: IN THE END, UP TO A THIRD OF EUROPE AND ASIA WERE DEAD, CHURCHES PRIESTLESS
We left off, last week, in our lengthy article on the Black Death, recounting the absolute devastation in Italy by plague [see previous article].
Most people have no idea how incredible this chastisement was. Could it recur? Are we in an age of pandemics?
Many worry about vaccines — and even health effects from them.
In the Middle Ages, there were no vaccines, just a strange sickness that had come (as a number of negative things had come) from Asia, and specifically, the “Land of the Dragon,” China — with hordes of migrating horsemen who may have transported rats and fleas.
Let’s see what else occurred:
It decimated Florence, where 100,000 died. It hit Venice — where shortly before a tremor had set church bells tolling.
From Italy the plague made its way to the western Mediterranean with the same deadly results.
In Avignon, France, where the papal palace had relocated — in lust-ridden Avignon — 11,000 were buried in a six-week stretch and soon a third of the cardinals died with half of the lay population.
Indeed, along with Florence, Avignon was most severely affected. Mortality among priests was particularly high and hundreds who worked at the luxurious papal palace were counted among the deceased. In a short time Pope Clement VI had to flee the city. No one could be sure exactly how the Black Death was spreading but at least one of its three forms was fantastically contagious.
Astrologers tried to find an explanation in the stars but there was precious little to go on as the disease spread northward along the river valleys and arrived in Paris by 1348, with more than five hundred corpses carted each day out of the main hospital in that city, the sick tended to be courageous nuns who in all humility, in all selflessness, gave no thought to their own imminent expiration. That horrid year 28 percent of Europe’s cardinals and 207 bishops succumbed to illness.
In Spain it had reached Saragossa and other parts in this nation where the same image said to have been used by Gregory the Great during the scourge in Rome — the same Madonna and Child! — had resurfaced from that cavern at Guadalupe to help men against this new and more awesome plague. Throughout the continent, towns were special targets. The sick were ruthlessly deserted and turned quickly into cadavers that were simply left in the front of homes or piled like cordwood.
Eventually the bodies were disposed in huge communal pits while the neglected crops withered and livestock roamed untended. Jeremiah indeed! As if repulsed, wolves shied from scavenging the dead animals and at one hospital in Montpellier nearly every doctor died while in Marseilles all of the 150 Franciscans — every one — were counted as fatalities.
In some locales the plague was believed to descend like a ball of fire. “One such ball was fortunately spotted while hovering above Vienna and exorcised by a passing bishop,” wrote the historian Ziegler. “It fell harmlessly to the ground and a stone effigy of the Madonna was raised to commemorate this unique victory…”
But such triumphs were temporary. Many more were the defeats. Vienna suffered as badly as Avignon and the whole of Europe was the picture of emptiness: cattle without herdsmen, widows without children. In England the plague made its way along the coast to Bristol killing with the same vengeance as on the mainland — especially the poor clergy who bravely ministered to the dying. Sickness hit County Dorset in 1348 and 44 to fifty percent died at manors in Suffolk and Worcestershire.
Bath and Wells seemed to suffer their most devastating period between November 1348 and May 13, 1349, and so bad was the shortage of priests, so few were clergy, that Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury issued a letter declaring that a dying person could make his or her last Confession to another layman if a priest was not available. (The same was true of the Eucharist, which could now be administered by a deacon if the vicinity was priestless.)
The fact that Confession was open to laymen meant it was an unprecedented emergency. Clement decided it was necessary to grant absolution to all who had succumbed because so many had no minister. Before the plague there had been 17,500 monks, nuns, and friars in English monasteries but within two years there were about — half — that number. Many believed it was the end of humankind and in Kilkenny, Ireland, a friar named John Clyn — alone among dead men — sensed “the whole world, as it were, placed within the grasp of the Evil One.”
That precarious position had been earned by lust and greed, by irreverence among knights, by lack of respect for life and God, by the astrology and crystal⌐gazing which of late had become so startlingly popular in Europe. The people had tapped into dark powers and were now reaping the result. “God for the sins of men has struck the world with this great punishment of sudden death,” bemoaned King Magnus II of Sweden. “By it, most of the people in the land to the west of our country are dead. It is now ravaging Norway and Holland and is approaching our kingdom of Sweden.”
While Germany was not hit as hard as southern Europe the devastation affected places as far off as Greenland. There was no escape, no respite. Venturing to Rome in 1349 as the plague still raged, Saint Bridget advised everyone to “abolish earthly vanity in the way of extravagant clothes, give free alms to the needy, and order all parish priests to celebrate Mass once a month in honor,” she advised, “of the Holy Trinity.”
If few in Rome were willing to heed such words no one could deny Bridget’s impressive presence. Nor could they deny her miracles. One woman watching her dying son said, “If only the Lady Bridget were here!” and at that moment the saint walked in, laid her hands on the man’s forehead, and a few hours later the man was healed.
In other cases relief was sought at shrines like Willesden.
There a statue of the Blessed Mother was carried in procession and there were reported healings. The king of Sweden called for fasting on bread and a special holy year was declared by the pope for 1350. Obviously it was ridiculous to blame the Church for all this woe (especially a plague that began in pagan land), but guilt was still felt by a hierarchy that had counted piles of money at the papal palace in Avignon and had turned the Church into a granite bureaucracy.
There was evil in that. There was evil in the legalism and pretension. There was evil that filtered down to the local level and the pope, traumatized by the disaster, criticized many of his clergy as “the proudest of the world, arrogant and given to pomp… grasping… covetous,” wasting their money, he charged, “on pimps and swindlers.”
The Pope’s tirade was no doubt magnified by stress and there was ample reason. His agents calculated that the plague — this chastisement allowed by God — had killed 23,840,000 in Christian Europe (as well as up to a third of those living in the Middle East and much of Asia).
[Adapted from The Last Secret]