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Yersinia Pestis: The Black Death and Religion
“[S]uch terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother . . . the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs. . . .” (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo, & Ellenberger, 2006, p. 398). As told by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron, the Black Death was a terror unrivaled by any other that turned life upside down for nearly all inhabitants of Eurasia. The plague, Yersinia pestis, once called Pasteurella pestis, was caused by ravenous fleas aboard burrowing rodents (McNeill, 1976). The fleas’ throats would close due to the disease, making it impossible for them to feed from the blood they took from the rodents (McNeill, 1976). Since they could not swallow, the blood would be spit back into the wound, along with infected blood, and they would continue trying to feed to prevent starvation (McNeill, 1976). When the rodents, black rats in the case of the Black Death in Europe, would die, the fleas would find new hosts, such as people, and the disease would manifest as massive swellings in the groin and armpit that became dark with internal bleeding (McNeill, 1976). From the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China and Mamluk dynasty in Egypt, states fell to be replaced by the Ming dynasty and Ottoman Empire, respectively (Bentley, Ziegler & Streets, 2008). Between sixty and seventy percent of all people afflicted by the disease would die within days of symptoms appearing, and nobody, from doctors to the Church, could stop it (Bentley, et al., 2008). When natural means could not explain the horrors afflicting the people, they started attributing the plague to God, and even Pope Clement VI referred to “this pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people” (Sanders, et al., 2006, p. 392). In a deeply religious period, the Black Death and its repercussions proved to be a challenge to each of the three major religions in Europe: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
During the Middle Ages, Europe was experiencing something often called the “Dark Ages,” while Islam had something of a “Golden Age.” There are doubts as to whether either was as good, or bad, as they sound, but the Black Death not only evened the playing field, but actually knocked dar al-Islam out of Europe. The Prophet, Muhammad, had addressed epidemic disease, providing a guideline for his followers. “When you learn that epidemic disease exists in a county, do not go there; but if it breaks out in the county where you are, do not leave,” which may have assisted in stemming the spread of disease through the Islamic lands, but many people disregarded this sage advice, particularly those who were not Muslim (McNeill, 1976, p. 198). Ibn Battuta especially seemed to disregard this suggestion as he traveled extensively during the time of the Black Death, often traveling through cities who were actively suffering the effects of the plague (Sanders, et al., 2006). In addition to the advice against traveling, Muslims who died of plague were guaranteed entry into the Paradise of afterlife, perhaps as another method to prevent fear and panic, and in fact were thought of as highly as those who had died in jihad (Sanders, et al., 2006). Like the Christians, Muslims believed the plague was sent from God, or Allah, as a divine punishment, however, they disapproved of attempts to heal the afflicted or otherwise escape Allah’s will, and thus suffered a larger portion of deaths compared to the Christians (McNeill, 1976). This feeling was documented when an imperial ambassador to Constantinople asked the Ottoman Sultan for permission to change his home since the plague had broken out in the house next to his. The Sultan replied “Is not the plague in my own palace, yet I do not think of moving?” (McNeill, 1976, p. 199). In fact, in the Balkan peninsula, Muslim casualties were so great, that the only way they managed to stay in power was through a steady stream of conversions (McNeill, 1976). The Muslims in that area constituted a ruling class and often lived in cities, where disease is already more common than in rural areas due to the higher density of people, while the people in the lower classes stayed in their own faith (McNeill, 1976). McNeill (1976) postulates that the 19th century wars of independence throughout the Balkans by Christians, such as the Greeks, would not have been successful if the Muslim casualty rate was not so high in the 14th century. In this same land, however, were physicians seeking to explain the plague in natural terms and treat it with natural therapies, using the preserved medical texts of antiquity in well-organized hospitals (Sanders, et al., 2006). These hospitals were forbidden from turning anyone who wanted treatment away for being unable to pay (Sanders, et al., 2006). With the losses sustained due to the plague, the Muslims could not hold their tiny remaining piece of western Europe against the return of Christianity.
Christianity offered many advantages to its believers over non-believers that may have actually strengthened the Church and faith during this time of pestilence. Like the Muslims, they believed that death was not necessarily something to fear or fight, and Pope Clement VI granted forgiveness from penalty to the dying through the confessors, allowing believers to die with less burden on their souls (Sanders, et al., 2006). Death would allow believers to go on to their eternal life with Christ while their enemies would be sent into Hell (McNeill, 1976). Like many of the salvational religions, this coping mechanism is very attractive during times of high mortality (McNeill, 1976). In addition, care for the sick is a religious duty for Christians, and even basic care, such as providing food and water for those who cannot serve themselves, can help reduce the death count (McNeill, 1976). With this care, survivors are more likely to feel thankful towards their Christian nurses, and thus Christianity strengthened while others sputtered (McNeill, 1976). Not everything about Christianity was a ring around the rosies. Due to their increased contact with the sick and dying, many priests and monks also died of the plague, so many that there often were not enough priests to perform sacraments for the dead or dying (Getz, 1991). Because the replacements for those priests were often less experienced, or less trained, the public became even more upset with the Church, and the anticlericalism that stemmed from it provided Martin Luther with some success later (McNeill, 1976). In addition, it encouraged the shift from Latin to vernacular tongues, and mysticism and personal relationships with God, which all major branches of Christianity embraced (McNeill, 1976; Osborne, 1996). Movements like devotio moderna encouraged approaching God through “personal contemplation and an intimate relation with their own spirituality” rather than the bureaucracy of the Church (Osborne, 1996, p. 217). Unfortunately, there was another, more destructive variant of Christianity in the Flagellants.
The vast majority of information about Judaism during the Black Death comes from accounts of the persecution of Jews by the Flagellants or the peasantry. The Flagellants were a sect of Christianity, deemed heretical by Pope Clement VI once he heard about it, who gathered in town squares to beat themselves and each other with weighted scourges, often with iron tips that bite into the skin (Sanders, et al., 2006). They believed that they were “proclaimers of a new time, that of the preparation for the end of the world” (Lerner, 1981, p. 535). Not only did they inflict punishment upon themselves, but often killed Jews they came across as well as Christians who spoke out against them (Lerner, 1981). Jews were often seen as the cause of the plague, possibly because they suffered less during the heightened stages of plague. One explanation for this could be that the Jews had removed all grain from their homes for Passover, during the peak season of plague, which then caused the plague-bearing rat to avoid their homes (McNeil, 2009). Jews were accused of poisoning wells, streams, and food, and were sentenced to death across Christian Europe (Cohn, 2007; McNeill, 1976). In Spain, it was the Catalans who took the brunt of persecution (Cohn, 2007). While popular history states that the Jews were persecuted by peasants and the common rabble, close investigation shows that it was the aristocracy and nobles that created the atmosphere for wholesale murder. Aristocrats were the most common clients of Jewish usurers, the ones with the power to authorize pogroms (state-sanctioned anti-Semitism), and the ones who forgave debts owed to the now-dead Jews (Cohn, 2007). Nobles would accuse Jews of spreading or causing the plague, capture them, and torture them until they confessed, and by the end, some two hundred Jewish settlements were utterly destroyed, their people thrown into the fire alive, and their houses demolished (Cohn, 2007). Jean de Venette reported that to ensure their small children would not be captured and baptized in the Christian faith, Jewish mothers would first throw their children into the flames, then join them in death (Sanders, et al., 2006). These attacks were most severe in German-speaking lands, and recurred occasionally with recurrences of the plague (Cohn, 2007), possibly fueling the deep-seated anger and hatred that came to a head in the Holocaust of the twentieth century. These attacks also accelerated the eastward shift of Jewish population, as western Jews were killed and their survivors fled east into places like Poland (McNeill, 1976). Though some attacks occurred in Poland, the royals there welcomed urban, skilled Jews, and a market-oriented agricultural society rose in the Vistula and Nieman valleys under Jewish management (McNeill, 1976). While anti-Semitism started well before the Black Death, and continues today, the use of the Jews as a scapegoat for the Black Death highlights the challenges Judaism faced during these times.
The Black Death was a scourge across Eurasia and had no known cause. Doctors were powerless to stop or even stem the course of the disease, so the deeply religious people of the Middle Ages tended to look towards their gods for reasoning and relief. Common to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism was the belief that God (or Allah) brought the plague down on the people to punish them for their wicked ways. Muslims suffered greatly due to their acceptance of “Allah’s will” and refusal to try to avoid the plague, such as the case of the Ottoman Sultan. Christians also suffered greatly, but their care for the sick and remittances offered by the Pope brought inner strength to the people. Finally, the Jews did not suffer as much from the plague, possibly because of coincidental timing of Passover, but suffered greatly at the hands of Christians who accused them of poisoning wells. All these factors led to Western Europe becoming overwhelmingly Christian. The Spanish would chase the Muslims from their land in Reconquista, and the Jews shifted their population centers to Eastern Europe. Now that European countries did not need to argue about which God to follow, they would become embroiled in wars and infighting in the coming centuries over how to follow God, whether through Catholicism, Protestantism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism.
Bentley, J. H., Ziegler, H.F., & Streets, H.E. (2008). Traditions and encounters: A brief global history. Ashford University edition. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Cohn, S. (2007). The Black Death and the burning of Jews. Past & Present 196, pp. 3-36. Retrieved February 5, 2012 from Project Muse.
Getz, F. M. (1991). Black death and the silver lining: Meaning, continuity, and revolutionary change in histories of medieval plague. Journal of the History of Biology 24(2) pp. 265-289. Retrieved January 22, 2012 from JSTOR.
Lerner, R. E. (1981, June). The Black Death and Western European eschatological mentalities. The American Historical Review 86(3), pp. 533-552. Retrieved February 5, 2012 from JSTOR.
McNeil, D. (2009, September 20). Laying blame for disease; Humans love to find a scapegoat for pandemics- Jews, Mexicans, pigs, storks, and even planets have been singled out- but the truth is that diseases are so complex that pointing blame is useless. Edmonton Journal, E.6. Retrieved February 5, 2012 from ProQuest.
McNeill, W. H. (1976). Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
Osborne, R. (2006). Civilization: A new history of the western world. New York: Pegasus Books.
Sanders, T., Nelson, S. H., Morillo, S. & Ellenberger, N. (2006). Encounters in world history: Sources and themes from the global past: Vol. 1. To 1500. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies.