As the church continues to respond to the coronavirus and the disruption that has resulted, the historical memory of an earlier pandemic lurks in the back of the mind, ready to be brought forward. We seek context and a means of understanding our own situation. The 14th-century outbreak of plague in Europe and the Mediterranean basin is not the only pandemic recounted in the historical records of the West, but it is the one that looms the largest. Holding up the mirror of history in this way has risks, as it can be a bit of a funhouse mirror, distorting as much as revealing; yet the exercise has value, as we compare one thing to another and look for common threads.
In many ways, the two pandemics are not really comparable, especially in their causes and different mortality rates. The Black Death came to Europe from Asia in 1347, a bacterial infection with a variety of symptoms, perhaps indicating bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic forms (Aberth, 29). The bacterium Yersinia pestis was spread from rats, to fleas, to human beings. In a pneumonic form the plague could have been communicated through airborne transmission from close human contact. All forms of the disease were deadly, with few survivors among those contracting the plague; an average mortality rate in Europe in this outbreak is reckoned at 50 to 60 percent (Aberth, 3). This 14th-century plague was first a pandemic, but then remained epidemic for centuries in Europe, with more contained local outbreaks well into the 17th century.
This information and these categories were of course unknown to the people of the 14th century, though some medieval doctors recorded the symptoms with great accuracy. The source of the plague was variously ascribed to noxious air or water, corrupted either under astral influence or by the effects of earthquake or weather; or to poison spread by malicious persons, often and conveniently Jews, the perennial “other.” As Philip Ziegler records in The Black Death, writers at the time speculated that transmission was directly through air or poison, or in some way from person-to-person contact. Instinctive flight from the vicinity was sometimes the response to the arrival of the disease in a community. Over time, the attempt to control the plague led to further development of quarantine practices, isolating travelers and their goods.
The result of widespread death in Europe was economic crisis, compounding what were already straitened circumstances for many, living close to the edge. In some places, not enough people remained to harvest the crops. Lack of resources delayed work, including construction: for example, Siena’s plan for a massive cathedral was never brought to completion, as population shrank and skilled craftsmen perished. Trade was disrupted. It took many decades for population to recover in Europe, though the social disruption also led to the breaking of old patterns and the chance for new opportunities for those who came after.
Christians saw the plague as taking place within the providence of God: it was widely seen as punishment from God for human sin, variously construed by each commentator. It was understood as an occasion for self-examination and repentance, and a summons to prayer. Religious processions and pilgrimages being a staple of community life, the church’s response included both, as individuals and communities sought deliverance from the plague.
Connected to these phenomena was a remarkable lay movement: bands of flagellants formed in 1348 and 1349, seeking through collective self-scourging to ward off God’s wrath. Penitential practice like this was not new, but not on this scale and in this context. Eventually condemned by church authorities, groups roamed the countryside, going from place to place; their arrival would be attended by hangers-on, eager to see the show and to participate vicariously in the rites. Sometimes the bands were coopted for the murderous extermination of the Jewish communities of Europe, which happened in many places anyway, with or without the flagellants.
R.W. Southern recounts in his Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages that the arrival of bands of flagellants in Tournai, “under the strain of an overwhelming disaster,” further complicated civic life. Thousands of people moved through the town in the summer and autumn of 1349, causing disruption on top of the pandemic. “Everyone felt the need to do something in the face of the great disaster of the past year.” Southern notes that the movement left almost no lasting trace on community life after these few months. “They took up the devotions of current piety and adapted them to their own fierce resolve to make a sacrifice to God both of their own bodies and of those they believed to be God’s enemies.” Southern adds that “the plague only added an explosive energy to frustrations that were always present.” (307–9).
Practically speaking, the pandemic was disruptive of community life, particularly the sacramental life of the church. All the sacraments and rites were compromised by fear of contagion. Burial of the dead became an “at-risk” behavior. Compounding all of this was the death of cleric after cleric. Some communities experienced the death of their incumbent priest, followed shortly by the institution of a new cleric who took up his cure and then himself perished shortly afterward.
This dizzying succession of leaders led to shortages of clerical personnel, as bishops and others scrambled to staff the parochial system. In their absence, Ralph of Shrewsbury, the bishop of Bath and Wells, allowed confessions to be heard and absolution given by lay people, “as is permitted in the teaching of the apostles.” If no priest could be found for extreme unction, then “as in other matters, faith must suffice” (Ziegler)
The 12 months between August 1348 and August 1349 saw the deaths of three archbishops of Canterbury, the last two certainly as a result of the plague. Both died in London or Westminster, adjacent urban areas and centers of commerce and government, and as a result, epicenters of the disease. Other bishops rode out the plague on their country estates (where they normally would have spent a great deal of time anyway); though one assistant bishop in York, the titular Hugh of Damascus, is recorded as continuing the normal diocesan round of visits on behalf of the archbishop, including consecrating an inordinate number of new churchyards for the burial of the many dead.
Some later historians saw the 14th-century plague as a watershed moment for the church, eroding its authority through its inability to deliver people from the disease (Ziegler). There is contemporary evidence that clergy who abandoned their pastoral responsibilities, either through fear or through promotion to other, more lucrative cures (suddenly vacant as a result of the plague), led to increased anti-clericalism. Bishops themselves criticized clergy who had an eye to safer, more rewarding positions. The bishops themselves, in turn, came in for criticism, and sometimes something more: the bishop of Bath and Wells and his company, for instance, were attacked by a group in Yeovil in 1349 who blockaded them in the church, disrupting his pastoral visit.
Whatever the value of later historians’ reconstruction of the effects of the plague on the authority of the church, the assessment of the increase of anti-clericalism must be squared with the evidence of clerical faithfulness in place, shown in the mortality rate of the clergy. Like many things, perhaps both were true at the same time. If the mortality figures are correct, the clergy largely came up to the mark, but the exceptions made a lasting impression on the people.
Later historians have remarked that the longer-term effect of the Black Death on the survivors was a form of “shell-shock”: what we would now call some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This correlation was pioneered by J.W. Thompson, writing after the First World War, and appears to have been the seed for Barbara Tuchman’s popular work on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror. No one in the wake of the pandemic was necessarily thinking or acting normally, even as society worked back to a new status quo.
So, what do we see in the mirror held up by history? I hope we can discern ourselves caught in the frame. Historians have plotted their own times onto the 14th century pandemic before; but people of our own time, faced with another pandemic, can do so with some greater degree of authenticity. The plague and the coronavirus are certainly different; and our two contexts are different, as well. Despite this, R.W. Southern’s observations, published in 1970, on the plague and the crisis of the flagellants, seem weirdly prescient. As we look around at our own varieties of procession and social disruption, coming in the wake of the pandemic, the connection between the pandemic and these accompanying events seems, if not logical, at the very least obvious.
What do we in the church see in the mirror about ourselves? First, the recognition that we have been here before. Second, we are not yet at the point where we can assess our own response. We’re not yet at a settled point, nor are we sure of the trustworthiness of our own evaluation. We do not have all the facts about the disease, and we do not have the perspectival benefit of distance. Third, I suspect that when we do come to evaluation, there will be need for both judgment and mercy at the hands of our future evaluators (not to mention God!). Neither clergy nor parishioners were prepared for this pandemic by seminary courses or newcomer orientation. We have done our best, God willing, to come up to the mark. God does not require us to get it right in the eyes of history, but God does require faithful response in the moment.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.
I’m grateful to the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, for first raising with me the question of the church’s response to earlier pandemics, and for helping me develop these ideas.