After the pandemic: History shows plagues change the world

  • April 17, 2020

As people grapple with the new realties of daily life ravaged by COVID-19, it’s hard to believe the world will ever be the same.

In fact, history teaches that pandemics really do change the world, and the Church along with it.

The most compelling evidence comes from the middle of the 14th century, when the Black Death plague swept across the known world.

“The Black Death is a medieval event, for sure. But the world that comes out of it is our world. It’s not their world,” said St. Jerome’s University College medieval studies professor Steve Bednarski. “Typically, the Black Death is one of the last events we think of in the medieval world, and then the post-Black Death world very quickly becomes the early modern world.”

Between 1347 and 1351 waves of bubonic plague, the most devastating pandemic ever recorded, killed off anywhere from one-third to one-half the population of Europe — between 75 and 125 million people. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century, as the steam-powered industrial revolution really took off, that Europe’s population returned to its late 13th-century levels.

It was a trauma that marked a generation, said Bednarski.

“Imagine growing up in a world where one out of two of your friends die very suddenly — and both your parents died and you were orphaned,” he said. “People were dealing with a lot of mental trauma.”

The parallels between the Black Death and today’s pandemic shouldn’t be pushed too far. COVID-19 is not the Black Death and we are living in a very different world — religiously, scientifically and culturally — than medieval Europe. But it’s fair to notice where our pandemic experience follows a track established in Europe nearly seven centuries ago.

“It is fair to say that the fear and helplessness that we now face was common — as was the importance of community and local church,” said Alison More, University of St. Michael’s College Comper Professor of medieval studies.

The Church reacted in good ways and bad. Pope Clement VI came down on the side of science. In 1348, he began requiring thorough autopsies and dissections of plague victims. He wanted to understand what was happening and how to save lives. The pope and bishops eased up on tithes and taxes and even redistributed Church funds to get people through economically.

2020 04 17 PlaguePaintingFullSt. Sebastian, who was martyred in 288, was one of many saints people prayed to for protection from plagues. This painting by French artist Josse Lieferinxe depicts an intercession by St. Sebastian during the Black Death plague. An altar was built in Florence, Italy, in St. Sebastian’s honour as a means to stop the plague. (CNS photo/courtesy The Walters Art Museum)

On the other hand, the Church permitted and even encouraged the scapegoating of Jews. A tragic and violent spike in anti-Semitism arose during the plague and did not abate afterwards.

“We saw a rise in xenophobia and anti-Semitism as populations became more and more desperate,” said Bednarski.

A lot of the best Christian reaction to the Black Death wasn’t institutional, said More.

“This happened at a micro rather than a macro level,” she said in an e-mail. “This wasn’t an institutional response. Many houses of women (often, but not always called beguines) were instrumental in nursing plague victims and particularly in caring for the dead…. The Church responded to the crisis through its members rather than its institutions.”

A gradual embrace of personal, private piety combined with lay movements that encouraged ordinary Christians to take charge of their religious lives had been building from the late 12th century. But these movements really took off after the great plague. No longer were Europeans so inclined to simply pay monks, nuns and priests to pray for them. 

“This idea of people wanting to play an active role in their own religion is something we see from the 13th century onwards. People are no longer happy to leave prayer in the hands of the monastics,” More said. 

Communities such as the Fratres Vitae Communis — communities of men established in the low countries and living an ascetic, communal life but not taking the permanent vows typical of monks — were doing their own praying and their own outreach to the poor.

This new religious independence reflected independence in other areas of European life. In the aftermath of the Black Death, labour was scarce. Peasants who once lived and died on the same patch of ground their fathers and grandfathers farmed on behalf of a titled family were now on the move and looking for a better deal.

“They know if they go two farms over they can get paid a lot more and landowners are desperate for workers,” Bednarski said. “So they (landowners) are trying to poach one another’s vassals.” 

In the wake of this wave of death, people also began to doubt the institutions that once ruled their lives, including the Church.

“People begin to question,” Bednarski said. “Does the Catholic Church really have all the right answers? ... The questions they ask are: ‘Well, if we were on the right path, how could God do this to us? What happened?’ ”

It’s not a straight-line, cause-and-effect sort of thing, but less than a century after the Black Death the Protestant Reformation kicks off.

“I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say, when people survive things like that, there is a questioning of things they might have taken for granted before. Things that might have seemed absolute seem less concrete,” Bednarski said.

A lot of the psychological torture the people of 14th-century Europe endured is clearly visible in the art they produced.

“Art becomes very reflective of the psychological trauma,” said Bednarski.

Artists depict circles of hell in which demons fight over the souls of dead babies and violent armies clash. After the Black Death, a rising urban middle class carries around memento mori (paintings or carvings to remind them of death). Expensive, handmade books of hours (prayer books) often feature a double frontispiece — one depicting the patron or the owner of the book as young and handsome, the other showing this same person’s rotting corpse. The message for the owner of the book was, “Now you are young and strong and beautiful and you have lovely things and can afford expensive books, but never forget while you’re praying that tomorrow this is where you’re going to end up,” said Bednarski.

Death becomes part of the everyday world and takes up a lot more space in the Catholic religious imagination from that moment forward.

“Some images of death certainly became more common and more elaborate,” said More. “Suffering and identification with the suffering Christ was a prominent theme in art and theology.”

After the Black Death, Europe went on the the Age of Discovery. By the end of the century Christopher Columbus was on his way to the new world. As the wealth of the Americas poured into Europe, the Enlightenment was born. Science redefined how we know what is true. Democracy diminished the aristocracy.

The world as we know it began to take shape, for good and bad.

For now, the world after COVID-19 can only be imagined.

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