Great Moments In Christianity, –“The Black Death”.
(This series is dedicated to all good fundamentalists and Evangelical Christians everywhere, including Sarah Palin. Heck, Especially Sarah Palin! Why do I bother? I wouldn’t care at all about what other people believe but these mopes insist on shoving their silly beliefs in everyone’s face and adopting an insufferable air of moral superiority that they parade around during political contests. They love to scrutinize the behavior of others, so I think turn about is fair play. How have Christians behaved over the centuries? They want prayer in schools, but does prayer work? What about “Christian Charity?” -does it even exist? These and other topics will be looked into.)
Medieval artists vied with each other in attempting to show the sheer horror of the Great Plague. None of them, however, were able to capture the true scale or intensity of the suffering. This picture depicting death and chaos is by Peter Brueghel.
When we speak of the Black Death we are referring to the Great Plague of the 14th century. This is not to minimize in any way the other pandemics that occurred either before of after, yet this was by far the worst; this is the one that came the closest to snuffing out human society. The disease, which came to be known as the Bubonic Plague, was carried by rats and then transmitted by fleas to humans. The results were usually fatal. Symptoms included lymph nodes that became so swollen and toxic that they protruded hideously from the skin, sometimes they burst. Often those infected suffered madness in their last hours as the disease ran its’ course. Suffering, of course, was almost beyond comprehention.
So how did the society, which was centered around the church, react? The first thing that happened was that they blamed the Jews for poisoning the wells! Everywhere Jews were either slaughtered or else driven out to town, often to suffer the deprivations of thieves or to die from exposure. In one German town they were nailed into barrels, while still alive, and dumped into the river to drown. In another city, this time in France, they were taken to the local cemetery and given the choice of being baptized or killed, over two thousand were slain. Forcible baptism was a common theme; one variation being that sometimes the Jews were killed even after they submitted, with a knife at their throats, to being baptized. Yes, the good Christians killed them anyway. There were several towns in which the Jews were herded into a house that was then set on fire. In fairness it must be said that in a few localities the authorities tried to protect the Jews that lived there pointing out that they knew of no crimes the Jews had committed. This did not last for long as mobs of peasants descended on the local officials who decided that it was either them or the Jews who would have to die. And the choice they made was never in doubt. Yet for all of this mayhem the inhabitants died in droves from disease. Killing the Jews didn’t help them one bit. The only alternative for the rest of society, (perhaps not everyone had a Jew to kill or maybe they were not so bloodthirsty) was prayer. The churches and cathedrals were filled to capacity, at least in the beginning, when it was over there were not enough people left to fill much of anything. The monks, abbots, friars, bishops, archbishops, sacristans and the common people lifted their voices praying God almighty to spare them this awful fate. But they died anyway. The monks died just as fast as thieves did. The abbots raved in their final moments of agonized existence as did murderers. God didn’t hear the tearful prayers of mothers; their children died in their arms. The only voice heard did not come from on high, no, it came from the dead cart that wended its’ way through the villages where the cry was heard, “Bring out your dead.”
Society was frantic to find a way to end this pestilence. Groups of ordinary people, seeing the ineffectiveness of the church’s efforts, took it unto themselves to placate the vengeful God who was visiting wholesale suffering on the land. They thought that maybe self torture would make God understand that they were sincere so they banded together and took the name of “Flagellants.” They would walk in a long procession from city to city, from village to village, whipping the bare back of the man in front of them. As this dreary cavalcade of fanatics made its way trough the land with their backs dripping blood the people, some of them anyway, were sure that THIS would make God relent and end their dreadful sufferings. But of course it didn’t. The ones that flailed their backs died just a easily as did the village idiots. God didn’t hear their pleas anymore than he heard the sound of the whip as it dug into their flesh. Prayer failed them as it did everyone else.
When the Black Death was over a full third of Europe had died and the survivors in rough shape as they looked over the unsown fields. In some areas the mortality was so high that whole villages were wiped out. The few survivors lived in the woods like animals.
The church had failed miserably to protect its’ members. No prayers were heard, no miracles saved the people. Where were the Saints we might well ask? Why didn’t the Virgin Mary, who showed up so often in medieval times, inform the sufferers that the Jews were not to blame? She was talkative enough other times, why didn’t she tell her followers that if they wanted killing to take it out on the rats that were spreading the disease? Why were the Saints silent when they were invoked time and again, why didn’t they use their influence to end this horrible situation? Why didn’t God help out?
Yet despite their miserable performance the church wasted no time in reestablishing their position in society. They took the tithes of the people, and their money, they took the grain, the wine, the meat, the fish, the cloth and anything else they could lay their hands on and went on as if nothing had happened. Using fear of hellfire and eternal damnation as club to beat the villagers with they eventually restored their hierarchy. But in the end Christianity showed that it could pass no test, that prayer always failed and that the only way they could maintain their position was through fear and brute force.