When a third of the world died

[Franciscan monks treat victims of the plague in the 15th century—[public domain] Wikimedia]

In October 1347, when a Genoese trading ship fresh from Crimea docked at a harbor in Sicily, dead and dying men lay at the oars. The sailors had black swellings the size of eggs in their armpits and groins, oozing blood and pus, and spreading boils and black blotches on the skin. They endured severe pain and died within five days of their first symptoms. A variant soon appeared with continuous fever and spitting of blood. Its victims coughed, sweated heavily, and died in three days or less—sometimes in 24 hours. Some went to bed well and died before morning; some doctors caught the illness at a patient’s bedside and died before the patient.

Wreaking havoc

Borne by ships traveling the coasts and rivers, by early 1348, the bubonic plague had penetrated Italy, North Africa, and France, and crossed the English Channel. At the same time, it moved across the Alps into Switzerland and reached eastward to Hungary. In any given area, the plague wreaked havoc for four to six months and then faded—except in larger cities, where it slowed in winter only to reappear in spring to rage for another six months. In 1349 it hit Paris again and began spreading through England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and Iceland, sometimes in chilling fashion. Off the coast of Norway, a ship drifted aimlessly, finally grounding itself in Bergen. On board people discovered a load of wool and a dead crew.

By mid-1350 the plague had passed through most of Europe. The mortality rate ranged from 20 percent in some places to 90 percent in others. Overall the estimate of one medieval observer matches that of modern demographers: “A third of the world died.” 

In the beginning awed witnesses tended to exaggerate their reports. In Avignon chroniclers put the death toll between 62,000 and 120,000, although the city’s population was probably less than 50,000. But it did devastate cities, and grand projects came to a standstill: in Siena, as the Black Death took more than half the inhabitants, work was abandoned on a great cathedral planned to be the largest in the world.

The primary concern at first was burying all the bodies. When graveyards filled up, bodies at Avignon were thrown into the Rhone until mass burial pits were dug. In London corpses piled up until they overflowed out of the pits; they were left in front of doorways, and the light of each morning revealed new piles of bodies.

Shunning the dying

Rather than encourage mutual aid, the plague’s deadliness drove people from one another. One Sicilian friar reported, “Magistrates and notaries refused to come and make the wills of the dying . . . even the priests did not come to hear their confessions.” In one account called the Decameron, the author said, “Kinsfolk held aloof, brother was forsaken by brother, oftentimes husband by wife . . . fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children to their fate.”

Yet there were also pockets of extraordinary Christian charity. According to a French chronicler, nuns at one city hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” New nuns replaced those who died, until most had died: “Many times renewed by death [they] now rest in peace with Christ as we may piously believe.”

To most people there was but one explanation: the wrath of God. A scourge so sweeping had to be divine punishment for sin. Efforts to appease God’s wrath took many forms, but the most common were processions, authorized at first by the pope. Some lasted as long as three days and were attended by as many as 2,000. Penitents went barefoot and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled themselves with ashes, wept, prayed, tore their hair, and carried candles and relics. They wound through city streets, begging for mercy from Jesus, Mary, and the saints.

When the plague refused to abate, the processions turned to self-flagellation. The flagellants believed they were society’s redeemers, reenacting Christ’s scourging on their own bodies to atone for human sin. Stripped to the waists, beating themselves with leather whips tipped with iron spikes until blood flowed, begging Christ and Mary for pity, groups of 200 to 1,000 marched from city to city. They performed three times a day, twice publicly and once in private. Organized under a lay master for 331/2 days to represent Christ’s years on earth, they pledged self-support and obedience to the master and were not allowed to bathe, shave, change clothes, sleep in beds, talk, or have intercourse without the master’s permission.

The movement quickly spread from Germany through the Low Countries to France. Hundreds of bands roamed the land, exciting already overwrought emotions in city after city. Inhabitants greeted them with church bells and offered them hospitality. Children were brought to be healed; people dipped cloths in their blood, pressed the cloths to their eyes, and preserved them as relics.

Soon the flagellants grew arrogant and began overtly attacking the church: masters heard confessions, granted absolution, and imposed penance. They took over churches, disrupted services, ridiculed the Eucharist, looted altars, and claimed the power to cast out demons and raise the dead. Priests who tried to stop them were stoned. But when Pope Clement VI called for their arrest, the flagellants disbanded and fled, “vanishing as suddenly as they had come,” wrote one witness, “like night phantoms or mocking ghosts.”

Murderous atonement

Christians turned their anxiety upon another group: the Jews. Jews were suspected of poisoning city wells, intending “to kill and destroy the whole of Christendom and have lordship over all the world.” Lynchings began in 1348 following the first plague deaths. In France Jews were dragged from their houses and thrown into bonfires.

Clement said Christians who imputed the pestilence to the Jews had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” and that the charges and massacres were a “horrible thing.” He urged priests to take Jews under their protection as he himself offered to do, but his voice was hardly heard. In one town an entire community of several hundred Jews was burned in a wooden house constructed for the purpose. The 2,000 Jews of Strasbourg, France, were taken to the cemetery; those who didn’t convert to Christianity were burned.

The plague broke out about once a decade over the next 60 years. Yet for all the excess of sorrow and death, there seemed at first to be few profound lasting effects. Some noted the sad effect on morals. Peasants took unclaimed tools and livestock. The poor moved into deserted houses, slept on beds, and ate off silver. Lawsuits to gain deserted lands proliferated. Others noted an improvement, saying that people living together got married, and swearing and gambling had so diminished that manufacturers of dice were now making beads for saying prayers.

Higher education benefited. Emperor Charles IV felt deeply for “precious knowledge which the mad rage of pestilential death has stifled throughout the wide realms of the world.” He founded the University of Prague in the plague year of 1348. By 1353 three new colleges had been founded at Cambridge, one funded by the income derived from masses for the dead.

The church was enriched by the offerings of pilgrims seeking absolution from their sins and making a flood of bequests to religious institutions. In October 1348 the Council of Siena temporarily suspended annual taxes for religious charities because these were “indeed fattened” by bequests. 

But the church also garnered criticism. Most clergy had turned out to be as frightened and self-serving as the Christian populace, some gouging people for their services during the crisis. This was severely condemned by Clement and violently resented. One contemporary wrote, “When those who have the title of shepherd play the part of wolves, heresy grows in the garden of the church.” Most people plodded on as before, but dissatisfaction accelerated the reform movements, which were to break out uncontrolled a century and a half later. CH

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #135 in 2020]

Mark Galli is former editor of Christian History and editor emeritus of Christianity Today. This article was adapted from one in issue #49 (1996).
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