Plague and Polity

by Michael Liss

Sclafani (Palermo), c. 1446 CE, now in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia

It entered the bloodstream somewhere in Asia in the 1340s, killing ruthlessly and abundantly there—in India, Asia Minor, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. Trading routes, including the legendary Silk Road, were its primary arteries.

In 1347, it penetrated Europe on 12 ships from the Black Sea, destination Messina in Sicily. The flotilla brought goods, vermin, and hundreds of dead and dying sailors, all in gruesome condition.

The local authorities, realizing this was beyond the control of human hands, ordered the ships to leave, but this first instinctive public health measure was too little, too late. The ship’s deadly cargo “unloaded itself” and relentlessly found more victims.

Soon, horrifying stories came from other ports, first Marseilles and Tunis, then other major trading cities. Florence and Rome, Paris and Lyon, and then, by 1348, hopping the Channel to London. From Italy, it also crossed the Alps into Switzerland and crept into Hungary. A year later, it spread to Picardy, Flanders, and Belgium. From England, it headed North to Scotland and Ireland. Eventually, almost all of Europe was engulfed, with the Black Death killing indiscriminately, if erratically.

There was an almost mystical nature to all this. The enemy could not be seen, yet was hiding in plain sight. What we know now is that the bacillus that causes the Black Death is carried in rats and fleas, and in other humans. But rats and fleas were everywhere people lived, and they were particularly prevalent on ships, where supplies (human and otherwise) offered a consistent food source.

The easy person-to-person transmissibility added both danger and tremendous sadness. Trying to sooth a tortured loved one in the last throes was often a self-imposed death sentence.

In their agony, people sought solutions both temporal and spiritual. Strange potions were prepared by doctors and apothecaries and consumed by the desperate. Others relied on rituals with quasi-pagan roots. In some places, when one member of a household was found to be ill, all were walled up in their house to die. Some people fled the city for the countryside, but found the disease both waiting for them and transported there by them. As in every time, the wealthy and aristocratic had more opportunity to enjoy the relative safety of solitude, but even they were not untouched. King Alfonso XI of Castille was the only reigning monarch to die, but wives and children of Kings were among the victims.

Even living a monastic life afforded little succor—while you might shut the doors to the outside, once the bacteria penetrated the physical barriers, it wreaked havoc among servants of the church and those who served them. An entire order of 150 Franciscans in Marseilles was wiped out, as were all but seven friars of 160 in Maguelonne (near Montpellier).

In all of this, among rich and poor, among the faithful and the agnostic, across class, across ethnicity, across every difference between one type of person and another, one can find the noble and selfless mixed with the basest of behaviors. Spouses left each other to die; parents left their children. Some doctors, fearing for their own lives, refused to treat the sick or raised their fees to extraordinary levels. Much of the clergy, in a time where the sacraments were central to the lives of many, would not administer the Last Rites, replacing a final comfort for the afflicted faithful with mortal terror.

Others took more radical, even uglier paths. They saw the Black Death both as a crisis of faith and as divine retribution. Some joined the Flagellants and took to the streets, whipping themselves in public as penance for their sins. They went from town to town, performing their bizarre displays three times a day, drawing huge crowds looking for any type of spiritual relief. With the withdrawal of the regular clergy, the movement grew in influence and ambition, offering ritual that, from a liturgical perspective, could not be delivered by lay people.

This was also a time for darkness that went beyond the callous or selfish. Some looked for scapegoats, thought ”Others” must be to blame. Jews were accused of poisoning wells, or their mere presence in a community was thought of as an inducement for the cosmic punishment being imposed on mankind. Rioters took to the streets, looting, burning, and murdering. The Flagellants joined in, sometimes leading the charge. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, whole communities erased. Pope Clement VI tried to intercede with a Papal Bull published in 1348, prohibiting the killing, looting or forcible conversion of Jews without a trial, but his influence was largely limited to Avignon (where Popes then resided) and in the Papal States, so the slaughter went on.

Leadership is essential in times of crisis, but in a time where there were no cures, and, indeed, basically no useful information, where could it be found? The Black Death not only massacred countless millions, it also seriously eroded the legitimacy of much of the existing power structures. Writing three centuries later, Thomas Hobbes described the life of an individual in an anarchic state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Such a condition was approximated, even exceeded, during the Black Death.

For the average person, locked in a subservient, deeply exploitative secular feudal relationship, and tightly bound emotionally and spiritually to the Church, to watch institutions fail had to be wrenching. Given the extraordinarily high mortality rate, it’s hard to see how even the survivors wouldn’t have been personally impacted. But, even if you had no close relatives as casualties, what would be your reaction to a relentless killing machine that leadership had shown itself unable to stop. A Hobbesian social contract which involves a mutual exchange of obligations between the ruler and the ruled requires a competent sovereign.

We can argue that it’s unfair to blame a sovereign for a failure to protect against something over which it has absolutely no control and for which it has few effective tools. Fair doesn’t matter. Reciprocal obligations require an effective response, and, in most cases, neither religious nor secular leadership had it.

That’s not to say that some didn’t try, and through those efforts manage to hold back the tide just a bit. The Republic of Ragusa (which centered around modern day Dubrovnik) imposed a “Trentino” or 30-day isolation for any incoming ship. Later, this was expanded to 40 days (a “Quarantine”) and employed by several cities, as well as at the border of Poland, which escaped some of the worst of the Black Death, presumably as a result.

Still, leadership, and particularly aristocratic leadership, failed in a number of ways, not the least of which was in their excessive enjoyment of the privileged status of being privileged. They could (and did) escape the cities that were the breeding grounds, and they could and did impose new requirements on the less fortunate. The aristocracy depended on their inferiors to work for little recompense. Aristocrats had always extracted the excess value of labor over cost to build fortunes, but now they found that a decimated workforce could demand more in wages. In several places, the elites struck back. For example, new laws in England were adopted in 1349 that required people to labor for 1347 wages. In 1351, Parliament formally adopted a “Statute of Laborers,” which went much further, requiring that able-bodied persons under 60 without independent means be required to work for whomever asked, and that serfs, in particular, would be bound not only to the land, but to anyone who claimed them. In France, new legislation was aimed at moderating wage demands, and, in a sophisticated, almost modern union-busting way, it was aimed directly at the Guilds, requiring them to take in more apprentices and to recognize them as “masters” sooner.

Unsurprisingly, the new statutes were not really effective, so, particularly in England, more forceful methods were adopted. Stocks were erected in each city and town for the public shaming of the idle offender. When that didn’t work, imprisonment became the remedy, and the non-compliant who fled could be branded on their foreheads with an “F” upon their recapture.

Labor scarcity was coupled with inflation. Basic goods like wheat rose in price because there were fewer hands in the field. Artisans, clerks, shopkeepers, doctors, and even priests began demanding higher payments. At the same time, listlessness spread over the survivors. Their lives, even those who had lived in poverty, had been completely upended. Of what value was it to them to return to the status quo when their betters had proven so incompetent in managing existential risk?

If the secular world had provided such a spectacular failure, what of the spiritual one? The Church didn’t always offer good answers—nor did it always offer good examples. Priests were human; they had the same fears as everyone else. The problem was that, more even than doctors, their task was to offer something irreplicable, something that the faithful may have valued as much as life itself. Whatever the other grumbling about the Church might have been—regarding the wealth amassed while the population had little, or the contrast between public piety and personal immorality—the comforts of the sacraments as death neared was critical. In this, far too many priests failed. Pope Clement VI, not exactly a pure vessel himself, but a very shrewd man, understood it and took steps to mitigate it. The absenteeism amongst priests was so great that the Pope found it necessary to grant remission of sin for those who died of plague without the sacraments.

Somewhat perversely, the Church emerged from the worst of the plague wealthier than before, having been the beneficiary of so many bequests of those who faced death. Its failures and excesses, like those of secular authorities, became a source of anger, particularly as both centers of power used a heavy hand to try to reestablish pre-pandemic norms.

There was a cosmic irony in all this. The many who had felt that the Black Death was a just Divine punishment for mankind’s myriad sins found that the survivors did not emerge cleansed and penitent. The truth was that both institutions and people had grown meaner, coarser, and more avaricious.

It is fair to argue that the trauma unloosened the bonds of temporal and spiritual truths that had held for centuries, and set the stage for the individual to question his place in the world. The great revolutions in thought, in faith, and in political institutions still lay ahead, but they would hold a new urgency for the growing ranks of the dissatisfied.

Human nature is slow to change. Nearly two centuries later, Martin Luther would grapple with the issue of societal obligation again. In 1527, in response to a letter from the clergy in Breslau where plague had reemerged, asking if it were acceptable for Christians to flee, he answered in “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.” This wasn’t merely an academic exercise; the plague had appeared in Wittenberg at about the same time, killing several of his close friends and/or their family members.

Luther’s treatise is fascinating in the nuance that it employs. It’s clear that he respects the faith of those who see the plague as a God’s punishment for human sins, and their decision to stay: “Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing? They willingly accept God’s chastisement, doing so without tempting God….” Yet, he wrote, “one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone.”

To Luther, there is a web of reciprocal obligations. Certainly, obligations run from the clergy to the faithful, “[f]or when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.” So, too, those in public office are bound to those in their secular charge, as “[t]o abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin. It is the kind of disaster the devil would like to instigate wherever there is no law and order.” Then, on an interpersonal basis, there are the obligations of the parent to the child, the husband to wife, the master to servant, the neighbor to neighbor, and even the individual to his or her community. These obligations do not, in every instance, require someone to stay if there are others to perform the same duty, but the choice to leave is recognized as a weakness, and should not be made without care being taken to ensure that the duties are otherwise fulfilled.

Thoughts to ponder in our present predicament.

Special thanks to Professor Christine Helmer of Northwestern, who was kind enough to send me a draft of a book she edited, The Medieval Luther. Of particular relevance was Chapter 12 by Dean Phillip Bell, entitled “Ministry and Sacred Obligation: A Late Medieval Context for Luther’s “On Whether One May Flee from the Death.”