Between the 14th Century and the 17th Century, Europeans were surrounded by factors that resulted in high mortality rates. These included such factors as the environment and pandemics. Due to the daily eventfulness of death in these times complex ideologies were created and evolved to give explanation to an otherwise awful natural process. Such explanations included the wrath of God or the supernatural malicious force of witchcraft, which were not only widespread, but long lasting.
These ideas were greatly affected by the church’s influence. We can see how influential the church was at this time by the evolution of the cult of Purgatory and how by controlling the people’s thoughts of the afterlife the church had control over the whole cross-section of society. As well as being controlled by the fear of what lay ahead for the soul, we shall look at the just as feared aspect of physical death. This essay will take these different aspects into account, and we shall see if the people of Europe were obsessed with death, or rather that it seems so from our modern day perspective.
The environment had a major impact on the population in the 14th Century, as the people of Europe saw a severe downturn in the climate manifested in a long run of short wet summers and long cold winters. This was caused by freak sunspot activity by the solar systems star. The result of this was the expansion of glaciers in the north, and generally wetter, colder weather for most of Europe. For the mid-north or ‘Golden basin’ of Europe, the main wheat and barley supplier this was disastrous. Harvests were bad due to the damp weather and corn was rotting in the fields.
This caused mass famine over most of Europe, as bread was the staple food of this area, and for many of the peasants the only thing on the menu. People were dieing from famine as the price of grain rose to costs they could not afford. 10% of people were also dieing of Ergo, which left those who survived blind, demented and their limbs gangrenous. This meant that people were dieing probably more from indirect factors than famine itself. In Britain and on the continent in the 14th Century approximately 10% of the population died from famine and famine related causes while 33% were starving and suffering form malnutrition.
As well as famine the whole of Europe was swept with the pandemic of Black Death. This was composed of the Septacemic plague, a poisoning of the bloodstream by Y. pestis bacilli, rash formed and within hours and death occurred within a day. The Pneumonic plague was an infection of the respiratory system, passed via physical contact and closeness to and a person infected with the airborne Y. pestis. Neurological difficulties and coma follow infection and death was 95% to 100% prominent.
The Bubonic plague was the most common and like the Septacemic plague was contracted via flea bite. It had an incubation period from time of infection up until about 6 days. It was an attack on the nervous and lymph systems, and produced black, gangrenous pustules (buboes) at the point of the flea bite and the armpits, groin and neck. There was a 50% to 60% death rate; however for those who survived there was a good chance of developing psychological and neurological disorders.
These 3 were collectively known as the Black Death which hit Eastern Europe in 1347. By 1349 all a Europe had been encompassed. Approximately a third of the European population was killed, although numbers are quite ambiguous due to panic mongers of the time who spread exaggerated mortality rates. Many communities were wiped out, and the idea of proper funeral burial had to be forgotten for more practical mass graves.
There were many theories on the cause of the Black Death; one of them was that there was a planetary conjunction of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. Another theory suggested by Gabriele de Mussis, was that the plagues were sent by God to punish the people for the sins of human wickedness. The main sin that was spoken of in this context was the toleration of those who were not Christian, in particular the Jewish. This Xenophobic attitude was not a new one, in 1331 Jews as well as other minorities, such as Lepers and Muslims were accused and punished for poisoning wells in France. The coming of the plague helped fuel the idea they were evil.
The Black Death affected the opinions of people religiously. During the 14th Century the cult of flagellants became very popular in Germany. This involved a procession of people marching from town to town for 331/2 days. On these processions the participants would undergo daily scourging in front of the townspeople. They claimed by doing this they were appeasing God and thus able to ward off the Devil and the Black Death. Lay people saw them as sacred and regarded hair blood and nail clippings of a flagellant as relics. The flagellants believed in Anti-Semitism based on de Mussis’s theory, that then lead to mass persecution. Jean de Venette records ‘they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians and many thousands were burned everywhere indiscriminately’. This was a sample of what was happening in many parts of South and East Germany as well as Switzerland.