Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Church and the Black Death

Medieval medicine and healing practices in Europe were often hampered by the institution of the Church. Dissections were seen as sacrilegious and prayer was often prescribed by priests who believed sickness was a punishment from God. As a result, many of the medical practices of the 14th century were based on speculation and superstition, which could be especially harmful during really bad outbreaks such as that of the first plague epidemic.
The Act-of-God
The most celebrated doctor of the 14th century was Guy de Chauliac, physician to Pope Clement VI. According to him, the first plague epidemic known as the Black Death (1348 - 1350) was brought about when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn came into alignment in 1345. This alignment was thought to be a sign from God that the disease was sent as a punishment for the sinful antics of medieval man.
With doctors of his calibre and high ranking church officials believing in the act-of-God aspect of disease, especially when it came to really bad outbreaks such as the Plague, it must have caused a feeling of helplessness amongst the laymen, and the general medical and religious community. Most would have thought when the Black Death hit that there was nothing left for them to do but pray to God for forgiveness and mercy.
Quality of the Priesthood During and After the Black Death
Priests, like everyone else became afraid during the epidemic that wiped out somewhere between a third and half the population of Europe in a little over two years. In that time, they lost a lot of credibility as an institution because they told everyone the plague was a punishment from God, but then lost as many people to it as any other institution or profession.
This led many to believe the church carried little favour with the Lord, no more so than the lay people so to some extent led to the Black Death bringing about a decline of the influence of the Catholic Church. The priests that did survive were often so afraid of catching the disease themselves that they refused to administer last rites, so much so that the Bishop of Bath & Wells said to his constituency in 1349; "Priests cannot be found for love or money....to visit the sick and administer the last sacraments of the church - perhaps because the fear they will catch the disease". He continued that sins should be confessed to a layperson if no priests were to be found or even, "to a woman if no man is available"!
It was not only the Priesthood that were guilty of this, generally medical practices of the mid-14th century when the Black Death broke out left a lot to be desired as doctors too are reported as being difficult to find for fear of catching the disease.
It is also only fair to say that many priests and doctors did in fact risk and often lose their own lives attempting to help the sick and give last rites to the dying, however this had the effect of limiting the numbers of good priests and doctors and aided the survival of those too scared to do their jobs properly.
As a result of the many priests who died, the Church became somewhat slack in who it allowed to take the sacred vows. This led to many people joining the clergy for the wrong reasons, or at least more so than usual. Henry Knighton remarked in his work, 'Chronicles of the Fourteenth Century', "One could hardly get a Chaplin to serve a church for less than ten pounds or ten marks. Whereas before the pestilence, when there were plenty of priests, anyone could get a Chaplin for five or even four marks".
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