9th Grade: The Black Death and the Death of Feudalism

Greetings to all,

This week we brought an end to the Medieval world by seeing its erosion in the 14th century, mostly through the decimation of the Black Plague, as well as the early hints of nationalism.

The disaster wrought by the Plague went beyond the deaths of millions of people.  It also did away with an entire social and moral fabric upon which the medieval world rested.

The virulent and contagious nature of the disease created acute moral dilemmas wherever it struck.  Should diseased people be quarantined?  Should apparently well people be allowed to flee to other towns?  They might have the disease but not yet show the symptoms.  The communal spirit that medievals needed to make their society work broke down.  Fear and uncertainty meant that no one could trust one another.

Imagine that you know that a couple people in a certain household have the plague.  Probably their other family members have it too, but of course you can’t be sure.  Should you let the apparently well people out of the house?  Some towns took the step of immediately boarding up houses where even one person had the plague, which would condemn all those in the house to death.  But towns that took these harsh measures had far fewer deaths overall than those who didn’t.  Is this moral?  It condemns a few to certain death, but it might save a number of other lives. The plague caused a great deal of tension between those who thought the greatest good lay in the safety of the community, and those who thought the priority should be treatment of the individual.

A number of contemporary chroniclers tell of the debilitating social impact of the disease.  Families abandoned even the bodies of their dead for fear of catching the disease, and so many went unburied.  Healthy (and usually wealthier) people abandoned towns if they could, and the mutual relationships between nobility and the “commons” eroded.  The plague may have had an indirect role in the peasant uprisings, first in France in 1358, and later in England in 1381.  Froissart records events in France this way. . .

Thus [the peasants] gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. And they then went to another castle, and took the knight thereof and bound him fast to a stake, and then violated his wife and his daughter before his face and then slew the lady and his daughter and all his other children, and then slew the knight by great torment and burnt and beat down the castle. And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children. They made among them a king, one of Clermont in Beauvoisin: they chose him that was the most ungraciousest of all other and they called him king Jaques Goodman, and so thereby they were called companions of the jaquery. They destroyed and brent in the country of Beauvoisin about Corbie, and Amiens and Montdidier more than threescore good houses and strong castles. In like manner these unhappy people were in Brie and Artois, so that all the ladies, knights and squires of that country were fain to fly away to Meaux in Brie, as well the duchess of Normandy and the duchess of Orleans as divers other ladies and damosels, or else they had been violated and after murdered. Also there were a certain of the same ungracious people between Paris and Noyon and between Paris and Soissons, and all about in the land of Coucy, in the country of Valois, in the bishopric of Laon, Nyon and Soissons. There were brent and destroyed more than a hundred castles and good houses of knights and squires in that country.

The plague also had a catastrophic impact on the Church and its witness.  Many priests demonstrated great courage in tending to the sick, and in consequence died in much higher numbers than the average population (I came across one figure that estimates that the plague may have killed 80% of the priests in Europe).  This left many towns with  no priest at all, while other had priests rushed into office with little to no training.  This led to a poorly trained, uneducated clergy and many layman with no religious guidance at all.  The Reformation 150 years later had many causes, but surely the gutting of Church leadership from 1350-1450 is one of them.

Desperate people usually seek scapegoats, and the medievals did the same.  Many blamed Jews for the plague, and although the Pope declared that anyone “who believed Jews responsible for the disease is deluded by Satan,” people did not listen and Jews were unjustly attacked.  A sect called The Flagellants arose, and they claimed to avert the disease through their own personal penance.  Their argument seemed to go something like:

  • The Plague is God’s judgment upon humanity
  • Once the allotment of God’s wrath is poured out, the Plague will stop
  • If we ‘absorb’ some of God’s wrath, other people will suffer less
  • Therefore, we inflict punishment on ourselves to atone for the sins of others.

The Church rightly declared such people heretics.  They had a faulty view of  God, suffering, humanity, and the disease itself.  Froissart comments again,

In the Year of Grace 1349, the penitents went about, coming first out of Germany. They were men who did public penance and scourged themselves with whips of hard knotted leather with little iron spikes. Some made themselves bleed very badly between the shoulders and some foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying that it was miraculous blood. While they were doing penance, they sang very mournful songs about the nativity and passion of Our Lord.

The object of this penance was to entreat God to put a stop to the mortality, for in that time of death there was an epidemic of plague. People died suddenly and at least a third of all the people in the world died then. The penitents of whom I am speaking went in companies from town to town and from city to city and wore long felt hoods on their heads, each company with its own color. Their rules forbade them to sleep more than one night in each town and the length of their goings-out was fixed by the thirty-three and a half years which Jesus Christ spent on earth, as the Holy Scriptures tell us; each of their companies went about for thirty-three and a half days, and then they returned to the towns or castles from which they had come. They spent very little money on their journeys, because the good people of the towns which they visited asked them to dinner and supper. They slept only on straw, unless illness forced them to do otherwise. When they entered a house in which they were to dine or sup, they kneeled down humbly on the threshold and said three paternosters and three Ave Marias, and did the same when they left. Many reconciliations were achieved through the penitents as they went about, for instance, over killings which had taken place and about which it had so far been impossible to reach an accord; but by means of the penitents peace was made.

Their rules contained some quite reasonable and acceptable things which agreed with such natural human inclinations as to journey about and do penance, but they did not enter the Kingdom of France because Pope Innocent, who was at Avignon at that time with his cardinals, considered the practice and opposed it very strongly, declaring in condemnation of the penitents that public penance inflicted by oneself was neither right nor lawful. They were excommunicated for doing it, and especially those clergy who went with them.

But again, most did not listen, so strongly did fear grip them.

As the Church declined in prestige, the first inklings of nationalism arose.  The Church opposed nationalism in the past because they did not want people to think of themselves as primarily English or French, but Christians.  One goal of the medieval church was to create a unified Christendom in Europe, a Christendom that if necessary could serve as a “power” bloc to the Moslem world.  To achieve this, however, the church had to minimize the role of national hero-kings.  But as the war progressed both sides had their national heroes, like Henry V and Joan of Arc, and this led to the rise of an “English” and “French” spirit that helped end to the medieval dream of a unified Christendom.

I think we can point to a few possible reasons for this rise of nationalism, and while we should not confuse it with modern day nationalism, it had some similarities.

  • As the length of the war increased, the ‘bet’ each side made increased as well.  With so much invested, no one wanted to fold.  War has a logic of its own, and finds new ways to justify itself, so. . .
  • Nationalism would be an easy target for the war to find.  The kings that began the war died.  Neither side could claim the conflict as a holy crusade.  If you can’t fight for Edward III, or for the Church, perhaps you could fight “for England.”

Henry V clearly capitalized on this, but so too did the more distinctly Christian Joan of Arc.

By the end of the 100 Years War in 1453 the medieval world had disappeared.  Those that survived the plague found their labor in much more demand, forever altering the relationship between peasant and noble. What the Battle of Crecy began the plague finished.  Western Europe would seek a new way of understanding themselves and humanity’s place in the world, which we know as the Renaissance.  We turn our attention to this period at the end of next week.

Dave M