The Church and The Black Death

You are familiar with The Great Plague or Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 1300s. Fully one-third of the population died of it. In some areas whole towns were wiped out. I just finished reading Norman Cantor's bestseller, In the Wake of The Plague -- The Black Death and the World it Made (Harper Collins, 2001). I found his description of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy of those times of particular interest. As a follow up to the preceding point we see, one thousand years later, similar ecclesiastical vices.

There are many contributors to the Black Death's appearance and I do not suggest that the church was one of its causes. The system of serfdom, poor crops from a natural disaster in the Far East (a huge volcano blew up and darkened the atmospheres for two years causing crops to fail with hunger and malnutrition resulting. An event, of course, unknown to Europeans at the time), overpopulation, poor sanitation and medical knowledge all contributed.

In England at the time, one-third of the best arable land was owned by the church and its officials. They gained much of this valuable land by the death bed grants of aristocrats. Cantor writes,

"The bishops, abbots, and cathedral canons or monks promised to pray perpetually and even daily for the soul of their benefactor and designated members of his family until the end of time, speeding them through the transitional state of Purgatory where those souls were doing time in recompense for earthly sins, until they were washed clean and ascended to heaven.

"Bishops had for a thousand years been men of business, public officials, usually of noble family, experienced in managing income and skillful at getting ever more of it. How else were the great Gothic-style cathedrals of the thirteenth century in Episcopal cities paid for?" (pp. 76-77)

Since the church owned so much land it employed serfs to work it or rented it out to serfs to farm. Most serfs couldn't afford land and if they could it wasn't expected that they should. All that began to change after the Black Death when there were too few workers to farm the land and the church and nobles began to sell off some of it.

Many serfs lived in squalor and poverty. Meanwhile, the monastic community of the church lived well and ate well. The abbot wanted to keep his monks happy, prosperous, secure and well-led. They have discovered the written kitchen accounts of some abbeys where it seems the fat monks were force-fed. In one abbey,

"The results show that each of the sixty monks consumed two pounds of red meat a day, plus countless morsels of fowl and fish, washed down with claret wine or fresh ale in unlimited quantities, buttressed by an array of sugary deserts." (p 80)

No doubt the abbeys did some good works, but while the laymen they were supposed to serve had a life expectancy of less than forty-years, monks shielded from violence and well-fed lived much longer and better. The Black Death, however, visited both and became a great leveler of status. In the decades following, unrest grew among the peasants eventually leading to the great Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Things would never be the same. In the centuries following, the church's power weakened. Many fled its dominion to seek religious freedom in that new land of America.

We can pray, "Lord, thank you for delivering us from the government's church." Today the closest thing we have in America to a state religion are powerful denominations or religious cults that have managed to recreate the fourteenth century by leaders living high above the laity, often treating them as serfs. We should also pray, "Lord, deliver us from oppressive Big Religion."

-- The New Millennium, June 2004.