Plagues, Interdicts, Omissions and Possibilities

IN THE MID-14th century the Black Death swept through Europe. Between 30 and 60% of Europe’s population perished, and perhaps even as many as 200 million people died if the Near East is included in the calculations. It would be scores of years before Europe’s population recovered. The Church in many respects did not meet the challenges of the time.

In part this is because in many places as many clergy as peasants succumbed to the plague. But in many places the clergy did not wait to die; they fled. Robert Gottfried, in his work on the Black Death, reports that in the dioceses of York and Lincoln (NB Lincoln reached as far as Oxford and the Thames) 20% of the parochial clergy. Many of those who remained in their posts succumbed. The result was that the numbers of clergy could not meet the needs of a society united in the faith and practice of one religion. Despite the losses of the faithful clergy, clerical reputation suffered immensely. Says Gottfried:

Many parish priests fled, leaving no one to offer services, deliver last rites, and comfort
the sick. Flight might have been intellectually explicable, but it was morally
inexcusable…[I]n a world in which performance of an appointed role was very important, many clerics no longer seemed to be doing their jobs.

The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (1983), pp.84; 94.

Gottfried is not alone in his assessment of the records that can be found of the period; Philip Ziegler affirms that,

[the clergy] lost in popularity as a result of the plague. They were deemed not to have risen to the level of their responsibilities, to have run away in fear or in search of gain, to have put their own skins first and the souls of their parishioners a bad second.

The Black Death (1969), p.211

Even before the plague had abated surviving clergy began to gather up the now-unclaimed clerical spoils. The ranks of the clergy were filled with young men, of poor education and little if any experience; some could not even manage to say Mass properly. Pluralism was rife. As society recovered from the scourge, the Church was ill-equipped to take the lead. Divinely-inspired charity, which had so well-endowed many a parish church and monastery, began to be directed elsewhere after the plague, not least to hospitals which provided the care and nurture that the clergy had so singularly failed to provide. Continue reading “Plagues, Interdicts, Omissions and Possibilities”