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Charles Morris

The Black Death and the Flagellants

The middle of the fourteenth century was a period of extraordinary terror and disaster to Europe. Numerous portents, which sadly frightened the people, were followed by a pestilence which threatened to turn the continent into an unpeopled wilderness. For year after year there were signs in the sky, on the earth, in the air, all indicative, as men thought, of some terrible coming event. In 1337 a great comet appeared in the heavens, its far-extending tail sowing deep dread in the minds of the ignorant masses. During the three succeeding years the land was visited by enormous flying armies of locusts, which descended in myriads upon the fields, and left the shadow of famine in their track. In 1348 came an earthquake of such frightful violence that many men deemed the end of the world to be presaged. Its devastations were widely spread. Cyprus, Greece, and Italy were terribly visited, and it extended through the Alpine valleys as far as Basle. Mountains sank into the earth. In Carinthia thirty villages and the tower of Villach were ruined. The air grew thick and stifling. There were dense and frightful fogs. Wine fermented in the casks. Fiery meteors appeared in the skies. A gigantic pillar of flame was seen by hundreds descending upon the roof of the pope's palace at Avignon. In 1356 came another earthquake, which destroyed almost the whole of Basle. What with famine, flood, fog, locust swarms, earthquakes, and the like, it is not surprising that many men deemed the cup of the world's sins to be full, and the end of the kingdom of man to be at hand.

An event followed that seemed to confirm this belief. A pestilence broke out of such frightful virulence that it appeared indeed as if man was to be swept from the earth. Men died in hundreds, in thousands, in myriads, until in places there were scarcely enough living to bury the dead, and these so maddened with fright that dwellings, villages, towns, were deserted by all who were able to fly, the dying and dead being left their sole inhabitants. It was the pestilence called the "Black Death," the most terrible visitation that Europe has ever known.

This deadly disease came from Asia. It is said to have originated in China, spreading over the great continent westwardly, and descending in all its destructive virulence upon Europe, which continent it swept as with the besom of destruction. The disease appears to have been a very malignant type of what is known as the plague, a form of pestilence which has several times returned, though never with such virulence as on that occasion. It began with great lassitude of the body, and rapid swellings of the glands of the groin and armpits, which soon became large boils. Then followed, as a fatal symptom, large black or deep-blue spots over the body, from which came the name of "Black Death." Some of the victims became sleepy and stupid; others were incessantly restless. The tongue and throat grew black; the lungs exhaled a noisome odor; an insatiable thirst was produced. Death came in two or three days, sometimes on the very day of seizure. Medical aid was of no avail. Doctors and relatives fled in terror from what they deemed a fatally contagious disease, and the stricken were left to die alone. Villages and towns were in many places utterly deserted, no living things being left, for the disease was as fatal to dogs, cats, and swine as to men. There is reason to believe that this, and other less destructive visitations of plague, were due to the action of some of those bacterial organisms which are now known to have so much to do with infectious diseases. This particular pestilence-breeder seems to have flourished in filth, and the streets of the cities of Europe of that day formed a richly fertile soil for its growth. Men prayed to God for relief, instead of cleaning their highways and by-ways, and relief came not.

Such was its character, what were its ravages? Never before or since has a pestilence brought such desolation. Men died by millions. At Basle it found fourteen thousand victims; at Strasburg and Erfurt, sixteen thousand; in the other cities of Germany it flourished in like proportion. In Osnabrück only seven married couples remained unseparated by death. Of the Franciscan Minorites of Germany, one hundred and twenty-five thousand died.

Outside of Germany the fury of the pestilence was still worse; from east to west, from north to south, Europe was desolated. The mortality in Asia was fearful. In China there are said to have been thirteen million victims to the scourge; in the rest of Asia twenty-four millions. The extreme west was no less frightfully visited. London lost one hundred thousand of its population; in all England a number estimated at from one-third to one-half the entire population (then probably numbering from three to five millions) were swept into the grave. If we take Europe as a whole, it is believed that fully a fourth of its inhabitants were carried away by this terrible scourge. For two years the pestilence raged, 1348 and 1349. It broke out again in 1361-62, and once more in 1369.

The mortality caused by the plague was only one of its disturbing consequences. The bonds of society were loosened; natural affection seemed to vanish; friend deserted friend, mothers even fled from their children; demoralization showed itself in many instances in reckless debauchery. An interesting example remains to us in Boccaccio's "Decameron," whose stories were told by a group of pleasure-lovers who had fled from plague-stricken Florence.

In many localities the hatred of the Jews by the people led to frightful excesses of persecution against them, they being accused by their enemies of poisoning the wells. From Berne, where the city councils gave orders for the massacre, it spread over the whole of Switzerland and Germany, many thousands being murdered. At Mayence it is said that twelve thousand Jews were massacred. At Strasburg two thousand were burned in one pile. Even the orders of the emperor failed to put an end to the slaughter. All the Jews who could took refuge in Poland, where they found a protector in Casimir, who, like a second Ahasuerus, extended his aid to them from love for Esther, a beautiful Jewess. From that day to this Poland has swarmed with Jews.

This persecution was discountenanced by Pope Clement VI. in two bulls, in the first of which he ordered that the Jews should not be made the victims of groundless charges or injured in person or property without the sentence of a lawful judge. The second affirmed the innocence of the Jews in the persecution then going on and ordered the bishops to excommunicate all those who should continue it.

Of the beneficial results of the religious excitement may be named the earnest labors of the order of Beguines, an association of women for the purpose of attending the sick and dying, which had long been in existence, but was particularly active and useful during this period. We may name also the Beghards and Lollards, whose extravagances were to some extent outgrowths of earnest piety, and their lives strongly contrasted with the levity and luxury of the higher ecclesiastics. These societies of poor and mendicant penitents were greatly increased by the religious excitement of the time, which also gave special vitality to another sect, the Flagellants, which, as mentioned in a former article, first arose in 1260, during the excesses of bloodshed of the Guelphs of northern Italy, and thence spread over Europe. After a period of decadence they broke out afresh in 1349, as a consequence of the deadly pestilence.

The members of this sect, seeing no hope of relief from human action, turned to God as their only refuge, and deemed it necessary to propitiate the Deity by extraordinary sacrifices and self-tortures. The flame of fanaticism, once started, spread rapidly and widely. Hundreds of men, and even boys, marched in companies through the roads and streets, carrying heavy torches, scourging their naked shoulders with knotted whips, which were often loaded with lead or iron, singing penitential hymns, parading in bands which bore banners and were distinguished by white hats with red crosses.

Women as well as men took part in these fanatical exercises, marching about half-naked, whipping each other frightfully, flinging themselves on the earth in the most public places of the towns and scourging their bare backs and shoulders till the blood flowed. Entering the churches, they would prostrate themselves on the pavement, with their arms extended in the form of a cross, chanting their rude hymns. Of these hymns we may quote the following example:

"Now is the holy pilgrimage.

Christ rode into Jerusalem,

And in his hand he bore a cross;

May Christ to us be gracious.

Our pilgrimage is good and right."

The Flagellants did not content themselves with these public manifestations of self-sacrifice. They formed a regular religious order, with officers and laws, and property in common. At night, before sleeping, each indicated to his brothers by gestures the sins which weighed most heavily on his conscience, not a word being spoken until absolution was granted by one of them in the following form:

"For their dear sakes who torture bore,

Rise, brother, go and sin no more."

Had this been all they might have been left to their own devices, but they went farther. The day of judgment, they declared, was at hand. A letter had been addressed from Jerusalem by the Creator to his sinning creatures, and it was their mission to spread this through Europe. They preached, confessed, and forgave sins, declared that the blood shed in their flagellations had a share with the blood of Christ in atoning for sin, that their penances were a substitute for the sacraments of the church, and that the absolution granted by the clergy was of no avail. They taught that all men were brothers and equal in the sight of God, and upbraided the priests for their pride and luxury.

These doctrines and the extravagances of the Flagellants alarmed the pope, Clement VI., who launched against the enthusiasts a bull of excommunication, and ordered their persecution as heretics. This course, at first, roused their enthusiasm to frenzy. Some of them even pretended to be the Messiah, one of these being burnt as a heretic at Erfurt. Gradually, however, as the plague died away, and the occasion for this fanatical outburst vanished, the enthusiasm of the Flagellants went with it, and they sunk from sight. In 1414 a troop of them reappeared in Thuringia and Lower Saxony, and even surpassed their predecessors in wildness of extravagance. With the dying out of this manifestation this strange mania of the middle ages vanished, probably checked by the growing intelligence of mankind.