The Breakdown of the Moral Code.
Some people’s response to the plague was to attempt to live better lives. Whether to preserve their health or to be more pleasing to God, they separated themselves into small communities of like-minded individuals. Here, although they ate and drank well, they did so without excess. They also avoided sex. Others, however, took the opposite view. Whether they decided to live life to the full while they still could or because of the disruption to secular and church law, many people threw off the moral restrictions of their times. They got drunk, broke the law and had sex wherever, and with whomever, they pleased.
With the disruption to the standard social mechanisms of control, crime rose during the plague. Many houses were abandoned and empty- or occupied by those too weak or sick to defend themselves. So it became common for anyone who pleased to move into these unsecured properties and adopt the place as their own. Career criminals, keen for rich pickings, began to flock to the stricken, larger, towns such as London, where they took advantage of the death toll to help themselves to abandoned goods. Even after the plague had ended, London still maintained a reputation for greed, immorality, and hardheartedness.
People did not just disregard the law; they also began to discard the usual rules of morality. This change was in part due to the lowering of the barriers between the sexes and the classes. Giovanni Boccaccio mentions how because of the shortage of servants: “beautiful and noble women, when they fell sick, did not scruple to take a young or old manservant, whoever he might be and with no sort of shame, expose every part of their bodies to these men as if they had been women, for they were compelled by necessity of their sickness to do so.”
This abandonment of modesty led to a lowering of inhibitions which Boccaccio also claimed was “a cause of looser morals in those women who survived.” Indeed, in England, it seems that fornication was at an all-time high during the plague years. Records show that while fines for crimes, in general, fell, probably because the authorities could not be bothered to impose them, penalties for adultery and other sexual offenses were on the rise. Sexual licentiousness increased as people took comfort and found partners where they could.
However, there was also a sense of abandonment about sex in the plague years, as if people were determined to celebrate life while they still could, at the same time thumbing their noses at death. Orgies in cemeteries became peculiarly familiar. The graveyard at Champfeur in Avignon was particularly famous in this respect, and its orgies became so well established that they continued into the late fourteenth century, forcing the church to legislate against those who drank, gambled, danced and had sex amongst the tombs and gravestones. Elsewhere, in Europe, graveyards remained the notorious haunts of prostitutes and those who wanted an illicit liaison. Even though it had ended, the plague had changed the moral landscape of Europe. It had also left it altered in other ways.