The Crisis in Religion
After the Black Death, the Church lost some of its hold on people and faith became less unquestioning. The Clergy had not been able to explain as to why God would allow people to be so stricken by such a horrible disease. Nor, despite its indulgences and the penances had it been able to alleviate suffering or the plague itself. In the aftermath of the Black Death, people began to see the Church as self-serving and corrupt. Some questioned the need for the clergy at all. In essence, the Black Death laid the foundations of the Reformation.
During the Black Death, many monks and parish priests had stuck by their parishioners. Monastic hospitals cared for the sick and priests continued to go amongst the infected, administering the sacraments, hearing confessions and offering what consolation they could. However, this close proximity to the sick and dying pushed up mortality rates amongst the clergy. In monasteries, around 50% of the monks died. In towns like Bristol, the mortality rate amongst clergymen was ten deaths amongst every 18 priests. The incumbents of many churches had to be replaced several times. Very soon, the Church had run out of priests.
Some priests, however, did desert their posts to save themselves and once the plague was over, they became representative of the whole priesthood, rather than the exceptions. Jean de Venette writing in rural Beauvais in northern France castigated “the cowardly priests” who abandoned their flocks. However, these priests in themselves were insufficient to make up the depleted clergy. It became necessary to hastily recruit new ones. However, the quality of the recruits was dubious. Half-trained, often illiterate; these new priests lacked the dedication and devotion of their predecessors. Many took advantage of the desperate need of parishes to charge between twice and ten times as much for their services as priests had before.
It was apparent that neither priest nor pope had been able to intercede with God to stop the plague. However, other issues had eroded church authority. The desperate shortage of priests to administer the sacraments to the dying had led Pope Clement to take extreme measures. He had issued an edict, which allowed the laity-even women- to hear confession. This led some people to question if they needed the clergy at all. In the aftermath of the Black Death, a number of heresies arose that were motivated by the belief that the un-ordained to commune with God directly: the Fraticelli and Dolcinites in Italy and in England, the Lollards.
The church attempted to counter this dissent with a carrot and stick approach. They clamped down on heretics, at the same time tried to woo their flock with sweeteners. In Italy, it created fifty new religious holidays in the aftermath of the plague. However, it did little good. The Church could not repair the damage done by the Plague to its reputation or the people’s faith. Nor did the fabric of the church recover. As with the population in general, many English monasteries never recovered the sheer numbers they had lost. However, the effects of the Plague on society weren’t all bad.