10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down

Natasha sheldon - June 29, 2018

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
Nuns tending Plague Victims. Google Images

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.

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
Seventeenth century plague doctor. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Development of Quarantine

In 1348, in an attempt was made to understand the plague and its causes, The Paris Medical Faculty published a scientific account of the plague. They attributed the ultimate cause of the plague to “the configuration of the heavens” which led to a “corruption of the air” rather than any earthly causes. Erroneous as this was, the report did note the link between the increased wet weather and the warmer winters which perpetuated the disease and how cold, hard winters tended to destroy similar infections.

With no clear understanding of the origins of the plague, it was impossible for doctors to formulate an effective treatment. Remedies varied between bleeding and purging patients. If these did not finish off the afflicted, physicians attempted cool their humors with herbal treatments and then lance the buboes. For centuries afterwards, people survived plague due to luck or natural resilience rather than any medical advances. However, there was one aspect of plague management that underwent a complete revolution because of the Black Death: the measures which European society took to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

There were several, less prolonged outbreaks of plague in the years immediately following 1351. However, rather than sealing up the sick within towns in their individual houses, the idea of mass isolation began to develop. In 1374, during an outbreak of plague in Reggio, Italy, the town’s ruler Viscount Bernabo ordered that everyone suffering from plague be taken out of the town to the fields to either recover or die. Around the same time, this same idea was suggested by the chief physician of the Croatian port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Jacob of Padua, who established a place outside the city walls for all affected townspeople and outsiders.

In 1377, Ragusa took this method of isolation one stage further. The town council passed a law establishing the Trentino, a thirty-day isolation period during times of plague. The Trentino required all those coming from known areas of plague to spend 30 days in isolation before they were allowed to enter the city. During that time, only designated individuals were allowed to enter the restricted area. Anyone who entered without authorization was forced to join it.

The idea worked and over the next 80 years, spread across Europe with Marseilles, Venice, Pisa and Genoa all adopting the Trentino – butin an amended form. For instead of isolating the sick for thirty days, these cities expanded it to forty days. Whether this was from an observed need to expand the period of isolation or a religious basis based around the 40 days of lent, the Trentinobecame the Quaranta- from which the modern term of quarantine derives.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources?

“Oh father, Why have you abandoned me?” Samuel Cohn, History Extra, June 2018

Black Death: The Lasting Impact, Professor Tom James, BBC History, February 17, 2011

A History Of Quarantine, From The Black Death To Typhoid Mary, Melissa Block National Public Radio, October 27, 2014

Black Death: The Disease, Dr. Mike Ibeji, BBC History, February 17, 2011

Where the Black Death happened: 9 places connected to the plague, Charlotte Hodgeman, BBC History Magazine, February 2011

The Black Death, edited and translated by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, October 15, 1994

The Origin of Quarantine, Paul S. Sehdev Arcanum, November 1, 2002

The Black death and the transformation of the west, David Herlihy, Harvard University Press, 1997.

The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans Richard Aldington, Garden City Publishing, 1930

Estimating the destruction caused by the Black Death in Medieval England, Ian Harvey, The Vintage News, August 9, 2016

Daily Life During the Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne, Greenwood publishing group, 2006

Medieval Sexual Behaviour, Gordon Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, 19543