The Black Death paid no attention to class boundaries nor religious affiliations, the richest and the holiest in society died a miserable death along with the sinners. The plague produced a number of questions the all-powerful Christian Church could not answer. Why were the clergy and monks dying with the poverty-stricken labourers?
If the plague was a test from God, why were God’s messengers failing the test? These spiritual questions were asked by the survivors and many people lost faith. Just as importantly ,the Christian Church lost credibility as an exclusive communicator with God.
People started to find their own path to God away from the organized Christian Church. One group known as the Flagellants roamed across Europe whipping themselves with a scourge to get closer to God. The physical suffering was meant to atone for their sins.
This questioning of the Christian dogma reached the English theologian John Wycliffe, who expressed dissent against the abuses of the Church. As so often happens in history, this increase in freethinking would lead to further changes, most notably 200 years later when the Reformation began.
The economic and religious changes would also lead to a change in society. With death lurking around every corner, individuals become more interested in the here and now, the life of the moment with its passions and its beauty became more appealing. An appreciation of the arts developed alongside a thirst for knowledge. People looked to the past for answers and rediscovered the works of the classical Greeks and Romans.
One of the more interesting changes to society happened in the bedroom, or more likely in the fields and cowsheds. Life was celebrated through sexual intercourse, this ranged from cemetery orgies, where victory over death was celebrated, to an increase in incest as rules and social norms were cast aside. The rise in incest was due to the decline in the population, the problem was no longer how to stop relatives from marrying but just finding somebody to marry to preserve the family name.
Rats which contained the fleas which carried the Yersinia pestis bacterium found Medieval dwellings prime real estate. Often people shared a room with livestock and other animals, cramped together in their own filth, the floors and roofs were covered in hay, such conditions were perfect for rats.
The decline in the population saw a movement towards an increase in demand for private spaces, as a reaction to the pre-plague crowding of cities. In upper-class society, private rooms had their own lavatories and the hay which covered the floor would be replaced by rugs and carpets.
The English language was one of the biggest winners to come out of the Black Death. The literate monks who made copies of books worked in Latin, the language of the Church was Latin, but the vast majority of the lower classes knew no Latin. The deaths of the monks and the lack of Latin speakers meant national languages developed and became more prominent. Latin fell into decline and by 1362 English was declared the official language of the courts. By 1385, English was the language of instruction in schools. Without the Black Death and the decline of Latin, English would not have become the lingua franca of modern society.
Local universities also flourished as fear of long journeys and being exposed to the plague provided a reason to establish regional universities. Latin-speaking professors were also wiped out by the plague and were replaced by teachers from lower schools. The lower schools then employed teachers who used the language of the country or region, thus accelerating the decline of Latin.
Hospitals also changed during this period, prior to the Black Death hospitals were places where people were sent so as not to infect other people, they were never expected to leave alive. The hospital was a place that cared for the soul rather than the body. Hospitals offered Mass and confession to the patients. In many cases the hospital was a religious institution which did not spend too much time treating the patient.
As the plague spread, hospitals were overrun and they were forced to give up their functions as hospices so they could focus more on the disease. The failure to halt and cure the disease were discussed in these hospitals, and new ideas were presented. Medicine became more observational and developed into a practical science.