A Tale of Two Plagues: How Faith Changes

People bury victims of the Black Death in Europe (Illustration by Pierart dou Tielt, c. 1353)

Besides the global pandemic we’re experiencing right now, the bubonic plague is probably the most notorious in history—in particular, the Black Death that took place during the middle of the fourteenth century and swept across Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia leaving millions dead in its wake. It’s fascinating to study the human response to the catastrophic loss of life during the plague, the after-effects of which led to many developments of the modern world: colonialism, capitalism, and the Protestant Reformation.

Equally fascinating is the bubonic plague’s impact on faith and religion.

At the time, Europe was a deeply religious place under strong papal control. The Roman Catholic Church wielded immense power, and deviation from the Catholic faith could mean trial for heresy or a painful death at the hands of authorities.

Prior to the plague, the church had almost total control over Europe’s politics and Europeans’ lives, ruling everything from reproductive and sexual health to agriculture to education. In health particularly, the Catholic Church’s control severely limited progress in medicine and science. Medicine was largely limited to folk medicine and treatments based on a very poor understanding of the human body, as doctors were prohibited from performing autopsies to gain a better understanding of anatomy. The only believed cures for disease were prayer, giving up money and property to the church, and devotion to God.

However, by the fourteenth century, as the true horrors of the Black Death set in, it became clear that the church’s health policies weren’t protecting Europeans from disease. The pious were dying at the same rate as the sinners. Then, when parish priests started succumbing in large numbers, it shattered the illusion of a selective sinners’ plague.

Even so, as millions of Europeans died and cities were brought to their knees, there were several ways people used religion to cope with the cataclysmic loss of life. According to scholar Joshua J. Mark, “even after European Christians understood that the plague was contagious, [religious] processions and gatherings continued because there seemed no other way to appease God’s wrath.”

Some Europeans became increasingly and fanatically religious, forming cults and sects intended to offer them some kind of escape. One sect known as the Flagellants would hysterically whip themselves over and over as punishment for their sins and the sins of humanity. Incidentally, these radical Catholic groups also led pogroms against Jewish and Romani communities. They were eventually condemned and banned by the Catholic Church.

Others abandoned their faith in organized religion and society altogether. There are numerous accounts of people simply fleeing their towns and cities for the forests to escape the death and destruction.

In the decades after the plague, some in England began to reject the tradition and superstition of the Catholic Church in favor of an early proto-Protestantism. The so-called Lollards followed the teachings of Oxford professor John Wycliffe, which rejected the ritualistic teachings of the Catholic Church in favor of a simplified Christianity. It’s easy enough to draw a line between the plague, the rise of the Lollard movement, and the Protestant Reformation that swept Europe a century and a half later.

The combination of a global pandemic and major social and political upheaval have made the year 2020 apt for comparison with the turbulent fourteenth century. Even as COVID-19 has loomed over everyday life in the United States, there are pastors who insist they must lay hands on people to heal them. Many devout people have fought for their rights to attend crowded churches in an eerily similar manner to those medieval Europeans who marched in crowded processions to appease the wrath of God, despite knowledge of how incredibly contagious the plague was.

Some religious Americans have instead braved long Zoom sessions to continue their worshiping practices. Many churches say that they’re actually more engaged with their members and focusing heavily on retaining personal connections for older members or those who live alone.

However, similarly to many of our ancestors 700 years ago, many Americans find themselves less interested in religious worship. Pew Research found that a third of those who attended in-person services haven’t bothered with online services during the nationwide lockdown. As NPR explains, an increase in free time has allowed some to find their own versions of spirituality outside of traditional worship. Others have expressed that the human suffering and stress COVID-19 has caused is distancing them from traditional faith, which can’t provide all the answers.

It’s also notable that many in the religious community have found spiritual and moral purpose marching in Black Lives Matter protests rather than in visiting a traditional house of worship. Black religious leaders, who have traditionally led civil rights movements, have taken roles as de facto leaders of the BLM movement in some cities. It’s clear that many Americans see participation in protests as more pressing than church attendance at the moment.

There’s no telling what will happen when stay-at-home orders are fully lifted and large gatherings are safe again (it’s likely this won’t be for a while). While modern medicine and technology certainly aid our ability to cope with the current pandemic, the psychological effects of an invisible enemy—in our case, COVID-19, and for fourteenth-century Europeans, the bubonic plague—remain. The uncertainty, fear, and isolation of lockdown has sent some Americans running into the arms of traditional houses of worship, disregarding safety guidelines in some cases, while others are driven to conspiracy theories and rebellion.

And while we haven’t seen many Americans running away from society to the forests like some Europeans did, the mass exodus from New York City to the Hamptons when the city become a major coronavirus hot spot is comparable. In this case, as with other aspects of the modern-day pandemic, economics plays a bigger role than religious belief.

Although we’ve gained a lot of scientific knowledge in the last seven centuries, it seems that the psychological response, and our tendency to either embrace or reject religion in times of crisis, is largely the same. COVID-19 will undoubtedly bring massive change to American society, and the ways it will affect faith will certainly be significant.