The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague, or the Bubonic Plague killed
one third of the population of Europe during its reign in the13th and 14th centuries. The
arrival of this plague set the scene for years of strife and heroism. Leaving the social and
economic aspect in a standstill. The phantom of death became a subject of art, music and
folklore and it influenced the consciousness of the people. The impact of this mass killer
caused enormous chaos and havoc to the Medieval society because of its unknown origin,
the unknown causes and preventions, its deathly symptoms and its breakdown of orderly
life, therefore religion was greatly affected and changed.
In 1347, a Tartar army under Kipchak khan Janibeg had been besieging the
Genoese cathedral city and trading ports of Caffa on the Black Sea for a year. A deadly,
ruthless plague hit the besieging army and was killing off soldiers at an unstoppable rate. It
was plain to Janibeg Khan that he must call off the siege. But before he decided to retreat,
he wanted to give the defenders a taste of what his army was suffering. So Janibeg used
giant catapults to hurl the rotting corpses of the plagued victims over the walls of the
town. By this means the infection spread among the Genoese defenders. Before long the
Genoese were dying from the plague as fast as the Tartars on the outside. A few who
thought themselves free of plague took to their ships and headed for the Mediterranean.
The deathly disease was unleashed at every port the ship and its crew set foot on. The
trading routes contributed to the spread of the disease throughout the continent. In
October of 1347, several Italian merchant ships returned from a trip to the Black Sea.
These ships carried a cargo of flea infested rats, which had guts full of the bacillus Yersinia
pestis (the bacteria which causes the plague). Inspectors attempted to quarantine the fleet,
but it was too late. Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly
drove the Italians from their city. But the disease remained, and soon death was
everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out
wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and
convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty
houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial. The terror of this seemingly
unstoppable march of death was the unknown nature of its origin. The absence of an
identifiable earthly cause gave the plague supernatural and sinister quality.
The plague had stunned Europe and everywhere people were desperate for
explanations and answers to their many questions. Most explanations were based on
folklore, superstition, and rumor. Blame was frequently placed on travelers and other
suspicious outsiders. Some blamed invisible particles carried in the wind, others talked of
poisoned wells. An earthquake, which had a carved a path of wreckage from Naples to
Venice in the summer of 1347, was blamed for releasing gases into the air which poisoned
all on whom they fell. The scholars of the University of Paris stated that the Black Death
resulted from a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of
Aquarius, occurring on the 20th of March 1345' but added they didn't know how. Others
blamed Jews for poisoning wells which inspired more than 350massacres across Germany
and Switzerland. Many Jews who escaped fled to Poland.
Also, hysterical charges of sorcery and witchcraft were brought against eccentric
or unpopular people. The violence against outsiders demonstrated, in a tragically negative
manner, the nature and the limits of citizenship in Europe. This was a society which
defined itself as Christians and recurrent plague changed religious practice, if no belief.
Ordinary folk had their own theory about the plague: It was plainly Godís punishment for
man's wickedness. Bands of hooded men, wearing robes marked front and back with a red
cross also believed in this theory and that by scourging themselves they can show
mankind's repentance. They traveled in parties of 50 to 500, led by a layman. Moving from
town to town, singing hymns and sobbing, the men beat themselves with scourges studded
with iron spikes. The ritual was performed twice a day in public. The masses worshipped
the flagellants, as they were known, as living martyrs. Religious donations soared,
pilgrimages swelled. A million Christians trudged to Rome in 1350, a holy year by decree
of Clement