How the Church Handled the Black Death in the 14th Century

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE BLACK DEATH: THE WORLD'S MOST DEVASTATING PLAGUE

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

There is thorough documentation as to what went on in Avignon during the Black Death, since the city was the seat of the papacy and had an incredibly high concentration of people who could both read and write—in multiple languages. There are also personal letters, like the one composed by a musician at Clement VI’s court.

Palace of the popes in Avignon.
Because Avignon was the seat of the papacy, it had an incredibly high concentration of people who could both read and write. (Image: sanguer/Shutterstock)

Heyligen’s Historical Warning Letter

A Flemish man named Louis Heyligen, who was a musician at Pope Clement VI’s court, wrote a letter—whose account of the Black Death was one of those that made it north to friends and family ahead of the plague and let people know what horrors were coming their way.

Heyligen’s famous letter says that in the face of so much death, the pope had purchased a huge plot of land and consecrated it as a cemetery by March 1348 and—not even three whole months after the Black Death’s arrival—over 11,000 people had already been buried there.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Religious Practices for Defeating the Black Plague

There were also extra church services and religious processionals throughout the town, many of which the pope himself took part in. These processions were some of the first instances seen of the rise in the popularity of a religious movement that had first appeared in parts of Germany, Italy, and Austria in the 13th century, and which gained new momentum and adherents as a direct response to the plague—this was the flagellant movement.

While religious processionals might be made up of some people who were weeping or some who went barefoot to show humility, the flagellants took this to a whole new level. Dressed in little more than rags, they beat themselves with whips and scourges until the blood ran in copious amounts—the idea being that they would punish their own flesh in an attempt to atone for the fleshly sins of all mankind.

While at first, the processionals were limited to Avignon, later on, the flagellant movement would grow, and its members would wander from town to town making a public spectacle of themselves to warn and admonish others to seek forgiveness.

Learn more about communities that survived the first wave.

The Measures Pope Clement VI Took 

What’s very interesting here is that, while the pope, as the head of the Church, was certainly expected to offer prayers for God’s mercy and comfort to those in his religious flock, he himself didn’t necessarily seem to have viewed the epidemic as punishment from God—or it could be said that at the very least, he was hedging his bets.

Statue of Pope Clement VI.
The pope himself doesn’t necessarily seem to have viewed the epidemic as punishment from God. (Image: Giogo/CC BY SA/3.0/Public domain)

He preached many sermons encouraging people to repent and confess during these dark times, and he even wrote a special Mass to address the plague. And this Mass circulated and was sung throughout Europe—far beyond Avignon—and indeed, was still in use by the Roman Catholic Church into the 20th century. 

But even as Clement was attending to the spiritual needs and emotional comfort of his flock, he also was really interested in the scientific and medical causes of the epidemic.

As might be guessed with this pope, he had a huge medical and scientific staff on hand. He consulted them as to what was to be done and what was the cause of the Great Pestilence. He was very interested when his astrologers explained the outbreak in part as being due to a planetary conjunction.

Clement also issued a papal bull condemning the persecution of the Jews, noting that while, yes, it was lamentable that they were nonbelievers—they were one of God’s chosen people—and Jesus had been born to a Jewish mother. He also pointed out that the Jews in Avignon were dying in numbers equivalent to non-Jews, which made it doubtful that they were behind the outbreak.

Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.

The Pope’s Private Chambers

The pope followed the main recommendation of his doctors, confined himself to his chambers, and had two huge bonfires lit at either end of the room. He stayed between these bonfires, as it was believed that the heat and the flames would destroy any bad or infected air that was the source of the transmission of the disease. And this is exactly what Clement did, and it may be why he did not contract the plague.

A medieval building in France.
Clement quarantined himself in his chambers and no one was allowed near him. (Image: sylv1rob1/Shutterstock)

He had essentially quarantined himself and no one was allowed near him. At the same time, the heat in his chambers meant rats and their fleas—the carriers of the bubonic form of the Black Death—also stayed away.

As Heyligen says in his letter, the pope decided to leave Avignon for the city of Étoile-sur-Rhône, where the plague had not yet arrived. And Heyligen indicated that his immediate master, one Cardinal Giovanni Colonna—part of the papal court—was planning to go along, which meant that Heyligen would be going, too.

Somewhat surprisingly, Clement ultimately opted not to leave Avignon, and he eventually came out from between his fires to minister last rites, oversee burials, and essentially tend to the physical and spiritual needs of his flock. 

When Clement VI finally died of a non-plague-related hemorrhage in 1352—still in Avignon—his body was laid in state, and he was memorialized as a man of fine taste and culture, a patron of the arts and education, a gentleman with excellent manners, but definitely not a saint.

Common Questions about How the Church Handled the Black Death in the 14th Century

Q: How is it that so much is known about the spread of the Black Death in Avignon?

There were many educated people in Avignon at the time of the plague because the papacy was there. Thus, what happened in Avignon and how people tried to defeat the Black Death is well-documented.

Q: What were the flagellant movement’s practices during the Black Death?

The people involved in the flagellant movement dressed in little more than rags. They would hit themselves with whips until blood poured down from their body. They believed these practices would help defeat the Black Death by atoning for the sins of mankind.

Q: Why didn’t Clement VI die of the plague?

Clement VI’s doctors recommended that he stay in his chambers between two lit bonfires. He did so and stayed safe from the plague. The fire also kept away the rats and fleas, which were the carriers of the Black Death.

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