The Black Death in Iberia and France

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

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Apart from Italy, which was seeing the ravages of the Black Death, the Iberian peninsula and the French countryside were witnessing a wave of Black Death. The deaths affected everyone, but evidence for these can be gathered from religious records. In fact, the spread of the plague also indicates the effect of the religious beliefs of the time.

A painting depicting digging of graves.
The Black Death spread quickly into the mainland of Europe, causing deaths in great numbers. (Image: Anonymous/Public domain)

The Plague in Mallorca

The Iberian Peninsula had long been a very diverse region—home to Muslim communities, Christian kingdoms, and long-standing Jewish settlements. So, it was sort of carved up into a variety of self-governing entities. Mallorca, like Sicily, was an important trading hub due to its position in the Mediterranean, and it had a thriving population of around 55,000 people.

The plague made it there in December of 1347, probably coming from Marseille. Its initial progress may have been slowed by cooler weather, but by March 1348, it was confirmed that the Great Mortality was ravaging the countryside of Mallorca. The plague raged on Mallorca until about May 1348, when it began to die down a bit.

As was the case with Sicily and the Italian Peninsula, this also marked the moment when the disease leapt across the water barrier and made its way on to the mainland of the Iberian Peninsula. Again, it was trading ships that seem to have carried the disease with them, bringing the Great Mortality to the mainland via Perpignan, in what is today part of France. And then the Black Death attacked Barcelona.

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.

The Offices of the Church

Not only can we determine the extent of the plague’s progress and its virulence by examining documents like chronicles which record the incidences of infection, but we can also look at the number of religious and political offices that suddenly became vacant.

The Church was the biggest land-holder in the medieval world, and it would grant benefices—usually this meant control of property or land—to individuals who would then carry out the work of the Church and be supported by the income from these lands and properties. It was a variation on the secular feudal system.

Whenever the holder of a benefice passed away, the Church would grant the benefice to a member of the religious community who was both deserving of some kind of recognition or reward and/or was believed to be someone who would work toward the salvation of the congregation or community attached to the benefice.

Learn more about the Black Death’s points of entry into Europe.

Vacant Benefices in Europe

So in Barcelona, in April of 1348, there was one vacant benefice. In May, there were nine vacant benefices. But in June 1348, there were 25 vacancies and then in July, the full scale of the disaster is brought home by the fact that there were 104 vacant benefices. Not only were those who held the benefices obviously dying of plague, but so were those who would have been logical replacements.

Like statistics surrounding the occupation of benefices, tracking the number of wills that were being written also helps us understand the scale and virulence of the plague. In Valencia, for example, we find about two wills per year that have been preserved for the period spanning 1340–1347.

What this means is that there weren’t that many people worried about imminent death, nor were there all that many people with sufficient property, that needed to have a will actually drawn up. But in May 1348, we have surviving two wills for just that month; and then in June, that number jumps up to 21 wills—more than in the previous 8 years combined.

The Rise in Pilgrimages

People’s reactions, as you might imagine, were mostly informed by panic and, in many instances, a turn to religiosity. It’s clear that one way that the plague managed to move across the Iberian Peninsula so quickly was due to people flocking to holy sites on pilgrimage to ask God for forgiveness for whatever it was they had done to incur his wrath in this way, and to pray for deliverance.

A painting of pilgrims entering the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrims traveling to holy places such as the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, carried the plague quickly across the country. (Image: Jenaro Pérez Villaamil/Public domain)

Thus, the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, in the far west of the Iberian Peninsula, was subject to infection remarkably quickly after Barcelona and cities in that area had experienced an outbreak. If you trace the plague on a map, it looks as if it does a hopscotch move over most of the peninsula to suddenly show up in this holy pilgrimage site.

By the end of 1348, the plague had made its presence felt in about 35 percent of the peninsula. Worse things were still to come, and in 1349, those communities that had avoided infection so far became subject to the ravages of the Great Mortality.

Learn more about the Great Plague.

From Marseille to Avignon

The story is much the same in France. After an initial infection occurring in the port city of Marseille in 1347, the plague began to move inland, with particularly devastating effects in Avignon. Now this is significant because Avignon was, at this time, the seat of the papacy of the Church.

While Rome had long been the seat of the Christian Church in the West and Constantinople had been the seat of the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in 1309, the headquarters of the Western church left the Italian Peninsula and moved to France, to the town of Avignon. This was because the pope elected in 1305, Clement V, was a Frenchman, and he felt more secure in his native France than he did in Rome.

The fact that the papal court had relocated to Avignon is why, when Italy was being devastated by plague in 1348 and 1349, Rome got by relatively unscathed compared to other city-states like Florence, or Siena, or Venice, or Pisa, or Genoa. With the papacy gone, Rome had sort of regressed into being a more rural, less cosmopolitan community than it had been when the popes were in residence. There was less commerce in and out of the city, and thus fewer streams of potential infection. By 1348 standards, Rome was an oasis in a desert of illness and death.

Common Questions about the Black Death in Iberia and France

Q: When did the Black Death arrive in the Iberian Peninsula?

The plague arrived in Mallorca in December of 1347, probably coming from Marseille. By March 1348, it was confirmed that the Black Death was ravaging the countryside of Mallorca. The plague raged on Mallorca until about May 1348, when it jumped to the main Iberian Peninsula.

Q: What was the situation of benefices in Barcelona in 1348?

In Barcelona, in April 1348, there was one vacant benefice. In May, there were nine vacant benefices. But in June 1348, there were 25 vacancies and then in July, there were 104 vacant benefices.

Q: Why was Santiago de Compostela very quickly affected by the plague after Barcelona?

The plague managed to move quickly across the Iberian Peninsula due to people flocking to holy sites on pilgrimage to pray for deliverance. Thus, the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, in the far west of the Iberian Peninsula, was subject to infection quickly after Barcelona.

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