Piety,” “Authority,” and “Morality”

As hard to measure as “piety,” “authority,” and “morality” is the notion of a civilization obsessed with death and its images. Johan Huizinga, in a famous book written in 1924, drew a memorable picture of a post-plague world of extreme con-trasts, of silences and noises, a highly strung civilization quick to violence and outward displays of emotion, one in which the smell of blood mixed with that of roses.25 Millard Meiss, who studied Florentine and Sienese art in the wake of the plague, showed that art grew more “religious” and “conservative,” perhaps from a general desire for intense personal religious expression in painting, but per-haps a reflection of the typical arriviste tastes of those enriched by the changed circumstances.26

Certainly much evidence says that Europeans reacted to the Black Death with mingled guilt and fear: convinced that their sins had brought on God’s wrath, fleeing in terror when and where they could, and savagely turning on scapegoats. To many Europeans the Apocalypse seemed at hand. Michael Dols’s study of the same epidemic’s effects on another civilization both offers interesting contrasts and reinforces the view of European guilt and fear.27 Dols found that Mamluk Egypt, where the mortality in 1348 rivaled that experienced in Europe, was generally free of most of the hysterical reactions found in Europe. According to Dols, differences in religious background and ideas account for the different reactions. A plague epidemic (part of the first great plague pandemic, mentioned in Chapter Two) had ravaged the Middle East in the earliest years of Islam, so that the faith’s original writings discuss the plague specifically and with (for Muslims) enormous authority.

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Muslims regarded the plague as God’s gift, not his scourge—“a mercy and a martyrdom” for the faithful. Flight was therefore wrong, for it was flight from God and God’s will (although there was some theological disagreement about that point, Dols admits). Because plague came directly from God, Muslim thinkers more consistently held to a heaven-sent miasma as the immediate cause; doctrines of “bad air” did not slide into ideas of contagion, as they did in the Christian world. Hence Muslims did not turn on alien minorities who might be blamed for contagion. More generally, the Muslim tradition lacked the Christian emphasis on original sin, which lay behind both the guilt felt by Christians and the punishment which Christians believed that someone deserved. Mamluk Egypt, Dols argues, reacted with reverent resignation to the disaster of the Black Dea But Dols’s contrasts may be too sharp. Did Westerners characteristically react with flight, guilt, and a search for scapegoats? Remember the speed with which communities rebounded from the social and economic blows of the epidemic; remember not just the wild Flagellant hysteria, but the legal routines of Perpignan, the effective governments of Siena and Cornwall, the rising prices and productivity of craftspeople, and the prosperity of surviving peasants.