Plague and the European Spirit

The great epidemic had serious consequences for “authority” in several respects. The landed class had dominated European social, economic, and politi- cal life for centuries. On balance in western Europe, the Black Death damaged its economic position, especially in respect to the peasantry which it had exploited for so long. Its power over the peasantry did not end in 1350, but in the later medieval centuries its authority did gradually weaken. Many factors con- tributed to that immense change in social relationships, including the changing power of towns and trading wealth, the growing authority of central political lead- ers such as kings, and the development of military technology that supplanted the armored horseman. Although it would be foolish to claim that the Black Death ended the power of the western European landed class, it would also be foolish to assert the epidemic’s irrelevance.

The institutional authority of the Church received several blows. To the extent that it depended on learned and administrative talents, it suffered. Such talents and learning could not be quickly replaced, and the death of a parish priest, for example, sometimes resulted in the rapid ordination of a replacement with little training or vocation. Such a circumstance might worsen an already bad situation if the deceased priest had shirked his pastoral duties while the plague raged. Many did (as many did not), and contemporaries held the secular clergy up to unfavorable comparison with the mendicants; some members of the clergy had abandoned their flocks, and others had enriched themselves in the crisis. And even if a clergyman remained devoted to his parish in its travail, his powerless- ness was manifest; the extent to which members of the clergy commanded respect because of their “superhuman” qualities was weakened by their inability to stem the disease, and by their own vulnerability to it.

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