Social change after the plague: personal religion

The earliest stages of the Protestant Reformation began in the years immediately after the plague. There was a widespread sense that the Church as an institution had let the people down. The Church had promised that if they were supported financially, the people could count on crucial spiritual support at the end of life. They could go about their daily lives without thinking too much about spirituality, knowing that the Church would have someone there at the end to usher their souls through death. Plague survivors felt pretty let down, having seen many people die without last rites of confession or even basic burial rites.

When someone we know very well has recently died, we tend to think about the meaning of life, death, and the possibility of an afterlife more frequently and intensely. Plague survivors were acutely aware that each day might be their last on earth, and they felt unsupported by the old deal with the Church. What if the meaning of life wasn’t to have a class that worked, a class that prayed, and a class that fought? What if everyone ought to be praying?

In the immediate years following the plague, guilds and non-guild groups founded burial and prayer societies. Members of these societies could count on a network outside of family and Church to make sure that the necessary end-of-life tasks got done. But the burial societies also began to emphasize personal prayer. They suggested the idea that each of us is responsible for our own holiness; having a nearby monastery being holy for us isn’t good enough.

It’s impossible to view the life of John Wycliffe outside the context of the plague. Wycliffe was a student at Oxford in the years immediately before the plague; clearly he survived, though little else is known. Beginning in the 1370s, his teachings became a focus of dissent. Like earlier monastic reform movements, he protested the Church’s worldly wealth. He also encouraged and sponsored uneducated, sometimes illiterate, lay preachers (Lollards) to go out to villages and spread the new message of personal holiness. Wycliffe’s greatest life project was to translate the New Testament from Latin into the Chaucerian English of his time. The first installments began to appear at the close of the Peasants’ Rebellion.

The Western Schism, when the cardinals’s attempt to impeach a mentally ill pope resulted in two popes at the same time, further eroded people’s confidence in the Church. At any time between 1378 and 1418, half of Europe was excommunicated by one of the popes (and the other half condemned by the alternative pope). Salvation through the official Church grew increasingly uncertain. Wycliffe’s writings went to the continent, where Jan Hus of Prague taught them publicly and ended up burnt at the stake.

The medieval world wasn’t ready for a full-scale reformation yet; it took another 100 years for the economy to modernize further so that they could support religious change. When it came, the Reformation definitely ended the medieval world. There were battles, massacres, and many incidents of property destruction; it was a traumatic process that society avoided for as long as possible. But the underlying concerns and attitudes began in the shadow of the plague.

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One Response to Social change after the plague: personal religion

  1. Mary says:

    Ruth, I just saw the extent of the Catholic Church’s involvement in Serbia and Bosnia (and of course Yugoslavia) during WWII. Really creepy. I never was told about that and a lot of other things in WWII. We were told to get down under our desks in case there was atomic warfare about to happen. No details, and no explanation of how that would help. I think Mom told me it was in case glass broke. I guess we were too young to know the truth. True, I didn’t have nightmares about atomic warfare.
    I do remember the day when Japan surrendered. Planes flew over my Chicago suburb dropping leaflets announcing the total end of the war. Mom was writing about the end of WWI when it all became too much to write. She was writing for a magazine called “Reminisce”, but her memory was slipping by that time and she never got it published.
    There is still some stuff I wrote lying around here somewhere. Someone else has taken the idea and actually published so stories of a modern version of old “Fairy Tales”.
    Enough. I enjoyed your piece about post-plague.

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