The Impact of the Black Death on the Christian Faith

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Kimberly Soong Le Anne

IB Extended Essay

Subject: History


        The time just before the Black Death had already been a time of struggle and calamity, especially for the Christian Church. The French had begun to attack and conquer the coastal settlements along the English Channel, signaling the beginning of the Hundred Year War. It would be one of the many contributions to the devastation that medieval Europe would endure within the next century, including the Black Death and the Little Ice Age.

        The Hundred Year War was caused by political and economical problems. English sheep farmers had traded their long fine wool with weavers in Flanders, across the English Channel. In 1336, French King Philip VI arrested all English merchants in Flanders and took the privileges of the Flemish towns and craft guilds away. The Flemish revolted against the French government and made an alliance with the English. War broke out and lasted through five English and French kings, with a few interruptions in between. The political reason for the war was that the English kings, descendents of William the Conqueror who still spoke French, wanted to rule over France. (Media, 2003)


        Even before the Hundred Year War had begun, Europe was already undergoing a ‘little ice age’, where the economies of the European countries were naturally slowing down due to the undependable warm weather that fluctuated between hot and cold alternatively. This sort of abrupt weather change had been damaging to crops and livestock, and subsequently affecting the economic situation of the European people. There already existed exceptionally grim reports of mass deaths even before the Black Death struck Europe. Population counts were decreasing due to the generally weakened health of the people in the years of poor crop yield. This decline that had been attributed to the low food levels had begun 40 years before the Black Death had arrived. (Tkachuck, 1983)

        As you can see by the mentioned events, the Church was already in troubled times. It is only natural to consider the fact that all these factors that were affecting the peoples of Europe were also inadvertently affecting the Church. The people’s faith in the Church and God were sorely tested.

The purpose of this investigation is to research and come to a conclusion as to whether the Black Death had set back or encouraged the Christian faith in its many long years of pestilence. Before the Black Death, Europe had been in the Age of Faith, known so for the time when the Christian faith in God was very strong and ‘holy undertakings’ such as the Crusades were made. Did the Black Death put doubt into the hearts of people, when God appeared to not be there, or did the Black Death increase the hope that God will save?

The Black Death

        First and foremost, as background information on the devastating disease, one of the most vital questions to be asked and answered would be: what was the Black Death, or as it was also known as, the Black Plague? The best description it can be and has always been given was that it was a deadly disease that had rampaged throughout Europe from the year 1345 to 1359 for approximately 14 years, killing close to one third of Europe’s population at the time; which was the equivalent of 20 million people within the long and devastating years. It existed in two different but common forms: the bubonic form, and the pneumonic form. During its time of plague, the Black Death was not known by its name now. In fact, the name of the “Black Death” was only given after its devastating sweep through medieval Europe.

        Both these forms of the Black Death, or also Black Plague, were caused by a bacterium called Yersina Pestis. It lay idle in the bodies of fleas known as the Oriental Rat Flea, and also in the bloodstreams of the rats the fleas fed on. The bacteria lived and flourished in the gut of the flea and in the bloodstreams before being transferred by a bite from the flea on a human being or another living animal. Symptoms appeared in days and the victim was usually dead within a week after having been infected by the disease. The Black Death surged through the time period during what was known as the Age of Faith, where the role of the Church played an important part of the people’s lives at the time. (Cartwright, 1991)

The Age of Faith

        The time just before the Black Death was called the Age of Faith, or the time of the Crusades, ranging from the year 1071 till approximately just before the Black Death, where the strong belief in the Church had a powerful grip over society. One such definition of the age goes like this: “The 12th century, perhaps more than any other, was an Age of Faith in the sense that all men, good or bad, pious or worldly, were fundamentally believers”. (Britannica, 2006)

The Church was the nurturer of the new civilization, as the “old civilization faded from memory in an abstract pile of corruption, cowardice and neglect, and the clergy rose to defend the regenerated stability of new life” (Kreis, 2006). The Church’s function was to rebuild the demolished foundations of the moral character. It did so by instilling the ideals of social conduct into the people though myths, miracles, fear, hope, and love. This single uniting action by the Church would bring men together once more under a single belief.

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        The belief, or more appropriately the religion, began with the spiritual hunger of men and women who were drowning, metaphorically speaking, in poverty, wearied by the wars and conflict, awed by mystery and fearful of death. The Church stepped in; bringing a faith and a hope that inspired and brought about the concept of cancelled death with the concept of being able to enjoy eternal life with a firm, strong belief in God. The faith became the people’s most treasured possession that they would die or kill for. On this rock of hope, the [Catholic] Church’s stronghold and foundations were ...

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