The central part of life in the 14th century was the Church. As soon as the first victims succumbed, God immediately became both the cause and the cure of this plague. Prayers were called out, lamentations wailed, processions marched down streets filled with the dead. For, in the words of a Florentine chronicler, the living would "...drag the corpses out of the houses with their own hands... and to lay them in front of doors, where anyone who made the rounds might see them, especially in the morning, more of them than he could count; afterwards they would have the biers brought up..." The dehumanizing effects of the Black Death are highly evident later in the chronicle: "Nor was it once or twice only that one and the same bier carried two or three corpses at once, but quite a considerable number of such cases occurred... as two priests bearing the cross were on their way to perform the last office for someone, three or four biers were brought up... whereas the priests supposed that they had but one corpse to bury, they discovered that there were six to eight, or sometimes more. Nor for all their number were their obsequies honored by either tears or lights or crowds of mourners; rather, it was come to this, that a dead man was then of no more account than a dead goat would be today." As a result, many of the survivors began to adopt Epicurean attitudes, reveling and gambling with wild abandon. Religion was left along the wayside by many. When the plague hit Siena, an Italian city, it interrupted the construction of a cathedral. The plague killed off so many workers that the cathedral was never finished. Cathedrals had once been a sign of the greatness of a city, but the Sienan one became nothing more than a crumbling nave after the plague swept through.
In England, the Bishop of Bath and Wells issued this proclamation: "The Sacrament of the Eucharist, when no priest is available, may be administered by a deacon. If, however, there is no priest to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other matters, faith must suffice... (Therefore)... persuade all men, in particular, those who are now sick or should feel sick in the future, that, if they are on the point of death and cannot secure the services of a priest, then they should make confession to each other... or if no man is present, then even to a woman." (n. pg.). Today, one copy of this faded message resides in the Bodleian library at Oxford University. Its words seem like they must have been pompous and irrelevant today, in light of the magnitude of the plague, but at the time it was a desperate measure made by desperate men attempting to cling to their faith. Never before had anyone but a priest been able to perform any of these duties. Yet, because so many of the clergy had died, and because faith was so needed at that dark time, something had to be done.
Yet, perhaps even more than this, the frenzied charity in which the rich of Europe indulged during and after the Black Death demonstrated their faith in the one institution where it seemed a proper sense of social discipline survived. Discredited the Church might be in the eyes of many but, to the nobles and the monied elite, it was still the dyke which held back the flood of anarchic insurrection. Unless it were shored up then everything, it seemed, might be swept away. The rich gave eagerly so that the clergy might beautify their buildings and enhance their standing in the world. Their own position severely threatened, they felt sustained by the assertion in art of the authority of the Church and the representation of a stable, enduring hierarchy (Ziegler, pg. 236).
Religion in art was also affected. For the first time, Christ was portrayed as angry, while a personified Death dominated most paintings. In contrast, the Virgin became a protector for all people, instead of just monks and nuns.
The Black Death Part 11: The Aftermath