THE BLACK DEATH
by Jean de Venette
Note: The progress of the plague as it made its way through Europe, speculation on its causes, the terrible toll of victims, and various moral responses to the crisis are described in the reading that follows. It is extracted from the chronicle of Jean de Venette, a fourteenth-century French friar who lived through the events described.
The text has been edited for clarity and brevity by Mr. V for classroom use.
Until the fourteenth century, the population of Europe had increased steadily from its low point in the centuries immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West; particularly from the eleventh century onward when landlords tried to raise their income by bringing new land into cultivation.
By improving farming technology, building dikes, draining marshland and clearing forests European peasants produced much more food, which permitted more people to survive and multiply. The advance in population tapered off by the early fourteenth century due to many crop failures and wars, which wasted the country-side and led to economic stagnation.
But the greatest catastrophe began in the fall of 1347, when sailors returning to Sicily from eastern Mediterranean ports brought with them a new disease, bubonic plague. Within the next three years, from one quarter to one third of the population of Europe died from what became known, because of some of its symptoms, as the Black Death.
Most who caught the plague died. Though some survived, no one knew its cause or cure. We now know that the bacteria were transmitted by fleas from infected rats. The unsanitary living conditions of medieval towns and low standards of personal cleanliness helped to spread the disease. The people were so terrified by the incomprehensible pattern of the disease’s progress that superstition, hysteria, and breakdown of civility were common.
[This ‘Forward’, above, was taken from the document’s source]
[What follows are the words of Jean Venette with Mr.V’s edits]
 In A.D. 1348, the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war. For in addition to the famine which I described in the beginning and to the wars which I described in the course of this narrative, pestilence and its attendant appeared again in various parts of the world. […]
 All this year and the next, the mortality of men and women, of the young even more than of the old, in Paris and in the kingdom of France, and also, it is said, in other parts of the world, was so great that it was almost impossible to bury the dead. People lay for little more than two or three days and died suddenly, as it were in full health. He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave. Swellings appeared suddenly in the armpits or in the groin (in many eases both) and they were infallible signs of death.
 This sickness or pestilence was called an epidemic by the doctors. Nothing like the great numbers who died in the year 1348 and 1349 has been heard of or seen or read of in times past. This plague and disease came from imagination or association and contagion, for if a well man visited the sick he only rarely evaded the risk of death. Wherefore in many towns timid priests withdrew, leaving the exercise of their ministry to such of the religious as were more daring. In many places not two out of twenty remained alive. So high was the mortality at the Hotel-Dieu an early hospital in Paris that for a long time more than five hundred dead were carried daily with great devotion in carts to the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris for burial. A very great number of the saintly sisters of the Hotel-Dieu who, not fearing to die, nursed the sick in all sweetness and humility, with no thought of honor, a number too often renewed by death, rest in peace with Christ, as we may piously believe.
 This plague, it is said, began among the unbelievers Muslims, came to Italy, and then crossing the Alps reached Avignon site of the papacy in that period where it attacked several cardinals and took from them their whole household. Then it spread, unforeseen, to France, through Gascony now part of the south of France and Spain, little by little, from town to town, from village to village, from house to house, and finally from person to person. It even crossed over to Germany, though it was not so bad there as with us. During the epidemic, God of His accustomed goodness designed to grant this grace, that however suddenly men died, almost all awaited death joyfully. Nor was there any man who died without confessing his sins and receiving the holy viaticum the Eucharistic bread given to the sick or dying….
 Some said that this pestilence was caused by infection of the air and waters, since there was at this time no famine nor lack of food supplies, but on the contrary great abundance. As a result of this theory of infected water and air as the source of the plague the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. The unshaken, if fatuous, constancy of the Jewish men and their wives was remarkable, for mothers hurled their children first into the fire that they might not be baptized and then leaped in after them to burn with their husbands and children. It is said that many bad Christians were found who in a like manner put poison into wells, but in truth, such poisonings, granted that they actually were perpetrated, could not have caused so great a plague nor have infected so many people. There were other causes; for example the will of God and the corrupt humors and evil inherent in air and earth. Perhaps the poisonings, if they actually took place in certain localities, reinforced these causes.
 The plague lasted in France for the greater part of the years 1348 and 1349 and then ceased. Many country villages and many houses in good towns remained empty and deserted. Many houses, including some splendid dwellings very soon fell into ruins. Even in Paris several houses were thus ruined, though fewer here than elsewhere.
After the cessation of the epidemic, pestilence, or plague, the men and women who survived married each other. There was no sterility among the women, but on the contrary fertility beyond the ordinary pregnant woman were seen on every side […] But woe is me! the world was not changed for the better but for the worst by this renewal of population. For men were more avaricious and grasping than before, even though they had far greater possessions. They were more covetous and disturbed each other more frequently with suits, brawls, disputes, and pleas. Nor by the mortality resulting from this terrible plague inflicted by God was peace between kings and lords established. On the contrary, the enemies of the king of France and of the Church were stronger and wickeder than before and stirred up wars on sea and on land. Greater evils than before swarmed everywhere in the world. […]
 In the year 1349, while the plague was still active and spreading from town to town, men in Germany, […] uprose and began a new sect on their own authority. Stripped to the waist, they gathered in large groups and bands and marched in procession through the crossroads and squares of cities and good towns. There they formed circles and beat upon their backs with weighed scourges, rejoicing as they did so in loud voices and singing hymns suitable to their rite and newly composed for it. Thus for thirty-three days they marched through many towns doing their penance […] . They flogged their shoulders and arms with scourges tipped with iron points so zealously as to draw blood. But they did not come to Paris nor to any part of France, for they were forbidden to do so by the king of France, […]. He acted on the advice of the masters of theology of the University of Paris, who said that this new sect had been formed contrary to the will of God, […] Mother Church and to the salvation of all their souls. […] Pope Clement VI was fully informed concerning this fatuous new rite […] through emissaries reverently sent to him and, on the grounds that it had been damnably formed, […] he forbade the Flagellants, under threat of anathema excommunication, to practice […] public penance […]. His prohibition was just, for the Flagellants, supported by certain fatuous priests and monks, were enunciating doctrines and opinions which were beyond measure evil, erroneous, and fallacious. For example, they said that their blood thus drawn by the scourge and poured out was mingled with the blood of Christ. Their many errors showed how little they knew of the Catholic faith. […]
I. In the absence of any scientific knowledge about the nature and cause of bubonic plague, what did the chronicler (Fr. Jean Venette) suggest?
2. What did the chronicler observe as consequences of the plague?
3. According to the chronicler, why did Church authorities take steps to suppress the Flagellant movement?
Source: Sources of the Western Tradition, vol. 1, 3rd ed. Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1995. p 271-274.
Chronicler- Someone who records the events he/ she witnessed during their life.
Scourge- a whip used to inflict punishment. (Synonym- Flagellum)
Penance- Ritualistic act of showing remorse for a past misdeed.