How the Black Death Changed One of Christianity’s Most Important Rituals

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The 14th century is notorious for disaster. In the middle of the century, the first wave of plague spread through a Europe already weakened by successive famines and the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. And the crises kept coming. After the first wave, called the Black Death, the disease returned at least four times before 1400. All the while new conflicts erupted, fueled in part by the growing number of soldiers available for hire.

As a medieval historian, I study the ways community leaders used Catholic practices and institutions to respond to war and pestilence. But amid the uncertainty of the 14th century, some Catholic institutions ceased to function as they were supposed to, fueling frustration. In particular, the incessant crises have caused anxiety about the sacrament of penance, often called “confession”.

This uncertainty helped spur critics like Martin Luther to finally break with the Catholic Church.

saints and sacraments

At that time, European Christians experienced their faith primarily through saints and sacraments.

In art, saints were depicted standing near the throne of God or even speaking into his ear, illustrating their special relationship with him. Devout Christians saw saints as active members of their communities who could help God hear their prayers for healing and protection. Throughout Europe, the feasts of saints were celebrated with processions, candle displays and even street theater.

Fourteenth-century Christians also lived out their faith through the most important rituals of Catholicism, the seven sacraments. Some have happened once in most people’s lifetimes, including Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Extreme Unction – a set of rituals for people who are close to death.

There were, however, two sacraments that Catholics could experience multiple times. The first was the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion – the re-enactment of Christ’s Last Supper with his apostles before his crucifixion. The second was penance.

Catholic doctrine taught that the prayers of priests over bread and wine transformed these substances into the body and blood of Christ, and that this sacrament created communion between God and believers. The Eucharist was at the heart of the Mass, a service which also included processions, songs, prayers and the reading of Scripture.

Religious Christians have also encountered the Sacrament of Penance throughout their lives. In the 14th century, penance was a private sacrament that every person was expected to do at least once a year.

The ideal penance was hard work, however. People had to remember all the sins they had committed since the “age of reason,” which began when they were about 7 years old. They were supposed to feel sorry for having offended God, not just be afraid of going to hell for their sins. They had to speak of their sins aloud to their priest, who had the power to absolve them. Finally, they must have the intention never to commit these sins again.

After confession, they performed the prayers, fasting or pilgrimage assigned to them by the priest, which was called “satisfaction”. The whole process was aimed at healing the soul as a kind of spiritual medicine.

Broken by the black plague

Waves of pestilence and war, however, could disrupt every aspect of ideal confession. A sudden illness could prevent him from going to his priest, from remembering his sins or from saying them aloud. When priests died and were not immediately replaced, people had to look for other confessors. Some people have had to confess without anyone absolving them.

Meanwhile, Europe’s frequent wars posed other spiritual dangers. Soldiers, for example, were hired to fight wherever the war took them and were often paid with the spoils of war. They lived with the constant weight of the commandments not to kill or steal. They could never make a full confession, because they could never intend to sin no more in this way.

These problems have caused despair and anxiety. In response, people turned to doctors and saints for help and healing. For example, some Christians in Provence, in present-day France, turned to a local holy woman, Countess Delphine de Puimichel, to help them remember their sins, protect them from sudden death, and even leave the war to become penitent. So many people described being comforted by her voice that a doctor who lived near the holy woman organized meetings so people could hear her speak.

But most people in Europe didn’t have a local saint like Delphine to turn to. They looked for other solutions to their uncertainties about the Sacrament of Penance.

Indulgences and Masses for the dead proved the most popular, but also problematic. Indulgences were papal documents that could forgive the sins of the holder. They were meant to be distributed only by the pope, and in very specific situations, such as performing certain pilgrimages, serving in a crusade, or performing particularly pious acts.

By the 15th century, however, the demand for indulgences was high and they became common. Some traveling confessors who had received approval from religious authorities to hear confessions sold indulgences – some genuine, some fake – to anyone who had money.

Catholics also believed that masses celebrated in their name could absolve their sins after death. In the 14th century, most Christians understood the afterlife as a journey that began in a place called Purgatory, where residual sins would be burned away by suffering before souls entered paradise. In their wills, Christians left money for masses for their souls, so they could spend less time in purgatory. There were so many requests that some churches celebrated several masses a day, sometimes for several souls at the same time, which became an unbearable burden for the clergy.

The popularity of indulgences and masses for the dead helps scholars today understand people’s challenges during the Black Death. But both practices were ripe for corruption, and the frustration mounted as a sacrament meant to console and prepare the faithful for the afterlife left them anxious and uncertain.

Criticisms of indulgences and penance were at the center of the famous “95 Theses” of the reformer Martin Luther, written in 1517. Although the young priest did not initially intend to separate from the Catholic Church, his critics launched the Protestant Reformation.

But Luther’s challenges to the papacy were ultimately not about money, but about theology. Desperation at never being able to perform an ideal confession led him and others to redefine the sacrament. According to Luther, a penitent could do nothing to satisfy himself with sin, but had to rely solely on the grace of God.

For Catholics, on the other hand, the Sacrament of Penance has remained much the same for centuries, although there have been some changes. Most visible was the creation of the confessional, an enclosed space inside the church where the priest and penitent could talk to each other more privately. The experience of penance, especially absolution, has remained a central ritual intended to heal the souls of Catholics in times of trouble, from the Black Death to the COVID-19 pandemic today.

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