The Church’s first response to the Black Death

Through Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

In the Middle Ages, the Church was part of all elements of the medieval infrastructure. It has permeated and influenced politics, economics, family relationships, academic studies, friendships, social structures, military conflicts, territorial disputes – the list goes on. Thus, the Church’s first response to the Black Death would be an example for all to follow.

An aerial view of a medieval church with many city buildings surrounding it.
The influence of the Church in every piece of medieval infrastructure led people to look to the Church for guidance. (Image: Fabio Dell/Shutterstock)

When the plague hit the medieval world at the end of 1347, it was therefore only natural that people would turn to the Church for advice, answers, deliverance and comfort. In general, the Church has sought to respond as effectively as possible, but in the face of such a pandemic with no known treatment or cure, this effectiveness was severely limited – some might say non-existent.

There really was no Catholic Church with a capital C in the medieval world in the West. There was only the Church. Many scholars even argue that the failure of the Church to offer a cure for the plague eventually led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16and century.

This is a transcript of the video series The Black Death: the most devastating plague in the world. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Church’s First Response

One of the first places hit by the plague was the port city of Messina on the island of Sicily. In 1347, several Genoese galleys from Constantinople and the surrounding Crimea settled there and soon after spread the plague throughout the city. People looked to their religious leaders for help, and those leaders tried to oblige.

The people of Messina appealed to the Patriarch of Catania to bring the relics of Saint Agatha to their city in the hope that it would affect a miraculous healing. The patriarch tried to do all he could, but his efforts were in vain – the plague raged and eventually claimed him as one of its victims.

This very early and very visible failure of the Church to effect any kind of healing or relief for her flock will play out again and again in the medieval world. Even the pope himself was advised to wait out the outbreak by staying indoors, pacing between raging fires believed to purify the miasma-ridden air. If the Pope were to retreat and turn to such extremes to avoid contagion, what hope did the common man have?

Learn more about black plague entry points.

A reminder to humanity

When the plague first burst onto the scene, the initial approach taken by Church leaders was to use this horrific event as an opportunity to remind mankind of the serious nature of their sins. Sermon after sermon described how God had sent the Great Plague to teach mankind a lesson.

The Archbishop of York, William Zouche, offered an official response to the plague. In a letter dated July 28, 1348—so just when the plague first appeared in England—Zouche ordered parishes in England to have devout processions:

Every Wednesday and Friday in our cathedral church, in the other collegiate and conventual churches, and in all the parishes of our city and our diocese. And a special prayer should be said en masse each day to appease pestilence and pestilence, and likewise, prayers for the lord king, and for the good condition of the church, kingdom, and all the people of England, so that the Saviour, listening to the constant supplications, will forgive and come to the aid of the creation which God has fashioned in his image.

Learn more about the first wave is sweeping across Europe.

A letter of help

A silhouette of a woman kneeling and praying.
Some church officials said special prayers should be said in the face of the plague. (Image: asiandelight/Shutterstock)

The Prior of Christchurch in Canterbury wrote a letter to the Bishop of London asking for help in conveying the royal request to other bishops in the kingdom.

The letter is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is the lengthy discussion of the evils and sins the people of England had to commit in order for God to rain down this affliction upon them:

And in order that those under you may be all the more willing to do these things, you should arrange to grant indulgences to each of your flock undertaking the things specified above. You should also tell all other bishops to add indulgences for their own account as they see fit.


The idea of ​​the indulgences here is that almost all souls will have to spend some time in purgatory after death before going to heaven. Because for a sin to be forgiven, the sinner had to be guilty – or culpaand there was to be a punishment of a certain duration, known as a poena. Thus, you could be forgiven for the culpa as long as you performed the correct poena, whether here on earth or later in purgatory.

A standard example would be something like, “Say ten Hail Marys every morning for a week and fast the next two Fridays.” The priest has forgiven the guilt, and the sin can be erased from the permanent record, so to speak, by the sinner performing penance with true contrition. An indulgence, generally speaking, meant that the sinner could skip some or all of the penance portion.

Indulgences had first become a key part of the Western Christian belief system during the Crusades when the Church called on soldiers to retake the Holy City of Jerusalem and surrounding areas and offered the Crusaders full indulgences if they participated and died during the campaign.

In other words, as bad as some of the western warriors may have been in their lives, if they took up the cross and walked through the Holy Land, they had to go straight to heaven and skip purgatory altogether.

Common Questions About the Church’s First Response to the Black Death

Q: Why did people in the Middle Ages turn to the Church when the Black Death affected their lives?

In the Middle Ages, the Church had something to do with everyone’s life, and so the first response of the Church to the black death was very important to the people.

Q: How did the Church explain the Black Death to the faithful?

In their sermons, Church officials have asserted that black death was a form of punishment for the sins of mankind.

Q: When did indulgences become part of the Christian belief system?

Indulgences became part of the Christian belief system when the Church recruited soldiers in the name of the recapture of Jerusalem during the crusades. It even became significant during the Church’s first response to the black death.

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How the Church dealt with the Black Death in the 14th century
What happened in Avignon during the spread of the Black Death

Martha J. Finley