The black plague was a cataclysm of great amplitude. No region nor country was spared, with a few very rare exceptions. Countrysides were devastated, cities were haunted by terror. In this decor, the search for pleasure became a priority, and sometimes even a ritual. Such was the case in certain sects, like that of the brothers of the Free Spirit, which singularly touched Germany, as an account from Bavaria attests:
“And when they came to the confession, and were assembled, […] they extinguished the lights and fell on each other, man on man, woman on woman, whoever was available. Each one must see with his own eyes his wife or his daughter violated by others, for they proclaimed that no-one could commit sin beneath the belt. Such is their belief.”
Homosexuality and incest were allowed and justified by the belief that Christ had consummated a liaison with Mary Magdalene…
After having rendered the Jews and the Church responsible for the plague, the only thing left to do was to blame God. And if there were hardly any manifestations of pure atheism, hate for God became one of the dogmatic bases of another sect, the luciferians. To the first words of the prayer “Our Father which art in heaven”, the members of the community added:
“If He is in heaven, it is only by force and injustice”.
They proclaimed also that his reign would one day be replaced by that of Lucifer in whom they placed all their hopes of redemption.
These revolts, including their most delirious or hysterical madness, obviously diminished as the pandemic retreated. But their repercussions on the evolution of religious feeling in Europe were considerable. Death appeared more and more frequently in graphic images. The traditional skeleton, which represented it, was replaced in Campo Santo in Pisa, by an old woman brandishing a scythe, dressed all in black, with wild hair, exorbited eyes and clawed feet. This image haunted minds to the point of becoming an obsessional motif in Art, at the end of the Middle Ages.
During all this time, the dying, the sick and the survivors lived in the company of the two real, and only, culprits responsible for the catastrophe, without fearing them: the rat and the flea, familiar animals, who shared the home, the food and the clothes of the men of the Middle Ages, so familiar even, that they were never suspected. No medical source mentions them, even though the rat, since the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, had already been associated with the idea of epidemic. The exact nature of the illness was only definitively identified in 1894 by the French scholar of Swiss origin, Alexandre Yersin, with the discovery of the bacillus known as Yersin (Yersinia pestis): a rat illness transmitted to Man by the flea, direct transmission from man to man being then made possible by saliva. The term “bubonic” plague was then more in reference to the boils, symptoms of the illness. But for all of the XIVth Century, the illness was firstly “the black plague” or “the black death” – an allusion to the dark patches provoked by the gangrene which covered the bodies of the sick. For the immense majority of Europeans, it appeared to be a totally new plague. However, it was not the first time that it had ravaged the Western world: between 541 and 544, a first pandemic had caused hecatombs from Ethiopia to the Rhine, with a recrudescence in 557 which sporadically afflicted Europe until the end of the VIIIth Century. But this precedent was ignored, or had been forgotten, by the men of the XIVth Century…
Meanwhile, to the impression, shared by many faithful, that the end of the world and the Last Judgement were near, succeeded, with the epidemic’s retreat, a stupefying appetite for living and a prodigious genesic instinct: in 1352, in Cologne, 4,000 marriages were celebrated, although 21,000 people had died the preceding year. Five years later, most of the European cities had returned to their former population levels: the global population of Europe, Russia included, rose to 65 million inhabitants in 1400, while it was at 47 million in the year 1000, and 32 million in the year 600. It is to be noted that in Asia, on the other hand, it was only at 203 million in 1400 against 212 million in the year 1000.
This vital instinct finds a shining illustration in the fact that the black plague, if it accelerated the evolution of customs and mentalities, hardly influenced the course of political events which were happening at the same time in the West. Everything was already going badly in the French kingdom. On 23 August 1346, Philippe VI had been crushed at Crecy by Edward III, and, one year later, Calais fell into the hands of the English. At the moment when the pandemic spread to France, nothing seemed to be able to resist the dynastic pretensions of the Plantagenets. So, the only notable consequences of the great plague on the course of the Hundred Years War were, on the one hand, a sizeable reduction in the military personnel of both camps, and on the other hand, a very relative temporisation which delayed until 1355 the inevitable rupture of the treaty signed on 28 September 1347.
But, even more than the demographic jump which followed, we must insist on the phenomenon of survival. For, indubitably, the black plague could have made all trace of Humanity completely disappear from Europe. This survival seems to be due to two principal factors. Firstly, certain regions like Auvergne or Franconie were spared by the pandemic, without any explanation ever being found for this fact. Secondly, the illness was not always mortal. Certain patients possessed a genetic stock able to produce anticorps, or had naturally acquired this immunity by natural vaccination. As Jacques Ruffie and Jean-Charles Sournia have observed:
“Certain people doubtless transmitted to their descendance a genetic capacity for resistance, to which the future generations owed their survival”.
Whatever it was, the survivors of this epidemic asked themselves why divine will had inflicted such a punishment on them. Suffering is only bearable if it engenders a better world. The sense of injustice and doubt which followed this catastrophe put an end to a long period of submission. The black plague, by waking each individual’s individual conscience, contributed to the creation of modern Man.