The existence of the microbe, a living body invisible to the naked eye, was totally inconceivable at this epoch:  if the air was at the origin of the propagation of the illness, it must be because it held bad astral influences.  The idea of evil emanations originally came from the Arabs and, for this reason, was far removed from the Christian doctrines.  Over the two following centuries, alchemical practices inclined certain doctors, in particular Paracelsius, to privilege the application of dead animal cadavers or the tongues of venimous snakes, the consumption of urine and excrements, or even the absorption of the boils from the cadavers of people dead from the plague, after having dried them and reduced them to powder…  The greatest scholars had no problem mixing alchemy, magic and astrology with authentic scientific research.  The best example is perhaps Jerome Cardan, an Italian mathematician and philosopher from the XVIth Century.  According to him, precious stones put into contact with the skin constituted a specific remedy against the plague, and he prescribed to pregnant women the absorption of wine mixed with powdered red coral.


Apart from remedies, people were also looking for the cause of this malediction which was spreading throughout the world.  Astrology was invoked as early as 1348 to determine the causes of the pandemic.  It was remembered that on 20 March 1345, at 1 p.m., a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars had been observed in the fourteenth degree of Aquarius, conjunction traditionally considered as announcing catastrophes.  To the astrological explanations were added the “tangible” signs of divine anger, such as the ball of fire which appeared in Paris in August 1348, the fiery column which rose above the palace of the Popes in Avignon, on 20 December of the same year, or the invasions of grasshoppers and white mice which, in 1346, attacked Germany and were retrospectively interpreted as precursive signs of the plague.

The pandemic was then naturally associated with the punitive visions of Saint John’s Apocalypse, notably that of the fourth horseman liberated by the opening of the fourth seal:

“And I saw appear a horse of pale colour.  He who mounted it was called Death, and Hell followed it.  They were given power over the fourth part of the Earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by mortality and by ferocious beasts of the Earth.”

Loaded with meaning for the Christians of the XIVth Century, was the vision of the troops of cavalry released by the sixth trumpet:

“And here is how the horses appeared to me in the vision, as well as those who mounted them:  they had armour the colour of fire, smoke and sulphur;  the heads of the horses were like lions’ heads, and their mouths breathed fire, smoke and sulphur.  The third part of the men were killed by these three plagues, by the fire, the smoke and the sulphur which came out of their mouths.  For the power of these horses is in their mouths and their tails:  for their tails, like snakes, have heads, and it is with them that they wound.”

The smoke, the sulphur spread by the horses of the Apocalypse, possessed for the people of the time a precise meaning:  it was the miasmata, the poisoned air, to which the immediate responsibility for the illness was attributed.

What sins had Men committed to merit such a punishment?  Vanity was mentioned.  It was seen in the wearing of shoes a la poulaine.  This fashion from Poland – hence the name of “poulaine”, the old name for this country – consisted in lengthening the shoes by stuffed points, curled up with whalebones, the dimensions of which were often enormous and obliged those who wore them to maintain them by wearing a gold or silver chain attaching them to their legs.  Introduced into Western Europe by the English knight Robert le Cornu, shoes a la poulaine were rapidly condemned by the Church as contrary

“to good morals and invented in derision of the creator”.

The English Parliament forbade shoemakers to make shoes and boots whose points exceded two inches.  Apparently fashion-conscious ladies and gentlemen ignored these laws:  the shoes, from whence came Evil, were in fashion until the end of the XVth Century, and even armours were endowed with them.

The idea of a fault, which needed to be erased, weighed on everyone’s mind.  Within Christianity, an extraordinary movement of repentance and contrition spread, particularly in Central and Southern Europe.  This movement, of flagellants, has been described in detail by the German chronicler Hugo von Reutlingen:

“In these times, flagellants travelled the country in crowds over all the highways and byways, cruelly torturing their own bodies with blows from the painful knots that they had made in their whips, for in each whip the knots were tied three times;  that was the order.”

The repentants placed themselves under the sign of the Cross, symbol of Christ;  they either carried one, or signed themselves.

“Two pieces of iron, whose upper extremities had been sharpened and passed through the knots, hit the penitents’ backs and made a halo of square wounds.”

Their cortege was composed just as much of priests as of landgraves, of knights as of good-for-nothings, by school-teachers, students, tramps and peasants.  They were strictly forbidden from washing themselves, speaking to a woman, shaving their beards, except by direct order from the master, or wearing clean clothes before the fixed date.  They strictly observed the Day of the Lord, never walked alone, but slept separately on a straw mattress covered with canvas.

“Every five days, they fasted, and on fasting days, they whipped themselves three times, all together, and threw themselves on the ground nine times, three times at each flagellation.”

To be continued.