In Germany, the return of Frederic II of Hohenstaufen, after a century of imperial absence, took on a messianic dimension:
“When he retook possession of his throne, he married poor girls to rich men and poor men to rich girls, he gave his protection to all the oppressed and mistreated, against the oppressors, and gave them justice; he made the monks marry, and persecuted the clergy so much that the priests covered their tonsure with whatever they could, be it cow-dung; he had the orders responsible for having him sanctioned by a papal bulla chased out of the country, then, accompanied by a numerous army, he crossed the sea and, on the Mount of Olives, near a dead tree, he renounced the imperial throne.”
This anticlericalism, largely fanned by the flagellants, found its justification in the depravation of the clergy’s morals, which the plague had accelerated. Serious troubles took place in the monasteries during the epidemic, for example in Assisi or Sienna where fights to the death between monks were signalled. But it was really the general state of the Church which was worrying, as a violent attack published in Germany in 1348-1349 shows:
“Into what indignity has the Church fallen, particularly in the persons of its most eminent representatives, who live in evil, and have fallen lower than the others. For it is themselves that the Church pastors pasture, and not their flocks, which they shear, or more precisely, skin; it is not as pastors that they act, but as wolves! All beauty has disappeared from God’s Church; from the top to the bottom, there is nothing left in it that is healthy.”
Simony had become general: secular or regular priests, of high, middle or humble rank, bought and sold ecclesiastic benefits, receiving no blame nor punishment. Prebends, benefits, dignities, rectorats, parishes and altars could be acquired for money, or in exchange for mistresses or concubines. They were also gambled with dice. In the same way, abbeys, priories, tutelages, teaching and other posts were often acquired by uneducated people.
An opinion then spread that the misfortunes which were crushing poor Christian humanity had been caused by the Church’s corruption. Even well-behaved Pope Clement VI did not escape criticism. In 1350, during Holy Year, more than one million pilgrims went to Rome at Easter, then Pentecost, as penitence. Clement VI had promised the remission of their sins to those who died on the way. But the gifts made to the Pope by the pilgrims, which rose to 17 million florins, made the humorists of the time say:
“God does not want the death of the sinner, but that he lives and pays!”
Meanwhile, just as all doctors had not deserted their posts, all ecclesiastics did not abandon their ministry. Some showed great courage in taking last sacraments to plague victims, even if they used long sticks to present the wafer. In France, a continuator of the chronicler Guillaume de Nangis alludes to it:
“As soon as a tumor rose in the groin or the armpits, they were doomed. It had never been heard, never seen, never read that, in past times, such a multitude of people had died. […] The healthy man who visited an ill person rarely escaped death; so, in many parishes, terrified curates disappeared, leaving the administration of the sacraments to a few more courageous monks.”
The legend of Saint Roch is a good example of this admirable attitude. Tradition has him dying in 1327 at Montpellier, but Roch, whose very existence has been contested by certain historians, could have lived a lot later and devoted himself to plague victims, obtaining important cures during the great plague of 1348 in Italy. Taken for a spy during the war between the kings of Aragon and Majorca, he was imprisoned and found dead in his cell. On the walls, he had inscribed, still according to legend, this sentence:
“He who is suffering from the plague and seeks refuge in Roch will be relieved of his illness.”
His cult only found its complete development in the XVth Century, when he was invoked not only against the plague, but against all sorts of epidemics.
The illness, as happens in less serious cases, resulted in a certain moral breakdown. This breakdown is signalled by Boccace in the first pages of the Decameron:
“The French danced, as it were, on the cadavers of their families. It was really as if they wanted to express their joy at the upheaval which arrived in their homes, and the death of their friends.”
And in another, composed in Geneva in 1350:
“While the plague was stealing, I saw transported past my house six or seven bodies at least. And yet you could see the girls dancing, spinning and singing happy songs. And one of them, that the trembling of the fever held in its clutches, started to lie down, to the point that she had to be carried to her house, and the following morning to the cemetery, and the others did not interrupt their dance for all that.”
Similar images will be found during the cholera of 1830: death digs its claws into a young girl who dances in the face of danger. In the same way, in Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydide described the social and moral dissipation which reigned in the city during an epidemic of “plague” (probably typhus, smallpox, dengue fever or another unknown illness):
“In a general way, the illness was, in the city, at the origin of increasing disorder. People were more audacious about things that, before, they would only have done in private: too many upheavals were occurring, making prosperous men suddenly die, and men, formerly without resources, immediately inheriting their goods. So people needed rapid satisfactions, concerning their pleasure, for their persons and their goods were, in their eyes, without a future. Working hard to attain a goal judged beautiful, inspired zeal in no-one, for they said that they couldn’t know if, before achieving it, they wouldn’t be dead: immediate satisfaction, and all that which, of whatever origin, could advantageously contribute to it, took the place of the beautiful and the useful. Fear of the gods or man’s law, nothing stopped them…”
To be continued.