The Impact of the Black Death on Religious Inquiry and the Protestant Reformation
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The Impact of the Black Death on Religious Inquiry and the Protestant Reformation

The Black Death was caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, referred to as the bubonic plague. It was responsible for millions of deaths in Europe. It is estimated that the Black Death destroyed one-third of the world's population. The impact on the social structure and religious attitudes of Europe were enormous.

Origin and History

The plague emerged in 1347 during the reign of King Edward III while Clement VI was pope in Rome. It was during a time of growth in Europe and goods were being traded along the Great Silk Road from China and parts of Asia.

It is believed that the plague was a result of the Yersinia pestis bacteria carried in the gut of fleas that rode on the backs of Black Rats from China. The first outbreak in Europe was likely brought about through ancient biological warfare. One port city on the Black Sea was thought to be the beginning of the European infestation.

The memoirs of Genoese notary, Gabriele de’ Mussi, record the events of the siege of Caffa a Genoese port city on the Black Sea (Crimea). In 1346 an epidemic of the Black Plague had infected the Tartars who were then besieging the city of Caffa and had catapulted bodies infected with the plague into the city of Caffa. The Italian merchants and citizens of Caffa returned to Italy infected with the disease  spreading it throughout Genoa and Italy. In the account by de’Mussi, only 10 sailors of the 1000 who left Caffa were spared.

Events and Players: Precursors to the Reformation

The Waldensians were a group of Christians who preached and taught from the Bible in defiance of Rome. They were excommunicated and burned at the stake during the term of Pope Innocent III (1198 – 1216) The Waldensians rejected the authority of the Pope.

Pope Clement VI was pope from 1342 – 1352 during the Black Death. He was responsible for issuing the papal bull (1343) granting indulgences for the remission of temporal punishment for sin. Indulgences were sometimes sold to pay for charitable works of the church. The selling and granting of indulgences were part of the abuse of the Catholic Church to which Martin Luther later objected.

Thomas Bradwardine (1290 – 1349) was briefly the Archbishop of Canterbury, a scientist a mathmetician and philosopher. A supporter of King Edward III and a great thinker, he was a chancellor at Oxford university and a member of the secular clergy. He died of the Plague. His theories and ideas were very influential in the intellectual community.

John Wycliffe (1320 – 1384) was 27 years old at the emergence of the Black Plague. He is responsible for translating the Bible from Latin (The Vulgate) into common language in 1382. He was a scholar, theologian, and head of Balliol college at Oxford. He was also a dissident and opposed the Catholic church.

Avignon Papacy (1309 – 1376) and the Western Schism (1378 – 1417) undermined the authority of the Church. The Papacy was moved to Avignon, France in 1309 resulting in disunity in the Catholic Church. When the Papacy returned to Rome, two popes were elected – one at Rome and later another who returned the Papacy to Avignon.  Both claimed to be the rightful Pope, further dividing the church.

The Medici Popes Leo X (1513 – 1521) and Clement VII (1523 – 1534) were largely political appointments secured by the Florentine Medici family, of whom it is said, ushered in the Italian Renaissance.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Cathedral doors October, 31, 1517 asserting that indulgences were not valid.


The Black Death also called The Black Plague, significantly impacted the social order, wealth, power and Christian thought in the Late Middle Ages. The Late Middle Ages were impacted not only by the Plague but were also embroiled in war throughout Europe and beset with instability in the church. The Papacy was the authority both politically and spiritually throughout Europe. With disunity in the church and death on every doorstep, the population of Europe was thrown into a time of heightened religious inquiry.

Prior to the Plague, the Church, ruled by the Pope, was the sole guardian of religious thought and theology, dispensing information, blessings and curses as it saw fit. The general population had no access to the bible or scripture except that which was meted out by the priests and clergy. Anyone who questioned the teachings of the Church was denounced, excommunicated and sometimes burned at the stake.

The Black Death did not only kill peasants, but every class and social order was decimated. Even the King’s daughter succumbed to the Plague. The church was not immune and lost many of their priests and clergy. Replacing the priests was not an easy task and newer less educated and less devoted men entered the hierarchy of the church ranks.

In addition to the less experienced clergy, the emergence of theories related to the cause of the Black Death as punishment from God provoked an extreme piety among the population of Europe.  Severe religious rituals of flagellation were common and onerous rites of penance were observed. Jews were being tortured and killed as some thought that they poisoned the wells and were the cause of the Black Death. In spite of devotion and piety, the Plague did not relent and faith in the church and distrust of the clergy began to emerge.

As the Papacy declined and the church weakened due to the death of many priests and the Great Western Schism, a new educated secular class began to emerge and grow stronger. Great thinkers like John Wycliffe influenced the common man with his translation of the Bible into common language.


The Great Schism significantly weakened the Papacy and the lack of leadership in the church increasingly drove individuals to seek answers and to inquire into other theological reasoning. With the rise of the Medici in Florence and Rome, the age of enlightenment had begun. The Medici were at the forefront of art, literature, reason and humanism. Although the Medici had two Popes on the Papal throne, the offices were largely that of politics and power.

It was during the Medici Pope Leo X that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg doors challenging Pope Leo for his selling of indulgences more specifically rejecting the validity of indulgences. His assertion was that indulgences did not absolve believers from punishment and that forgiveness and salvation was granted by God alone.  October 31, 1571 the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses is considered the birth of the Protestant Reformation.

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Comments (10)

Very well detailed educational article.thank you.

Ranked #38 in History

Thanks Roberta. I actually have several links to post but I could not get the link tool to work. I loved doing the research on this article. It was a great learning experience for me. 

Ranked #9 in History

Well written historical account of this tragic period of Europe's past.

Fascinating article; and a pleasant surprise. Back when this site was Factoidz, articles which did not fall under the how-to-do and self help categories were automatically rejected. If Knoji is now open to more general articles, it is indeed a welcome development.

This is an excellent piece of history.

Ranked #149 in History

Very good article

Ranked #44 in History

A very interesting historical perspective on this disease.

Church history is one of my favourite research topics. This article is an excellent overview of the impact of the plague as one of the factors which changed the direction of the church. This was a time of great tragedy, as John commented, but sometimes God has to use stuff like virally infected fleas on the backs of rats to wake up His people from a time of spiritual slumber.

Ranked #80 in History

Ironically at the time of the plague cats were being killed by religious people of the time who linked them with evil and the devil, the irony is that the cats would have killed the rats that helped spread the plague.


Another interesting note Thomas Malthus later suggested that the plague was God's way of controlling populations, punishing us for getting out of control.

Ranked #13 in History

Nice presentation on this historical impact in humane society, thank you.