There were already signs that the feelings of the laity towards the church were changing before the Black Death ravaged Europe. It was more obvious on mainland Europe where there had been crusades against heretics in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There had always been opposition to the church and heresy had always been rife, but with the arrival of the Black Death heretical sects abounded and even the most orthodox could find themselves re-examining their respect for the institution of the church.
People demanded to know why the church hadn’t seen this dreadful judgement from God coming. Since nothing happened that was not God’s will, it was obvious that he had sent the plague. Biblical plagues had been sent to punish sinful men, therefore the Black Death was a punishment sent by God to punish sinful Christians. It was partly for this reason that self-flagellation became so popular. If the Black Death was God’s punishment for sin, perhaps it was possible to ward it off with repentance and severe self-punishment. With sufficient warning it was thought that everyone could surely have repented and stopped the plague before it had begun. The church was blamed for not providing the warning.
Once the plague had begun, the prayers of the priests and bishops proved insufficient to halt it. Worse, they started dying themselves. No one could understand divine judgement that didn’t discriminate between good and bad people. It made far more sense to believe that the priests, bishops and monks were also being punished for their sins, which meant that they were as bad as everyone else and that God did not favour them.
One of the reasons why so many priests and monks died was because the church had always said that the sick had to call on them before they called for help from doctors. Such hospitals as there were were run by monks. When parish priests and monks died they were replaced by lesser men who were often no more advanced in learning or understanding of things theological than their parishioners. These men were less respected than their predecessors and that lack of respect spread to include the institution they represented.
Whilst many priests died because they stayed in their parishes and cared for the sick, many abandoned their posts and this, too, fed the negative view that people had of the church. They had been let down by their priests when they most needed them.
The church was supposed to show the laity how to live. Very few people could read and, even if they could read, books were beyond the pockets of any save the very rich and even they could not afford a whole Bible. It was the church’s rôle to interpret God’s word to the people, since few were able to read it for themselves. In addition to the Bible there was over a thousand years’ worth of teaching from the Church Fathers and various theologians. Yet none of it had been sufficient to improve the world enough to stop God having to punish it. Once again the church was blamed for not providing a correct interpretation of God’s word.
For the English it was increasingly a problem that the Pope was in Avignon. The papacy had moved there in 1309 and didn’t return to Rome until 1376. The Pope himself was seen as little more than a lackey of the French king, which wasn’t always very far from the truth and the French king was England’s enemy. The papacy itself was also seen as decadent and worldly.
Because clerics were dying in such high numbers, members of the laity were allowed to hear people’s dying confessions if there wasn’t a priest available. This raised the question about the necessity of a priest hearing confession at all. If a lay person was good enough in a time of crisis, why weren’t they good enough when the crisis was past?
Some commentators have seen this change in attitude as leading inexorably to the Reformation and it’s a view that I was coming to myself, except for the fact that there were already challenges to the church’s authority before the Black Death. The inquisition had been created in 1231 to deal with the rise of heretical sects, of which there were many. I think the Black Death simply gave clarity to people who were already vaguely uneasy about the church and its rôle in their lives.