This is the last of a short series of posts about the Black Death. I haven’t come close to doing it justice as a subject and there will doubtless be more posts in the future, but there’s one last thing I want to look at before I move on. Life in the first half of the fourteenth century was precarious. There had been famines due to bad weather and many people had starved to death. There was war with France or Scotland almost constantly. In an age without antibiotics even a simple scratch could become infected and kill, so no one was a stranger to death. Despite this Europe’s experience of the Black Death changed the view of death held by the Christian West. Most people didn’t live long and death from childbirth, disease or accident was common, but the Black Death had shown that death was even more unpredictable than people had thought.
Ian Mortimer has suggested in his book Centuries of Change that the only way that modern people can understand the effect of the Black Death is to imagine an atomic bomb exploding in a different town every day for a year and three months. I can’t even begin to imagine that and I have a good imagination. In such circumstances I think most of us would believe that the end of the world was near. The number of deaths would be devastating.
One of the ways in which the change in attitude was shown was in art. Death, represented by a skull, started to figure in paintings where it had not before. Paintings were used to remind people that death made all equal. One of the more famous of these types of paintings is The Three Living and The Three Dead. Although they predate the Black Death as a theme, they became much more common after the middle of the fourteenth century. The three living are contrasted in their wealth and vitality with the skeleton forms of their future selves. In France these are usually three kings and they’re on horseback. In France or England one of them always has a hawk, showing that, even if they’re not kings, they’re rather well off. The illustrations include a conversation between the living and the dead. This is an example of these conversations. The living say in turn, “I am afraid”, “Lo, what I see” and “Methinks these devils be”. The dead reply, “Such shall you be”, “I was well fair”, “For God’s love beware”. There was often a homily of this nature:
“Know that I was head of my line
Princes, kings and nobles
Royal and rich, rejoicing in wealth
But now I am so hideous and bare
That even the worms disdain me.”
The same message was also given by many tombs. A particular style of tomb became popular in the beginning of the fifteenth century after the plague had returned three more times to England. These were called transi tombs. These tombs had two tiers. On top there would be a prince, bishop or lord; below the same man would be represented by a skeleton, with the whole explained by a pious verse. They showed the owner’s awareness that he was assigned to dust and maggots. The corpse would be presented with the flesh eaten away and a brittle skeleton. The intent was to shock the viewer both to repentance and to pray for the dead person.
Before the Black Death it had not been unreasonable to assume that the rich would live longer than the poor, but the Black Death showed that this wasn’t necessarily the case. A bishop was just as likely to succumb as a beggar. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also the chancellor, had died of plague in late spring in 1349.
People shared their lives and deaths with their community. Funerals were important community events and they had meaning. Most of the local population would be involved in a funeral. It gave the living an opportunity to help the departed person towards salvation. During the plague many people were denied the burial rituals. At its height in the larger towns family members carried the dead to the plague pits and tossed them in. The bodies weren’t even facing the right way so they would not be resurrected facing the New Jerusalem. Communities became fractured as people learned that plague was passed from person to person and they avoided contact with one another.
Even more than it had ever been in the past, death was now seen as a leveller.