Austerity and the Plague: How the Black Death made one of the changes in Christianity

A PRIEST listens to Lent’s confession in this English manuscript.

T.HE 14M Known for centuries of catastrophe. By the middle of the century, the first wave of plague had spread to Europe, which had already been weakened by a series of famines and hundreds of years of war between England and France. And the crisis keeps coming. After the first wave, called the Black Death, the disease recurred at least four more times before 1400. All the while, fresh conflict continues, which in some parts is fueled by the growing number of troops available for hire.

As a medieval historian, I study the ways in which community leaders used Catholic practices and institutions to respond to war and plague. But 14 of the uncertaintiesM Over the centuries, some Catholic institutions have stopped working the way they should have, adding to the frustration. In particular, the ongoing crisis has raised concerns about the sanctity of austerities, often referred to as “confessions.”

This uncertainty eventually led critics like Martin Luther to secede from the Catholic Church.

During this period, European Christians felt their faith mainly through saints and rituals.

In art, saints are portrayed as standing near the throne of God, or even speaking in His ear, as having a special relationship with Him. Righteous Christians regarded saints as active members of their community who could help God hear their prayers for healing and protection. Across Europe, the feast days of the saints were celebrated through processions, candlelight vigils, and even street theaters.

Fourteenth-century Christians also experienced their faith through the seven most important rites of Catholicism. Some baptisms, confirmations, marriages and extreme reunions happened once in most people’s lives – a ritual for those who are close to death.

There were two rituals, however, Catholics could feel more than once. The first was the Eucharist, also known as the Holy Communion – the rearrangement of Christ’s last supper with his apostles before his crucifixion. The second was austerities.

Catholic doctrine taught that the priests’ prayers over bread and wine turned those substances into the body and blood of Christ, and that holiness created a connection between God and believers. The Eucharist was the core of the masses, a service that included processions, songs, prayers, and lessons from the Scriptures.

Religious Christians also experienced the sanctity of austerities throughout their lives. Of 14M For centuries, austerities were a personal ritual that every person was supposed to perform at least once a year.

The ideal austerity was hard work. People had to remember all the sins they had committed since the “age of reason,” which began when they were about seven years old. They were supposed to be sorry that they were displeasing to God, and not just afraid that they would go to hell for their sins. They had to confess their sins to their parish priests, who had the power to forgive them. After all, they were determined to never commit such sins again.

After the confession, they performed the prayers, fasts, or pilgrimages that the priest had assigned to them, which was called “satisfaction.” The whole process was intended to heal the soul as a kind of spiritual medicine.

The plague and the waves of war, however, can disrupt every aspect of the ideal confession. Rapid illness can make it impossible for one to travel to a parish priest, to remember one’s sins, or to speak aloud. When the parish priests died and were not immediately replaced, the people had to look for another confession. Some people had to admit without someone to release them.

Meanwhile, Europe’s frequent wars bring other spiritual dangers. Soldiers, for example, were recruited to fight wherever they went in battle and were often paid with the spoils of war. They lived with a constant weight of orders not to kill or steal. They never fully confessed, because they could never wish to sin again.

These problems caused frustration and anxiety. In response, people turned to doctors and saints for help and healing. For example, some Christians in Provence in present-day France turned to a local holy lady, Countess Delfin de Puimichel, to help them remember their sins, save them from sudden death, and even repent of leaving the war. Many people found comfort in her voice, describing that a doctor who lived near the holy woman had set up a meeting so that people could hear her.

But most people in Europe did not have a local saint like Delphine. They were looking for other solutions to their uncertainties about the sanctity of austerities.

Indulgence for the dead and the public proved to be the most popular, but also problematic. The instinct was the pope’s document that could forgive the holder’s sins. They are supposed to be given out only by the pope, and in very specific circumstances, such as performing certain pilgrimages, serving in a crusade, or performing particularly religious acts.

15’s timeM Over the centuries, however, consumer demand was high, and they became commonplace. Some traveling confessions that were approved by the religious authorities to hear the confession sold the instincts – some genuine, some fake – to someone with money.

Catholics also believed that the masses led by them could atone for their sins after their deaths. Of 14M Over the centuries, most Christians have viewed the afterlife as a journey that began in a place called Purgatory, where the remaining sins would be burned at the stake before the soul could enter heaven. In their will, Christians set aside money for their souls so that they could spend less time in purgatory. There were many requests that some churches conduct more than one mass every day, sometimes for many souls at a time, which becomes a temporary burden on the clergy.

Nicole Archambue is an associate professor of history at Colorado State University.

The popularity of luxury for the dead helps scholars today understand the challenges people face during the Black Death. But both practices were ripe for corruption, and desperation mounted believers as a ritual to comfort and prepare them for the Hereafter, making them anxious and uncertain.

Criticism of austerities and austerities was at the center of Martin Luther’s famous “95 Thesis”, written in 1517 by the Reformer. Although the young priest did not originally want to secede from the Catholic Church, his criticisms initiated Protestant reform.

But Luther’s challenges to the pope’s position were ultimately not about money, but about theology. Frustration with the idea of ​​not being able to perform an ideal confession led him and others to redefine the ritual. In Luther’s view, a repentant person can do nothing to satisfy sin, but he must rely on God’s grace alone.

For Catholics, on the other hand, the rituals of austerities have remained the same for many centuries, although there have been some changes. The most visible was the creation of the Confession, a confined space within the church building where priests and repentant individuals could speak more privately. From the Black Death to the Kovid-19 epidemic today, the experience of austerities, especially liberation, has remained a central ritual for Catholics to heal their souls in times of distress.

Nicole Archambue is an associate professor of history at Colorado State University.

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