Monday, February 8, 2016

The Plague; was it a benefit to Europe?

In a previous blog about the Black Death, I mentioned how its spread helped some of the serfs, particularly when it came to land ownership.  Now I will continue with showing how something horrible as the plague, benefited the progression of culture and society in Europe.

Imagine you have a garden; it has been overran from being unkept for years. You take a mower across it, weed it, then suddenly the garden comes alive and vibrant.  As cold hearted as this sound, the plague did the same with Europe.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was left without a centralized government.  Feudal governments rose, which meant smaller regional governments were established.

Without a central government, there is no trade between countries. A merchant had to travel to each feudal government to establish any form of trade. Laws varied from region to region, as did customs. Without trade, there was no exchange of ideas or knowledge between areas.

Without a governing body, the Catholic Church gained and controlled power over Europe. If there was any form of centralized power, it was the church.

The Catholic Church was the most dominating factor in the dark and middle ages in Europe. They dictated education (if there was any) to politics itself. If they (Catholic Church) opposed or rejected a theory then it was considered taboo and heresy to even discuss it further.

Much of the knowledge left to the world by the ancient Greeks, were considered by the church to be nothing more than historical documents.  To the church, man was the center of the universe; so Greek information about astronomy was considered knowledge obtained by pagans, so was philosophy and medical information.

They ancient texts left by the Greeks were copied by monks (as historical relics), but much of the knowledge contained in them was considered blasphemy by the church.  This knowledge sat inside monasteries, unread and lost to the world.

It was also the Catholic Church that informed the population about the cause and cure for the plague.  The church stated that the plague was God’s punishment upon the people for their sins.  Their cure for the plague was more prayer and righteous living.

The infected went to the churches to pray, and many of them died there.  Churches were filled with the bodies of the dead. Church Cemeteries were filled to capacity, and afterwards huge pits for mass burials were then dug and were quickly filled.

When prayer did not cure the plague; the church then blamed non-Christians. Jews and other religious minorities were driven out of Europe, converted or killed.

When the plague continued to spread, the church then stated it was caused by witchcraft, and soon the witch-hunts began. Thousands of people were tried, tortured, imprisoned and put to death with the charge of being a witch. Another consequence of the witch-hunts was the perception that witches used cats as familiars.  A witch used a familiar as a conduit to gain more power; cats were often associated as being a witch’s familiar.

It was believed that cats would be used by witches to spy on local villagers, or help the witch cast spells and potions.  The cats soon became victims of the witch-hunts also. Thousands, if not millions of cats were killed during the witch-hunts.

An unfortunate result of the cats being killed was that the plague spread faster. We know now the plague was carried by fleas upon rodents.  When the cats were not present to hunt these rodents, the rodents flourished throughout Europe, carrying the plague with them.

If the church stated they knew what was causing the plague, but people still died so people began to question the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.  This questioning led to the foundation and rise of the Protestant movement throughout Europe.

Another impact was scholars began to question the church condemning some forms of knowledge. These scholars began to look back as the documents from the Greeks. This reintroduction to Greek mathematics, science and philosophy caused the re-birth of knowledge in Europe. At the same time, knights were returning from the crusades; they brought back lost Greek manuscripts that the Muslims had been copying and studying for generations.  The Islamic scholars themselves had also conducted research into medicine and science, and were familiar with advanced technology brought from the Far East; this knowledge too was brought back to Europe. The Renaissance had now begun.

Next Time: The plague and medicine.

W.A. Rusho is a martial artists, historian and professional wrestler.  He is the author of the fantasy novel “Legend of the Mystic Knights.”  You can find out more about him by visiting his website.


  1. I guess it is pretty horrible that the plague, which caused so much suffering, could have some benefits. Your description of how the various beliefs came about - witchcraft and cats, the rise of the Protestant movement, ect. One other thought - thank goodness the Monks preserved those historical texts.

  2. You brought back a lot of Medieval history class learning from college, William. The progression of Church doctrine and eventual split off of the Protestants is nicely laid out.
    Can't read these posts without imagining how smelly that time period was!

  3. Seems as though the church folks were suffering from a common malady. Tthe inability to admit it when you don't have the answer.

  4. The number of people that died - awful just thinking about it. The way in which they died makes it all the more harrowing. I really do believe that bad sanitation also contributed to the deaths. I cannot imagine the dirt, the suffering, the hunger.

  5. Lots of fascinating info here, especially how the cats were killed which resulted in more rodents and thus the fleas spread disease faster. Those are the details that never really get covered when learning about these events in history class.

  6. Throughout history, whenever something goes wrong people look for "a witch" to blame. And that might be a person of a certain religion, skin color or anything else that makes them stand out as different. I guess it makes us feel safe to feel like we've identified a monster and that by, destroying the monster, everything will be better.

    Having said that, after seeing the destruction last year of ebola, I can't imagine what it must of been like to live during the plague. It must have been extremely heart breaking and scary.

  7. This post would seem to indirectly make the case for smaller regional governments given that the Catholic Church made such a mess of things way back when. Surely, *some* officials in those feudal governments must have realized, "We need to get up to speed on those Greek texts" and "Killing cats in response to the plague is a really dumb idea"; moreover, just because they didn't get their act together on the trade front doesn't mean that they were incapable of doing so.

  8. Hopefully we don't need plague to diminish the power of jihadists which is a contemporaty equivalent of the Catholic Church in those days and how they behaved.

  9. Lots of information here. Oh my God! Just heartbreaking thinking about it. The way they died :-(

  10. Like the plague, wildfires are also considered by many experts as a way to rejuvenate forests, even though these fires in the west are so devastating to the residents who live in or near these locations.