Was the Black Death a Direct Cause to the Renaissance?

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Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

Imagine you wake up one morning freezing from chills in the middle of June in the English countryside. Outside it is near ninety degrees and you can not understand what is wrong. The lord’s cattle need to be fed so you pull yourself out of bed and go out to feed the animals. By the time you make it back to your humble little house you are burning up with fever. Almost immediately you begin to cough and in no time you start to see blood on your hand as you bring it down from your mouth after coughing. You crawl into bed to let it pass thinking that it is some type of cold or other temporary illness. You look at your eleven year old son who walks over with a ladle of water and see seeping black and orange soars on his arms.

As you draw a labored breath you realize that your “temporary” illness is the same sickness that the villagers have been talking about. The village thought they had escaped it, but you are the first of many to feel its effects. You have only been sick a few hours when you draw your last breath. Your family, knowing what it is that has killed you, takes you out and burns your clothes and body in a shallow ditch. Then, one by one, your family begins to die from the scourge of Middle Ages Europe. You and your family, by dying from the Black Death or Plague, may have contributed to the rise of the Renaissance.

It has recently become a well accepted and not easily refutable theory that the Renaissance would not have happened if not for the Plague that ravaged Europe in the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries. The evidence for this theory is overwhelming and convincing. The supporting factors for this extends from the ecclesiastical community to the arts. It covers the labor movement to the path that the plague took across Europe. To accurately examine this hypothesis we must take our time and carefully comb through the evidence at hand and do so with an open mind.

Many of our contemporaries in the field of history have preset notions about certain events and are unwilling to accept new ideas. Therefore, with my soapbox now out of the way, let us delve into the wonderful world of mid-millennium Europe and examine the Plague and its relationship to the Renaissance. I have contemplated how to approach this topic and have come to the conclusion that in order to fully cover the story I will make this a series of articles.

During the centuries that Plague ravaged Western Europe people began turning to the Church for reassurance and help. Many “plague saints” came to the fore-front. During this time the Catholic Church canonized more saints than at any other time in its history. The papal office knew that it needed to keep people focused on the ecclesiastical part of life. This ensured the Church’s continued power over national issues around the world. Pope Clement VI was in power at the time and continued in the footsteps of his predecessors by being hungry for power and wanting to create an empire.

These desires followed the papal office as far back as the eighth century. However, when Plague hit England in August 1348, the papal office was already in turmoil and seemed to be loosing its power in many parts of the Holy Roman Empire. This turmoil over the location of the papal seat of power and the fact that by the end of the late 1300’s there were actually three different popes in power at once and each of them claimed papal authority, left the laity wondering if corruption in the church could be the cause of the Plague.

It does, after all, stand to reason that God would punish the Church for all the corruption within its ranks at that time. Therefore, with the thought that God was punishing the world for the corruption of the Catholic Church, many protesters came into light. In the beginnings of the Protestant movement men like John Wycliff and John Hus from England and Czechoslovakia respectively, spoke out against the Pope and the Catholic Church. They contended that Christ, not the Pope, was the true head of the Church.

These early fathers of the Protestant movement made the way clear for men like Martin Luther, John Yoder and John Calvin to make sweeping reforms in later years. The days of Plague had not ended by the time of the Protestant Reformation in the late 1500’s and the travesties of the Church and the Plague were obviously everlasting in the minds of the laity. During the years of Plague across Europe people prayed like never before for God to end the tragic sickness. However, with the persistence of Plague and its seemingly never-ending reign of terror, the people began to turn away from the Church. Many people reverted to the pagan ways of the Celts and Druidism even saw a resurgence in the Scottish Highlands. Many felt that the God they had been worshipping was unable to end the death and therefore they turned back to the ways of their ancestors.

Others turned to the movements of the reformers and split away from Catholic doctrine. With this turning away from the Catholic Church also came the decline in papal authority and power. This decline brought on the resurgence of the power of local kings and lords. It also ended the calls for Crusades against heretics in both the Holy Land and in Europe. With this came a time of peace. Though it was not complete peace, it was peaceful enough to allow the common person to focus on other things such as the arts.

It is beyond refute that Plague brought about a decline of Church power in the High Middle Ages. It is also beyond refute that the Renaissance came about partly because of a turning away of the people from ecclesiastic activities. Therefore, we have already shown, at least in part, Plague was responsible for the Renaissance. However, the evidence does not end here. In the coming articles we will examine the rise of the arts in culture due to Plague. We will also continue to examine the path that Plague took across Europe and how it coincides with the path of the Renaissance mentality. We will also discuss what exactly the “Black Death” was and its causes. Was the turning away from the Church the main cause? No. Rather, it was a contributing factor to the wonderful era of the Renaissance. I invite you back for another adventure into the time of courtly love, chivalrous knights and yes, the Black Death.

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