“I AM WHO I AM; I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE; tell them that I AM has sent you.” Yahweh-Adonai to Moses, Exodus 3: 14.
The scholars were awake. The artists were awake. New-old knowledge and truth was beginning to bring excitement and hope to the longing lands of the West in the early decades of the 14th Century.
Then came the horrendous Black Death (1347-51), coupled with the calamity of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) engulfing the western Kingdoms of France and England. A war on that scale and of that duration could not but greatly impact the neighbouring states as it ran its course. Tentacles reached into Spain and Portugal, Italy, the Lowlands, and the Empire. The Plague devastated all of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia in a few brief years. We forget that it had already snuffed out millions in Central and Eastern Asia in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries.
Surely it must be the Apocalypse! And on top of all this there was the festering Papal schism, the Pope in Rome versus the Pope in Avignon, in the Western Church. It seemed a fitting retribution for provoking the yawning divide between eastern and western Christendom in the Great Schism of 1054. Christendom seemed reduced to a shadow, a shattered community, and the dual and then triple Papacy’s claims to spiritual leadership a mockery. The secular leaders ignored the plight of their suffering peoples and the spiritual leaders squabbled, blamed, and anathematized one another. Who really cared for the poor survivors of the sweeping devastation unleashed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Even the dedicated caregivers perished along with those they cared for. Best to flee and hope you could somehow escape God’s wrath. Even God seemed to have turned his back and declared that the edifice of Christendom should be torn down to the foundations.
Now, almost eight centuries after these horrific multiple whammies, which historians and other analysts estimate to have wiped out between a quarter and third of Europe’s total population of perhaps eighty million between 1347 and 1351, we have mostly forgotten this even occurred. We imagine the calamity of World War 2 to have been the worst event in human history, but it pales in proportion to this period of woe. The devastating Spanish flu of 1918-19, the last real pandemic in recent history, pales in perspective despite its estimated global death toll of sixty million. The plague did not tear or bomb down structures, but it left whole towns and regions deserted, ghost-like vestiges that the wilderness swallowed in a few decades.
Losing twenty to twenty-seven million of eighty million meant economic and social chaos for entire countries. In comparison, the Soviet Union lost 22 million out of 160 million in WW2. Germany lost 6 million out of 80 million. Only the Jewish loss of 6 million out of a world population of about 12 million (9 million in Europe) is comparable, but the Jewish population was dispersed among many nations rather than concentrated[i]. (This is not meant to minimize the Holocaust or any nation’s national loss in WW2 in any way.)
If God had seen fit to unleash such wrath on Christendom, gross spiritual and moral bankruptcy must be the cause. Had not Francis of Assisi and other reformers been sent to prophetically warn and call the faithful to repentance? And had their call not been ignored or reduced to a token by those who should have heard and led the way back to the Creator and his order for creation and humanity? Who could have faith in leaders who spent their time seeking power and reward in this world, living as if the poverty of Christ had been completely irrelevant to his whole message?
Repentance seemed in order, and, with families and communities destroyed, crowds of penitents took to wandering and preaching judgment and repentance, punishing themselves in pleas for Divine mercy. Others refugees resorted to pillage and banditry, as local authority disintegrated and resources were scarce. Besides, who was to stop them (except when God’s judgment finally caught up)? In areas where the devastation had somehow been lesser, a semblance of order was reasserted by local lords or towns, and the lords used their men-at-arms to chase the outlaws and vagabonds off to easier pickings, as did the town magistrates by recruiting town militias of upstanding citizens.
What was to be gleaned from the catastrophe once it became clear that the end of the age had not come, but that God had granted a new reprieve? As with all disasters, the responses were of two kinds: (1) to see the hand of God and the need to reform life both collectively and personally, (2) to decide that the Creator, if He/She is there at all, is not the benevolent, merciful being they had been told about, but either a capricious fiend or an indifferent tyrant. If the first, change and renewal would have to come from the people, for the leadership were mired in their sin and showed no signs of turning from it. If the second, then it would be best to begin to enjoy what there is to enjoy in this world and not waste time on appeasing an unappeasable or indifferent Creator.
At any rate, how was it possible to return to what had been before, to reassert the old bonds of fealty and order and duty of each of the three Orders (Estates, as the French called them)—clergy, nobility, commoners? Nobles and clergy may have suffered somewhat less by being able to isolate themselves more effectively when the plague had passed through their region, but all had been severely affected. Serfs found their masters dead, vassals found their liege lords gone, or lords had lost those who were supposed to support their rule and receive their fealty. Many had lost most and even all those they cared about in the world. Serfs abandoned their lands and wandered to find more generous situations, or went to the towns to live as free townspeople. Old records were burned or became irrelevant. Labour was scarce and money was to be made. Men-at-arms went to find more favourable lords or ran off to become freebooters. New lords asserted themselves by taking control of areas left without a lord, then offering fealty to whichever superior liege would give the best terms. Towns gained greater autonomy in return for direct loyalty to the sovereign, thus gaining independence from feudal obligations in return for taxes and militia during war.
But where was hope to be found? Was life just short and brutal with no more significance than finding the maximum comfort and least pain in its brief span? Few openly questioned that there was a Creator-God, but if there was, how was He/She to be related to? The Church had lost much of its moral authority and its leaders offered no answers except more of the same old rituals and dogmas, or the idea of being more diligent in piety and abnegation. Certainly, there were movements in that direction, and new devotions and strivings, but there were huge questions still hanging: Why? What must be done?
There were voices suggesting God must be sought apart from and beyond these things, or that the Gospel (and therefore Jesus, the Lord) had in fact had been betrayed by the selfish elite. He must now be rediscovered and made real once more. There was also an awakening to the challenge of new knowledge and ancient wisdom. Were we to continue to deny the goodness of the creation we find all around us? Were we not made to appreciate it and discover God’s love within it? In this, the ancient sages had much to tell. If the Golden Age’s sages and example were to be taken seriously, it might help find a way forward.
Like a tremendous earthquake, The Black Death sent aftershocks. For example, more localized outbreaks brought more horror to London and southern England in 1368. The people found the Church unable to answer, but surely God must stay his hand in answer to all the prayers, entreaties, flagellation, repentance in sackcloth, pilgrimages, and works of charity which the survivors proliferated. The quarrels among rival Popes and prelates and the political manipulation by Kings and Emperor of these rivals only bespoke the complete bankruptcy of hoping for renewal from on high. It would have to come from the grassroots, and, it seemed, it would need to be more assertive about the evils at play than Francis’ inspired and admirable way through submission to authority while preaching self-denial and the Gospel of poverty. It would also have to surpass Thomas’ intellectual spirituality in accessibility, using simpler means to communicate the Gospel truth in a way everyone could receive.
[i] In the 1930s, Poland and the Soviet Union had the largest Jewish populations, and the three million Polish Jews were almost wiped out by the Nazis. This represented about 10% of Poland’s pre-war population, a very significant number. Soviet Jewry lost about 1½ million, accounting for about 1% of the Soviet population, and 7% of all Soviet war deaths.