“Who was the fool, who the wise, who the beggar, or the emperor?”

Living during the Dark Ages, as the name suggests, was quite a struggle – plague and famine was rampant, wars and persecutions were common, and the medicine of the time could be worse than the condition it sought to cure. Science and technology of the time could do nothing to prevent this, and people simply had to accept the dangers of day-to-day Medieval life.

"The Triumph of Death" Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

“The Triumph of Death”
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

This created an understandable gloom and the uncertainty of daily survival lead to constant forced confrontations with morbidity and death. But out of this fear, people were inspired to live in the moment, and accepting death as natural and inevitable allowed it to become an artistic source.

Themes such as the universality of death and the uselessness of vanity were common, and were demonstrated most strongly in Le Danse Macabre, an artistic genre of Medieval Europe. It focused on the understanding that treasures and worldly possessions were useless after death, and that life was a fragile gift. Furthermore, without this vanity and wealth, everyone is equal in death.

One of my favorite products of this genre is the graveyard soliloquy in Hamlet, where Hamlet ponders the possibility that the remains of great men such as Alexander and Caesar may now be present in the mud used to seal buildings and barrels.  When Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, he then comments:

“Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint her face an inch thick, yet to this favor she must come”
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

The most common expression of this genre is a dancing skeleton leading victims to their graves – the dancers come from all walks of life, but having been stripped of worldly goods, they enter the next world together as equals.

But these images should not be taken as being particularly dark or imply that Medieval culture was death-obsessed.  Rather, they come from an understanding and acceptance about the nature of life and death.

Beyond reminding people to cherish life, constant reminders of the inevitability of death can turn one’s thoughts to the afterlife. With the feeling of death all around, both literally and in the art and literature of the time, there was an increased desire for religious absolution and preparation of one’s soul.

The emptiness of earthly treasures combined with the frailty of life might work to turn one’s thoughts to the future and the afterlife.  This in turn may encourage people to focus more on faith and piety for a permanent, and more important, existence after death.

Le danse macabre belongs to a larger genre known as memento mori, literally meaning “remember that you will die”.

Supposedly this phrase comes from a tradition during a Roman Triumphal Parade: a conquering general would march his legion, as well as captured treasures and slaves, through Rome in a glorious parade to demonstrate his greatness.  But all the while a servant would constantly utter something along the lines of “memento mori” as a way of keeping him humble even during one of his greatest moments.

In modern times, one may find a parallel in the Catholic practice of Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated as a day of mourning, repentance, and a reminder of mortality. An observer receives a mark of ash, sometimes a cross, upon their forehead while a priest repeats a famous line from scripture noting the inevitability of death.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return”
Genesis 3:19

But beyond practices and scripture, art too could turn man’s thoughts toward death and therefore piety. Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment” did just this when it was originally revealed in 1541. Centuries before television and movies could provide a rich visual source for emotions to feed off and fears to take form, paintings and sculptures served this purpose.

The image, located directly behind the altar, focuses on Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment of all mankind. Saints and the Virgin Mary hover with Christ along with the pure souls that rise to Heaven, while demons and monsters drag the guilty to hell. People are skinned, burned, beaten, and consumed by serpents in a general atmosphere of chaos and fear. Even the Saints and Mary, who sit safely among Christ, seem fearful of the display below them.

The painting was perceived as being so terrifying and so real that it was meant to inspire fear, and faith, in all who saw it. Legend says that Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, was so filled with fear upon seeing it that he fell on his knees and exclaimed “Don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!

One can only imagine the fear that this painting might instill, if during a sermon the only place to gaze is upon it, while the world outside is filled with death, famine, war, and disease. I probably would have paid a little closer attention to the sermon too.

"What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead's dance"

“What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead’s dance”

“Now I have – against knight's order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I have – against knight’s order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I must dance and can’t yet walk”

For a full translation of these images, plus many more images, click here.

“Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Scepter and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance”

Unknown, ~1460

“And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world”

The infamous outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century was one of the worst epidemics in human history, killing 30-60% of the population of Europe.  It caused such an impact that if the world’s population over time is charted, one can clearly see the decline caused by the pestilence, and it took decades for the population to recover from this devastating blow.

After the wave of Black Death slowed, there continued to be major outbreaks for centuries and even now plague is present in most of the world, causing hundreds of cases a year.

Before the Black Death there was the Plague of Justinian in the mid 500s, and after it was the London Plague in the mid 1600s.  But the medieval outbreak of the mid 1300s was by far the worst.  It seemed no one was safe and people died so quickly it was said that there wasn’t time to bury the dead.  This unsanitary situation only propagated the disease further.

“How many valiant men, how many fair ladies breakfast with their kinsfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world?!”
-Giovanni Boccaccio

It strongly impacted human population growth for years, but beyond this it also led to major political, cultural, and religious upheavals in Europe as society tried to cope with the devastation which surrounded it.

The Bubonic plague, also called the “Black Death” because it caused lymph nodes and extremities to necrotize and turn black, is a disease transmitted through the bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It arrived in Europe from Asian trade ships, carried by fleas and rats.

Yersinia pestis

Yersinia pestis

However, at the time of the Medieval outbreak, little was known about bacteria and disease transmission. Instead, it was believed that a disease was caused by spirits or demons. An early belief about the Black Death was that it was a plague sent by God to punish Europe for descending into sinful ways.

A related, but more secular, theory was Miasma – the idea that diseases were spread by bad air and bad smells. Therefore breathing the same air as an infected individual could spread the disease, as could foul-smelling things.  While there is a bit of truth in this, as airborne plague infections are possible, this theory suggested that anything which smelled bad could cause disease.

Miasma inspired the traditional image of the Medieval Plague doctor with a “beaked mask” because the mask was meant to hold strong smelling herbs and oils to block the smell of decay and therefore block transmission of the disease.

Well, obviously this didn’t work.

Doctors got infected just as often as everyone else. Monks and priests were also at especially high risk because they took care of the sick, buried the dead, and were constantly exposed. The commoners started to notice that even the servants of God were getting sick in the so-called time of judgment. This led to two things:

  1. people began to believe they were not merely being punished, but that the Apocalypse was coming
  2. people began to question the Church’s authority and power because it failed to protect them

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the harbingers of the world’s end, are named Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. During medieval times, a common portrayal of the Horseman of Pestilence was a horse with black spots, perhaps as a reference to the Black Death and a prophecy of future events.

When people began to believe that the Church could not protect itself, they feared the Church could not protect them or prepare them for the rapture. Faith in traditional churches started to crumble and radical Catholic groups which promised salvation in a new way began to rise.

One of these groups were the Flagellants, a militant and radical sect of the Catholic Church that believed self-mutilation was a form of penance. This was usually done publicly along with chanting and singing. This group was outlawed by the church as it superseded the basic Church teaching that Jesus’ death removed all need for sacrifice by mankind.

Nevertheless, these alternate forms of worship were used by people who were dissatisfied with the Church as a form of protest, but it was also a last resort when the Church failed them. The popularity of the Flagellants and other similar groups wavered over time, but the era of the Black Death marked the highest membership in cult history.

 Xenophobia also rose with suspicion and fear, and in terror the afflicted masses sought for a scapegoat.  With wavering faith in the Church, religious leaders began to panic and tried to keep order by shifting the blame to anyone they could: Jews, lepers, witches, pagans, minorities, beggars, foreigners, and even widows.

Due to their isolation within cities, because of location (the Jewish ghettos were typically far from docks and city centers) and culture (Jews followed much stricter sanitary laws than most of the population), the prevalence of disease was much lower among Jewish populations.  This was noticed by those suffering and people became suspicious.  Jews were often accused of poisoning wells and there was a mass persecution of Jewish communities for years to come.

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions

Jews being burned alive as part of Medieval persecutions in response to plague

In Northern Europe (where the Jewish population was lower) widows and old women suspected of witchcraft were seen as a strong threat.  A common metaphor for a plague infection striking a village was the arrival of an old hag in black robes. If she brought a broom with her, the whole village was “swept away”. But if she only brought a rake then some of the village would survive being hit by the pestilence.

The Church and society as a whole also suffered from the sheer loss of manpower – laborers were especially susceptible to disease, causing a labor shortage which led to a food shortage.  Within the Church, the loss of faith and also the loss of monks and priests who contracted the disease at higher rates than most of the population, caused a decline in current and future numbers of men entering the service of the Church.

Although the major outbreaks of plague during the Middle Ages only lasted about 5 years, it took human populations decades to recover and effects on the culture echoed for centuries after the initial outbreak as a constant reminder of the fear and panic that had once swept through all of Europe and Europe did not emerge from the Dark Ages until over a hundred years later at the birth of the Renaissance.