Correct me if I am wrong here. There were various reformations in the Catholic Church for example the reformation led by St. Catherine of Cienna, the reformation led by St. Theresa of Avila, Second Vatican Council led by Pope John the XXIII, etc. So just wondering after the Black Plague was there any adaptation that had to be undertaken in the Catholic Church?

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    I believe the word reform would hold more sense and meaningfulness in a Catholic perspective than the word reformation. The connotations are obvious.
    – Ken Graham
    May 4, 2020 at 12:20
  • @KenGraham So after the Black Plague was there any huge transformation in the Catholic Church? How did the Church adapt to this change?
    – user42447
    May 4, 2020 at 12:29
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    Do not believe that the reforms of St. Catherine of Sienna are called a reformation by Catholics at all! The reforms of St. Theresa of Avila with the internal reforms of her Order and were not a reformation properly speaking.
    – Ken Graham
    May 4, 2020 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


The Church played a significant role during the Middle Ages because religion was an important aspect of daily life for European Christians. When the Black Death struck Europe in 1347, the Church struggled to cope with the plague’s damaging consequences and its reputation suffered as a result. The Black Death contributed to the decline in the confidence and faith of the Christian laity towards the institution of the Church and its leadership.

Bishop Ralph Shrewsbury of Bath and Wells delivered a renowned decree in 1349 on the matter of Christians dying without the sacrament of penance. He explained the cause of this when he stated that “priests cannot be found to take on the cares of these places, neither out of devotional zeal nor for payment, or to visit the sick and administer the Church sacraments to them, perhaps because they are infected or have a fear of being infected. The Bishop ordered the clergy of his diocese to publicize the fact that a sick or dying individual should make a confession to a layperson if a priest was not available.

From the 1350s, on papal orders, new stress was put on indulgences, or grants of time off from purgatory bestowed by the church, which drew on what it termed a ‘treasury of merits’ or good deeds accumulated from Christ, the patristic fathers, and saints. Indulgences were not given freely, but usually in anticipation of a gift of money; always mindful of turning a profit, church leaders began to sell them in increasing numbers to a richer public. These instances were significant in that they pointed to the practices that incited the radical change that transformed the Church in the sixteenth century, and the Reformation.

Another change initiated by the Black Plague was the rise of charities and private chapels, because of the Church's dimished reputation. This charity system of private worship played a large role in late medieval religion and represented a considerable blow to monopoly over church services held by the traditional Christian hierarchy. Records from testators show that before 1348, only 5% of them gave money to hospitals, but this number increased to 40% between 1350 and 1360.

Another movement that gained popularity after the Black Death was the increase in pilgrimages undertaken by Christians. Between 1349 and 1360, the number of pilgrimages taken to Rome and other shrines increased dramatically. The increase in pilgrimages was a significant movement that further detracted from the reputation of the clergy because it was another way for the laity to find their path to salvation without their assistance.

In 1351, a group of parish clergymen presented a signed petition to Pope Clement VI in anger due to the emergence of mendicant orders. They were upset because the mendicants were providing the laity with religious services, and they believed that the right to give those services belonged only to them. The Pope defended these friars and “accused the clergy of wasting their wealth ‘on pimps and swindlers and neglecting the ways of God.’ The fact that the Pope himself was voicing the same complaints held by the laity speaks to the damaged reputation of the Church at this time.

Another consequence that resulted from the Church’s failure to fulfill all the spiritual needs of the laity was the emergence of mysticism and lay piety. Mystics held the belief that God lived through every person and that individuals could strengthen their relationship with God through austerity and commitment.

The Black Death also saw the rise of the flagellant movement, groups of men and women who publicly flogged their bodies while they traveled to and from European cities, preaching their version of Christianity without the permission of the Church. These bands posed a great threat to the authority of the Church and exposed its weakened hold over the Christian laity.

Another disturbing movement that emerged in the wake of the plague was the widespread violence directed against the Jewish population. The Church officially opposed this slaughter, but did nothing to not stop the maddened public from taking action. Jews had long held a tense relationship with their Christian neighbors, and when the plague arrived, European Christians violently attacked the Jews in the belief that Jews had spread the plague.

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    Can you please add a few linked sources to support your statements.
    – Ken Graham
    May 4, 2020 at 12:44

How did Catholic Church adapt after the Black Plague in Europe if at all any adaptation occurred?

As a result of the Black Plague, the Catholic Church saw the condemnation of blaming the Jewish people for causing the pandemic. It also saw the rise of the flagellants and religious movements, as well as an increase of vocations due to the the great number of priest that were claimed by the Black Plague (1347 to 1351). It also in a small sense, set the stage for the actual Reformation.

Flagellants and religious movements

Black Death plague resulted into the development, rise, and spread of flagellants’ religious movements. It is believed flagellants movements started in Northern Italy before spreading to other European nations. This movements attracted and appealed most to the monks who from their tradition had embraced self-mortification which top them was a way of identifying with the sufferings of Jesus Christ.

Many monks would whip themselves for thirty-three days, which resembled the years Jesus Christ lived and carried out his work and as atonement for the sins that had resulted into the Black Death. Early literatures on flagellant movements indicates that all classes participated and generally put on white robes and marched in barefoot in procession from one particular town to another while engaged in singing hymns and wielding iron-tipped scourges.

After the Black Death, the Jews became victims to the movement anger where the movement would associate the Jews to poisoning of wells. Many members of the movement in instituting the punishing seen and believed to be carried out in order to avert the world from experiencing another disastrous plague would meet in market places and participate in burning up the Jews. Describing the movement after the Black Death, a religious historian, remarked that, “as the fervor mounted the messianic pretensions of the Flagellants became more pronounced.

They began to claim that the movement must last for thirty-three years and end only with the redemption of Christendom and the arrival of the Millennium. Possessed by such chiliastic convictions they saw themselves more and more not as mortals suffering to expiate their own sins and humanity’s but as a holy army of Saints”.

The historian further note that the flagellant movement during this period graduated into a complex social phenomenon as its apocalyptic desires largely became manifested as motivation to personal mysticism, anticlericalism, and social revolutionary ideas that among its many issues pivoted on destruction of private wealth.

Further, the movement became the bear or the symbol of European view and reaction to pandemic where they believed it was due to sinful acts of the Jews hence the movement took a greater part in persecuting the Jews.

In 1348, Pope Clement VI condemned those who blame the pandemic on the Jewish people.

From a cultural perspective, the disease was often seen as a punishment by God, who was punishing humanity for its sins. Other religious people blamed the Jewish people because of pogroms that erupted throughout Europe during those times. Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time, had to release two papal bulls in 1348 condemning people who blamed the Jews for the plague, saying that they had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil.” He, showing a lot of common sense, wrote: “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.” - The Catholic Church’s Actions Might Have Contributed Greatly to the Black Death Plague

At the end of the pandemic, the the Church saw a rise in priestly vocation that were poorly instructed and trained properly. The selling of indulgences and other evils helped set the stage for the Protestant Reformation.

Effects of Black Death on the Catholic Church

Prior to the Black Death plague many Christians were undergoing persecution but a story detailing the tribulation of Sebastian who was a Roman soldier indicate that, after the plague many people resorted to accepting Christianity and abandoning their paganism nature[31].

When the Black Death plague struck, the Catholic Church accelerated efforts to raise money through the sell of masses for the dead and indulgences, which were believed, to pardon dead individual’s sins. Due to these activities, the church became a victim of heavy criticism where many religious leaders not in support of this move accused the church of hypocrisy.

In addition, the plague had a long-lasting effect on the religious thought as it resulted into despair throughout the entire family of Christianity. Many people re-visited their relationship with God and looked up to the church to mitigate the effects of the disease but more shocking to the Christianity family was the fact that even clerics died in great number from this disease.

As a sign of lack of faith in church, the Catholic Church lost its earlier “prestige, breaking down blind allegiance to the church and setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation”.

As a result of the Black Death plague, the number and the quality of clergy decreased in number as more clergies succumbed to the deaths of the disease leading to the church to scramble in trying to fill the positions. Lastly, the Catholic Church became largely to be associated with scandals that made its followers to severe relationship with the church.

Many looked for new ways of how morality of societal values could be restored and in away to show their lack of faith and trust in the church they explored others avenues.


Black Death plague has for a long time remained a significant period in the history of humankind. Its significance is traced to the devastating effects of the plague to the population of the humankind, the art world, and the literature materials. This is a period that Christianity foundations were shaken and severed, leading protestant reformation in later years.

At the same time, this was the period when the flagellant movements translated its values and it become more involved in social issues; while at the same time, promoting persecution of the Jews. What became important feature of this plague is that the role and position of the church in society underwent tremendous transformation. People doubted the powers of the church since prayers seemed not to work and miracles to save people became scarce.

Further, the responsibility of the church to take it upon itself the collection of tithes and sell of masses resulted in more discontent as more reports of corruption and misappropriation of funds became more pronounced among the followers. Attempts to rectify these anomalies failed as struggle for power and enrichment through corruption of alms and tithes heightened, the Catholic Church was unable to glue its fabrics that put it together, and reformations became inevitable which culminated in the split of the church. - The Catholic Church and the Black Death in the 14th Century Essay

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