The "Black Death" and the Catholic Church in Fourteenth Century England
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The "Black Death" is the name given to the outbreak of Yersinia pestis, a strain of the plague-causing bacterium, in the fourteenth century that emerged in Europe in 1347 and spread to England in the autumn of 1348, achieving its name through the utter decimation it caused to the population. Perceived death tolls tend to vary between scholars, though roughly range between forty and sixty percent of the entire European population. Those left alive upon the British Isles lamented that, "this pestilence held such sway in England that at that time there were hardly enough people left alive to bury the death." As one might imagine, the sudden outbreak of a pestilence that was rampaging throughout Europe struck fear in the hearts of peasants and noblemen alike, many of whom looking to society for answers. Within the English community, few institutions commanded the power and respect that the Catholic Church did, and therefore the interpretation and response of Church officials and the institution as a whole are incredibly significant in understanding how the "Black Death" was received, and how it was fought. This study will initially provide an accurate biological explanation of the Y. pestis bacterium and contextual information such as British living standards, population density, and plague travel routes, before moving on to the impact of the "Black Death," how the Catholic Church and its officials interpreted it as an act of God, and how they accordingly responded to the destruction it wrought. By doing so, this research paper will argue that through its efforts to ward off and cure afflicted individuals, human actions through the influence of the Catholic Church of England actually worsened the impact of the "Black Death" on English society during its outbreak in the middle of the fourteenth century. This will be done with epidemiological sources, primary sources, and secondary scholarly sources, used to provide biological evidence in which to compare historical examples to, allowing for an understanding of how the Church's actions harmed society instead of helping it.