Piety of the Population

These plague-inspired popular movements fed other, later fourteenth-century currents. For while the epidemic may have weakened the institutional authority of the Church, it did not diminish the piety of the population. Although “piety” is hard to measure (as is “authority”), the same civilization that denounced the laxity of the clergy left bequests to churches for prayers and buildings, went on pilgrimages, and manifested signs of intense personal piety that found an outlet in such movements of the laity as confraternities. By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries such expressions of lay piety boiled over in what the Church judged to be heresy, as with the Lollards in England and the Hussites in Bohemia.

Did public morality decline during and after the epidemic? Some witnesses claimed that the horror of the plague loosened the bonds of behavior. Boccaccio reported: “Others . . . maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merry-making, gratify all one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke. Moreover, they practiced what they preached to the best of their ability.”24 But the same author also told of those who lived abstemiously in the hope of avoiding plague, and it is possible as well that the plague overstimulated moralists to find “sin” everywhere to explain the catastrophe. The drastic mortality laid the basis for conspicuous consumption by the survivors, nevertheless, and there were those who adopted a tonight-we-drink-for-tomorrow- we-die attitude. And as we have seen, in some cases the social fabric was badly torn by revolutionary movements and hysterical massacres of innocents.

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