This document is a short excerpt from The Chronicle, a first-hand account of historical events in Paris between 1340 and 1368 written by a Carmelite friar named Jean de Venette. Though of humble birth, de Venette eventually rose to become prior of Place Maubert, a Carmelite convent in Paris. His Chronicle provides first-hand accounts of numerous important events in French history including the Black Death, a series of pandemics that ravaged Europe during the mid-fourteenth century. This document demonstrates that at least some contemporary observers explained the Black Death in both religious and astrological terms. In other words, while this excerpt reinforces the stereotypical view of the medieval world as superstitious and ignorant, it nevertheless nuances this view by demonstrating that many individuals mixed Christian and other supernatural explanations for catastrophic events like the Black Death. Finally, this paper will demonstrate that de Venette's ideas were thoroughly mainstream and therefore representative of typical medieval European thinking about the Black Death.
From the document, it is clear that religion played a crucial part of the medieval priest's life; this is not surprising, and should be considered one of the author's biases. For instance, de Venette dated the start of the Black Death by referencing vespers, or the evening prayer services that members of his Carmelite order would have attended every day, demonstrating the importance that Church ritual had for him from both a spiritual and a practical standpoint (de Venette, 48-51). Another, more direct, example of the importance of religion in the lives of medieval Europeans was the fact that many people explained the seeming randomness of the death and destruction that followed in the Black Death's wake was an observation that de Venette made about the how stricken individuals died; according to de Venette, "During the epidemic, God of His accustomed goodness deigned to grant this grace, that however suddenly men died, almost all awaited death joyfully. Nor was there anyone who died without confessing his sins and receiving the holy viaticum" (de Venette, 48-51). In other words, even though God appeared to be mercilessly (and randomly) killing people with a horribly painful illness, He was nonetheless still merciful enough to grant the sick an opportunity to confess their sins and receive one last Holy Communion in the hope that this would allow them to enter into heaven. Thus, despite the profound suffering and misery that de Venette witnessed, his religious faith grew stronger because he ultimately concluded that God was merciful, demonstrating the importance of religious explanations for the Black Death to medieval Europeans.
De Venette was far from the only individual who looked for supernatural explanations to comprehend the death and devastation that surrounded him. Italian author and poet Giovanni Boccaccio supposed that Black Death descended upon Europeans due either to the influence of "celestial bodies" or "… by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities" (Boccaccio, 5-11). Just like de Venette, Boccaccio saw the Black Death as some sort of divine punishment for the collective sins of man, a divine "re-boot" designed to cleanse the world of evil and iniquity and usher in God's kingdom on earth. As Boccaccio makes clear, human reason was not sufficient to prevent or stem the Black Death because only God has the power over such an awesome force of destruction. As both documents make clear, neither de Venette nor Boccaccio was pleased with the resulting post-plague world, but both ascribed blame humanity, not God, for man's failure to achieve perfection.
Perhaps it is not surprising that, in a world where religious belief was so pervasive, many people would choose to blame their suffering on non-Christians. According to de Venette, the Black Death began among "non-believers," but quickly spread from Italy to France, England and even Germany. Because the 1340s and 50s were times of relative plenty (certainly when compared to the Great Famine of 1315 to 1317), it seemed unlikely that such a catastrophe could befall Europe naturally. Blaming God was not an option, because obviously God would not choose to punish the good and the evil alike, yet it was clear to everyone one that virtue was not protection against the Black Death.
Unfortunately, many people fell back on medieval European Christendom's perennial scapegoat, the Jews. According to de Venette, as a result of the Black Death, "Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air,"…