The fourth rider

The plague in Europe

(Published in GralsWelt 20/2001)

In the 14th century the worst of all known epidemics raced through the European countries: the plague, associated by many with the "fourth horseman" of the apocalypse.

And it is a fabulous mistake to want to recognize in the "black death" only an illness that could not be mastered with the medical possibilities of the time. Because in reality Europe experienced what was perhaps the deepest collapse in its history in those years.

The plague not only changed social consciousness and economic and social conditions, it also shook people's relationship to the church for a long time, and opened the door to reformatory efforts and new revolutionary ideas. It was a time when questions about the meaning of the destiny and righteousness of God dominated the minds of many people.

“And see: a pale horse; his rider's name was: Death; in his retinue was the realm of the dead, and power was given to him over the fourth part of the earth, to be killed by the sword, famine, plague and animals on earth. " (Revelation 6, 8).

The black death

It began in 1347 in Kaffa, the ancient Theodosia (today Feodosia in the Crimea), at that time a Genoese trading post. This city was besieged by a Tatar Khan, in whose army an epidemic broke out. The Genoese in Kaffa hoped that the danger to the city from the mass deaths of the besiegers would soon end.

Then the Chan resorted to one of the most insidious means of all time: He had the numerous, hardly to be disposed of plague corpses from his camp with catapults hurled into the besieged Kaffa.

The defenders tossed the bodies into the sea as quickly as possible, but the contaminated corpses soon became so rampant that they could no longer be disposed of as quickly as they flew over the walls.

Anyone besieged who managed to get hold of a ship fled the city in horror. The refugees carried the disease out into the world. Their escape routes mark death strips that stretched from Kaffa via Constantinople, Greece and Sicily to Naples, Rome and Genoa. In 1348 the "Black Death" had reached Spain, France, Germany, England, Hungary, and it raged on.

On the seas were ghost ships, the entire crew of which had succumbed to the plague; they probably became the origin of the fairy tales and legends of the "Ghost Ship" and the "Flying Dutchman": "Such a death ship brought the black death to Norway in 1349. It left London when the plague was at its peak. The whole crew died on the way. The ship was being carried towards mountains by winds and currents. The whole cathedral chapter died except for one canon. The Archbishop of Drontheim also died of the plague at that time. Refugees spread the plague all over Norway, where a third of the population died. " (3, page 1201).

By 1350 the plague had reached Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Scandinavian ships brought the plague to Iceland, and the Westlander settlements in Greenland were so decimated that the few surviving pioneers became easy prey for the Eskimos.

In the wake of the plague, fear and distress spread; Trade and traffic slackened, economic collapse and famine ensued. Estimates of human loss vary between a quarter and a half; one can assume that out of 90 million Europeans 30 million were killed in three years. Some areas got off lightly, but there were cities in which 90 % of the population died.

A punishment from God?

The people of the 14th century were desperate and felt helplessly exposed to the plague as "God's scourge". Nobody understood the causes and routes of transmission, nobody could protect themselves from the epidemic. In order to avoid the contagion, the most bizarre measures were tried:

In Milan every house in which a person suffering from the plague was discovered was walled up; the other residents of the house were left to languish. London closed its gates, but the plague found its way into the city and only one in ten Londoners survived the plague year.

In Venice there was a waiting time for incoming ships (first 30, later 40 days, hence “quarantine” of quaranta = forty). But the quarantine came too late and half of Venice's residents died.

Doctors wore protective suits and masks with long beaks with fragrant herbs in them to protect themselves from the infectious smell of the plague sufferers. But no remedy, however unusual, helped. The famous seer Nostradamus (Michel de Notredame, 1503-1566) also worked as a plague doctor and recommended more modern methods than most of his contemporaries, e. B. Fresh air and hygiene; but he could not save his wife and children either and had to watch them die.

No hypothesis seemed too far-fetched to determine the meaning and cause of the epidemic. Astrologers suspected planetary constellations or comets as the cause of the misfortune. Others saw the cause in poisonous gases that had escaped through earthquakes from inside the earth, hell, since there had been a severe earthquake with the epicenter in Carinthia in 1348.

Many believed they were surprised by the approaching apocalypse. Neither doctors nor the sciences knew what to do, and the mighty Church was helpless.

Desperate people went overboard, threw themselves into games of chance and lustful amusements, or surrendered to drink. Others courageously persevered in their place and sacrificed themselves in caring for the sick. Neither of the two groups was spared from the plague, which ravaged the rich and the poor, the noble and the poor, the clergy and the laity, the just and the unjust.

Religious delusion, doubts about God

"The year of conception of man in modern times was the year 1348, the year of the 'black plague'." (Egon Friedell).

When it became clear that science and the church were overwhelmed, many people lost their faith and doubted God's righteousness. The masses were seized by deep despair and great fear. Worse than the fear of death was the horror of damnation with which the Church threatened anyone who died without the sacraments of the death.

During the plague, people often died so quickly that it was impossible to give the sacraments to everyone, and many had to be buried as quickly as possible. In Paris there were e.g. E.g. at the height of the epidemic 800 deaths every day, in Vienna up to 1000! Who could then bring the consolations of faith to all the dying?

Pope Clement IV, who locked himself in his palace in Avignon and survived the plague, announced a general indulgence for those who died of the plague in order to contribute to the reassurance of the people who lost their trust in the church.

When all else failed, thousands fled into religious madness, mysticism and asceticism. Campaigns made by flagellants made a pilgrimage through the country, beating themselves and others, especially those suffering from the plague, bloody as a penance, and hoping to force mercy through self-punishment and to escape the plague. Indeed, they contributed to its spread.

Particular hatred was directed against the Jews who were accused of having poisoned wells and who were held responsible for the epidemic. The fact that they died just like the Christians did not play a role in these deadly slanders. Almost all Jews were murdered in Freiburg, Cologne and Munich.

The seemingly orderly worldview of the Middle Ages was shaken: God stood above everything, represented by the Church, who made it alone, as spiritual power. The princes were responsible for earthly affairs and exercised worldly power as “rulers by the grace of God” in harmony with the Church, perhaps even subject to it.

During the time of the plague, trust in the church, in the authorities, and even in the closest relatives, waned. Families fled from sick relatives, parents let their children die alone, and spiritual comfort or a pious way of life helped as little as brutal violence or scientific hypotheses. While fanatics indulged in the religious mania of the flagellants, others began to doubt the basic truths of the Catholic faith.

This budding doubt was to deeply shake the values of the West. He paved the way for reformers such as Johann Huss (1369-1415), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Johann Calvin (1509-1564) and many other preachers of a purer faith. Dissatisfaction with secular systems of rule also became clear and was evident in peasant revolts and peasant wars, such as the "Jacquerie" who was ruthlessly suppressed in France in 1358.

The aftermath of the plague

When the black plague died out by itself after terrible years, the situation in Europe had changed:

  • Faith in the omnipotent and omniscient Church had suffered during the epidemic.
  • Confidence in the helpless, obviously ignorant authorities was shaken.
  • People no longer understood God.
  • The country was depopulated.

But this depopulation had beneficial consequences for the survivors: The most numerous who died during the plague were those who had already been weakened or sick due to other circumstances. Tuberculosis and leprosy had largely disappeared after the great plague. There was plenty of space for fields and enough living space. Even the princes who lacked subjects had to occasionally make some concessions that made the lives of common people easier.

The terrible years of the plague were followed by decades and centuries of (sometimes even liberating) awakening: seafarers discovered the size of the earth, reformers demanded a new orientation in the Christian faith, scientists drew on ancient Greek teachings and dared to express heretical thoughts that the self-image of the European people in the Would drastically change the future.

Witch hunt out of calculation?

The end of religious superstition had not yet come; on the contrary: in the following centuries the witch hunt raged for reasons that were initially incomprehensible. According to Heinsohn and Steiger (2) there was the persecution of witches "Not just a product of the insane, not the hysteria of individual statesmen and churchmen", but from "Exact, political calculation" Developed: To be with the herb women "To eradicate the old folk wisdom about birth control", and to achieve that more children were conceived and raised than were necessary for the reproduction of the families. The countries were depopulated after the great plague, one "Increased human production" seemed necessary to secure the feudal rule of church and state.
If this hypothesis is correct, which goes well with other research results, the great plague was also the occasion to declare the birth control practiced by all peoples since antiquity to be a mortal sin and to develop a sexual morality, the non-Christian peoples, where one knew almost only desired children , strange and scary. Seen in this way, the population explosion of our day would be a plague sequence that is only fully recognizable today, for which churchmen and princes are equally responsible.


The horrors of the plague were not forgotten for a long time. Plague columns or plague chapels can still be found in many places today. The shepherd's dance, performed every seven years in Munich, and passion plays in different places, are reminiscent of the great catastrophe of the 14th century or of the plague years that followed later.

The last major plague epidemic in Europe occurred in 1721 in Marseille. It was not until 1894 that Alexander Yersin (1863-1943) discovered the plague bacterium while working under the most primitive conditions and at risk of death. Now, in the microbiological era, the cause and routes of transmission of the plague were recognizable, prevention and cure became possible. -

Also read the article under "Strange Stories" "When diseases made history„.

1 Friedell, Egon “Cultural History of Modern Times”, CH Beck, Munich, 1931.
2 Heinsohn, Gunnar / Steiger, Otto “The end of wise women”, March Verlag, Herbstein 1984.
3 Winkle, Stefan: “Scourges of Mankind”, Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf / Zurich, 1997.
4 Zierer, Ott: o "Kultur- und Sittenspiegel" Vol. II, Prisma, Gütersloh, undated