The Bubonic Plague’s Influence Over the Catholic Church and the Renaissance in Florence

In the medieval ages, humanity was suppressed by the power of the Catholic Church. Though often romanticized as a time of knights, magic, and grandeur, this age had few heroes. Seldom was a person willing to battle to free society from the deceptive theocratic government. Christianity, after all, dominated the world view of all people living in medieval Europe; one could not see past the illusion the Church had created. Eventually, small groups of people did attempt to unveil the corruption of the Catholic Church and its monarch-like Pope, but the Church, wielding their power like a sledgehammer, massacred the rebels and drove them from society. The power of the Church was absolute; it was a government, a religion, and a mindset that had rooted itself deeply in the hearts of all Europe’s inhabitants – even the rebels’. For centuries, though people strained against the chains that bound and manipulated their brains, this web of Catholic control – political, economical, social, and spiritual – could not be broken. During the Renaissance in Florence, however, the Church’s complex web of influence finally began to fray.

Many events lead humanity slowly, over the centuries, towards the Renaissance. The Church’s manipulative authority, of course, was one of them. Four sources of power allowed it to dominate the medieval ages: The king, wealth, people, and the Bible. It attempted to control all aspects of life. During Charlemagne’s rule, the Church attained supremacy over even the Crown when the Pope pronounced King Charles the Great king. By doing this, the Pope gave himself the authority to crown – and thus, de-crown – a monarch. The Church also harbored much of the wealth of Europe, which allowed it control over businesses, merchants, nobles – all social classes. As such, it ruled the workings of society as a whole. The Church was a government, as it created laws and punishments. This is evident by its treatment of “heretics.” Anyone who purposefully and arrogantly stood in defiance of any Church-given law was subject to torture and death. The people, however, followed these laws; for the Church had power over something even stronger than the authority of the King or money. The Church controlled their entrance to eternity.

The fact that much of the Church’s power came from corruption meant that eventually it would have to die – and be “reborn” in a Renaissance. Inevitably, people began to stray from the Church’s influence; however, as quickly as these heretical groups arose, the Church stomped them out, fearing the political tides turning against them. Still, the mindset had changed. No longer did people go to the Church for entrance to heaven. They found their own spirituality instead. This was the beginning of freedom, though the doctrine and dogma of tradition still clung heavily to their minds.

Before a rebirth, however, there must be a death. The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, struck Europe in the 14th century. Panic and despair flushed through the feeble city of Florence like a deluge. In a mere seven months, Florence lost more than 95,000 people. Widespread belief was that the plague was from God, a punishment for the heretical groups and free thinking that had taken the minds of the people. A man could go to bed and simply never wake up; the massive claw of fear and guilt held everybody captive. It was said that Christian love had vanished, as the struggle for survival overtook life. Even after the initial terror, the dramatic decrease in population changed the social structure immediately. There was less work for everyone, and for those who did have work, the wages went up considerably; this created an even wider gap in the social classes. Medieval poet Petrarch looked upon this new world of shadowy horror and wondered about the bygone splendor and freedom of the days of ancient Greece and Rome. And when Petrarch wrote of the Bubonic-stricken medieval world, “Genius, virtue, glory now have gone, leaving chance and sloth to rule. Shameful vision this! We must awake or die,” the world gladly obeyed and was reborn.

Much of the rebirth of medieval humanity began in Italy. Marsilio Ficino spoke delightedly of these amazing and rapid changes when he said, “For this century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts […] all [these] in Florence.” The world had died in shadows and returned in a burst of illumination. In this reborn society of fine arts, intellectually free universities, and new religious and political voices. Among these voices were such theologians and philosophers as Martin Luther, John Locke, Calvin, and Hobbes. In Florence, one such man was a Dominican named Savonarola. Savonarola was called to Florence by the people, who craved a more spiritual, personal, and political salvation than the Church could offer. He brought with him great sermons of fire and brimstone, similar to those of Jonathan Edward’s of the Great Awakening. He began a series of movements called the “Bonfires of the Vanities,” during which he called to the people of Florence, telling them to bring out of their homes anything of value. Fineries such as jewelry, mirrors, brushes, and dresses were brought out and cast into the flames. As if to match Savonarola’s vivid images of hell, the mad bonfires rose up, devouring the wealth of Florence, rather than the souls of vain humanity. Such movements were not merely symbols of a spiritual awakening; they also served to break down the social, and thus political, power the Church had over them.

Though Florence experienced the center of the glorious rebirth of society, the Renaissance did not free them from the influence of the Church. After all, despite their zealous movements, all their rebellion stayed within the lines of Christianity as a whole; and thus the Church maintained its power. In the end it was not the Renaissance, with its grand art and fresh philosophies, that freed humanity from the Church’s manipulations . It was the philosophy of nature: Science. Science gave the people the ability to look beyond the Church for answers, and it showed that the world did not revolve around miracles and mysteries. So while Luther, Savonarola, and Petrarch recognized the need for a new order, men like Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton summoned it.

As with all history, this story is to be continued.

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