WASHINGTON, D.C. — Correspondence can reveal a lot about periods of history and the letters written by popes during the Black Death are no exception.
These documents, often responses to questions, provide a window into a long-ago era that is getting renewed attention amid today’s coronavirus pandemic.
It turns out at least 206,516 letters were sent from the papal offices in Avignon, France, during the 70 years of the Avignon papacy when seven consecutive popes lived in Avignon instead of Vatican City from 1309 to 1377.
The Black Death was right in the middle of this time period: from 1347 to 1353.
Joelle Rollo-Koster, professor of medieval history at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, spoke to Catholic News Service March 27 after spending a few hours reading through some of these papal correspondences in Latin on a database from the French School of Rome’s Research Center, through her university.
She said historians specializing in the 14th century like herself study these letters, written on paper parchment but available online, and when she focused her search on letters that specifically dealt with the plague, she was not disappointed.
These letters, she said, pinpoint the plague’s outbreak in Northern Italy because they show the date the letter was sent and the community where it was sent, often in response to grave illnesses or deaths.
When parish priests or bishops died during the plague, for example, a parishioner would write to the pope asking for someone to be in charge. Although this initial letter of request is not available, the response often clearly indicates in very specific details who died, where and when they died and if they were bishops, priests, monks or cloistered sisters.
Rollo-Koster said the letters also reveal the church’s “stimulus plan” announcing tax waivers to those who requested it. The church at that time imposed separate taxes from the government, requiring church members to tithe one-tenth of their earned income.
She said the church’s economic response to the plague was to redistribute funds, not tax people as much or allow for a deferred payment.
Because there was a clergy shortage with so many people dying, Catholics also wrote letters to popes requesting that married men be allowed to be priests, which was permitted under some circumstances, provided the priest led a chaste life.
Popes also granted waivers for people to marry within families, she said, allowing marriages between second and third cousins.
Letters also reveal indulgences or absolutions of sin for those who died of the plague without receiving last rites — which at times covered entire cities. Requests for these blessings were written by remaining survivors.
What people don’t realize, the historian said, is that there are a lot of documents from the Middle Ages. “We are not in the dark,” about this time, she said, “but people don’t know how to read” what’s available.