In the Middle Ages, a bubonic plague that would come to be known as the “Black Death” ravaged Europe, decimated populations, and forced survivors to fall to their knees, seeking the source of such a devastatingly fantastic event. Diseases are invisible, and because of this, people believed that the plague was a curse sent by God to purify an unclean population. Little did they know, the real source of this was infected rats who stowed away on boats during trading between Eurasia and the Mediterranean. The plague is said to have entered Europe through the Italian port of Messina, slowly but surely cutting a swath of disease and illness that stretched from Italy all the way up to Scandinavia. But with the death that came to millions also came the birth of pop-culture, the first of its kind. Stories and paintings involving the plague, and more singularly, death itself, were in high demand. Just like today, when a topic intrigues a majority of the populace, movies are made, and products of all kinds hit the markets. The “Black Death” had that effect, and it still does today.
There is no subject on earth more intriguing, more marketable than death. It is the one event that is sure to happen to everyone in life, therefore it fascinates us. When someone tells us a story of how someone died, even if we never knew the person, we listen intently. We, as humans, have an obsession with death. Whether we are just trying to understand it, trying to come to terms with it, trying to find away around it, or losing sleep because of it, our lives revolve around death; it is the ultimate irony of our worldly existence. Without death, there would be no need for religion. Without death, there could not be life, because if no one died of natural causes, overpopulation would find a way to kill us any way.
For the first time in recorded history, an invisible force was killing people by the millions, and the feeble minds of the time could not grasp just what exactly it was. Due to being a religious population, it was immediately attributed to God’s wrath. And how does one go about correcting something that has an other-worldly origin? By praying. Men, women, and children prayed for an end to the pestilence, and some took it a step further. Known as “Flagellates”, large groups of men traveled across Europe from city to city, bare-chested, whipping themselves in the back to imitate the suffering of Jesus Christ. Some went beyond that, and had themselves nailed to a cross and carried around by other Flagellates. The people of the small towns and large cities that they passed through ran to see them. They were the first celebrities of their time—they were celebrated and revered, and offered hope that someone on earth could do something about a plague sent by the heavens. It is here where we see the birth of an entirely new genre of art, one that still captivates us. The reason why this is pop-culture, to be differentiated from other art at the time, was because this was not religious in origin. Most artwork back then was commissioned by churches, and artists felt compelled, or coerced, depending on how you look at it, into sticking with church doctrine.
However, there is no “Grim Reaper” in the Bible, there is no personification of death anywhere, except that of angels who bring it. Artists now took it upon themselves to bring their version of the death story, and people were eager to take a look. The paintings were horrifying, but people love to look at what scares them. Perhaps they are trying to find some kind of closure in all of it, perhaps they just want to courageously confront it. As the church painter said in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which details a knight’s journey through plague-ridden Sweden, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman”, in regards to artwork. This film, was the first ever depiction of death as a person, predating the modern, yet tacky Grim Reaper look that we see in B-level horror movies. This film got across the same point that Medieval artists wanted to get across hundreds of years prior: death comes for us all—it does not matter who you are, or how much wealth you have, death will take you. Perhaps this was even the origin of the popular catch-phrase, “You can’t take it with you.” If you are wealthy and own two houses and five cars, a casket in the cold ground feels the same to a person that lived their life on the streets in a cardboard box. This is where we see the most popular artistic depiction, which is a “Dance of Death”, better known as Danse Macabre.
Though there are many different versions, the one above is the most endearing. Death, seen almost always as a skeleton, is surrounded by people of all different kinds of backgrounds and occupations, holding hands. Wealthy nobles join hands with peasants, poor friars with bishops and governors, the available cast of characters is endless. No style of art has ever been recopied and altered more than a Dance of Death. No form of personification has been used as much as a Grim Reaper figure, who appeared the most human in the above mentioned film, The Seventh Seal. Here, once again, we are reminded that there is no way to outsmart death, and that it will triumph in the end. The impression that the film leaves is one of authenticity. Had motion pictures been around in the 1300’s, chances are, it would have looked like Bergman’s timeless creation, one that stays with you long after your first viewing. But back to paintings, Pieter Bruegel gave us this horrifying image in 1562, titled “The Triumph of Death”. (Click to enlarge.)
What did audiences do when they gazed upon this harvest of terror, torture, and killing? Did they run away aghast? Or did they delve deeper and ask for more? The latter is what happened, and it is then that we see a massive birth of depressing and terrifying paintings that people flocked too. Once again, death attracts more people than it scares away, ironic considering that we will all be attracted to it in the end. The “Black Death” even makes its way into songs and fairy tales. Troubadours and minstrels wandered the countryside, setting up stages in the backs of their wagons, and playing to small audiences. Their payment was perhaps an optional donation by a viewer, or maybe a meal at the local inn. The pop-culture of traveling theater is now born. And what of nursery rhymes our children sing? It is possible to find a dark and sinister undertone behind many, but the one recited at one time or another by almost every person in the world, “Ring around the Rosie”, is much more blunt, but has been disguised over the years. Though there has never been proof it derived from the Black Plague, just one look at the lyrics and you can see its morbid inspiration.
- Ring around the Rosie: This refers to the plague marks that scattered the human body by the hundred upon infection. Early warning signs of catching the plague were red sores surrounded by a small ring.
- Pocket full of posies: These wonderful smelling flowers were used in an attempt to ward off the disease by the unknowing population who did not realize that the flowers were accomplishing absolutely nothing. The odor could even be used to mask the smell of the hundreds of rotting corpses that laid about the towns until they were taken away and burned.
- Ashes to ashes: What’s the only way to dispose of a body with a contagious disease? Burning. Bodies were stacked into pyres and set ablaze. The pay was pretty good, though, for the poor souls who had to gather the dead bodies.
- We all fall down: Remember, this is a plague sent as vengeance directly from God. For all these people knew, the apocalypse was at hand and everyone was going to die.
In short, no event in human history has inspired as many legends, folktales, songs, and stories as the “Black Death”, aside from early religion itself. But these grim creations are more important, because they are the testimony of a population whose majority could not read or write. Many of the stories we know were passed down orally until they could be recorded by someone who did know how to write. This explosion of artwork is still fancied by many today. How many t-shirt designs and tattoos contain skulls and skeleton figures? How many popular movies set in Medieval Times bring up this plague in some way? It has inspired everyone from Boccaccio to Bergman, from Petrarch to Monty Python, all of whom spin their own versions of this horrifying tale. The impact has been more profound than perhaps anyone has ever realized. The first ever commercialization took place here, and has capitalized on our uneasiness with death. It has, and always will intrigue us—nothing can ever change that.