While the Black Death, or bubonic plague, is often well-known, I don’t think we realize the profound effects it had on every level of European life. Imagine if, in less than a decade, the populated halved. The physical toll of empty houses, abandoned utilities, rotting bodies. The psychological toll of not knowing why it is happening or who is next. The social upheaval as power vacuums are created, labor is differently distributed, and cults grow with the promises of solutions. It's difficult to pinpoint when history pivoted toward the Reformation, because history does not have starts and stops. But I think the social shifts created by the plague laid groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.
The Black Death hit Europe from 1346-1353. The bubonic epidemic began when Mongols attacked an Italian trading station in Kaffa, along the Black Sea in autumn of 1346. In the spring, the Italians were able to flee back home, carrying diseased rats on their ships. At this time, the famed Silk Road trade routes between Europe and Asia were closed. The Mongol khan had converted to Islam and stopped the flow of trade with Christians, hence the attack on the Italian traders. Therefore, as the plague spread out from the Volga steppe, it traveled west but not east.
The Church had no set, theological explanation for the plague. With communities obliterated, faith became more personal—practiced more outside of the organized church and developed by each individual’s need to make sense of the world around him. If there was still a battle between God and death, people reckoned, death was winning, and it may be wise to side with the winning team. The danse macabre, which appeared in paintings, plays, and music of the time, showed the living and the dead all together. The line between alive and dead was blurred. Death was no stranger in the Middle Ages, but now it was even closer and crueler.