The World of Hieronymous Bosch
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The Black Death erupted in China sometime in the early 1300's and there's no real reason why. It had been in existence long before that and there had been a European epidemic in the 6th century but it had the ability to remain dormant for long periods. Whatever the reason, the outbreak began there and spread outward via trade routes. Asian countries suffered just as much as those in the West; During the course of the 14th century for instance, the Chinese population dropped from around 125 million to 90 million!
In Europe, it moved along the Rhine trade routes and reached Germany and the Low Countries in 1348. This is widely accepted as being the worst of the plague years. Because it moved along trade routes and via cities, it charted fairly accurately the geography of mediaeval trade. In some areas of Europe the disease lingered on until the 17th century and was certainly a real and present danger in the time of Hieronymous Bosch.

The Bubonic Plague is the medical term and it is a bacillus; an organism, most usually carried by rats. Fleas infest the animal and then move freely over to humans.

The flea then regurgitates the blood from the rat into the human, infecting the human. The rats and the humans die and ironically and morbidly, the flea lives happily on.

The first symptoms of the Bubonic plague often appear within several days: headache and a general feeling of weakness, followed by aches and chills in the upper leg and groin, a white coating on the tongue, rapid pulse, slurred speech, confusion, fatigue, apathy and a staggering gait. A blackish sore usually will form at the point of the flea bite. By the third day,the lymph nodes begin to swell. The swelling will be tender, perhaps as large as an egg. The heart begins to flutter rapidly as it tries to pump blood through swollen, suffocating tissues. Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing purplish blotches on the skin.The victims nervous system begins to collapse,causing dreadful pain and bizarre neurological disorders, from which the "Dance of Death" rituals that accompanied the plague may have taken their inspiration. By the fourth or fifth day,wild anxiety and terror overtake the sufferer-and then a sense of resignation, as the skin blackens and the rictus of death settles on the body.

The Flagellants
It was assumed that the plague was God's vengeance and therefore many Christians looked for ways to assuage that anger. From this impulse came groups of Flagellants who wandered around carrying out public acts of penance. Self-punishment was a means of atoning for the world's sins, in imitation of Christ himself.
They weren't exactly popular as they had a tendency to slaughter Jews (who could just as easily be blamed for the plague) and even killed priests who spoke out against them. In 1349, the Pope condemned them and issued suppression orders but they always reappeared in times of plague until well into the 15th century.

From Agnolo di Tura, of Siena:

"The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura . . . buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world."
Heaven and Hell

To appreciate Bosch's religious paintings and hellish landscapes we have to put ourselves in the minds of the average late mediaeval citizen. There was always a chance of death through disease, or violence but an equal cause of sleepless nights was what was to happen in the Hereafter. If the only escape from a miserable life on Earth was the promise of eternal salvation at the right hand of God, then every one of life's major or minor misdemeanours was an extra point on the tick-list for Hell. The Church did its best to exaggerate the fears and dangers until people were mortally afraid that because of past 'sins' there was no way into Heaven. Unscrupulous priests supplemented their incomes and did a roaring trade in the sale of Indulgences, where people bought off their sins in return for scraps of paper indicating forgiveness. this was one of the reasons why the Church split so dramatically in the 16th century. People were disillusioned at the wanton greed, corruption and flagrant opulism they saw in the church, not to mention the licentiousness and immorality displayed by various Popes. This was not to say that followers of Calvin or Luther made lives any easier for their parishes; Hell was still a very real possibility for the sinner and in many ways, Protestantism hardened the rules.

Hieronymous Bosch illustrated people's greatest fears and showed in carefully constructed detail what would happen to you in Hell, depending on the sort of sinner you were. People understood his paintings; they were as readable as a book but his popularity was increased by his satirical and pointed criticisim of the Church and other notable dignitaries. Only after his death did the Inquisition take a close interest in his work and in many cases declare it heretical but it is a tribute to his appeal that some of the greatest names in European history went to great pains to protect his paintings in their collections.

Although perhaps less famous, Bosch painted straightforward scenes from the New Testament too and as was customary in those times mostly for patrons, who often took minor roles in the tableaux. To modern eyes, his work almost appears 'primitive' in comparison to the stunning art that was emerging at the same time from Renaissance Italy and Spain but that fails to understand his place in history. His style represents the last vestiges of the Dark Ages, what we now call Mediaeval times. It is very north-west European and like the work of Peter Breughel after him, can be viewed as an accurate social portrayal of the times, reflecting not only how people and their environments looked but how they thought as well.

Now the world is cowardly, decayed and weak,
Old, covetous, confused of speech:
I see only female and male fools....
The end approaches...
All goes badly.

Eustache Deschamps, a contemporary poet of Bosch