Terror Management Theory Applied to the Black Death

The Theory:

In the 1973, a cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker proposed ideas about death anxiety  that attempted to explain broad aspects of culture. Decades later, researchers Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski proposed empirical research to back Becker’s claims. They it Terror Management Theory [1] The basis of this theory lies in human awareness of their own mortality. This fact, when acknowledged, can have a dramatic effect on the human psyche that can provoke a creative or destructive response. The theory suggests that humans attempts to immortalize themselves both individually and culturally, in an attempt to escape the fact they will eventually die. Becker attributes the development of culture and religion as a means to preserve ourselves. Becker also states the roots of human aggression may stem from this anxiety. When a symbolic eternal model, whether cultural, religious, or individualistic, is threatened, a hostile response is evoked.

Immortality in the 1300s

Fourteenth century Europe is a unique example of this phenomenon as most of its population’s beliefs were challenged. Many responded violently to suppress beliefs that contradicted their own in order to affirm their ideas are correct. Once society realized the plague would not be the end of the world, these threats inspired the creativity of the Renascence movement.

Friar John Clyne became sick with the pestilence and expressed his need to immortalize culture and events that shaped it;

So that notable deeds should not perish with time, and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.[2]

Passages such as these indicate a strong need to preserve something lasting that will transcend time. Anxieties can arise when these models are threatened. Immortality views are categorized in two ways: literal immortality, which is the survival of the self throughout time via the soul or reincarnation, etc. The other immortality is symbolic by leaving behind something meaningful or connected to oneself. Examples of symbolic immortality include, having children or producing meaningful and lasting work. When these two structures of immortality (literal and symbolic) are threatened by other incompatible worldviews or the failing of held beliefs, a strong behavioral reaction becomes evident.[3] These literal and symbolic views of immortality were threatened to extremes between 1347 and 1350. Terror management can be used to explain some behavior exhibited by Europeans in response to the Black Death.

How We Deal With Death Anxiety

In Terror Management Theory, there are four methods used in reaction to the threat of mortal salience: The first is Derogation – to dismiss groups with other worldviews that are incompatible with one’s own and thus are inferior. Second, is Assimilation – to ascribe other groups that your worldview is the correct one. If people can convince people to subscribe to their worldview, that is reinforcement to one’s own beliefs; Third, Accommodation – is to take others ideas and twist them to fit your worldview while stripping them of their original meaning; last is Annihilation – when all other methods fail to protect the worldview, the threat must be dealt with at any cost.[4]



The threat of cultural death was ever present during the pestilence, especially in the years of the first outbreak in 1348-1350. As Petrarch describes in a letter, “what has happened in these years ever been read about: empty houses, derelict cities, ruined estates, fields strewn with cadavers, and a horrible and vast solitude encompassing the whole world?”[5] While the threat of cultural death was present, religious beliefs of the afterlife preserved the literal individual immortality. According to the medical facility at the University of Paris, a leading medical authority at the time, the plague was caused by the alignment of the planets but ultimately concluded, “What is more, we should not neglect to mention that an epidemic always proceeds from the divine will, in which case there is no other counsel except that one should humbly turn to God…who never denies His aid” This illustrates method two, assimilation to worldview. Making God the cause of the plague, unifies beliefs that justify events and provide an agreed upon immortality model. Things became confusing in this view however. In observing the clergy falling victim to the plague at the same rate as non-religious people, thoughts of being protected by doing the will of god came into question. Henry Knighton wrote that, “of the English Austin Friars at Avignon, not one remained…at Maguelonne, of 160 friars, 7 only were left…at Marseilles, of 150 Franciscans, not one survived to tell the story.”[6]

This confusion was a threat that must be dealt with. There had to have been a reason why these things were happening. One solution was to believe people being punished for the misdoings of all of society. Though strange and indirect, it was a way to reason around why terrible events are happening to good people and fit within the Christian worldview. As Petrarch describes, “God, has slackened little by little toward human crimes, and under the heavy burden of your yoke, the omnipotent now must set down his provisions.”5 Some also thought they were not devout enough in practice or in mind to worshiping God. These ideas led some groups of people to take on especially violent forms of penance in hopes of winning God’s grace.


Believing the plague to be a punishment from God, some thought correcting a lack of religious devotion would save them from the plague. They set out to prove the contrary in the most dramatic way possible.

In the flagellant movement, groups of people tried to exaggerate and reinforce their sense of culture, to show they were more committed than other members of Christianity. These acts could serve to assimilate, persuading others to join their cause. It gave the flagellant’s members a greater feeling of control and deeper conformation to the cultural worldview. Their dedication was both convincing and reassuring that the common Christian position was correct but confidence eroded when flagellants themselves became sick. Later,the church publicly denounced this practice as heresy.


While the movement helped to alleviate the anxiety of some, for others it had an equally negative effect.  Before the pandemic, the threats posed by other cultures were traditionally sufficiently dealt with, ascribing the believers as inferior and generally ignored as having valid worldviews. Things began to change as anxiety levels in society peaked. After all attempts to boast one’s own culture and beliefs without successfully mitigating fear of dying, it became harder to dismiss other cultures as inferior. Extreme measures must be taken to absolve all visible existing threats.

When degradation, assimilation, and accommodation failed to alleviate anxiety in neutralizing the threat of incompatible worldviews, step four of annihilation was evoked.  This is most evident in the rise of violent persecution of the Jews. With the Jewish people being minorities in many European communities, they were easy targets. Jews in society who were successful or were survivors of the plague, posed an even greater threat as they were able to function/survive having their own beliefs, while some Christians were not. The frustration of helpless and indiscriminately dying left no particular person or thing to blame. Looking to blame out-groups may have helped to alleviate this tension.

Jean de Venette observed the violent behavior against the Jews in,The Progress of the Black Death:

As a result of this theory of infected water and air as the source of the plague the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. . . It is said that many bad Christians were found who in like manner put poison into wells. But in truth, such poisonings, granted that they actually were perpetrated, could not have caused so great a plague nor have infected so many people.

The Valentine’s Day Massacre of Jews in Strausberg, Germany, 1349

Though Pope Clement the VI proclaimed that Jews were dying in equal numbers to Christians, it was not enough to stop violence to Jewish communities. In Strausberg France in 1349, The citizens burned anywhere from a few hundred to 2,000 Jews on St. Valentines day.[7] This type of mass murder was recreated in over 15 cities throughout Germany and Switzerland as well as other northern European countries.[8] Some historians claim that motives behind these crimes were to use a volatile situation to claim property and economic opportunity. Though there had been a long standing anti-Semitic sentiments throughout Germany and the rest of Europe, it wasn’t until the Black Death that public mass murders were committed. Regardless, there still had to be a public sentiment of accepting violence. One that could have stemmed from a threat of immortality views, only that some took advantage of that fear and used it to their advantage. It may also be the case that many people were concerned with saving their lives rather than pursuing long term economic investments in a collapsing society.

Empirical Evidence

To establish the validity of the annihilation claim, empirical research has been conducted. Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski, are psychological researchers who have been striving to validate the claims of Becker for over 30 years. They conducted an experiment that tested college students and how their attitude changed toward religious out-groups when reminded of their impending death.

Christian students were asked to complete a questionnaire to determine how people formed impressions about others. Within half of these questionnaires, were questions that were designed to remind the participant of their own mortality or mortality salience, which states that if you remind people they will die they will feel less secure, it will increase the need to protect their worldview.

Jeff Greensburg concludes the results of the study: “after the Christian students were reminded of their own death, we guessed they would be especially positive toward a fellow Christian student and especially negative toward a Jewish student. And that’s exactly what we found.” The students who did not receive death reminders were shown to have no preference to both groups in their evaluations. This showed that attitudes about others, specifically religious out-groups, changed when reminded of their own death. This does not suggest any behavioral reactions, only ideas about groups with dissimilar worldviews.

To measure actual behavior against out-groups, another study was conducted that used “very hot sauce” as a measure of intent to cause harm. Subjects were again given personality questionnaires, half of which contained reminders of the subjects eventual deaths. They were then asked to allot an amount of extremely hot sauce for an individual to test that was of the opposite political association as they were. The subjects who were reminded of their own death prescribed more than double the amount compared to the groups who were not reminded of their own deaths.

The combination of these studies, show that reminders of ones own death can influence ideas about other individuals, as well as acting on those ideas through acting aggressively in behavior.“Since these experiments, more than 300 studies by independent researchers in approximately 20 countries have found support for hypotheses derived from TMT.” – Sheldon Solomon


There are accounts of many individuals who may have accepted the idea of their own impending death between 1348 and 1350. These people seemed to demonstrate apathy rather than violent behavior. They described themselves and others as caring less about friends and family dying and more focused on when they themselves will die, awaiting their turn, they abandon the struggle and accept their fate. Agnolo de Tura, an Italian father who bore witness to the plague and lost five children to the pestilence, noted that “no one weeps for any of the dead, or instead everyone awaits their own impending death.”[9]

The only way to cope emotionally was to adopt this apathetic outlook, to enclose oneself in a protective shell.[10]There are similarities to Jewish experiences during the holocaust and the Black Death, in that dying became a commonality along with strong anti-semitism. The writings of Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for years, describes how people felt in saying, “there was neither time nor desire to consider moral or ethical issues. Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive.”10

Though there were outbreaks of the plague after 1350, they were more localized and killed a significantly less proportion of the population, between 10 and 20 percent.10 After the initial pandemic and its ferocity, Europeans still remained. This gave them hope for future outbreaks and restored faith in their symbolic cultural worldview would be preserved and it was not the end of the world.

A Shift in Perspective

The Renaissance gave the world a burst of art and culture in response to the near collapse of western civilization.

After the outbreak between 1347 and 1350, Cultural worldviews began to change. An increase in the price of manual labor influenced societies to create or use machines such as the printing press and other labor reducing mechanisms. New values were established, primarily ones that were assimilated to their own worldviews that were not threatening to their immortality but actually conducive to it. With the memory of catastrophe and the reminder of cultural mortal salience, new symbolic immortality models began to emerge. New styles of Art emerged from macabre to religious iconography. The Renaissance is evidence of a cultural shift that was inspired by death to create lasting contributions to society and changed ideas about the perception of death. These new were methods to reinforce literal immortality through religion as well as symbolic immortality in producing meaningful and everlasting work.

Terror Management Theory explains a fraction of human ideas and behaviors between 1347 and 1350. Specifically it explains reactions Europeans had to their extensive threats of social and individual death and how they confronted it. Cultural worldviews were changed and gave rise to creative and destructive ideas that changed the world.


*All  images courtesy of Wikipedia

Aberth, John. “15 – Francesco Petrarch.” In The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 : A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.

Aberth, John. “17 – Agnolo Di Tura, Sienese Chronicle.” In The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350 : A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.

Galen, Luke. Terror Management: How Worldviews Help Us to Deny Death. Department of Psychology: Grand Valley State University.

Solomon, Sheldon. “Fear, Death and Politics: What Your Mortality Has to Do with the Upcoming Election.” Scientific American Global RSS. October 23, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fear-death-and-politics/.

DesOrmeaux, Anna. The Black Death and Its Effects on Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Art. Louisiana State University, 2007.

Flight from Death.Transcendental Media, 2005. Film.

Richard A. Newhall, ed., Jean Birdsall, trans., The Chronicle of Jean de Venette (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), pp. 48-51.]

  1. G. Coulton, The Black Death(London: Ernest Benn LTD, 1929), 59-60.

“The Black Plague of Europe.” YouTube. Accessed April 2, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqXJ20qXASI.

“This Day in Jewish History / A Valentine’s Day Massacre in Alzace.” Haaretz.com. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/this-day-in-jewish-history/this-day-in-jewish-history-a-valentine-s-day-massacre-in-alzace.premium-1.503467.

[1] Ernest Becker

[2] Aberth

[3] Galen

[4] Flight from Death

[5] Petrarch



[8]The Black Plague of Europe

[9]Agnolo de Tura

[10] Anna L. DesOrmeaux

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