Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe

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Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe

The Black Plague (also known as the Black Death or Bubonic Plague) of the 1300s is considered by many historians to be one of the most influential events and turning point in the transition from medieval to modern-day Europe. Some analysts even compare its devastation to that of World War I, since "25% to 50% of Europe's population were killed during the onslaught" of the plague (Gottfried, 77). While "no one rich, middling, or poor, was safe from the plague" (Platt, 97), those affected the most were those in the lower economic classes. England's peasant population in particular was affected greatly in both positive and negative ways; dramatic changes took place in all spheres of their lives: religiously, economically, and socially. In order to comprehend the tremendous impact the Black plague had on the English peasants' and in turn European history as a whole, one must first examine the events which led up to the onslaught of the plague, followed by how it altered the different aspects of their lives in an interconnected manner. The term "Black Plague" applies to the form of Bubonic Plague which raged relentlessly through Europe from 1347 to 1351 AD.

During the High Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries) the population of Europe grew "steadily and unabated from 25 million in 950 AD to 75 million in 1250 AD" (Gottfried,17), the disease pool had reached something of an equilibrium, and deaths due to plagues and illnesses were at a low. There had been political stability for about two hundred years and there was a surplus of food due to good growing conditions and new agricultural and technological innovations. Since less people had to live off the land, more became merchants and tradesmen, which greatly improve the culture and economy, and also encouraged trade, thus instilling a sense of security among people.

By the mid 13th century, a change for the worse overtook Europe. The "little Ice Age" took place, causing the climate to become colder and damp; crops rotting in their fields meant that the large population growth was outstripping food production. The population of Europe became increasingly poor; 10% died as a result of famine; related diseases (such as typhoid fever and dysentary) began to emerge as did livestock epidemics. With all these problems, combined with dirty, unhygenic living conditions, perhaps it is no surprise that the plague took place at this time.

The origin of the Black Plague (which is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria) is not agreed upon by all historians. Religious and historical documents from the period are not always credible, as no one at the time wanted to claim responsibility and blamed everyone else. All can agree, however, that everyone was affected and that in a matter of a few years, all of Europe had been hit (see appendix I, page 8). Countless theories exist as to where the plague came from, one of the widely accepted among them being that the plague originated from central Asia, the indigenous people themselves were left untouched by the plague. The plague was spread by both the Mongols as they expanded across Asia, and by central Asian rodents that moved westward when ecological changes made their environments inhospitable. The plague was first introduced to Europe in October of 1347 when Genoese merchants brought it back with them from the Black Sea to Sicily on board. The plague rapidly diffused throughout Europe in a characteristic pattern via infected rats on trade ships along commercial trade routes. The plague jumped from to infected port to one still uncontaminated, where it would fall quiescent for a period of months and then come to life again suddenly, thus renewing the death cycle. (Herlihy 24) By 1348, the plague was spreading through France and the Low Countries, including Germany. It was by the end of that year, it had reached England and soon after, Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Eastern Europe and Russia were eventually introduced to the plague in 1351, though it wasn't as severe in the east as it was in the west and central parts of Europe. (Spielvogle 298)

The onslaught of the Black Plague was a shock to everyone in Europe, as no one knew what caused it, how it was transmitted or how to treat it. Countless theories were thought up; many were convinced it was transmitted from infected person to non-infected person by simply looking at them. The plague was in fact transmitted from rat to flea, flea to person and was transmitted by contact and air among people. The standards of living were terrible at this time: streets filled with garbage and human waste, entrails from slaughtered animals and sewage. This setting was the perfect environment for infected fleas and rats to live in and spread the disease to humans. The fact that houses in cities were often crammed against each other (to prevent crime) meant that once the plague infected one individual, it would run rampant, and an entire community would die in a matter of days. It was the English clergymen Thomas Malthus in 1798 who was one of the first to conclude that human over population is adjusted by a phenomena of checks and balances which render it under control. These reckonings come in the form of famines, epidemics, wars and the soaring mortality resulting from them, which thus reduce the population to a size its resources can support. This is a theory which was often used to explain the Black plague's occurrence in Europe. Since Europe had experienced a famine in the years just preceding the plague, it was no doubt so many people, peasants in particular, died and so quickly as their bodies were weak and vulnerable due to lack of nutrients.

After a person was bitten by an infected flea, there was a 2-3 day incubation period, followed by a week of chills, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, blackening of the skin and growths the size of apples before death occurred. Those who died were required by law to be buried before daylight the following morning, although as the plague began to claim thousands of lives a day, it was too hard to keep up and many were just left where they had died.

As with the plague's origin, figures concerning mortality rates caused by the plague are varying due to the fact that population numbers weren't closely monitored and therefore made it hard to gauge how many had perished, though most agree that between 25-50% (19-38 million) of Europe's population declined as a result. Italy was especially hard hit, as it was the commercial center and had numerous ports where the plague was no doubt introduced as well as the fact that many of its cities were densely populated. France and England were also particularly devastated, where many villages disappeared altogether from history. Though Germany overall suffered less than Italy, France or England, of approximately 170,000 inhabited locations, only 130,000 were left by the end of the 14th century. Though the plague ended officially in 1351, there were reoccurrences every 5-10 years until the end of the 15th century which meant that it took Europe until the mid 16th century to regain its pre-plague population levels.

Religion was one of the institutions hardest hit by the plague, as at least "40 percent of the parish clergy died" (Platt, 97). This was due to the fact that many lived in communal living situations (such as monasteries) which increased rate of infection as well as the fact that they spent much of their time comforting the infectious sick. The result was that there remained few left to teach Christian dogma or provide religious leadership. Since there was no time for the sacrament of Extreme Unction ("last anointing"), the Pope was forced to issue mass forgiveness for sins.

Christians began to seriously doubt the role of the Church, as promises of protection and safety from harm were not being fulfilled. People lost faith in Christianity as God was supposed to protect those who followed him from tragedy and misfortune. Many priests fled to the countryside and those that did stay often addressed the plague in their sermons, reminding the parishioners that "each night's sleep could be their last" (Spielvogle 301) Most peasants believed that the plague was the wrath of god descending upon man as punishment. As a result, some attempted to fight the plague with intensive prayer and pious living. Others rejected prayer altogether and obeyed the maxim "Eat, drink and be marry, for tomorrow you may die", indulging in excessive eating, drinking and adulterous activities. And some still resorted to " extreme asceticism to cleanse themselves of sin and gain god's forgiveness", which entailed undergoing torture and horrific beatings in order to be granted penitence. It was these flagellant groups (which originated in Germany and then spread to the rest of Europe) as well as those who refused to accept God as the cause of the onslaught of the plague who began targeting minority groups as the true cause of their discontent. Jews, witches, and heretics in particular were targeted as the causes of the plague; they were said to have poisoned Englishmen's well water as an attempt to rise as a dominant group. While papal decree in no way encouraged this theory, peasants embraced it nonetheless. The result was "trials" or massacres (the killing of Jews, Muslims and other minorities) began to take place; non-Christians were rounded up and burned/killed. Pope Clement VI condemned the flagellants and urged those who remained of the public authorities to crush them. By October 1349, most of the flagellant movements had been stopped, but not before it had caused many Jews to flee east to countries such as Russia. (Spielvogle, 302)

Though Europe's population was dwindling, the church's clergy was disappearing even faster, which meant that they were unable to exercise control/influence over the peasants. Soon, many began to think that the Church should not have so much power nor such vast land holdings, as not even those who were supposedly "God's representatives on earth" were spared from the plague and often fled cities and towns trying to escape it. Slowly but surely, the immense control which the Church had once had on Europe began to decline.


Though the plague was terrible, many historians claim that it was beneficial in that "it broke the Malthusian economic deadlock that medieval growth had created which might have impeded further growth in different forms. "The Black plague devastated society, but it did not cripple human resilience". (H 51) In the years preceding the plague, the European economy had been saturated; nearly all available resources were committed to the effort of producing the food, shelter and clothing to support the packed communities. Food costs were high and famine was frequent (Herlihy 40) The plague produced the shock necessary to break the continuities of economic life. The economic spheres of peasants were altered dramatically as a result of the assault of the plague, overall for the better. The most notable of the causes for the changes in the economy and thus peasants' improved position was the serious labor shortage. In many areas more than half the population of laborers had perished; this meant that those who did survive experience dramatic wage increases. In many cases, English farm laborer's weekly pay more than triple, and in some cases increased by five or six times. At the same time, the sharp decline in the population depressed the demand for agricultural produce, except in England's whose prices remained stable. Landlord's suddenly found themselves in states of near poverty as their standards of living dropped sharply as a result of having to pay so much for labor. Aristocrats (landlords) attempted to rectify their situation by seeking to lower wage rates. They succeeded in convincing English Parliament, who passed the Statute of Laborers in 1351, which attempted to reinstate labor wages to pre-plague prices. These laws proved unenforceable which meant that as landlord's positions deteriorated, those of the peasants took a turn for the better. The decline in the number of peasants "accelerated the process of converting labor services to rents, freeing peasants form the obligations of servile tenure and weakening the system of manorialism" (Spielvogle 301). This allowed for peasant mobility and increased freedom, though they were still limited economically by newly implemented government taxes paired with the lord's constant attempts to impose more wage restrictions. This state of instability motivated some peasants, no longer tied to the land they worked, to move to the city to seek financial security; the result was a high level of unemployment. The many that did stay to work the land, however, found a cheap land for sale, much improved market and a thinned population of farmers with whom to compete. Enterprising peasants bought large tracts of land, hire others to work for them, and do very well in the process.

High labor costs promised big rewards to the inventors of labor-saving devices which resulted the late Middles Ages becoming a period of impressive labor-saving devices. Employers attempted to counteract higher wages by using these new machines and techniques to manipulate the available recourses as well as the use of more capital for labor. Besides farming machinery and methods, other notable inventions of the time were the Johann Gutenberg's printing press in 1453, improved firearms as well as bigger ships able to stay on the sea longer with fewer crew required.

Those who survived the plague found themselves adopting careers which were in high demand, such as doctors and craftsmen, which suddenly achieved status unknown to the professions before. The training required to become a such a professional sharply decreased as life expectancies dropped from 35-40 years in the mid 14th century to 20 years during the onslaught of the plague and the immediate years which followed. (Herlihy 42) In the later years following the plague, an sharp inflation took place until about 1375, whereby the prices of staple items, such as wheat, rose dramatically, costing up to four times more than they had pre-plague. After this period of instability, the European peasants, though still declining in numbers due to the aftershock effects of the plague, experienced a rise in the standard of living. The riches Spain brought back from its colonies in the New World spread quickly throughout all of European society and spurred an economic revival that would far outrun even the best times of the Middle Ages.


The effect on peasant society created by the plague was chaotic and life altering. Whole towns and villages died off or were abandoned, as were livestock and pets. Those infected were shut up in their homes all alone and relatives of the sick were highly encouraged (and usually forced) to leave them to fend for themselves. This constant threat of isolation and abandonment caused great fear and depression upon the population, as family members were left to die alone, and those who lived did so in fear of catching the horrible disease. This intense fear of the unknown caused much tension and fear among people, even within families, as no one knew who to trust or if speaking to someone would prove fatal. When a family member did catch the plague, the rest of the family was evacuated. Watchmen would put a large red cross across their doors and patrol the area to keep people away. Rich and poor were treated alike once they contracted the plague, as one witness at Avignon relates in 1348:

[Sick] relatives were cared for not otherwise than dogs. They threw them their food and drink by the bed, and then they fled the household. Finally, when they died, strong rustics came from the mountains of Provence, miserable and poor and foul-tempered, who are called gavots. At least, in return for big pay, they carried the dead to burial. No relatives, no friends showed concern for what might be happening. No priest came to hear the confession of the dying, or to administer the sacraments to them. People cared only for their own health [and that of their families]. It even happened that every day a dead rich man was carried to the grave with only a little light and by ruffians-none else followed the corpse but these.
(Herlihy 62)

Not all families abandoned their kin once infected. Some tried to hide the fact from the Board of Health and patrolling officers, though the punishment for doing so was drastic. By the 15th century, isolated hospitals were built in which infected individuals would go to await death. Those who entered the "pesthouses" rarely emerged, and after death would be buried in mass graves, often in unconsecrated ground. While many merchant or wealthy families had the resources to pick up and move to the countryside away from all he sickness, the peasants had nowhere to go and thus contracted very quickly and died in greater numbers. The peasants also died in greater numbers as it was often them who lived in the tightly packed slums, a veritable extermination camp for all those who lived there. Those who fled infected towns or villages were often reduced to crime, such as the looting of houses, to survive. Even those who did not become infected faced the immediate threat of famine, as all livestock were banned from populated areas (since they were thought to spread the plague at first); this forced many to eat their family pets to survive.

As society was undergoing a period of intense preoccupation with disease, death and for some, famine, culture slowed to a veritable standstill. People were too busy fearing for their lives to focus on enriching them. The paintings and sculptures of the plague period were dominated by images of the horror and fear of the time. Skeletons, death and demons were often the focus of these works of art; this indicates that everyone was affected by the plague. Even tombstones, usually reserved for expressions of peace, had macabre scenes of dancing skeletons and the devil depicted upon them. This again points to the fact that the Church was losing their authoritative and influencing role on society as this sort of "art" would not have been permitted under previous circumstances.

Schools were also affected by the plague; the result was a shift in the curriculum. English was experiencing a revival in schools, in place of Latin or French, though many schools closed as a result of lack of teachers as well as students. Four of the thirty European universities disappeared due to lack of qualified teaching scholars.

One cannot describe the effects of the Black Plague on Europe without addressing the great years of renewed energy and creativity which followed the plague; the Renaissance. One would think that with all the panic and terror, piles of corpses, and bloody massacres associated with the "clamitous fourteenth century", Europe would have experienced a grim, depressing and melancholic time following the plague. Instead, a marked rebirth period, or "Renaissance" took place in the years which followed: a time of optimism, hope, new ideas and the rebuilding of culture based on Greco-Roman world, was born in Italy and spread throughout the rest of Europe. During this time, Roman law and writing were re-discovered. Greek and Roman classics were dusted off in musty libraries and there was a growing excitement for learning. A new kind of education also developed, quite similar to that in ancient Rome, which included university courses devoted to Greek and Roman classics, history, moral philosophy and literary compositions. A new way of thinking called "humanism" also developed, which focused more on affairs of humankind than on God. A new social ideal of man developed which concentrated on the "well-rounded personality and universal person" who was capable of achievements in many areas of life. Art became very important during this time, as painters and sculptors (previously viewed simply as artisans) became well-known celebrities. Incredible cathedrals (such as the Dome of Florence Cathedral), palaces, libraries, sculptures (such as the David by Michaelangelo) and paintings (Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci) were created which are still admired and adored today, as the focus was upon precision and beauty. Music also changed as Renaissance singers began to combine melodies, voices (soprano or alto), and instruments into single musical works. Opera was born, as well as a new method of printing music, opening the doors for music to be loved and studied more than ever before. One must note that these general characteristics of the Renaissance applied primarily to the upper classes, though they did have a significant impact on the peasants, especially those who lived in the cities where so many of the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of the period were most visible. (Spielvogle 327)

One must not think that the peasants of England who survived the plague simply escaped with a sigh of relief and attempted to reinstate their lives as they had existed before the Plague. The Plague provided a hands-on learning experience which Europe never forgot. Many would say that the Black Death "did its work as it taught the survivors to become more prudent" .(Huppert ix) Never again did they let allow themselves the luxury of multiplying again to the point of outstripping their resources as dramatically as they had pre plague. To forestall famine, peasants learned to control population growth. Against epidemics, they learned to enforce ruthless quarantines which allows the pestilence to "die out". In time, vaccines were developed to help treat and prevent outbreaks of disease. The plague elicited a social response that protected the European countryside from comparable disasters until the present day. (Huppert ix)

The Black Plague of the 1300s was an event which altered the state and culture of Europe forever, particularly the peasants, although not necessarily solely in a negative way. The plague, while a tragedy because it killed millions of people, was also a sort of blessing in disguise as it made way for one of the most cultured and prosperous times since the Roman Empire. Europe was an overpopulated, rather uncultured place still in the shadows of the Dark Ages which perhaps required an earth-shattering crisis to give it a fresh start, with new ideas, perspectives and goals. There is no doubt that the plague was one of the most influential events in the transition from medieval to modern-day Europe, and certainly no other event altered so many different aspects of the society and culture as it did. Some historians even claim that the plague may have delayed European colonization of the North American continent by several centuries. The plague is a terrific, and perhaps rare, example of how a terrible tragedy can actually benefit society in the long run.


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Article name: Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe essay, research paper, dissertation