Imagine one half of the world’s population by wiped out in a space of less than a ten years. You probably cannot imagine such an event occurring; it seems unreal. Yet, this very thing happened in the between the years 1347 and 1351 in Europe. This massive destruction of human life was known as the Black Death. This Black Death was an ecological disaster on a global scale. The effects of the plague on human and certain animal populations from East Asia to as far west as Greenland were catastrophic. All facets of society, from peasant to king were affected; no one was safe. All of society was affected; nothing would ever be the same. Thus, there were many economic, social, and political effects of the Black Death.
Before one can understand the effects of the Black Death, one must understand precisely what is and what it did. The Black Death was the common name for what is now known today to be three different diseases. The first, and most common of these was Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague lasts for approximately six days. The early symptoms include hemorrhaging and splotches on the skin. Later on, various neurological and psychological disorders can occur. Bubonic Plague is fatal fifty to sixty percent of the time. The other two forms of the Plague, Septicaemic and Pneumonic were both much more rare, but much deadly, killing ninety-five a hundred percent of the time.
The Black Death did not originate in Europe, however. It originated in Central Asia, far away from Europe. So how did it get to Europe, and why during the Late Middle Ages? Before the time of the Late Middle Ages, infrastructure was vastly underdeveloped. Thus, diseases spread by humans could not possibly spread far, as most humans did not move too far from their homeland. By the time of the Late Middle Ages, trade and infrastructure had evolved into an advanced state. Trade routes connected all the main cities of Europe to the far away lands of Asia.
Now, as the Black Death epidemic began in Asia, it began to slaughter and spread immediately. By the 1350s, two-thirds of China’s population lay dead, but this was just the beginning. The Black Death quickly spread across Central Asia, following the route of the Silk Road. Soon it reached the Middle East, where Italian merchants proceeded to spread it to Europe via their trading ships.
At the time the Black Death reached Europe, the population was in full swing. Population numbers, due to new agricultural methods and other means, were at all time highs. The Black Death would quickly change that. The Black Death, traveling quickly across trading routes covered Europe in the brief span between the years 1347 and 1351. Everywhere from Ireland to Scandinavia to Spain was hit. Once the Black Death hit a town only some were spared. Anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five percent of a town’s population would perish. And once a town would begin to recover, the Black Death would strike again and again, relentlessly slaughtering thousands.
For an event as destructive as the Black Death, the economic effects are vast. After the plague had swept through Europe and reduced the population by a third, a sudden surplus of all items and food drove prices down drastically. In reply to this people began to wildly overspend what was not worth that much. However, after the excess amount of food had been used up, the insufficiency of labor began to make an impact. Prices rapidly shot up, way beyond pre-plague rates. In addition, those laborers who remained soon were in high demand.
They realized that their services were rare, and thus they could charge any rate they wanted. In response to this, governments created laws limiting wages. This in turn would later cause peasant revolts in the later 14th Century. However, Some places experienced economic prosperity as a long term consequence of the plague.
In addition to the effects on wages, there were other economic effects as well. Towns in the Late Middle Ages were slowly becoming important centers of trade. Towns were the center of commerce, and places were markets were. The Black Death struck these very towns the hardest. Towns, being crowded and infested by rats, were more susceptible to the plague than rural areas. Thus, people abandoned many towns for the safety of the countryside. This heavily stunted trade, as now towns were abandoned, and there was no central location for people to meet and trade.
Furthermore, there were many social effects as well. Middle Age culture became a culture of death and decay. Life became cheap. The stench of death became unavoidable when entering towns and cities. Everywhere there were the dead and the dying. Bodies were literally piled up outside in wheelbarrows, waiting to be dumped. The dead were not treated with respect or dignity. Fear was so great of infection that bodies were simply piled up and dumped in mass graves.
People, ignorant of what was causing this terrible catastrophe, blamed those on the margins of society. Others questioned the Church. Why would God inflict such suffering? The Church had no answers, so people began to question it more and more. Some took matters into their own hands. Groups of people, known as flagellants began to go through towns and cities, wiping themselves to appease God. They believed that if they caused enough pain to themselves, then perhaps God would ease their suffering.
In addition, the new devaluing of life and questioning of the Church, the fabric that held society together society was ripped. The plague affected everyone from kings to peasants. Soldiers who once protected peasants were no longer there, and survivors were vulnerable to looters and highwaymen. Nobility who once guided society were now deceased, and people could no longer count on them to run manors and provide for general protection against enemies. Nobles could no longer rely on peasants, as they quickly became scarce. In short, the Black Death caused a violent upheaval on society as death became common, and nothing could be trusted.
In addition to the many social and economic effects, there were also many political effects of the Black Plague. As stated before, the Black Plague affected virtually all facets of society, including the nobility. The nobility’s ability to effectively assert their power became extremely limited due to the rapid decline of feudalism that occurred due to the plague. The main source of the power of the nobility came from their feudal powers, and once these powers became limited, the ability of the nobles to effect political change also became limited.
Before the Black Plague, kings had to take into account the nobles and their ideas. Following the Black Plague, nobles became helpless, unless they agreed to further the kings’ claims and demands. This in turn further centralized power, which was a trend of the 14th Century. The main political effect of the Black Death was the further loss of power of the nobles in government.
The Black Death was the terror of the Middle Ages. Serf and king alike feared it. And where the plague struck, nothing could be the same. Overpopulated towns suddenly became deserted. Flourishing commerce suddenly became dead and empty. Whereas the dead were once respected and taken care of, now they were devalued and thrown in piles. The kings continued to gain in power, due to the weakening of the feudal system. In retrospect, the Black Death was, perhaps, one of the most transforming events in human history. The economy, society, and politics of the time were transformed forever.