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“We are faced with the evidence of an almost unimaginable catastrophe. The Black Death on a global scale exceeded in mortality any other known disaster” (Dyer 233). The Black Death is the name given to the devastating trans-continental epidemic that swept across Europe and struck down millions from the years 1347 to 1352. This gruesome epidemic was the first in a long series that would last for more than three centuries, affecting Europe, Northeast Asia and North Africa. The Black Death is widely accepted to be an outbreak of the bubonic plague, migrating across Europe through rat colonies and the fleas they carried, resulting in the deaths of millions of people.
These deaths transformed Europe, leading to changes in the social hierarchy, the workforce, the physical infrastructure and religion. The plague would also motivate advancement in technological innovation, the field of medicine and public health. The Black Death had a devastating effect on the people of Europe, and was the primary cause of social change in late Medieval Europe.
Although historians will never know for certain how many people died of pestilence from 1347 to 1352, but records show that it was at least a third of the population. Even with sources of well-documented records—usually taken from the local level of government offices in villages, or records from parishes and the estates of English manors—are considered debatable for the lack of consistent accuracy and gaps in the documents. There are only three known parishes in all of fourteenth-century Europe who tried to preserve burial records for periods of time during and after the Plague.
There have been estimates of the mortality rate of the Black Death—with the consideration that other elements like famine, war and other diseases (such as smallpox or influenza) contributed to the death count. Several decades ago, scholars suggested it was “one-fourth to one-third” (Byrne 59) of the population of late Medieval Europe, while more recently it has been increased to “one-third to one-half” (Byrne 59); for England, historian John Aberth suggests 40 to 60 percent is warranted by local studies (Byrne 60). Historian Christopher Dyer summed up the view of many historians writing, “it would be reasonable to estimate the death rate in 1348-49 at about half of the English population. …If the total population stood at about 5 or 6 million, there were 2.5 or 3 million casualties” (qtd. in Byrne 60). Siena, a town south of Florence in Tuscany, was struck by the Black Death in April or May 1348. The town chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, describes the devastating effect that the disease had on his own family: “And I, Agnolo di Tura…have buried five of my sons with my own hands” (qtd. in Aberth 80)
With such a high death rate, it only makes sense that during and after the Plague there were lower birth rates. Many women of childbearing age and younger must have died, and those that survived would have most likely been concerned with their continued survival and sought out employment, delaying marriage and childbearing. Byrne found in his research that local records showed modest recovery in the 1350s, while some combination of lower birth rates and high death rates, due in part to recurrences of pestilence, kept populations low and shrinking until at least the mid-fifteenth century (Byrne 60). An interesting argument against Byrne’s research comes from historian John Hatcher, who suggested that adults were financially and materially better off in the wake of the Plague. With sudden wealth they may have chosen to keep their families smaller than before, the better to enjoy this higher standard of living. But he also concluded what most scholars today agree: the high mortality from pestilence was the main factor in keeping population low (Byrne 60). With such a decrease in the demographic, many people fled to areas that were less affected by the plague, abandoning whole settlements in the process. This consequence caused a decline in Europe’s physical infrastructure.
Those who were still healthy fled from the chaos that the Black Death spread. Famous writer and poet Boccacio from Florence described the way his fellow Florentines reacted, “…sparing no thought for anyone but themselves, large numbers of men and women abandoned their city, their homes, their relatives, their estates and their belongings, and headed for the countryside, either in Florentine territory or, better still, abroad.” (qtd. in Aberth 76) Without anyone to maintain and repair the various buildings and businesses, Europe began to crumble. All around there were unrepaired bridges and fences, unattended fields, abandoned farms, overgrown orchards, unattended herds of animals, half empty or abandoned villages, or decaying homes and buildings (Kelly 283). Such disrepair lasted for years, and only began to recover in the periods when the pestilence was not as rampant. This also marked a shift of labor moving to the cities, away from the decay and death.
Such a heavy loss of the population that did physical labor, and those that worked in specific trades, had a huge impact on medieval Europe. A translated chronicle from the cathedral priory of Rochester between 1314 and 1350 (including a firsthand account of the Black Death) written by William de la Dene tells of the changes, “A great mortality … destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance.” (Bovey) Even with a large portion of the population dead or dying, there was still a need and demand for goods and services. Chronic worker shortage meant that the cost of labor—and the cost of everything labor made—increased dramatically. Professionals such as carpenters, stonemasons, teachers, and metalworkers who died took their knowledge and experience with them. A desperation for these trades, especially physical labor, allowed survivors to demand high fees for their work with little experience. People flocked to cities to find work, impacting landlords in the countryside who then had no tenants to manage their agriculture or pay rent. An ordinance filed in the city of Siena, dated May 1349, to the commune’s city council stated, “Item, because laborers of the land and those who had been accustomed to work the land or orchards on the farms of the citizens and districtuales [inhabitants] of Siena extort and receive great sums and salaries for the daily labor that they do every day, they have totally destroyed and abandoned the farms and estates of the aforesaid citizens and districtuales, which is not without great danger to the aforesaid holders of the farms” (qtd. in Aberth 88).
Power was shifting over to the peasants, who with their sudden increased demand in the workforce, had gained wealth and prosperity at the expense of the rich. It also opened new doors for the people to learn new trades and the higher wages that came with them. With the sudden increase of labor wages, the standard of living for the peasant class rose. Survivors married or combined their families and belongings, and moved into better housing or acquired farmland. People were more likely to gain inheritances in the form of money, and with so many abandoned houses, looting was common. Landlords, desperate for workers, were more likely to make better deals with their tenant-farmers to convince them to stay. Alternatively, some people used their ability to work as leverage to reduce their rent or taxes. The labor shortage opened up what had predominantly been male occupations, like metalworking and stevedoring, to women. Women were even more likely to find jobs as cloth workers, from wool combers to the higher-paying position of weavers. It even became more acceptable for female widowers to take over family shops and businesses (Kelly 286). With workers demanding such high pay, affecting the rising cost in the production and selling of goods, some employers turned to labor-saving devices in many fields. This marked an advancement in technological innovation.
With a large labor loss, people needed to come up with new technologies to keep up with demand of product. With a demand for metals for trading, there was the invention of new water pumps that helped dig down deeper into mines instead of relying on workers. New methods of salting and storing fish allowed ships to travel further and trade for longer periods of time, and bigger ships were engineered and build that required less maintenance, and allowed for the operation of smaller crews. With an increase in the need for new craftsmen and highly educated professionals, books became more in demand. As making a book was an incredibly labor-intensive and costly process, a young engraver from Germany named Johann Gutenberg invented his own printing press in 1453 and sold the schematics around the world. (Kelly 288) With such incredible technological advancements, it is not surprising that there were advancements in the medical field and public health.
In the field of medicine, after the Black Death, surgeons became more popular over university-trained physicians who studied more philosophy than medical texts. Surgeons were more likely to understand and treat their patient’s illness or injury because they studied texts that encouraged practical, physical sciences. In an effort to understand the human body, autopsies became more common, and anatomy books became more accurate. This pointed those in the medical field to develop the scientific method. Instead of coming to a conclusion based on pure speculation, doctors would posit a theory, test the theory against observable fact, and rigorously analyze the results to see if they supported the theory. Doctors were able to learn much more and treat their patients better. Hospitals learned from the plague by warding the sick, separating those with different diseases or physical needs. This increased the survival rate of patients from contacting various ailments (Kelly 288).
Florence and Italy were much further ahead than other parts of Europe, actively attempting to increase the quality of public health. In 1348, a municipal health board was organized to manage sanitation of public areas and the burial of the dead. Florence established the lazaretto, or plague house, which was part hospital, part nursing home, and part prison. In Florence a practicing public health physician by the name of Giovanni Fracastoro became the first person to develop a systematic theory of contagion. (Kelly 288-289)
Just as there were changes in the medical and public health field that were brought on by the Black Death, there was also a shift towards religious violence motivated by belief of personal sins and people looking for a scapegoat in light of the fear and chaos the pestilence brought. In the chaos and fear that the Black Death brought, many feared that it was a punishment from God. This fear manifested in many forms, the flagellants being a well-known one. The disciplinati, or flagellants (flagellum means whip) would beat themselves and each other as a form of individual and collective penance for sin. This act was supposed to demonstrate their sorrows for their sins, asking for forgiveness from God. Members would gather and often march together in religious processions while encouraging onlookers to join them, sometimes journeying long distances into other towns or regions. These groups spread to Italy and into central and Eastern Europe where church authorities had little or no control over participants. Many traveling groups stopped and disbanded once they reached northern Italy, southern France or Germany, where they became associated with parishes and were absorbed by the religious landscape (Byrne 78).
Such an act is chronicled by Heinrich of Herford, a Dominican friar, in 1355, “In the same year  a race without a head, calling themselves cruciferians [cross bearers] flagellants, unexpectedly rose from all parts of Germany, whose numbers and the suddenness of their coming was a source of universal wonder…but they were called the flagellants on account of the flagella [whips] with which they were seen to do penance…With these flagella they beat and whipped their bodies…Gathering themselves from various nations, or perhaps from the cities they wandered the land through fields and open country without any order…but when they came to cities towns in large villages and settlements they marched down the city in procession” (qtd. in Aberth 122-23).
While this was one extreme reaction to the Black Death, the fear and rage at their helplessness lead the people of Europe to look for a scapegoat for their apocalypse. They angrily accused the Jewish communities, who made up only one percent of late Medieval Europe’s population. In a region mainly dominated by Christians, it was common for the two communities to live in a tense state of tolerance.
The Christian community stigmatized Jews as “Christ-killers” who refuse to see the truth of the Gospel and were allies of Christianity’s enemies, especially Islam. They were irrationally accused of poisoning wells. The first accusation leveled against the Jews came into the open in the autumn of 1348, when several Jews were tried for the offense at Chillon and Chatel (present day Switzerland). By February 1351, such accurate accusations and executions had been repeated in as many as 100 towns and cities, mostly in Germany, encompassing thousands of victims (Aberth, Morality, 139). German Franciscan Hermann Gigas wrote in 1349, “Some say [the pestilence] was brought about by the corruption of the air; others that the Jews plan to wipe out all the Christians with poison and had poisoned wells and springs everywhere. And many Jews confessed as much under torture: that they had bred spiders and toads in pots and pans, and had obtained poison from overseas. (qtd. in Byrne 82-3) Angry mobs would force Jewish communities to gather and would then torture or kill them, sometimes burning them to death. Europe’s upper classes would hold official show trials and executions in hopes of satisfying the bloodlust. Desperate to escape these false accusations and the possibility of death, many German Jews migrated eastward, quadrupling Hungarian’s Jewish population by 1490 and quintupling Poland’s (Byrne 83). While there were many religious reactions to the Black Death, the persecution of the Jews was the most violent and hateful of any actions and continued for centuries after the Black Death epidemic.
The Black Death transformed the social, economic and cultural dynamics of late Medieval Europe. It crippled the population and workforce, resulting in a change of the social hierarchy. It changed the physical infrastructure and had the remaining population migrating to cities. It forced the advancement of technological innovation, new measures to be taken in the field of medicine and public health, and an increase in anti-Semitism. All of these changes had a lasting effect on Europe that shaped its future. There can be no doubt that the Black Death was the primary reason for social change in the late Medieval Europe.
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