Throughout the history of the world, few events have been as catastrophic to mankind as the Black Plague. Starting from the 1340s, this disastrous disease spread quickly causing massive outbreaks across Europe and Asia. The Black Plague caused major economic, social, religious and political upheavals. These abrupt, extreme changes ultimately brought Europe into the age of the Renaissance, thus forever changing the entire course of European history.
The Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, was a global epidemic of bubonic plague.
Many epidemiologists believe the first mentioning of the epidemic are found on Nestorian graves inscriptions dating to 1338–1339. From here the plague easily could’ve spread to both India and China, and reaching further populations through contact across the Silk Road. In the early 1340s, the disease had already struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt. However European nations were completely unprepared to face this disastrous disease. In October 1347, the plague arrived in Europe when 12 ships arrived from the Black Sea.
These ships docked in the Sicillian post, Messina, and crowds of people on the docks were horrified to discover that most of the ship’s passengers were dead. Those that remained alive were seriously ill and covered with mysterious black boils all over their bodies. Although authorities quickly ordered the ships leave the port the damage had already been done, as many onlookers had already come into contact with the disease.
Scientists now know that the Black Plague is caused by bacteria called Yersina pestis. This bacteria is commonly found in fleas that are carried by rodents.
This bacterium is spread through the air, or through the bite of infected fleas or rats. Rodents and fleas were commonly found on board merchant ships, which explains how many European ports were the first to face off with the Black Plague. After striking Messina, the Black Plague spread to ports in France, North Africa. After the disease spread to ports in Florence and Rome, ports which were the center of European trade, it quickly spread to Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and London. One of the main reasons why the disease spread so quickly was because it was easily transmittable. Barbara Tuchman describes how the disease was perceived by the French by saying, “So lethal was the disease that cases were known of persons going to bed well and dying before they woke. … So rapidly did it spread from one to another that to a French physician … it seemed as if one sick person ‘could infect the whole world.” (Barbara, 1978). Also, the living conditions in medieval Europe were highly unsanitary. Many medieval port cities were overcrowded, had horrible sanitation, and had poor sewage systems in place. Many common people lived in small, overcrowded living quarters, which were often cold and damp as well. Overall Europe’s poor unsanitary living conditions and high reliance on ship trading made it completely vulnerable to the Black Plague.
The Black Plague had trademark painful symptoms. The most notable symptom was the appearance of black boils on a victim’s groin, armpit or neck. These boils oozed blood or pus when irritated. There were many other unpleasant symptoms including fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches, pain, and eventually death. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the plague as it broke out in Florence in 1348. He describes the plague by saying,
“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg … From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. As the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they showed themselves” (Boccaccio, 1921).
During the 1340’s, medical knowledge was extremely novice, so no one could understand what the disease was and how it was spreading so quickly. Doctors often implemented inhumane or irrational techniques in an attempt to alleviate symptoms. However due to a lack of knowledge many people shunned the sickly and chose not to help them. One person accounts of the fear that consumed medieval Europe by writing,”…Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety” (“The Black Death, 1348,” 2001). Thus the Black Plague caused major fear and widespread panic in Europe due to ignorance and a stagnation in medical knowledge.
The Black Plague had enormous effects on Europe’s economy. The Black Death killed more than 20 million people in Europe, which was at least one-third of Europe’s population. This resulted in Europe’s economy undergoing an extreme and abrupt deflation. It became difficult to produce and trade goods, which resulted in an increase of the prices of goods. As a large portion of the population had died, it was harder to find people to maintain grounds, plow fields, harvest crops, and produce other goods and services. As a result, peasants began to demand higher wages from European lords. Also there was more resources which could be accessed by workers including tools and land to work, which allowed workers to be more productive. Thus the decrease in population, and availability of resources allowed workers to be more productive and be paid much higher than before.
The social system in medieval Europe was also affected by the Black Plague. Not only did the relationship between workers and lords change, but many notable changes occurred in different societal aspects. Because of the high levels of fear the disease caused, many people abandoned their friends in family in order to avoid getting infected themselves. Serf, who were originally committed to working to one specific lord, were able to work for any lord who paid them appropriately. This caused a major disruption in the strict social classes which were previously held throughout medieval Europe. The Black Plague also led to an increase in health awareness. Many people realized the need to modernize medicine and the necessity of moving away from biblical cures. Overall, the most major societal impact the Black Death cause was the extreme population decrease it caused.
Prior to the Black Plague, many Europeans were avid believers in their faith. Many people believed that the Plague was a punishment sent by God in response to evildoers and sinners. Accompanied with a lack of understanding how the disease was actually transmitted, this caused many people to believe that the cure to the Black Plague could be achieved through God’s forgiveness. This caused a renewed sense of religious fervor, and led to the persecution of many ethnic minorities, including Jews. Many clergymen abandoned their roles and refused to perform last rites on the sickly, in fear of getting infected. However, after the plague, faith in religion drastically decreased. Many clergymen passed away during the plague which made it harder to train church officials and pass on traditions. Also the failure of prayer in preventing the spread of illness and death, caused many people to turn their backs on religion. Thus, the Black Plague led to major changes to European religious belief both during and after it’s outbreak.
The Black Plague resulted in many social, economic, political and religious changes which ultimately ended the medieval age of Europe. The Black Death led to widespread questioning of authority and previously held orthodox beliefs. Many commoner revolts occurred the most popular of which occurred in Florence in 1378 by the Ciompi. Following the Black Plague, many people became obsessed with the notion of death and had pessimistic views on the fleeting image of life. People began to want to live past their ordinary, mundane lives and live life to the fullest. This caused people to find solace in art and literature, which many historians believe was an indirect cause of the Renaissance Age in Italy. Wealthy lords and patrons, began to enjoy arts which concerned both religious and secular objects. This new fascination in secular themes led to the birth of new artists and writers. Thus, the Black Plague caused the European culture to be less religiously inclined and more secular, which led to the birth of the Renaissance in Italy (Dailyhistory.org, 2019).
The Black Plague took Europe by surprise and led to the death of over half its population. Europe’s unsanitary living conditions and overcrowded population allowed the already easily transmittable disease to quickly spread. The Black Plague had many positive and negative effects to European social, economic, political and religious factors. The upheavals that the Black Plague caused ultimately ended the medieval European era, and indirectly ushered in the age of the Renaissance. The medical technology and modern living conditions that currently exist in the 21st century, allows this age to be a much safer time to prevent potential epidemics like the Black Plague from ever occurring again.
Barbara, Tuchman. A Distant Mirror – The Calamitous 14th Century. 1978. New York: Ballantine Books, pp. 92-93.
Boccaccio, Decameron,. M. Rigg, trans. (London: David Campbell, 1921), Vol. 1, pp. 5-11.
Dailyhistory.org. (2019, January 19). How did the Bubonic Plague make the Italian Renaissance possible? Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_the _Bubonic_Plague_make_the_Italian_Renaissance_possible?
Decameron Web. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2019, from https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/plague/effects/social.php
History.com Editors. (2010, September 17). Black Death. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death.
Poor Hygiene During The Black Plague? (2017, July 13). Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://www.hepisontheway.com/call-today/poor-hygiene-during-the-black-plague/.
“The Black Death, 1348,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).
The Economic Consequences Of The Black Death. (2019). The Black Death in the Middle East, 240–248. doi: 10.2307/j.ctvbcd1b3.12