The Black Plague’s Impact On Early Modern Western Society

Categories: Black Death

“Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from their city. However, the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial.

The Black Plague also known as the Black death was a bubonic plague that killed nearly 75-200 million people. Most actions that evolved in the early modern Western society was arranged by social class, but the plague attacked the entire community as a whole. Because this deadly disease took many lives but also prompted many changes to transpire. After the black death the price of grain fell which made it more affordable and that allowed farmers to expand their herd of animals.

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As farmers increased their land and multitude of animals, these goods could be sold and exchanged. Most of the population did not agree with how the powerful leaders were controlling things so many joined and rebelled. Although some individuals became wealthier they also become aristocratic.

Once the Black Death was presumed over, some individuals decided to appeal a variety of audiences by establishing a new specialty in writing. Some individuals sought to use visual arts as an innovation to show emotions and experiences. This soon led to the Renaissance movement which was located in Italy.

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The Renaissance movement brought about many inventions and innovations. The warfare also grew after the Black Death. The use of cannons and heavy artillery played major roles in many conflicts. After the Black Death the return of papacy was a must. Despite the fact that the Black Death killed many humans and destroyed many families it also led to changes that would last a lifetime and still evolves today. The Black Death not only took many lives and destroyed families it also caused massive destruction to many lands but also led to the reconstruction of forests. The result of the plague brought death to a great number of humans so the request for grain was very low.

In the article “The Black Death”, the authors Kristina Lenz and Nils Hybel mention how the need for grain came to a halt. The article says, “However, in the first decade of the 14th century the export of grain was in decline. In 1303 Edward I had granted privileges to foreign merchants in the Carta Mercatoria; these included free trade and the avoidance of certain excise duties. These privileges were revoked in 1309 and the export of grain virtually ground to a halt.” With grain not being a popular good at the time small farmers were able to improve their soil and also expand their lands. In order to expand their lands, they needed workers to perform certain duties on the land. Some peasants had no choice but to become serfs. “The Archaeology of the Peasants” written by Colin Platt describes this half of the century as the most vigorous. The article says, “Forget, for a while, the archaeologist’s fixation with ‘high status’. The lost or shrunken hamlet, the 1330s village house with provision for live-in servants, and the ubiquitous homestead moat, could all be relics of a market in peasant land more vigorous in this half-century than at any other time, and — for the poor — more calamitous.” Platt describes how the market in peasant land after the Black Death was vigorous and calamitous. The serfs and peasants not only had to work not by their will, but they worked for free. These new structures of servitude allowed many goods to be sold on market. With the demand of grain at a low and the expansion of lands, more time could be devoted to different goods such as livestock, dairy, and a variety of fruits and vegetables and sold on the open market.

Many rural areas were impacted by the Black Death which shifted a movement to the cities and towns that weren’t drastically affected. This shift caused numbers to grow within the Urban community. With many individuals within the community, there were many opportunities for trade. The Hanseatic League was a small group of entrepreneurial cities that formed to make a mercantile corporation. This league controlled commerce from Britain, Scandinavia, and the Baltic. The trade included raw materials and manufactured goods. The article “Hanseatic League” written by the Britannica Academic outlines the movement of goods. It says, “Grain, timber and pitch, tar, potash and charcoal, wax and honey, and hemp and flax all were drawn from the huge hinterland to the south and east of the Baltic (modern-day Russia and Poland) and shipped to the industrial west (Flanders and England), which in turn sent cloth and other manufactured goods eastward to the Slavs.” It also describes how the goods from Scandinavia were used also. “Scandinavia too was taken into the Hanseatic orbit. Swedish copper and iron ore were traded westward, and herring caught off the southern tip of Sweden was traded throughout Germany and southward to the Alps.” The creation of the Hansaetic League’s major goals was to have safe traffic routes by implementing more lighthouses, marker buoys, and trained pilots. Another major goal was to secure the most wanted goods.

The Black Death forced many individuals to flee from rural areas and relocate to cities and towns. This relocation allowed trade networks to begin, which led into the creation of the Hansaetic League. Trade like this would not stop here, it would soon lead into activities such as the Columbian Exchange. Whereas some of these changes benefited individuals it did not service those who could not afford these things such as peasants. While the Black Death may have brought about some positive changes to a few individuals and families, it did not benefit some people. Many peasants were angry with how their requests were taken care of. Many higher and powerful workers were taking advantage of the peasants and serfs. These actions were the beginning of a rebellion.

The Jacquerie Rebellion named from the aristocrat Jacques Bonhomme, was an event when the peasants of France stood up and rebelled by burning crops and murdering certain individuals. The article “Jacquire” written by Britannica academic describes how the peasants were demanded to reconstruct the castles of their leader that they had destroyed. It says, “The peasants were further enraged by the nobles’ demands for heavier payments of dues and by the order of the dauphin Charles (the future Charles V) that the peasants refortify the castles of their aristocratic oppressors.” The article goes on to say how there was an uprising near Compiegne that quickly spread. The author describes the actions of the peasants as this, “The peasants destroyed numerous castles and slaughtered their inhabitants.”

The Black Death led to many powerful workers abusing their leadership role by creating an unfair life for peasants. The revolts and rebellions that would evolve from the Black Death would not just stop at the Jacquerie Rebellion it would be viewed in the Ciompi rebellion where workers protested mistreatment, the English Revolt of corruption within the church. It would also go so far to be seen in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Although the Black Death ended in revolts it opened doors to the lifestyle to noble families. In the aftermath of the Black Death the agricultural revenue of noble estates declined. Many nobles did not adapt to the results of the Plague, but many became richer. The article “The History of Europe” defines noble as “The term noble was originally used to refer to members of kinship groups whose names and heroic past were known, respected, and recognized by others (though it was not usually used by members of such groups themselves).” As a noble, an individual will dress in rich and fancy clothing to go out. The noble status was a status that had to be kept and shown to others. In order to keep the noble status consistent, the kings and princes assisted by implementing certain orders such as the Order of the Star. After the Black Death, many found it difficult to adjust but nobles still overcame and lived lives with fortune. For those that were not nobles, they chose different routes such as writing. The Black Death also created a path for individuals that wanted to describe observations of social norms and the government. During this time the writers exemplify the growth of vernacular language, the increase of education, and the rise of a public that reads.

There were many authors that described this time. Some were Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio. Geoffrey Chaucer is famous for his book “The Canterbury Tales”, written in the 1390s. The book describes a group of pilgrims that gather to have a storytelling contest while traveling on a horseback. In the article “Geoffrey Chaucer”, by Britannica states, “The pilgrims are introduced by vivid brief sketches in the General Prologue. Interspersed between the 24 tales told by the pilgrims are short dramatic scenes presenting lively exchanges, called links and usually involving the host and one or more of the pilgrims. This describes how the pilgrims are introduced by the author Geoffrey Chaucer. The article also describes how Chaucer was able to grab the attention of different lives. It says, “Use of a pilgrimage as a framing device for the collection of stories enabled Chaucer to bring together people from many walks of life: knight, prioress, monk; merchant, man of law, franklin, scholarly clerk; miller, reeve, pardoner; wife of Bath and many others.” This quote shows how Chaucer conveyed an image of the lives of many which soon drew the attention from a variation of crowds. Chaucer was also inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Giovanni Boccaccio is famous for his collection of tales called, “The Decameron”. These tales illustrate the lives of ten individuals that leave their city to escape the Black Death. Each story describes how each individual is given an opportunity to be a king or queen. Within these stories there was one thing in common, “Boccaccio has a master theme, namely, the way of life of the refined bourgeoisie, who combined respect for conventions with an open-minded attitude to personal behavior.” These stories show of individuals that are given the opportunity of a life of fortune and how they overcome the circumstances. The Black Death affected many lives but writers like Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio were able to create stories to depict actual life changes and circumstances. Some individuals chose writing but there were some that chose art as their way to illustrate life after the Black Death.

As some individuals chose to express life after the Black Plague some chose to illustrate experiences and emotions through visual arts. After the Black Death the innovation of oil painting came in to play. These oil paintings intrigued the noble individuals and wealthy individuals that were in charge of supplying merchandise. Rogier van der Weyden was a painter that was able to perfect the style of oil painting. The article describes, “While on his pilgrimage, Rogier apparently tutored Italian masters in painting with oils, a technique in which Flemish painters of the time were particularly adept. He also seems to have learned a great deal from what he viewed.” This shows that not only did he master the skill of oil painting he also taught others.

Plays and pageants such as “The Last Supper” and “The Crucifixion” were also performed. These plays portrayed the expressions and experiences of how the world was after the Black Death which soon led to the Renaissance movement. The Renaissance movement was the beginning of a century that thrived in intellectual individuals and artists. This movement was centered in the city of Italy. Many of the ideals from this century was derived from humanism. Humanism is defined as an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. These ideals were transferred and moved from country to country by the invention of the printing press. The renaissance movement sparked a rise in arts, architecture, music, and politics.

Many artists such as Tiziano Vecellio, Raffaello Sanzio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti thrived in the renaissance era. Much of the architecture originated from Roman like buildings. Many buildings were built with geometrical proportion. Andrea Palladio is famous for his ancient temples used for aristocrats to dwell within. One intellectual development was Christian humanism. Some humanists wanted to seek guidance from biblical and religious precepts. When discussions about Christian humanism becomes a subject, the life of Desiderius Erasmus plays a major factor. The main goal of Erasmus was to promote the philosophy of Christ. He achieved this goal by offering different methods of writing. “These methods were clever satires in which people could recognize their own foibles, serious moral treatises meant offer guidance toward proper Christian behavior, and scholarly editions of basic Christian texts (Cole).” Music was also very popular during this era. The Black Death led to many innovations and new ideal within the Renaissance era. Warfare and artillery were also impacted by the Black Death. Although cannons were previously introduced in years before, they redefined the definition of warfare. After the Black Death, cannons were used in the Ottoman Turks attacked the Constantinople and when the French took over the city of Bordeaux. During this time, cannons were popular and unique. The article “Cannon” written by Britannica, defines a cannon as “Cannon, big gun, howitzer, or mortar, as distinguished from a musket, rifle, or other small arm. Modern cannon are complex mechanisms cast from high-grade steel and machined to exacting tolerances. They characteristically have rifled bores, though some contemporary tank-mounted and field artillery guns are smooth-bored.”

The cannon was the beginning of a military that could not be defeated. Not only did the Black Death affect the military it had a major impact on the church. The return of the papacy was persistent throughout the church. Caterina Benincasa also named St. Catherine of Siena who was determined for the papacy’s return. She did this by her gain in reputation. “Catherine determined to take public action for peace within the church and Italy and to encourage a Crusade against the Muslims.” She knew that she wanted peace within the church and by this she would do this by the return of Pope Gregory XI. After the death of Pope Gregory there were many changes of who was in command of the church. These changes led to the Great Schism also known as the Great Western Schism.

The author of “Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence, and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism”, Nora Beren suggests that “The main contribution is the contextualization of the mob violence that has often been seen as a contributing factor to the Great Schism (Beren).” She determines that mob violence was a huge factor in the Great Schism. These rivals between the Roman and Orthodox churches would last until the meeting of the Council of Constance. “Plague did not honor social class, and mortality among the nobility approximated that of the general population.” As Robert Gottfried states, the black plague did not attack just a specific class it charged at every population as all were the same. The Black Death decreased many families and the community by a multitude.

The Black Plague affected many conditions in the years to follow. Although the Black Plague took many lives it improved the lives of small farmers. Small farmers were able to expand their livestock and goods which could soon be sold in the trade market. This trade market affected many cities and towns. With the expansion of lands, many individuals were able to climb to a status where they felt powerful. This powerful status soon caused an eruption within the peasant community. This eruption created revolts and rebellions such as the Jacquiere Rebellion. With this powerful status, those that were considered noble strived to maintain the status although it was difficult to adjust. Some individuals chose to express the aftermath of the Black Death through writing and art. The time preceding the Black Death would be called the Renaissance era. Once the Renaissance era was created many new ideals and inventions began. Some inventions are still used in today’s time. The warfare began to grow after the plague had ended. This caused many militaries to grow stronger. Also, after the Black Death papacy’s return would cause an unsettlement within in the church that would last until around the 1417. The Black Death has many negative effects on the western society but also caused positive effects that would last centuries.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Black Plague’s Impact On Early Modern Western Society. (2024, Feb 28). Retrieved from

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