Between the years 1347 and 1351, it is estimated that one third of the entire European population succumbed to the Black Death, while similar death tolls occurred in both Asia and the Middle East. Although the plague is considered to be the single worst pandemic in world history, one could argue that it yielded several very positive impacts on society. From the arenas of agriculture and art to literature and education, the Black Death influenced nearly every aspect of medieval life.
The Black Death first appeared in October of 1347 when twelve Genoese Galleys pulled into the Port of Messina in Sicily. When port authorities went to inspect the ship, they found that almost no one on board was alive, and those who were living were extremely lethargic, covered in black boils, and smelled ungodly awful. The port was immediately declared a public health emergency and the galleys were forced away from the port; however, such cautionary measures proved to be too little, too late. In no time at all, the entire town of Messina was infected with the plague (Martin 7).
As many historians have noted, the elders and physicians in the town should have been able to recognize what was unraveling due to the fact that sporadic outbreaks of plague had occurred earlier throughout Europe. Although such outbreaks were indeed deadly, they only lasted a few months and were generally contained within specific areas. However, when the Black Death struck, it would prove to be the single worst epidemic in world history, spreading rapidly and attacking people of all socio-economic conditions (Martin 8).
To many medieval citizens, the plague seemed to be some sort of divine punishment. In fact, Michael of Piazza, a Franciscan friar, wrote one of the earliest accounts of the plague. At around the year 1350, Michael reported that the Messinese constantly begged the virgin to end their affliction (Martin 17). As the Messinese were so incredibly preoccupied with their own suffering, they never considered the possibility that the plague could spread throughout the continent (Martin 8).
Many merchants attempted to flee such greatly infected areas, seeking places that they deemed to be more safe. In selling what goods they had, these merchants aided in spreading the plague either via personal contact or as a result of flea-infested merchandise, and the plague quickly stretched onward, moving North toward central Italy, leading one Siennese chronicler to recount:
“And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or for friendship…And in many places in Siena, great pits were dug and piled with huge heaps of the dead…And there were so many dead throughout the city who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them out and devoured their bodies,” (Martin 36).
A mere one to two months after the Black Death had appeared in Italy, it officially arrived in France. It is suspected that they very galleys forced from Genoa are also responsible for inspecting the city of Marseilles. Following the example of the Genoans, the people of Marseilles forced the galleys from the port, enabling the plague to spread onward along the coast, toward Spain (Martin 38).
Between economic and political troubles and civil unrest, the European continent was running low on resources while death rates were beginning to soar. War among nations intensified the expansion of the plague, as well. Troops helped to spread the Black Death from Marseilles to Montpellier and Toulouse. By March, the plague had reached the cities of Lyons and Paris, where it would quickly spread to Avignon, the most recent seat of the papacy (Martin 37).
While there are many estimates of how greatly the population was reduced, the Rolls of the Apostolic Chamber record that 94 out of 450 members of the Papal Curia succumbed to the Black Death. In fact, as a means of precaution, Pope Clement VI sought seclusion in his chambers, refusing to allow anyone to come into contact with him (Martin 37). Although many people frowned upon the pope’s reaction to such circumstances, he ultimately had to look out for his own best interests.
Other churchmen, however, were unable to be so selective. Naturally, spending time with the ill is a required duty of any priest, and even though many Europeans grew doubtful of their faith and frustrated with the church’s inability to terminate the Black Death, priests and doctors proved to be the two professions with the highest mortality rates (Martin 39).
Although physicians desperately strove to comprehend, treat, and cure the plague, it seemed as though the code simply could not be cracked. Philip VI, too, struggled to understand the source of such tremendous suffering, and he sought the assistance of the medical faculty at the University of Paris. According to their research, the cause was astronomical, not medical. Apparently, the Black Death had occurred as a result of the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Yet, still, physicians remained completely clueless on how to begin treating a plague victim (Martin 41).
Diet was an important matter. For instance, foods such as figs, lettuce, pomegranates, and pickled onions were all thought to be helpful in treating the plague. The general consensus on the best form of defense, however, was isolation. Often, windows were covered with thick curtains and drapes to prevent infected air from entering homes. This would eventually lead to a steep rise in the price of heavy curtains, which consequently rendered the lower classes incapable of defending themselves via this mechanism (Martin 42). Moreover, as Giovanni Boccaccio, a Black Death survivor, recalled,
” One citizen avoided another; hardly any neighbor troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother…and fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs,” (Boccaccio 140).
Although there is more information on the manifestation of the plague in England than in any other country, it is still unclear as to when and where the Black Death entered England. Most scholars estimate the time to be around June of 1348. This is due to the fact that in May of 1349, a London ship had set sail for Bergen; however, by the time the ship arrived, every last crew member had succumbed. After a group of Norwegians boarded the ship, most likely in hopes of finding goods, the entire city became infected by September. Then, from late 1349 until early 1351, the Black Death continued to spread throughout the entirety of Scandinavia (Martin 76).
Although many contemporary historians are reluctant to credit the Black Death as the sole cause of the vast and radical change that occurred in the post-plague years, one cannot deny the fact that the plague created impactful and lasting changes to the societies not only of the medieval world, but also to society as we know it today. In fact, as Rosemary Horrox has recounted, the Black Death would sweep away all of the certainties of the High Middle Ages. For instance, the feudal system collapsed, respect for social hierarchy and order was completely undermined, and former intellectual authorities seemed to have lost all credibility. Upon the termination of the plague, it seemed as though a completely new world had formed (Horrox 229).
To put it simply, the erasing of such a large portion of a population cannot be carried out over a period of less than three years without causing a considerable dislocation of the pre-existing economic and social hierarchies (Horrox 235). Furthermore, historians do not debate that the plague was indeed a catalyst for change, it is the lack of clarity about what these particular changes were and how great their significance was that most often sparks debate (Ziegler 232).
The prevailing view among the majority of historians presently is that the Black Death accelerated changes that would have eventually occurred anyway, producing profound and lasting effects on medieval society and social order (Martin 79). Most European towns were extremely resilient, recovering from the epidemic quite quickly, and one of the most paramount positive outcomes, for instance, was the drastic increase in wages (Martin79). With such a drastic reduction in population, the work force was obviously impacted severely.
In fact, it is estimated that wages rose by approximately 25 percent. There were no longer enough workers to cultivate all of the land, and consequently, those who survived the Black Death were able to demand higher payments for their work. Also, with the increase in supply and the decrease in demand, lords were receiving lower prices for their goods while they paid higher wages to their workers (Ziegler 233).
Additionally at this time, labor was also becoming increasingly mobile. If a lord refused to offer his laborer adequate pay and adequate work, that individual could seek other offers in neighboring towns or villages (Martin 81). As Norman Cantor noted, the peasant class was not only enabled to press for higher wages, they also began to fight for further elimination of servile duties and restrictions (Cantor 203). Thus, lords had to become much more cooperative if they intended to maintain their workforce, so they began to divide their demesne, renting it out to various freemen in return for cash (Ziegler 233).
Often, agreements would be made where a hereditary tenant, or a serf, would be granted freedom in exchange for lower rent. Thus, the lord of a manor would be able to have his land worked, and simultaneously, his laborers would have the option of leaving if they so desired (Martin 81). Often, laborers would choose to remain where they were, yet the fact that they had they had the option to move freely was unprecedented.
Additionally, in the post-plague years, women were able to hold jobs that were previously denied to them. As there were not enough men to fill all necessary positions, there was no other option than to employ the opposite sex, and for the first time in history, women were given a certain amount of independence. In fact, by the 1400s, the beer-brewing industry was maintained predominately by women. The growth of the domestic wool-weaving manufacturing also allowed working-class women to come into their own, establishing their newfound craftsmanship (Cantor 203).
With such rapid advancements in the society and the economy, and in a situation where land was plentiful and labor was scarce, governments were often forced to intervene (Ziegler 239). For example, the British government did their duty in keeping things in check by creating statutes which would attempt to level the playing field, so to speak.
First issued was the Ordinance of Laborers, but it was quickly followed in 1351 by the Statute of Laborers. Such policies were established as direct attempts to prevent workers from transferring their loyalties from one employer to another (Ziegler 239). In general, they helped to prevent wealthy land owners or industrialists from luring workers away from weaker competition, while they were also inspired by the national fear that the demands of the peasant class would spiral out of control (Ziegler 251).
The statutes were definitely skewed in favor of the landlords, but they also were not intended to be mechanisms of repression. In addition, this is not to say that the peasant class was necessarily negatively impacted (Ziegler 251). Essentially, such policies neglected to have a detrimental effect; rather, they did dilute the possibility of great upward mobility that the plague had created (Ziegler 252).
Obviously, in a situation where wages of workers and prices of goods increased dramatically, something had to be done so that these levels could return to a more normal level. Yet, in doing so, either the peasant class or the landlords would have to make sacrifices. In the post-plague era, England experienced the setting of a maximum wage, yet there existed no minimum wage, and those who composed the poorer classes were the ones who underwent the majority of discrimination (Ziegler 251).
Overall, the amount of such serfs, or yeomen as they were often called, increased greatly over time, eventually leading to the end of the manorial system (Martin 79). Along with working conditions, in the years immediately following the plague, there occurred a gradual increase in the overall quality of the lives of the yeomen. For instance, diets improved. More food became available and was spread among a smaller amount of citizens.
Another way that life after the Black Death improved was via the localization of education. Before the plague struck the European continent, Education was primarily dependent upon a much older generation of intellectual men. Yet, during the plague, mortality rate among the most prominent men in the field of education were extremely high. Although such happenings are extremely unfortunate, this created a window where new ideas and information could surface (Ziegler 255).
In England, for example, there occurred a tremendous shortage in the amount of educated individuals who were fluent enough in French to instruct in the language. With virtually no one who could continue the tradition of using French in the education system, English schools had no choice other than to instruct in the vernacular language. With the tremendous rise in the amounts of vernacular educational institutions, the translations of Latin and French documents into English became crucial (Ziegler 255).
Aside from education, the realm of European architecture was also greatly impacted. During the Black Death, many of the most skilled masons were completely wiped out. Consequently, those who were left were in extremely high demand, and therefore, they were unable to use their talents to their full potential. To put it simply, there was too much work to do in too little time for one to dedicate enough time to carry out elegant or difficult designs in a given work (Ziegler 257).
The new generation of masons that entered the work force had to work with a wide variety of stones, most of which were unfamiliar. Thus, many masons began to choose less complicated techniques, and as a result, there occurred a drastic fall in the standards of a mason’s work. As many historians have noted, the arena of architecture in the immediate post-plague years became dramatically simplified and monotonous. It seemed as though the interest in masonry as a craft and as an art form were simply vanishing from the practices of society. According to Philip Ziegler, with the craftsmen who died during the Black Death went the “glories of religious architecture,” (Ziegler 257).
The Black Death, additionally, caused a major upheaval in the realm of religion. There was an intense shortage of priests and churchmen in the years following the plague. As Ziegler states, “on the whole, in plague as in war, those who take most care of themselves live on while those who expose themselves parish,” (Ziegler 262). Just as the plague wiped out the most prominent members of most other fields, the best of the clergy had succumbed while Europe was left with a newer generation of second-rate priests (Ziegler 263).
Suddenly, university graduates became extremely in demand. Monastic vows could now be administered at the age of fifteen, where as it had formerly been twenty. Furthermore, this meant that priests were now being ordained at the age of twenty, not twenty-five. Thus, priests were now taking over parishes at much younger ages, and the Catholic Church was viewed as being inexperienced and undereducated (Cantor 206).
As Ziegler describes, the new recruits who were to take the place of the dead were simply not at the same caliber of their predecessors, neither spiritually nor educationally, and when these young churchmen also began to bargain for increased wages and better privileges, the older generation of the church was left greatly disheartened (Ziegler 262).
Furthermore, these unravelings helped to drive the spread of John Wycliffe’s Lollards. The Lollards were given an open window where they could attack the Catholic Church on all fronts. For instance, Wycliffe and his Lollards began to criticize the leadership of the church, ecclesiastical mortality, and they even questioned the efficacy of the Sacrament of Mass (Cantor 206). The Catholic Church was seen as being of inadequate quality and as maintaining an insufficient quantity of ecclesiastical leaders. Parish priests were viewed as ignorant and monks were perceived as being extremely selfish.
Ultimately, in annihilating one third of the entire European population, no individual can deny the fact that the Black Death is the single most deadly and most widespread pandemic to ever afflict the world. Although the people of the time neglected to comprehend how or why such intense suffering was occurring, the Black Death would proceed to impact not only their lives, but also the lives of the children and grandchildren. Between bouts of mass migration and an unprecedented reduction in population, the plague created a severe and lasting impact on virtually every aspect of the societies, economies, and religious realms of the medieval world. Bibliography
Cantor, Norman F. In Wake of the Plague: the Black Death and the World it Made. New York: Free Press, 2001. Print.
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere, 1930). Print
Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press: 1994. Print.
Martin, Sean. The Black Death: Pocket Essentials. Chicago: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2007. Print.
Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. New York: John Day Company, 1969. Print.