The Black Death

Medieval society had reached a stagnant point in the mid 1300’s; the wealthy owned estates of land and the peasants worked on this land in return for accommodation and food to provide for their own families. Over-population and severe class divides meant that food and everyday supplies were short, there was little or no opportunity for the poor or peasants to alleviate the hold of poverty through increasing their earnings. Quality of life for the lower classes was bleak. The Black Death of 1348 – 49 threw medieval society into bedlam and broke the social and economic deadlock of the time.

As indiscriminate as disease and infection always is, the plague struck the poor, the wealthy, the clergy and the medics alike, as it moved from the Gobi Desert through Constantinople, Russia, France, Germany and England from 1320 to 1351. The Black Death caused devastation to Europe, with more fatalities than any other bio-medical disease so much so that some medieval historians believe that Europe’s population was reduced by up to 65% as a result 1.With the considerable reduction of Europe’s population, radical changes to every aspect of life had to follow to ensure that those left could gather their lives together and rebuild their worlds. On the whole, medieval society coped with the aftermath and adapted to vast changes that the Black Death bought very aptly, ensuring that the necessary adjustments to everyday life were seen through. The survivors could be commended for their ability to change and move forwards in the face of adversity and disaster although it is apparent that for those left, the Black Death bought new and great opportunities for society to better itself and for the deadlock to be lifted2. Medieval society did cope very well, but simply only because their lives were to change for the better, as a result of the decreased population.Without any doubt, the Black Death disrupted every aspect of medieval life but all to differing extents.

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Although all areas inter-link and have an immediate effect on the others, it is easiest to survey societies success in coping and the changes that were made by looking at the areas of: demography, sociology, economy, industry, politics, the church and medicine, individually. The most apparent and devastating affect of the plague was on the population of Europe.The approximate rates of death as a result of the plague are augured over by historians continually although most will accept that charting even approximate rates of mortality is impossible due to inaccurate local and regional records of current population and lack of full recording of the outbreaks of plague3. Most will also agree that previous estimates claiming that one-quarter of Europe’s population perished in the Black Death of 1348-9 are being overly cautious4 and that the plague caused greater death (45 – 65% of the population)5 than first thought.Historian, David Herlihy, questioned the idea that the arrival of the plague was a “Malthusian crisis trigged by excessive numbers of people”6; a reckoning was inevitable as a natural reaction to the population expanding above the earths food supply. Without wishing too look to deeply into geography-based theories of population, the arrival of the plague does seem to prove the Malthusian theory.Before the Black Death, families were starving, there was not enough food produced to feed the ever-expanding population and people were dying. Yet after the plague there was an abundance of food for all survivors and not only was there more, but better quality and range of food was available to the poorer members of society.

This of course increased the health of those survivors and their ability to fight against possible future re-occurrences. Essentially, quality of life was improved with less people around. This draws back the idea that society didn’t so much ‘cope effectively’ after the plague but rather that life was made better for it’s occurrence. The plague didn’t create a new demographic system either, it simply allowed society to redistribute those left within it and work towards further development7 creating as little disturbance as possible, just leaving the path open for further improvement.

Socially, the Black Death opened the doors to great change as those left strived to quickly re-establish the ‘clock-work’ running of everyday life and society and it is here that the plague caused some of its deepest changing effects. The immediate effects on society was a greatly increased number of marriages. Many had been widowed or had inherited land or money from lost relatives and so family circumstances had altered a great deal for most.8 People sought to restore the support of the family unit and demonstrated great ability to reform and settle after such devastation.The next obvious effect was on that of the workforce and trades: there were suddenly not enough people to work both on the land to produce food, to work in the mills or to fulfill roles in skilled trades as carpentry, ironmongery and coopering.

Peasants immediately recognised that a reduced workforce meant that their services were now in great demand, so much so that they were now in a far better position to negotiate the terms of their work and payment and they demanded fairer treatment and lighter burdens.9 Although not often given into easily, Landlords were pressed for higher wages and reduction, if not elimination of servile dues and restrictions.10 Trade guilds were forced to go against previous lines of employment through family connections and “spread their nets more broadly to bring in new apprentices”.11 Previously unskilled men now had the opportunity to work in new trades of which empowered them to demand higher wages dues to their new skills and remaining demand for their services.It can be readily seen again that the Black Death naturally bought forward a better quality of life for those who survived and the society simply took advantage of these new opportunities. “Conspicuous consumption”12 by the poor began to erase the distinctive differences between the social classes and ensured that the previous pattern of society and class in the 13th century would not continue.

Although the decline of serfdorm may have begun prior to the plague, there is no doubt that it accelerated it greatly with the rise of a richer and more prosperous class of peasant, called yeoman.13The post-plague social changes were initially successful and medieval society again demonstrated the ability to succeed after disaster, although resistance to change from nobility forced the peasant classes to make further, forceful demands. A series of revolts and rebellions followed, lead by the commoners and peasants (The French Jaquerie of 1358 and The English Peasants Revolt in 1381, most famously) as they fought for their rights under the new social structure. The revolts did little to make further changes as most has already taken place, they predominantly only further disrupted social relations and created further unrest.The effects of the Black Death are probably most dramatic and easily identifiable on Europe’s social structure and it is here that medieval society demonstrated the greatest lack of ability to cope with the immediate aftermath. Although it should also be considered that 14th century was a time of great unrest as it stood. In 1317, Europe experienced a great famine, the Hundred Years War was suspended through the Black Death15 but began again soon after and Europe experienced troubles with both the Turks and the Jews, the latter of which were frequently accused of involvement with the spreading of the Black Death.

16 When considering these factors, it is perhaps understandable that a quick and trouble-free recovery after the Black Death would be unlikely, especially considering the radical changes it bought on itself.Medieval economic recovery relates closely to social recovery as the changes in the number of those able to work impacted greatly on Europe’s already critical economy. Of course, the initial economic repercussion was shock; routines of work and service were completely disrupted or put on hold altogether. Construction projects were stopped, mills were abandoned and broken machinery could not be repaired as the economy and productivity grinded to a temporary halt. An immediate general inflation in prices of clothing and food was a result of there existing few people to actually produce them, but this quickly settled as people returned to previous work for higher wages or trained in new trades.The value of agricultural land had also diminished and rents collapsed, stark in contrast to the soaring wages for agricultural workers.17 Along with the drop in price of goods due to oversupply, the ordinary man benefited greatly where business and landowners suffered.

The government responded by introducing new taxes and sumptuary laws across Europe of which regulated the common mans use of the newly readily available goods. Fashion was regulated with sleeve size and trains on dresses reduced; quantities and types of food served at weddings and other events was also limited by the laws.18Changes in the economy also affected industry and some towns effectively ‘died’. Town centers such as Champagne and Bruges lost significance and importance as both population and industry moved into the country in hope to escape the plague. Industrial advancements was only put on hold throughout the plague and society again demonstrated the ability to reform and reestablish business and industry by immediately creating new business centers. Antwerp and Nuremberg became established financial and trade centers, in which free trade was encouraged by foreign merchants with good quality manufacture.Technology itself also leapt forward as a response to the challenge of higher and scarcer labour, which gave way to new opportunity. The inventive thinking of the post-plague society produced the beginnings of printing and also great developments in maritime transport and use.

As far as creativity and development in industry is concerned, the plague provided a start of fresh thinking of which society embraced by looking forward and being creative.Like the Hundred Years War, Politics froze throughout the plague and politics remained fairly undisturbed and left no devastating effects. National Parliaments across Europe were adjourned but recovered soon after. The effect on local politics was much greater and in some cases, entire city councils were reformed as the plague had ravished their numbers.21 Governments had to act in new ways and create new acts quickly to respond to and attempt to control the new social and economic structure in order to maintain some order and sensible economic situation. Governments attempted to curb the swell in wages and relinquish sinking rents.

They aimed to hold prices and wages at the previous levels, despite the economic problems in an attempt to reestablish normality and control. Workers were encouraged to simply accept whatever employment was offered to them.22 Serfs responded by exercising their new found ability to making demands by moving to areas where wages were higher or land rental terms were less, and so the governments new controls had little productive effect.