Impact of the Black DeathThe Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history. It is often fatal withoutprompt and appropriate treatment. It affects mainly poor and remote populations. Late diagnosisis one of the major causes of human death and spread of the disease, since it limits theeffectiveness of control measures.In the 14th century, at least 75 million people on three continents perished due to the painful,highly contagious disease. Originating from fleas on rodents in China, the “Great Pestilence”spread westward and spared few regions. In Europe’s cities, hundreds died daily and their bodieswere usually thrown into mass graves. The plague devastated towns, rural communities, families,and religious institutions. Following centuries of a rise in population, the world’s populationexperienced a catastrophic reduction and would not be replenished for more than one hundredyears.Origins and Path of the Black DeathThe Black Death originated in China or Central Asia and was spread to Europe by fleas and ratsthat resided on ships and along the Silk Road. The Black Death killed millions in China, India,Persia (Iran), the Middle East, the Caucasus, and North Africa. To harm the citizens during asiege in 1346, Mongol armies may have thrown infected corpses over the city wall of Caffa, onthe Crimean peninsula of the Black Sea. Italian traders from Genoa were also infected andreturned home in 1347, introducing the Black Death into Europe. From Italy, the disease spreadto France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia.Science of the Black DeathThe three plagues associated with the Black Death are now known to be caused by bacteriacalled Yersinia Pestis, which is carried and spread by fleas on rats. When the rat died aftercontinual bites and replication of the bacteria, the flea survived and moved to other animals orhumans. Although some scientists believe that the Black Death was caused by other diseases likeanthrax or the Ebola virus, recent research which extracted DNA from the skeletons of victimssuggests that Yersinia Pestis was the microscopic culprit of this global pandemic.It is considered to have permanent reservoirs in central Asia, Siberia, the Yunan region of China,and areas of Iran, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa. Rodents was infected withYersinia pesti, producing blood poisoning.Fleas feed on dying rodent and carry the toxic tounexpected victims. “Victims developed inflamed lymph nodes, particularly in the neck, armpit,and groin areas, and most died within a few days after the onset of symptoms” (Bentley, Ziegler& Streets, 2008 p.342). “These swellings were known as buboes, from the Greek word for
"groin." Buboes became dreaded as signals of impending death. Occasionally these hard knobswould spontaneously burst, pus would drain away and the victim might then recover if not totallyexhausted or attacked by other infections. More often, however, the buboes were soonaccompanied by high fever and agony” (cited in webmaster 2011). Some of the victims die justhours after being effected and some become comatose or wildly delirious. The appearance ofpostules was another symptom it was dark points on various part of the body. “These splotcheswere most often called lenticulae, from the Italian word for freckles” (cited in webmaster 2011).“Medical historians believe that the plague can spread in several ways but that it was thepneumonic or respiratory form that accounted for most of the deaths, being easily spread throughcoughing and sneezing. An interesting alternative was suggested in 1984 by the zoologistGraham Twigg, who had studied rat populations in more recent outbreaks of the plague in Asia.He doubts that the bubonic plague could have spread so rapidly in the fourteenth-centurypopulation; instead he nominates anthrax as the killer. Anthrax can be borne on the wind; it isknown as a threat to sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Both plague and anthrax, then, are primarilyfound in animal populations, with humans becoming "accidental" victims under certainconditions. Whatever its specific cause or causes, the Black Death killed until it ran out of largenumbers of vulnerable people. There have been subsequent plague epidemics, some also withhigh death tolls, and public health authorities continue to monitor possible new occurrences”(cited in webmaster 2011).Black Death killed about 1.5 million people out of an estimated 4 million between 1348 and1350 in England. At the time no technology existed to deal with the disease. The disease actuallyhit England six times by the end of the century.”The Black Death had a huge impact on society. Fields went unploughed as the men who usuallydid this were victims of the disease. Harvests would not have been brought in as the manpowerdid not exist. Animals would have been lost as the people in a village would not have beenaround to tend them” (cited in webmaster 2011).“Following the plague we find a clear sense of society turned upside down in England. Therulers of the kingdom reacted strongly. Some elements of legislation indicate a measure of panic.Within a year of the onset of plague, during 1349, an Ordinance of Labourers was issued and thisbecame the Statute of Labourers in 1351. This law sought to prevent labourers from obtaininghigher wages. Despite the shortage in the workforce caused by the plague, workers were orderedto take wages at the levels achieved pre-plague. Landlords gained in the short term frompayments on the deaths of their tenants (heriots), but rents dwindled, land fell waste for want oftenants who used to cultivate it (Higden) and ...many villages and hamlets were deserted...andnever inhabited again. Consequently, landed incomes fell. The bulging piles of manorialaccounts which survive for the period of the Black Death testify to the active land-market and theadditional administration caused by the onset of plague. But all too often the administrationconsists of noting defaults of rent because of plague” (cited in webmaster 2011).The government and landlords tried to keep wages from rising, wanting to keep the people in thesame social class. “Lords and peasants alike were indicted for taking higher wages. In 1363 a
Sumptuary Law was brought through parliament. This measure decreed not only the quality andcolour of cloth that lay people at different levels of society (below the nobility) should use intheir attire but also sought to limit the common diet to basics” (cited in webmaster 2011).When the government observed the pleasant was moving up in the social status they werevirtually powerless to do anything about it, but indicates that among those who survived theplague there was additional wealth, from higher wages and from accumulated holdings of landsformerly held by plague victims.People started to distrust God and in the church. They realize that religion couldn’t do anythingto stop the spread of the disease and their familys suffering. During that time period so manypriest die and church services in many area simply cease.“Jewish populations, meanwhile, were frequently targeted as scapegoats. In some places, theywere accused of poisoning the water because their mortality rates were often significantly lower,something historians have since attributed to better hygiene. This prejudice was nothing new inEurope at the time, but intensified during the Black Death and led many Jews to flee east toPoland and Russia, where they remained in large numbers” (cited in webmaster 2011).In 1348 medieval society looked to the church when facing death, just as they did to medics, forrituals of comfort. They were quick burying you once you pass away because of the fearingcontagion. The family was the only ones that could accompany the body to the cemetery. “Manycity governments forbid the ringing of parish church bells, believing it would discourage the sickand dying multitudes” (cited in webmaster 2011).“During the Middle Ages it was essential that people were given the last rites and had the chanceto confess their sins before they died. The spread of the deadly plague in England was swift andthe death rate was almost 50% in isolated populations such as monasteries” (cited in webmaster2011). The clergy was at short hand. They did not have enough to offer victims last rites or givesupport. “The situation was so bad that Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins toall who died of the Black Death” (cited in webmaster 2011). A person who was affected with thedisease would end up confessing their sins to one another. The church could offer no reason forthe deadly disease and beliefs were sorely tested. “This had such a devastating effect that peoplestarted to question religion and such doubts ultimately led to the English reformation” (cited inwebmaster 2011).“The Black Death – the great plague of 1348-50 – and its aftermath constitute one of the verygreatest disaster-recovery experiences ever recorded. The short-term consequences of thedisaster include a degree of socio-political disorganization (for example, flight from cities), andchanged income and status relationships due to the enhanced economic position of newly scarcelabor. A rapid recovery took place in the next decade, without fundamental disruption ofeconomic or political systems. The century following, however, saw a slow-down or reversal inthe rate of economic advance of Western Europe” (cited in webmaster 2008). The setback wasdue to the plague, in the light of other pressures and burdens performance in that time frame.These include disruptive wars, possible climatic changes, and the continuing drain of the plagueas a result of the establishment of sources of infection in Western Europe. “Although direct
inferences as to possible consequences of nuclear wars can hardly be drawn from this 14thcentury catastrophe, the historical record does not support contentions that either social collapseor an economic downward spiral is a necessary consequence of massive disaster” (cited inwebmaster 2008).Types and Symptoms of the PlagueThe first half of the 14th century was marred by war and famine. Global temperatures droppedslightly, decreasing agricultural production and causing food shortages, hunger, malnutrition, andweakened immune systems. The human body became very vulnerable to the Black Death, whichwas caused by three forms of the plague. Bubonic plague, caused by flea bites, was the mostcommon form. The infected would suffer from fever, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Swellingcalled buboes and dark rashes appeared on the groin, legs, armpits, and neck. The pneumonicplague, which affected the lungs, spread through the air by coughs and sneezes. The most severeform of the plague was the septicemic plague. The bacteria entered the bloodstream and killedevery person affected within hours. All three forms of the plague spread quickly due tooverpopulated, unsanitary cities. Proper treatment was unknown, so most people died within aweek after infection with the Black Death.The Black Death was another word for the Bubonic plague. Not only did it affect WesternEurope, it also affected the Middle East and Asia during 1347-1351. It was spread by fleascarried by rats that were common in the towns and villages of Europe. The fleas bit their victimsliterally injecting them with the disease. Death could be quick for the victims. It spread quicklyas people in the towns and villages lived very close together. Filth littered the streets which gaverats a great environment to breed. People thought the rats caused the disease, but in actuality itwas the fleas that did. However, it was the rats that enabled the disease to spread quickly. Theplague was spread over considerable distances by the rats and fleas on ships. Infected rats woulddie on ship, and the fleas would find another one to jump onto. By the ships going from port toport, the fleas would jump onto an unsuspecting traveler and travel to land, rats would get intocargo and be unloaded onto land, thus the spread of the disease continued. The symptoms were almost flu-like. It started with a headache. Then chills and fever, maybesome nausea, vomiting, soreness in the arms and legs. Within a few days the swelling appeared.They were usually hard, painful, burning lumps on the neck, the inner thighs, and the underarms.These lumps usually turned black, split open, and oozed pus and blood. They could possiblygrow to be the size of an orange. Some recovered, but most did not recover. Death came quicklymost of the time, but when it did not it was extremely painful. Once the lumps appeared, thevictim would start bleeding internally, they would have blood in their urine, and the smell ofanything coming out of the body was horrible. Most of the time, the victims died within a weekof contracting the plague. (Snell, M. 2010).
The plague had a devastating effect on every facet of life and it would take Europe’s populationover 150 years to return to the pre-plague levels. The result was not just a huge decline inpopulation. It changed Europe’s social and economic structure and it dealt a blow to Europe’smain organized religion, the Roman Catholic Church. There was widespread persecution of Jewsand Lepers, and created an overall morbid mood, which influenced people to live for themoment, unsure of their daily survival. A very important part of the Black Death was it causedthe movement of what was left of north European Jews to Poland and Russia, where theyremained until the 20th Century. In World War II, the most heinous crimes were committedagainst the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. Because of the Black Death, the Jewishpopulation of Europe became known as the scapegoat. The Black Death intensified the MedievalChristian tradition of the Jew as the scapegoat, and, causing the migration of such a large numberto the east and north of Europe, can be linked to the organized massacre of Imperial Russian andthe gas chambers of Auschwitz (Zapotoczny, W.S. 2006). In the years before the Black Death 1346-1353 there was a period of poor weather conditionsand that in turn caused poor crop yields, and the peasants and serfs who worked these fields werealready in poor health, which most likely made them an easy target of the Black Death (Cantor,1984, p. 75). The workers who had no money or land suffered tremendously under the BlackDeath, they did not have the opportunity to take advantage of the “social dislocation” caused bythe numerous deaths in the upper-class. Instead, “the poorer peasants sank further intodependency and misery” (Cantor, 1984, p.91). For centuries before the Black Death plague swept across Europe, society had beendominated by the feudal system. The upper class Lords owned land which had been in theirfamilies for generations, and they allowed serfs (workers), to live on and farm their large estatesunder the condition that the serfs and their families were bound in service to a particular Lordand could not move from farm to farm. This system allowed land-owning families to inherit thefamily wealth while also making those born into serfdom to be serfs all their lives. When theBlack Death swept across Europe, many of these land-owning families found themselvesthreatened by the death of several heirs at one time. If all the heirs of a land-owning family diedand no one was left to inherit the land of the family, then that land would revert to the king or adistant relative would bribe the king in order to inherit the land (Cantor, 1948, p.128). While itwas not common for entire families to go extinct, “In any given year before the Black Death, oneout of twenty families of the wealthy gentry and also the nobility experienced extinction in directsuccession” (Cantor, 1984, p. 128). The economic impact of the Black Death was not as large as the decline in population. Theplague hit working-age people more than young and the aged. The large decreases in populationand the labor force resulted in big changes in prices and in the terms of area trade. Real wagesdoubled in most countries and land became more abundant relative to labor. With higherincomes, changes in how the income was distributed as well as changes in the age structure,demands began to change from basic goods and necessities towards good with higher incomecapabilities. Demand for, and the prices of wheat went down, while the prices of meat, cheese
and barley stayed up, the latter due to the growing demand for beer, which one could take as agood sign for higher standards of living and dietary improvements. There was also a notable risein raising sheep and cattle. Additionally there were similar changes in the makeup ofmanufactured goods and services. Luxury good, imported as well as domestic began to increase.(Pamuk, S. 2007 Dec.). A surplus of goods resulted in overspending; it was quickly followed bya shortage of goods and higher prices. A shortage of workers meant they were able to chargehigher prices; the government tried to limit these fees to pre-plague rates (Snell, M., 2010). The Black Death effected society in other ways. The marriage rate rose sharply – in part dueto predatory men marrying rich orphans and widows; The birth rate also rose, though recurrencesof the plague kept population levels reduced; There were notable increases in violence anddebauchery; Upward mobility took place on a small scale (Snell, M., 2010). People treated eachday as if it were their last; moral and sexual codes were broken, while the marriage market wasrevitalized by those who had lost partners in the plague (James. T., 2010). The Church was never the same after the Black Death. Many of the clergy were killed andtheir replacements were of a lesser quality, meaning less-educated priests were placed into jobswhere more learned men had died. The failure of the clergy to help the suffering during theplague, combined with its obvious wealth and the incompetence of its priests, caused resentmentamong the people. Critics grew vocal, and the seeds of the Reformation were sown (Snell, M.,2010). The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep theirfrequent promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Churchincluded, was able to cure or even explain the plague. In fact, most thought is spread somehowthrough air (Zapotoczny, W.S., 2006). After 1350 European culture turned very morbid. The mood was one of pessimism, the artsturned dark with a lot of representations of death. Sculptors and painters both began to portraythe dead and the dying, as well as images of death and the grim reaper. People’s attitudestowards music and art changed as they began to see the suffering and carnage around them. TheItalian Poet, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of young people fleeing the plague takerefuge in a house outside of Florence where they keep each other entertained by telling colorfuland irreverent stories. These stories are often seen as a rejection of traditional medieval values,Boccaccio himself was critical of those who abandoned relatives and friends in the face of theplague. (Zapotoczny, W.S., 2006). Like the artists of that time, Boccaccio continued to hold histraditional social and religious values. Boccaccio would have entered into holy orders, moved byrepentance for the follies of his youth, had he not been dissuaded by Petrarch (Boccaccio, 2010).The primary impact of the Black Death on painting and sculpture was the willingness of thenewly rich to invest in religious art for churches and chapels. These contributions were oftenmade in gratitude for being spared the plague, or with the hope of preventing future infection(Zapotoczny, W.S., 2006). I never dreamed the game I played with my friends in elementary school called Ring aroundthe Rosie was about the Bubonic Plague. Seemed innocent enough, but in fact it was a grimdescription of infection and mortality caused by the Black Death (Sanders, T.N., 2006). The
Black Death altered all aspects of European society. The lack of labor caused by the BlackDeath, the Feudal system that had previously dominated Europe collapsed. The economic impactof the plague was significant. Agricultural prices dropped precipitously, endangering the fortunesand power of the aristocrats, whose wealth and dominance were based on land. At the same time,because of the deaths of so many people, wages rose dramatically, giving laborers some chanceof improving their own living conditions and status in life. The Black Death destroyed onequarter of the European population and was the most significant disease in history. Between1348 and 1351, more than one million men, women, and children died in England. This was overone third of England’s population. The Black Death also brought about the modernization ofmedicine. Prior to the plague, doctors of medicine relied upon biblical cures. Towns and villagesslowly began to implement sanitation procedures. As the plague eased off, people began todevelop immunity to the plague and put into place procedures for limiting the spread of disease.A new economy was developed to replace the feudal system. Europe was on the brink of theRenaissance, a “re-birth”. By the seventeenth century the plague had lost much of its ferocity.Epidemics occurred more sporadically, and they did not seriously diminish human populations.Since the 1940s antibiotic drugs have brought the disease largely under control among humanpopulations, although it survives in rodent communities through much of the world (Bentley,J.Z., 2008). Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are all thriving countries today.“There were differences between the impact of the black plague within Western Europe andEastern Asia. A difference would be that the Black Death had killed many more people inWestern Europe than it killed in Eastern Asia. Even though the plague originated in Asia, Europeis where a majority of the deaths tool place. Europe had lost a third of its population throughoutthe entire population. This is probably because Eastern Asia was much more rural than Europe.The rural areas have a lower population density, which makes it harder for the plague to spreadthroughout the area” (cited in webmaster 2011).
References:Bentley, J. Z. (2008). Traditions and EncountersL A Brief Global History. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Boccaccio, Giovanni, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, March 18, 2012 http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/boccaccio.htmlCantor, N.F., In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, New York,Free Press, 2001). Proquest Central, Research Library. Retrieved March 18, 2012, from Sanders,T. N. (2006).Encounters in World History. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., Chapter14, p. 385.Zapotoczny, W.S. The Political and Social Consequences of the Black Death, 1349-1351.Webmaster (2011) The Black Death of 1348 to 1350 Retrieved Marchr17, 2012, fromhttp://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/black_death_of_1348_to_1350.htmhttp://www.deathreference.com/Bl-Ce/Black-Death.html