Some insight into The Black Death in Europe

Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

Free from demographic disasters since the middle of the eighth century, Europe was ravaged from one end to the other by bubonic and related forms of plague, primarily from the years 1347-50. The plague subsequently settled in Europe (among the fleas of its rats, to be exact), recurring sporadically and locally in epidemic form until 1720. In the middle of the fourteenth century natural forces dealt the social order of medieval Latin Christendom a blow from which it never recovered.

A period of climatic irregularity seems to have occurred simultaneously, bringing with it agricultural disaster and resultant widespread and recurrent famine. The combination was too much for a civilisation whose ambitious superstructure rested on an economy that had not been developed far enough beyond the subsistence level. Although the greatest loss was in morale, the loss of manpower is easier to document:-

Florence, probably a city of 100,000 before the plague, had half that number of inhabitants after it, and did not regain its earlier population density until the second half of the eighteenth century. Rouen extended the circuit of its walls three times between 1150 and 1350, but did not again fill all the area within the widest circuit until the middle of the eighteenth century.

According to the best estimates, the kingdom of England contained 3,700,000 people before the Black Death, and only 2,200,000 thirty years afterwards; at the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English population was still 500,000 short of the pre-plague total.

Other more local accounts show there died in Avignon in one day 1,312 persons, according to a count made for the pope, and another day 400 persons or more. At Montpellier there remained out of 140 friars only 7. There were left at Magdalena only 7 friars out of 160, at Marseilles, of a 150 friars there remained only 1.

The Black Death did not stop at humans though, noted in England is a great mortality of sheep everywhere in the Kingdom; in one place and in one pasture more than five thousand sheep died and became so putrefied that neither beast nor bird wanted to touch them. And the price of everything was cheap, because of their fear for death.

The consequences of the Black Death on a social and economic level were unprecedented. People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off from the world. Funeral rites became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and work ceased being done.

Some felt that the wrath of God was descending upon man, and so fought the plague with prayer. Some felt that they should obey the maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” Faith in religion decreased after the plague, both because of the death of so many of the clergy and because of the failure of prayer to prevent sickness and death.

The economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation. Since it was so difficult (and dangerous) to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar skyrocketed, the price of wheat for example rose 150%. Because of illness and death workers became exceedingly scarce, so even peasants felt the effects of the new rise in wages. The demand for people to work the land was so high that it threatened the manorial holdings. Serfs were no longer tied to one master; if one left the land, another lord would instantly hire them. The lords had to make changes in order to make the situation more profitable for the peasants and so keep them on their land. In general, wages outpaced prices and the standard of living was subsequently raised.

In England the Ordnance of Labourers was introduced in 1349, this was followed up in 1351 with the Statutes of Labourers, these attempted to halt wage rises and ultimately stop the disintegration of the bottom rung of the feudal ladder which would have sent the whole deck of cards tumbling. They both had some success but ultimately the damage was done and the culmination of their unpopularity was one of the contributory factors to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

It is very hard to underestimate either the scale of the Black Death of 1347-1350 or its impact on the decades and even centuries thereafter.

David Gest