This inquiry is framed by the compelling question “Can disease change the world?” Among the many catastrophic global pandemics in history, perhaps none achieved the notoriety of the Black Death. The Black Death was a massive outbreak of the bubonic plague caused by infectious bacteria. Thought by scientists to have been spread by contaminated fleas on rats and/or other rodents, the Black Death quickly decimated entire families and communities. In doing so, the Black Death led more than one observer of the time to ponder whether the apocalypse had begun. The Black Death began and first spread on the Silk Roads through central Asia in the early 14th century, and by mid-century moved via merchant ships into North Africa and Europe, where it would kill nearly one-half of the population. It took almost 150 years for Europe’s population to recover. By investigating the compelling question “Can disease change the world?” students consider the causes, symptoms, and reasons for the rapid geographic expansion of the disease and how this pandemic affected people of the 14th century and beyond. Through their investigation of sources in this inquiry, students should develop an understanding of the consequences of the Black Death and an informed awareness of the importance of preparing for future diseases and possible pandemics.
THE BLACK DEATH ESSAY
Around 1339 in northwestern Europe, the population was beginning to outgrow the food supply and a severe economic crisis began to take place. The winters were extremely cold and the summers were dry. Due to this extreme weather, very low crops yielded and those that grew were dying. Inflation became a common occurrence and as famine broke out, people began to worry. The time period of approximately 1339 to 1346 is now known as the famine before the plague. These seven bad years of weather and famine lead to the greatest plague of all times. In 1347, endemic to Asia, The Black Death began spreading throughout Western Europe. Over the time of three years, the plague killed one third of the population in Europe with roughly twenty five million people dead. The Black Death killed more Europeans than any other endemic or war up to that time, greatly impacting the Church, family life, and the economy. These three social pillars were changed forever.
When the plague first reached Europe, people panicked. In hopes of survival, many began to abandon what they had and moved to villages and country sides in hope of fleeing from the disease. “Children abandoned the father, husband abandoned the wife, wife the husband, one brother the other, one sister the other…. Some fled to villas, others to villages in order to get a change in air. Where there had been no [plague], there they carried it; if it was already there, they caused it to increase” (Zahler 45). The horror that people in Europe were feeling was traumatic to their state of mind. People often left those who they cared about to fend for themselves. Since the cities were more populated, those who left for the country carried the disease with them and infected those who previously lived on the countryside. The Black Death created a race for survival and all were playing.
As they continued to run from the plague, the people of Europe felt that they needed to blame someone for causing the outrage. At this time in history, Christians persecuted Jews in Europe and blamed them for bad luck and even bad weather. “As the plague attacked, whispers immediately started about poisonings of wells and of the air by Jews” (Jordan 63). The European Christian’s of the time were racist towards the Jews. The Jews were forbidden to work in government and were shunned from the towns. This forced them to live on the outskirts of town in places called ghettos. Because of their isolation, the plague did not reach them immediately. Since they were not getting sick, the people automatically assumed the Jews were poisoning their wells as payback for their isolation. The Jews were thought to be irrational and were thought of as scapegoats. However, once the Jews began to fall sick from the plague as well, people began to show their responses in other ways.
Artists and musicians of the time became dark and seemingly depressed. Before the plague, the music was up-beat and frequently heard while the artwork was frequently viewed. However, during the plague music was played very grimly and the art became somber. The artists were surrounded by the horrific nature of the Black Death. “Some artists tried to translate the terror and sadness into their art and music. Many of those artist left alive created paintings and woodcuts that showed an angry God and sometimes demon-like creatures shooting arrows of plague in towns” (Zahler 91). These artists used their works to escape and to deal with what was happening in their current lives and reflect on the way they were feeling. Since many people went into depression, they began to lose the beauty of art and music they once had. The somber change in art and music showed the change in the world around them. People of the time became obsessed with the culture of death, and they demonstrated this every day.
As the town’s obsession dwindled towards death, the children were left behind. Many believed the end of the world had come, so the views on children began to change as people lost sight of their loved ones. “But there were others they had forgotten…the children. They were by all means frequent receivers of the disease and it killed them almost instantly or within a few hours” (Ziegler 19). The children in plague infested towns had premature exposures which allowed for the disease to affect them physically and mentally. Once infected, the parents of the children would abandon them on the streets instead because many could not bear to watch them die. The females who contracted the plague were especially disregarded because they could not carry on the family name for generations to come. The children could not provide for themselves, so they suffered greatly.
Not only did the children suffer, but the effects of the plague were visible through everyday people. Along with these people, the Church was also severely affected. Before the Black Death occurred, the Church throughout Europe had nearly absolute power. However, once the plague hit, corruption became so rampant that people became less inclined to follow canon law. The people blamed God for the occurrence of the plague and they thought it was a punishment of their sins. “[The plague] shook people’s confidence in conventional beliefs and authority” (Obstfeld 33). Quickly, the Church began to suffer. Before the plague, the Church had thousands of followers. When tragedy struck, the people strayed from the Church and blamed them for the plague. The Church had no explanation for the outrage, so the people were infuriated. The people thought of the Church as omniscient, so when the priests and bishops could not give them the answers they wanted, the Church began losing spiritual authority over its people.
As the Church lost spiritual authority, the clergy of the Church began leaving. About sixty percent of the clergy abandoned their Christian duties and fled. “The monasteries and the clergy suffered the greatest loss” (Ziegler 215). Many of the Churches finest leaders were quitting and some even moved far away to avoid the problems they were facing. Since many head officials were parting, the Church panicked and began aggressively recruiting others to fill the ranks. As the Monks, Nuns, and Friars continued to disappear, the standards for their replacements lowered. This caused the monasteries to be run by less educated people, leading to a decline of vernacular. They knew the townspeople felt that the Church had let them down, because any blow suffered by the Church was also a direct blow to the human mind.
As the Church weakened, the people’s hope declined. The commoners prayers were not working and the Church had lost almost all its respect and authority over its’ followers. The survivors were outraged at the doctors who did not cure the patients. “The plague was prime factor in people’s turning to new influences in a search for meaning and positive values” (Dahmus 351). Since they believed God was punishing them, the people turned in hope of finding something new to believe in. As the people gained more personal freedom, they began to question the Church with more dignity. Corruption became so rampant that less people were inclined to follow the Church. The Church was critiqued on a daily basis, and people began to treasure worldly things and turned their backs on God.
As the people turned on God, many turned towards the lords of their manor with the hopes they could provide support and an answer to the madness that was occurring. In Europe in the 1300’s, feudalism was very common. The king would grant land to bishops and nobles who would then give a fief to a knight in return for service. The knight would sometimes have peasants or serfs working on their fief who would in turn give the knights something as well. However, “massive loss of lives in disasters reduced the workforce that surviving workers were able to demand higher wages and greater independence. This contributed to the collapse of the feudal system in which peasants were obligated to work land and pay taxes to the knight, baron, or king who owned the land” (Ziegler 33). This view was a common occurrence. Many lives were taken daily, and with the population dropping quickly, the few that survived were able to demand more. They gained more independence because the more they gained the more confident they became. Once they realized they could work for themselves and not be below another person, this eventually led to the fall of feudalism.
Since feudalism had a sharp decline, finding skilled people was a challenge. Some of the hardest workers died, and the peasants and artisans that survived demanded higher wages. Agrarian economy was damaged and had reached the point where it appeared to be almost prevented from recovery (Mate 341). The loss of these farmers and workers also led to a decline in the food supply. The few that survived could not produce enough food for the towns and cities, and those that could not get food died. Also, since finding people with skill was more valuable than ever, the land was not properly taken care of. The crops were abandoned and many died of starvation. The maintenance of the land rapidly declined leaving the economy in a severe condition.
In addition to the land, the mortality rates of the animals and the people became more severe. Villages were laid closely together, so people relied on the same animals for resources. Those who owned animals tried to domesticate them in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague to the outside world. “In some of the houses, goats, sheep, and even cows lived jumbled up with the families, spreading fleas amid the soiled straw which added to the smells of the medieval world” (Ziegler 167). The hygiene of the people in the medieval ages was already horrendous. Bathing was unheard of and eye infections were common because of their unbalanced diets. When animals began to live with the people, the animals added to their filth. With them they carried the Black Death and countless other diseases. They passed these onto the family members living in the homes, and whole families were dying as a result. They would leave behind empty houses and the animals would generally die of starvation shortly after.
By 1350, the survivors of the plague began to realize their nightmare was coming to an end. The immediate consequence of the Black Death was a massive reduction of the population; however, the plague also had many long term effects. Many of the scholarly people of the time died. This led to a decline in colleges and many were destroyed. In addition, a decline in trade occurred because people were fearful to trade good with a once plague infested country. All of these factors contributed to Europe’s period of reduced prosperity. During the middle ages, the plague was known as all-destroying. One third of a countries population cannot be eliminated over a period of three years without considerable dislocation to its’ economy, Church life, and family life. Through these losses, a tiny insect toppled Europe’s social structure and altered medieval society forever.
Suggested Further Reading and Links to Sites with Information Seen Above:
- (1) Gregg, C. T. Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century, revised ed.; University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1985, 1978.
- (2)Herlihy, D. The Black Death and the Transfor-mation of the West; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1997.
- (3) Hirst, L. F. The Conquest of Plague: A Study in the Evolution of Epidemiology; Clarendon Press: Oxford, U.K., 1953.
- (4) History of Western Civilization: The Black Death. http://history.idbsu.edu/westciv/ plague/index.html.
- (5) Matterer, J. L. The Pestilence Tyme. www.godecookery.com/plague/plague.htm.