The Significance of The Black Death In Europe
The Black Death, which swept across Europe between 1347 and 1351, had significance in all areas of life and culture: economic, social, psychological, and even religious. It ushered in a new age for all of Europe, in many ways speeding up the change from the medieval to modern era. In under a five year time span, one-third of Europe’s population died. There is some speculation that the toll was actually more than one-third, and could have reached as much as one-half. Entire towns and cities were completely decimated by the illness in extremely brief periods of time. The arrival of the plague, and the speed with which it spread, struck panic across the continent as a whole. It would be safe to say there was not any single individual who did not meet the Black Death in one form or another. The consequences of the plague, and the calamity it brought, were far-reaching.
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By 1346, Europe was in the decline of the “High Middle Ages.” During the High Middle Ages, the population grew from thirty-eight million to seventy-four million (“The Black Death”). Europe seemed to be growing, with advancement in agriculture and society. People were branching out and settling in new areas, bringing way to new towns and cities. With this came more trading routes, which would be instrumental in the spreading of the plague when it arrived. Trade had not long before opened up with eastern societies through Mongol territory, and it is from the east that the Black Death is believed to have originated, though the specific point of origin may never be known.
The disease had been endemic in various locations in Asia for centuries, flaring up occasionally, with any of these locations being the possible origin from which the Black Death began. The first recorded appearance of the plague in Europe was in Messina, Sicily in October 1347 (“The Black Death”). It arrived on trading ships, likely coming from the Black sea, past Constantinople, and through the Mediterranean. This was a standard trading route, bringing items,
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such as silk and porcelain, from as far away as China. The people from Messina tried to deter the sickness when they realized it had been brought with the ships, sending them away from port, but it was too late. The plague had arrived, and it spread quickly through the city. People fled in panic, spreading it to the surrounding areas. While this was happening in Sicily, the expelled trading ships brought it to other areas around the Mediterranean, infecting the neighboring islands of Corsica and Sardinia.
Plague had also traveled from Sarai to the Genoese trading station of Tana. Christian merchants were attacked by Tartars, and fled to their fortress at Kaffa. The Tartars held the city under siege, but it was cut short when the plague hit. As the people of Kaffa began to fall to the disease, the merchants boarded ships to return home, but not without escaping the plague themselves. When they arrived in Genoa and Venice in January of 1348, there were few people left alive. A few victims were all that was necessary to bring the plague to mainland Europe. When the ships arrived from Kaffa at Genoa, they were expelled as soon as the Genoese realized they carried plague, but this realization still did not prevent the disease from coming ashore. The ships then spread the illness to Marseilles, France, and along the coast of Spain, to Barcelona and Valencia.
In just a few months, the plague spread throughout all of Italy, through half of Spain and France, down the coast of Dalmatia, and north into Germany. The plague even reached as far as Africa, via the Messina ships. The panic that ensued when the plague arrived caused people who were able to flee their homes and cities, spreading the disease further. It spread from Genoa to Pisa, Tuscany to Florence, Sienna and Rome. When it reached Milan, the Archbishop ordered that the occupants of the first homes it struck were to be walled up and left to die, whether the inhabitants were sick or not. This measure succeeded to some degree, with Milan seeming to suffer less from the plague than any other major Italian city.
Florence was not as fortunate, losing an estimated four-fifths of its population (Sherman, p 283). After the disease had traveled along most of the trade routes of Europe, its course became more scattered, touching Bavaria, making its way to Germany, and eventually reaching Britain. In Spain and Portugal, the plague came inland from the port cities at a slower pace than Italy and France. Spain was the only country to lose a ruling monarch to the disease, King Alfonse XI of Castile. He refused to leave his troops and isolate himself, becoming ill, and finally dying on March 26, 1350. There were few areas of Europe that escaped, those areas being lightly-populated, and lightly-traveled. Highly-populated cities suffered the most, losing huge numbers of inhabitants. It is estimated that Paris, for example, lost as much as half its population (Sherman, p 283).
There has been some debate as to exactly which illness struck Europe. More than one type of plague exists, with the two most prevalent being the Bubonic and Pneumonic. There is also another form, Enteric Plague, which attacked the victim’s digestive system, and killed too quickly for any kind of diagnosis. The Bubonic Plague is carried by rodents, such as rats, and is transmitted to humans by the fleas who come from them. A person struck by the Bubonic Plague would experience a headache, chills, and fever. Within a day or two, the person would develop hard, painful lumps on the neck, arms, and inner thighs- now known to be the lymph nodes. These swellings are called buboes, which is where the Bubonic Plague’s name originated.
The lumps could reach the size of an orange, and would soon turn black, split open, and ooze puss and blood. Recovery was possible, but with medical practices being what they were at the time, death usually followed. After the lumps appeared, the victim would begin to bleed internally. The victim would have smelled terrible, which is reflected in artwork from the time, with depictions of people surrounding a victim covering their faces and holding their noses (Sherman, p 285). The victim would suffer greatly, experiencing horrible pain before finally dying, which usually happened within a week after contacting the disease. The other type of plague, Pneumonic, is the most contagious, being airborne.
A person could contract the disease by simply breathing the infected water droplets breathed, or coughed, by a carrier of the disease. This form was much more virulent and spread much more quickly. The mortality rate for Pneumonic Plague is practically one-hundred percent. This form of the plague could make one wonder if the common belief at the time of the sickness being caused by “bad air” may have been close to accurate, though no one at the time had any idea what caused the plague, or how to properly treat it. Knowledge of germs and the spreading of illnesses was also unknown, so instead people clung to religious superstition and counter-active measures to protect themselves from illness. Most people believed plague, mass illness, and any other calamity that may have befallen them, was a punishment from God for their sins, and they responded with religious penitential acts, or they simply accepted ill events passively, accepting the will of God rather than fighting it.
People died so swiftly, and in such great numbers, that burial pits were dug, filled to overflowing, and abandoned. Bodies, which were sometimes still living, were shut up in houses, which were then burned to the ground. Corpses were left where they died in the streets. A Florentine chronicler wrote, “All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried… At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table. . . [T]hose who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. . . when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shoveled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another later of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese (Benedictow, “The Black Death”).”
The chronicler Agnolo di Tura “the Fat”, from Tuscany, wrote, “…in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead […] And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city (Benedictow, “The Black Death”).” The times were so horrible people abandoned their traditional, societal norms, instead becoming focused simply on survival. People abandoned their homes, families, cities, isolating themselves from the world as much as possible.
Work came to a halt, since there was a shortage of laborers left alive to provide labor. Some people became more pious, hoping to ease what they believed was the wrath of God, such as the Flagellants, who would travel from city to city, parading through the streets and performing rites of self-punishment, whipping themselves with lead-ended, leather whips (Sherman, p 285). Other people felt that since a prolonged life was not a guarantee, they should, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die (“Social and Economic Effects of the Plague”).” Then, following the usual trends throughout history, the Jews were blamed as well, thought to be responsible for bringing the sickness, even being accused of poisoning the water wells, and persecution followed. Europe experienced a time of complete upheaval, with no one knowing where to turn.
The economy suffered, undergoing inflation, since trade came to a halt. Because of the extreme loss of life, laborers were few, and there was more demand than supply of any good. Landowners were left without people to work their lands, and were forced to make changes to compel their tenants to remain on their land. The standard of living was raised, and with it the stark contrast in financial distinction began to blur, with peasants having slightly more power, and nobility becoming more extravagant in order to show their social status The peasants began to revolt when the aristocracy tried to resist the changes caused by the plague.
The societal changes brought about by the Black Death were instrumental in the evolution of Europe into a dominating force in the world. The population began to think differently about God and religion, and man’s place in the world. This lead to the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration, and the Age of Reason, which in effect lead to the formation of the modern era of governments which embrace the ideas of the rights of man and democracy. Though it was extremely horrific, the Black Death was crucial in leading to the Western World we are familiar with today.See More on Black Death in Europe