What Were the Effects of the Black Death?
Medieval Life Before the Plague
Feudal Europe Before the Black Death
Life in medieval Europe was harsh, particularly for the crowded ranks of the peasantry. Society was organised on feudal lines, a system that was designed to provide security for all concerned. In practice it meant that a King owned the land and granted parcels of it to his favoured lords in return for their allegiance and military support. In turn these lords granted land to their own knights who also swore oaths of allegiance. The land was actually worked by peasants or serfs who were essentially in bondage with the land. The serf couldn't leave the manor and although a lord couldn't sell a serf, if he sold his land the serf was included in the sale. His only comfort was that he had the protection of his Lord in the event of an attack.
The Lord of the Manor was not a serf's only master. He would, of course, have been a firm believer in the omnipotent power of God. The Church played an integral part in medieval life and had its own place woven into the feudal system. Bishops were powerful men and had their own manors to run. The Church also required its own tax, a tithe, from villagers. Many peasants thought it only right to give money to the Church and felt that in doing so they were guaranteeing their place in heaven. Given the misery of their temporal lives, it was not surprising that they held on to the notion of a better life to come.
Feudalism was a rigid system in which everyone knew his place. Unfortunately for the peasants, their place in the hierarchy was dismal. The arrival of the Black Death in Europe around 1348 must have seemed like another burden to be borne. Indeed, the pestilence wiped out a vast proportion of Europe's population but in the long term the survivors and their descendants did see positive effects of the Black Death.
The Black Death and the Economy
One devastating effect of the Black Death was the sheer scale of death throughout Europe. It's hard to prove the exact figure since the surviving records are unreliable, but estimates are that anywhere from 25-40% of the population perished. Whole communities were wiped out leaving behind houses and churches that were never again used. Cattle and fields were left untended, crops were left to waste as there were simply not enough peasants left to work the land. A small crack was beginning to appear in the mighty edifice of the feudal system.
The nobility were quick to spot that there was a problem on the horizon; not enough workers for the land meant that the balance of power was shifting. Those that were left had bargaining power, offering their services to whichever hard-pressed landowner would pay them the highest wages. As early as 1349 the English acted to bring in a law requiring labourers to take pre-plague level wages and to require them to stay on their own manors. Ultimately these measures failed to prevent wage inflation and worker migration since the demand for labour was just too great and landlords were forced to compete for their services.
Not only did the landed classes see their wage bills rise in the aftermath of the Black Death, but they saw their rental incomes go down too. With so many dead, there were fewer tenants and those who were left were in a buyer's market. They were not inclined to pay the same rents as before and would move elsewhere if another cash-strapped lord would give them a cheaper rent.
Having failed to control wages and mobility the English government attempted to clamp down on the social aspirations of the newly emerging working class. A Sumptuary Law was enacted in 1363 which set out for various levels of society what clothes they could wear (colours and cloth) and what foods they could eat. The law was almost impossible to police, but it is an indication of the rising panic the ruling classes felt; the Black Death had changed their world irrevocably.
The Consequences of the Black Death for the Church
The Church was dealt a mighty blow by the plague. Religion had provided no end to the pestilence and churchmen had proved unable to cure victims. Many people developed a distrust of the Church that had not previously felt. Some priests had panicked and fled their parishes in terror at the advancing plague. Most stayed and a great many priests and monks were amongst the dead. Monasteries were where many of the sick had been taken for care during the plague and the monks were consequently hard hit.
Just as there was a severe shortage of labourers for the land in the years following the Black Death, there was a corresponding shortage of clergy. The Church responded by rushing in a great many ill-prepared clergymen who were not equal to the task of looking after their flocks or adapting to monastic life. Faith in the Church was further damaged and it is arguable that it never recovered its unassailable position in Medieval life.
The Long Term Effect of the Black Death on Society
Feudal society was said to have three orders of men: those who fought (the King and nobles), those who prayed (the Church) and those who worked (the peasantry). The Black Death reordered medieval society. Whilst the ruling classes still retained their power, the peasantry managed to grasp a little of it for themselves. Ambitious peasants were able to exploit the vacuum left behind after the plague and break the bonds of serfdom. These newly affluent workers were paving the way for a new and influential class: the middle class.
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