The Effect of the Black Death on Europe
Amanda Birdsall - April 11, 2011
In the 1340s, an epidemic that later came to be known as the Black Death ravaged the populations of Asia and Europe. This plague was unlike anything medieval Europe had ever experienced before. “A third at least of Western Europe’s population died in what contemporaries called ‘the pestilence’ […] This meant that somewhere around twenty million people died of the pestilence from 1347 to 1350” (Cantor, p. 7). “In some small villages and towns, disease wiped out the entire population” (Bentley, Zeigler, & Streets, p. 342). It must have been a horrible thing to live through. The loss of that much of the population in such a short amount of time left Europe in a state of social, economic, and political turmoil.
Current knowledge of the Black Death comes from a variety of sources. The most reliable sources of information on the plague come from government documents that have survived, such as tax records, legal documents, and city council records. The writing of those who experienced the plague first hand gives us a more intimate perspective. In The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that in Florence, “such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, […] and very often wife her husband. What is even worse […] is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children…” (Sanders, Nelson, Marillo, & Ellenberger, p. 398). During the outbreak, there was an almost complete breakdown in the rules of society. “The biomedical catastrophe took away charisma from kings, eroded popular support for their veneration and self-esteem as God’s anointed and as war leaders and money providers” (Cantor, p. 218). During the outbreak of plague, everyone suffered.
At the time of the Black Death, medical knowledge was limited to classical medical theory and the theology of the Christian Church (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo, & Ellenberger, p. 389). They had no knowledge of the true workings of the human body or of the microbes that cause disease. As a result, the contemporary theories on the cause of the plague were primarily religious or astrological in nature. In 1348, The Report of the Paris Medical Faculty (the best medical professionals medieval Europe had to offer) blames the plague on a variety of causes, from “the configuration of the heavens” to “the escape of the rottenness trapped in the center of the earth as a result of earthquakes,” and finally, “[w]e must not overlook the fact that any pestilence proceeds from the divine will, and our advice can therefore only be to return humbly to God” (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo, & Ellenberger, p. 391-2). They might just as well have written “We have no idea what is causing this or how to stop it.”
The most prolific contemporary opinion on the cause of plague was divine retribution for any number of “sins” that were being committed at the time. In an effort to save their immortal souls, the rich willed large portions of their estates to the church. This practice was so widespread that various governments enacted new laws to control it. According to Cantor, “[t]he courts [in England] informally decided that no lord should alienate to the church more than 10 percent of his entailed estates. But this was more than enough to enrich ecclesiastics” (p. 77). In Siena, “[s]o great were plague legacies that in October 1348 the Sienese City Council suspended for two years the annual appropriations to religious persons and institutions because these, formerly needy, were now ‘immensely enriched and indeed fattened’ by plague bequests” (Bowsky, p. 16). Needless to say, the heirs to these estates were not at all pleased by the practice. Many tried to break the bequests made by their elders, with the result that lawyers were made very rich.
During the plague years, the European economy was very nearly destroyed. The population losses combined with the fear of those left alive caused most forms of industry to grind to a halt. In The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote that “the peasants […] entirely neglected the future fruits of their past labors […] Thus it happened that cows, asses, […] and even dogs […] left the farms and wandered at their will through the fields, where the wheat crops stood abandoned, unreaped and ungarnered…” (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo, & Ellenberger, p. 399). Bowsky writes that in Siena, “major industry ceased and most governmental activity ground to a halt. Men ceased bringing oil to the city for sale and the wool industry shut down almost completely” (p. 14). Cantor writes that “In the first half of the fourteenth century between 725 and 1,360 ships a year set out [from Bordeaux] for England carrying Gascon wine. Between October 8, 1349, and August 27, 1350, only 141 ships sailed” (p. 51). It is clear that only those tasks deemed absolutely necessary were accomplished during the outbreak of plague.
The economy of France was in turmoil before the onset of the Black Death. “Long afflicted by inadequate finances and recently weakened by military defeat, the French crown had managed, late in 1347, to obtain an unusually large war subsidy from the three Estates of the kingdom” (Henneman, p. 405). Just when King Philip thought his financial problems were solved, along came the Black Death. “Where adequate texts are preserved, […] we have ample evidence that the plague had disastrous effects upon royal taxation. […] It seems clear, therefore, that the plague, whatever its demographic effects in different parts of France, struck a crippling blow at the finances of the crown in 1348-49” (Henneman, p. 427). King Philip, no longer able to collect on the war subsidy promised to him, had to devise a new strategy to finance to defense of his borders. “Mint profits soared to 522,000 pounds, and it is clear that the principle stop-gap measure undertaken by the [French] government in the aftermath of the plague was manipulation of the coinage, an expedient used so often in the past” (Henneman, p. 416).
In the wake of the Black Death, survivors had no choice but to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives. “At various levels of society there were challenges to the old order and there were adjustments to be made to a drastically affected world” (Cantor, p. 25). There were shortages of priests, politicians, and peasants. “The decision of 30 August 1348 to reduce by one-third […] the City Council […], and to halve […] the number ordinarily needed to constitute a quorum in the City Council, may suggest a crude approximation of the toll among the members of the ruling oligarchy and great magnates” (Bowsky, p. 18). So many clergy had died in the plague that the church had to change its rules. “During and immediately after the Black Death, priests were ordained at twenty rather than twenty-five. Monastic vows could be administered to adolescents at age fifteen rather than twenty” (Cantor, p. 206).
The death toll among the poor was even higher. “The shortage of agricultural labor and the increased demands made by renters, sharecroppers, and farm laborers who survived the epidemic caused Siena to try to attract foreign farm labor into the state” (Bowsky, p. 26). They accomplished this by promising immigrants “immunity from taxes and services until 1354 if they would farm specified amounts of land” (Bowsky, p. 26). In England, “the wealthiest peasants took advantage of the social dislocations caused by the plague and the poorer peasants sank further into dependency and misery” (Cantor, p. 91). Many villages that had been built during the overpopulated period between 1200 and 1300 were abandoned in favor of vacancies in better places.
Many properties throughout Europe were abandoned. “On the Christ Church manor of Chartham, the fishery in the 1340s had been rented for 22s. 0d., but in 1349 there was no return for lack of fishermen. Similarly its houses, in 1349, could not be rented for lack of tenants, and by 1350 the buildings had fallen down” (Mate, p. 342). Some properties were taken over by those with no claim to them. “Severe legislation in 1349 aimed at gaining for Siena the properties […] of those who had died intestate […] and were not survived by close relatives. By law those legacies pertained to the commune, but many had been forcefully usurped” (Bowsky, p. 27). This was a major problem for the Sienese government, which needed money as badly as everyone else. In other cases, where more than one heir had died, the government had to decide which surviving family member could lay claim to a property. “So numerous were contested legacies that special courts, judges, and commissions were appointed to hear and define such cases” (Bowsky, p. 27).
The price of everything from food to building supplies went up. “Construction materials frequently cost twice as much as they did before 1348” (Mate, p. 347). Much of the political upheaval caused by the Black Death did not occur until much later. Immediately after the Black Death, the able bodied moved from areas where the farming was hard due to poor soil conditions onto the vacant farm land in the better areas. Twenty years later, there were not enough laborers to fill the positions available, due to the number of children that perished during the Black Death. As a result, the laborers demanded higher pay, which the lords could not or would not give them. “The loosening of the bonds and bounds of rural society cased by the black Death and resulting in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 could have led to a working-class takeover of the [English] government and a socialist state” (Cantor, p. 90). Alas, the Peasants Revolt was unsuccessful, and the King remained on the throne.
Some good did come of the Black Death. “In Europe, the shortage of labor in the rural areas helped to end feudalism and encourage the development of a proto-capitalist system based on wage labor […] setting the stage for the European Renaissance and the growth of capitalist economies” (Sanders, Nelson, Morillo, & Ellenberger, p. 387). Just think of how the world would be today if the plague had never struck. Mankind might never have freed themselves from the bonds of servitude to feudal lords. The church might still control access to knowledge and power. It is enough to make one shudder.
Bentley, J. H., Ziegler, H. F., Streets, H. E. (2008). Traditions and encounters: a brief global history. New York: McGraw Hill.
Bowsky, W. M. (Jan. 1964). The impact of the Black Death on Sienese government and society. Speculum, 39 (1). Retrieved March 25, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2850126
Cantor, N. F. (2001). In the wake of the plague: the Black Death and the world it made. New York: The Free Press.
Henneman, J. B. (1968). The Black Death and royal taxation in France, 1347-1351.Speculum, 43(3). Retrieved March 26, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2855836
Mate, M. (1984). Agrarian economy after the Black Death: the manors of Canterbury Cathedral priory, 1348-91. The Economic History Review, New Series, 37(3). Retrieved March 26, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2597285
Sanders, T., Nelson, S., Morillo, S., Ellenberger, N. (2006). Encounters in world history: sources and themes form the global past, volume 1: to 1500. New York: McGraw Hill.