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The Plague

Updated on June 21, 2011

Before and After

This is material from a lecture that I give in my re-enactment organization. Part I focuses on the myriad of elements that came together to make the Plague worse than any disease that had ever struck Western Europe and the Middle East before, while Part II focuses on how Plague changed Western Europe. It was truly a watershed event, leaving the middle ages to be divided into "before the Plague" and "after the Plague."

Part I - Pre-Plague

A Plague By Any Other Name...

"Plague" is the medical term for the disease caused by the Y. pestis bacteria. Bubonic plague is actually only one of three forms of plague (more on that later). Oddly enough, the disease was not known as "The Black Death" or "Black Plague" during the middle ages; instead it was referred to as a plague, pestilence, or "great mortaility." It was not really in the nature of the medical community, at the time, to separate diseases by name (indeed, it was hard for them to distinguish between many).

Most of us are familiar with the first and largest outbreak, which began in Western Europe in 1348, and this is the outbreak that we're going to be focusing on today.

The Perfect Storm - Events Leading Up to The Plague

The Worst is Yet to Come

Epidemics of various diseases were a frequent occurrence in the middle ages. Smallpox was common, as were measles, sweating sickness (which might have been a type of flu) and probably typhoid fever. However, disease was typically more endemic than epidemic; it would appear in a city or portion of a country, but did not often spread a huge distance. Also, disease followed the same typical pattern that disease follows even today, taking the very young and the very old and those already sick, but leaving most healthy adults. Not to mention the poor were more likely to die than the rich, simply because the rich tended to have better health, thanks to better nutrition and sanitation.

The plague, however, did none of that. It swept across huge amounts of land with astonishing speed. It killed indiscriminately, and the rich and the healthy were just as likely to die as the poor and the weak. Even in the eyes of people accustomed to frequent outbreaks of disease and (to us) early death, it appeared to be the end of the world. Like Noah's Flood, God seemed determined to wipe mankind off the face of the earth.

But why was the plague outbreak of 1348 so much worse than anything that had come before?


By 1348, overpopulation was rampant in many parts of Europe. Europe literally could not grow enough food to feed its population; one bad harvest in a large enough region lead to famine. Famines came fairly regularly, and while there wasn't a lot of death due to starvation (that tended to be localized where the worst of the harvests occurred), they were serious enough to weaken the health of many poor people due to chronic undernourishment.

In addition, cities were overcrowded and, of course, there were all the health problems attendant with poor sewage disposal and many people living in close quarters. Even in the country people lived closer together than they had in the year 1000; farm sizes were shrinking to the point where people couldn't grow enough to feed their families, much less pay the rent and taxes as well. Overcrowding in country and city both are thought to be a major reason why the life expectancy of a medieval person was actually lower in 1347 than in 1000. People had also been slowly but steadily shrinking in height since that time-another sign of poor nutrition.


Another contributing factor in the outbreak of plague was the weather. The weather in Europe began to change in the 1200's. Global cooling began to happen (some scientists call the period a mini-ice age), and it altered farming in all of Europe. Before this time, grapes were grown in southern England (and they're believed to have been in Nova Scotia when the Vikings landed there somewhere around the year 1000). If you study costume, you will also see that people dressed in a lighter manner, with fewer layers. However, as the climate gradually cooled, it became impossible to grow grapes in England. Also, the weather grew wetter and the combination of cold and wet made growing wheat and many other grains much more difficult (which, coupled with overpopulation created the reoccurring famines).

Grain was to the medieval person what rice is to the modern Asian. For the poor, grain was the majority of their daily calories. Drinking beer/ale constituted a large portion of a person's calories; maybe as much as one-fourth. Bread was the next major source of calories, followed by other grains in the form of gruels and pottages. Vegetables (which are low in calories by their very nature) made up a small portion of the diet, along with eggs and diary products. Meat was generally reserved only for feast days, with fish being eaten more commonly, but certainly not every day. The medieval poor were vegetarians the majority of the year.

When you have bad harvests of wheat, barley, and hops (oats were one thing that seemed to have liked the wetter weather, but they were not a common part of the diet), you lose more than half of a peasant's daily calories, hence the widespread and recurring famines.

The weather seems to have also played a role in the transmission of the plague. 1348 and 1349 had warmer and drier summers than most anyone alive at the time could remember; it was almost like the weather that had been enjoyed prior to the global cooling. Scientists now think that Y. pestis breeds better when it's warm, because the outbreaks were worst in summer, not in winter, as is more common with diseases like the flu; it was also checked in colder places, like Russia, where it did not spread as well. If Europe had not had a couple of unusually warm summers when it did, the plague might not have reached very far into Europe.


Besides the weather causing widespread failure among grain crops, there were a series of murrains-plagues-among sheep and cattle. It is not known what sort of disease or diseases these were, but they were commonly occurring for a decade or more before the outbreak of the plague and so decimated livestock populations that they also created a serious strain on food stores. Medieval people reported that when an animal died, it stunk so terribly that people could not stand to even strip it of its wool or hide, and they threw it out whole.


Trade also played a part in the transmission of plague. By the 1300's, trade was as well-established as it had ever been since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Spices and silk were being imported from Asia; watermelons and citrus fruits, cotton and perfumes were available from the middle east; and wool, salt, tin, iron, gold and silver went back and forth all over Europe. Many towns had paved roads, and road quality had certainly gone up overall (at least by medieval standards). Shipping was also becoming a bigger business, with Venice in particular leading the way.

Of course, the easier it is for people to travel, the easier it is for disease to travel with them. There's also the problem that plague can travel by two methods, not just one: it can be carried by fleas as well as by people. In fact, scientists are still debating if the rapid spread of plague was caused more by people or by fleas. Rats themselves are not highly migratory (unless they're on a ship), however it is possible that modern people fail to grasp how prevalent fleas were in the middle ages, and how they could be into anything and everything. Despite the black rat flea being the carrier of the plague, it's quite probable that black rats did very little to spread the disease; instead people were more likely the carriers of the disease and the flea both, and it was actually they who infected black rat populations as they traveled through Europe.

(Text from picture: The Printers. Leave letting (lettering) thy page(,) spent is thy thine age. Let printing stay: and come away)


Quite probably the single biggest factor in the widespread destruction of the plague was the fact that it was a new disease in the 14th century. Smallpox was an old, established disease, and most healthy people had an acquired immunity which allowed them to survive it. Plague, however, was new and hitherto unseen. Just as smallpox would later ravish Native American populations, so plague devastated Europe in the same way.

There is also some speculation that Y. pestis may not have been unknown to Asians or even Europeans, but like most flu strains, it previously existed in a fairly harmless state, or stayed localized in rats and their fleas. And then, at some point in the 14th century in Asia, it mutated to something more destructive and/or into a form which could survive in humans and be transmitted by them as well. Of course, this has been what scientists and doctors have worried about with bird flu: that that deadly strain could mutate into a form that could be spread by humans.

Plague's Path of Destruction

East to West

Plague appears to have come from somewhere in Outer China or Mongolia. This is not only the view of modern scientists, but one shared by medieval commentators as well. It is thought that prior to the 14th century outbreak, plague existed in rats only in the steppes of Mongolia. There is one theory that a massive flood in China caused the rats to migrate into populated areas and thus spread the disease to humans for the first time. This scenario makes sense if you think about needing additional conditions to help with the transmission of plague: flooding in cities would have made the transmission of disease easier and the health of the residents worse.

Plague went through parts of China, then appears to have followed the Silk Road into northern India and then into the middle east, where it ravaged Egypt and the Holy Land as bad as it did Europe. There are also numerous reports, both by European chroniclers and Muslims in the Middle East, of other great signs of destruction, namely in India. Like Moses' plagues on Egypt, so there were swarms of insects, terrible storms with destructive lightening, and even balls of fire from the sky and earthquakes. While it is possible that one person made up such a story, and that other people merely repeated it, the differences in the accounts from one chronicler to another suggests different original sources. It would make sense, just as in the case with the story of flooding in China, that a natural disaster would cause people to be displaced and to travel more than normal-thus spreading the disease further than it would have gone otherwise.

In fact, if you accept as fact the flood in China, any of the various reported stories of natural disasters in India (of which, an earthquake seems the most likely, because it was most commonly reported and very much believed by chroniclers), and you look at the odd weather pattern, following weather-induced famines, the spread of the plague appears to have been very much governed by a chain of natural events. In fact, weather and natural disasters may have done as much to spread the plague as people trading or rats getting on board ships.

The plague entered Europe through an Italian port; this is both accepted by modern scientists and was noted by chroniclers at the time (it was pretty obvious and widely reported at the time, as a boatload of mostly dead people came into port). It wasn't long before trade and people fleeing before the plague had spread it to almost every city and village precinct in Western Europe.

Waves of Plague

The first known outbreak of plague in Western Europe was in 1347. It struck in the summer, but nearly disappeared over the winter, only to come back the following summer, as bad as ever. This cycle of two years of plague before it ran its course seems to have been common almost everywhere. Estimates vary widely as to the number of casualties in the first outbreak-from as little as 25% to as much as 60% of the total population of Western Europe. A few isolated places were entirely spared of the plague, however some small villages were completely wiped out with 100% casualties.

Plague would continue to sweep through Europe until the 19th century. However, subsequent plague outbreaks had a tendency to follow other disease outbreaks and stay somewhat localized. So instead of seeing plague throughout all of Europe, it might only be seen in London and the surrounding suburbs or in most parts of France, but not really anywhere else. Subsequent waves came every few generations, and new losses were around 10-30%.


Once the plague escaped from rat fleas, it became contagious both in humans and other animals. Rats and mice died in swarms (in one port city, they were seen floating in masses on the water). Horses and cattle also dropped dead. One chronicler noted seeing hogs feeding on the clothes and remains of corpses left in a street, only to stagger around a short time later and fall down and convulse until dead.

While it's unlikely that animals were capable of spreading plague through direct contact, they were surely an incubator of the plague and allowed fleas to transmit it to humans.

Plague Types

Three Types

Plague is a bacteria which multiples rapidly in the body and causes death by destroying soft tissues. Plague still exists modernly--there are one to two cases of it in the U.S. every year, and more cases in other parts of the world--but it is easily treated with antibiotics.

Plague comes in three forms. There is bubonic plague, so named because it attacks the lymphatic system and causes swelling of the buboes; pneumonic plague attacks the lungs; septicaemic plague stays in the blood.


Bubonic plague is the poster child of the three forms of the disease; it is this form that causes the swelling of buboes and the ulcerations and bruising of the skin that later earned the disease the nickname "The Black Death." According to contemporary doctor's reports, the buboes would at first be filled with blood, and lancing them at this stage could cause very sudden death (possibly due to their proximity to major arteries). However, late in the development of the disease in a patient, a lanced bubo would issue pus (the infection from bacteria). Medieval doctors reported some success with patients once the buboes were lanced, and modern doctors do think that releasing the infection might have helped keep it from spreading to other parts of the body and causing death. If the buboes were not lanced, however, or it was done too late, the infection would spread to other parts of the body and necrosis would begin. People literally began to rot before death, and even among medieval people (whose tolerance to bad smells was a hundred times stronger than a modern person's) the stench of the dying was often too much to bear. It typically took about 3 days after the onset of symptoms to die, although some people might linger as long as 5, and some go as quick as one day.

It is not known how many people, out of all those sickened, caught the bubonic form, however accounts of the number of people stricken with the symptoms is high; surely half or more of all plague victims caught the bubonic form. Interestingly enough, it is the most survivable form, with an estimated 40-60% of victims surviving (about the same number of people who survive bird flu). And while it was the most feared form (because it was the most visible), only direct contact with an affected person's diseased skin could cause transmission.


The other common form of plague is the pneumonic form. Interestingly, medieval doctors seem to have recognized that the plague would attack either the body or the lungs, and several mention there being the two different types. It was diagnosed by bloody phlegm-although at least one doctor pointed out that the bubonic form could also cause blood foam at the mouth, but in the absence of any swellings or marks on the skin, you could know that it was in the lungs.

The pneumonic form was the worst, because it was exceedingly easy to spread and was exceedingly deadly. Every time an infected person coughed, the bacteria were released into the air and could be breathed in by someone else-the same way colds are transmitted. Medieval chroniclers recognized this phenomenon, noting that just talking to a sick person, even from a distance, could spread the disease. It is estimated that 90-95% of all people with this form died. One medieval doctor from the middle east noted that he had only seen one patient who survived having the plague in his lungs, and he admits that he does not know why this one young man survived. It seems to have taken 1-3 days for people to die of this form.


The third form, septicaemic, is the most mysterious. It is thought that 100% of people who got this form of plague died, although we have no idea how many people had this form. It was a form of blood poisoning, and it appears to have struck fast and been deadly. Because there were no outward signs of the disease, it can't be determined how long people were sick before they died. It is likely that people in reports who dropped dead where they were standing, or who laid down for a nap and were dead a few hours later, were victims of the septicaemic form.

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Part II - Post Plague

Social Impact

How Much Impact Did the Plague Have?

Calculating the social impact of the plague outbreak of 1348, and even subsequent outbreaks, is difficult, at best. Medieval commentators noted (as we would say) that people began to live more "in the now," and were less worried about their souls and paid less attention to the church. However, medieval chroniclers had been complaining about the exact same things before the plague appeared. Society was becoming more materialistic, more interested in wealth and status, although the plague probably helped speed that process up.

Text from picture: Remember friends great and small, for to be ready when death doth call.

Loss of Respect for the Church

Plague may have lead to a widening distance between the common people and the church. While there were certainly nuns, monks and priests who stayed at their posts and tended the sick and administered last rites (in some places, during the height of the outbreak, the church allowed people to make confession to other members of the church, or even to lay persons, as there weren't enough priests to go around), many more churchmen, it seems, fled to the country or hid in religious buildings, trying to avoid the plague. While it's unclear how many stayed to help versus how many ran away or hid, there were enough who abandoned the people, that there was a great outcry against cowardly priests.

It is also possible that the plague sowed some disbelief in people regarding religion, in the way that any great tragedy can leave people asking "Why did God let this happen?" When the Church could not come up with a good reason for why it happened (and why it happened again and again, albeit it on a smaller scale), some people may very well have lost their faith in the Church. Obviously it didn't know everything after all. The plague may have been one small event (among a great series) that helped lead up to the Protestant Reformation.

Change in People's Outlook on Life

Some medieval commentators, writing a decade or more after the plague, claimed that the great mortality had reduced people's charity towards one another. Certainly during the plague many people fled from those who were infected, including spouses, parents and even their own children, but if the medieval commentators were right, even after the plague had passed, people were more concerned with protecting their own lives first before doing anything to help others.

The reoccurring bouts of plague may have also left people much more jaded about life and feeling helpless against the forces of nature/God. What's the point of giving someone alms today if he's going to die tomorrow of plague? People slowly but surely began to be more concerned with what happens in this life than what happens in the next. Many of the writings during and directly after the Plague focus on the impermanence of the human body-of how it will rot and be consumed by worms. Little is said, however, about what happens to the soul and the afterlife, which is a great departure from pre-Plague moral writings.

Change in Social Fabric

The Plague broke up communities in two ways. The first way is obvious: the plague killed off your family, neighbors, customers, priest, the cripple you used to give change to every Friday. People who survived had to pick up the pieces of their former life that were left and try to put them back together as best they could and build new social relationships to fill in the holes.

However, long after the initial outbreak of plague was over, social dynamics continued to change. People who were born on a piece of land that their family had been working for generations suddenly moved away because there was better land or better wages somewhere else, or maybe there was no one else left in his community and so he had to go to where other people were. While land had always been valuable and worth keeping, how many generations it had been in the family was no longer important if there was better land to be had cheaply elsewhere. Some people moved away from the land and churchyards where their families had been buried for countless generations.

They also left communities where they had known people and been known all of their lives. And because people were now constantly on the lookout for better employment or land or other forms of wealthy, communities were in much more of a state of flux than they had been before. This doesn't seem odd to us, because job changing and moving are frequent in our lives, but prior to the Plague almost no one moved away from the place he was born, nor did his children or grandchildren.

Noble people's mindset towards their tenants and employees also changed. Before the Plague, it was important that every person have some labor to do, because it was considered good for the soul that a man earn his own bread, and also idle peasants got into mischief. In a way, it was the job of a nobleman to employ as many people as possible-to give folks a decent day's work. However, after the Plague lords became increasingly distant from their tenants; they no longer saw themselves as morally obligated to help them. The Enclosures Act, which drove the English Industrial Revolution by expelling many farming tenants in favor of low-maintenance, high-profit sheep, would have been unthinkable in medieval England. While a lord technically owned all the land, his tenants owned parts of it through customary inheritance, and could even buy and sell it; most noble people in the middle ages would not have even thought about kicking all their peasants out and putting in nothing but sheep. There was a symbiotic social relationship pre-Plague that evaporated in the years and centuries that followed it.

Economic Impact

When Your Workforce Disappears...

Because the rich could afford to flee to sparsely populated areas and effectively quarantine themselves, and because they had better nutrition and some amount of medical care (thus increasing their odds of survival slightly), the Plague affected a disproportionate amount of poorer people.

While the ruling class kept up its population enough to maintain government and something of the old structure of feudalism, there were no longer enough working-class people to do all the manual labor that was required. This lead to a great rise in the standard of living for the common person.

Rising Wages

Because the first wave of plague struck in the summer, many crops were left standing the fields, unharvested. When the plague struck again the following summer, the population had already been so decimated that many fields were not planted at all and, again, those that were planted were not always harvested.

This lack of manpower to plant and harvest lead to a sudden explosion in the wages of field hands. Governments all over Europe were alarmed at the wages being asked for and granted to peasants, and almost all tried some form of price-fixing-both the price of wages and the price of goods-to their pre-Plague levels. However, these laws were completely ineffective because peasants who did not want to work for low wages could stay at home and harvest their own fields (which they suddenly had a lot more of). In order to get peasants off their own fields and into the fields of the nobility, the nobility were willing to pay almost any price. Oddly enough, it was the nobility more than the peasants themselves who broke the wage laws, because it was more expensive to have no harvest than to pay peasants more to do the harvesting. They could not afford to follow the law, because they would have had no harvest if they did.

Bargaining for Wages

In pre-Plague Europe, peasants were not allowed to bargain for wages or shop around. A lord set the wages of his peasantry and guilds set the prices on their member's wares. Serfs were not allowed to work outside the lord's demesne at all. However, in the new economy, the highest bidder won, and many peasants were able to shop around and bargain not only for better wages, but also for more freedoms, more protections, and lower rents and taxes. The Peasant's Rebellion in England under Richard II was caused in large part by the post-Plague economic times. Peasants were bargaining with torches and pitchforks for better conditions, and while the rebellion itself was crushed, many historians agree that the fact that it occurred, and on the scale that it did, caused many later government reforms which improved the lives of the working classes.

Lower Rents

Where villages were nearly wiped out, and there weren't enough people available to harvest or plant, regardless of what wage was offered, lords offered lower rents to entice displaced people to come settle on their land. Where a village was left with only a handful of surviving people, they would often completely abandon the village and migrate to places where lower rents were being offered and there was still a small surviving community.

While "plague" villages were more or less left as ghost towns to decay into nothingness on their own, where there was farm land that no one was farming any more, wealthy landowners would put sheep or allow surrounding forests to take it back over and thus increase the size of their hunting preserves. Wool became a larger part of the English export market after the Plague and it was possibly this first taste of the wealth that wool could bring that later lead to the Enclosure Acts.

More Landowners

In addition to having an increase in wealth due to better wages and lower rents and taxes/fees, many peasants who would have never been able to own land before the Plague found it easy to acquire more than enough land to support their families. Famine, even in the face of continuing climate cooling, became a thing of the past for many.

However, because there was suddenly a lot more food than there were people to consume it, the price of food decreased. While many peasants raised crops to feed themselves, working for cash wages became a growing trend, because you could make more money working for someone else than you could working for yourself. Suddenly people were no longer concerned with just getting food put on the table; with food needs taken care of relatively easily, people could focus more on making money.

End of Serfdom

All of these factors together-competitive wages, offers of lower rent or taxes, cheap land to buy-sounded the death knell of serfdom. Serfdom was on its way out before the Plague, because there wasn't a lot of need for it anymore, but the economic conditions following the Plague finished it off.

Serfs were quasi-slaves in the middle ages. A lord didn't have the right to trade in serfs, the way one could trade in slaves, however a serf was not free to leave the lord's lands or his services; he was not free to better himself or his children through the church or apprenticeships. He was effectively "tied to the land." He couldn't leave it of his own will, nor could his lord remove him from it. Governance over serfs was inherited by the children of noblemen, and service on the land was inherited by the children of the serf.

But after the Plague it became impossible to tie people to the land in that way. Whereas before, there had been no place for a runaway serf to go (because there was a decided lack of land and resources), a serf could now leave his traditional land and go anywhere and make a good wage and actually buy some land of his own, like a freeman. Nobles were powerless to stop them from running away in droves, so the smarter nobles agreed to free all of their remaining serfs in order to entice them to stay.

The Rise of the Middle Class

Between cheaper food, rent and taxes, and rising wages, the middle class exploded after the Plague. Prior to the Plague, many farming peasants were stuck in a cycle of poverty. It took a lot of cash to buy more land than you managed to inherit. If you couldn't buy land, you had almost no chance of acquiring wealth. Your children had no prospects either, because it took cash to buy an apprenticeship. A poor boy might be able to enter a monastery, but he would almost always be the lowest-ranking member of the church hierarchy, and would not live a whole lot better than he would if he was a subsistence farmer. The riches of the church were reserved for those people wealthy enough to buy their way into the top; there was a class structure in the church that very much mirrored the one on the outside. A girl, on the other hand, needed a large sum of money to enter a nunnery, and even to get married she had to have enough dowry to attract a man with the means to support her. Non-inheriting children usually worked for others as servants or field hands from their teens until they had saved up enough money to either get married or buy some land. Many men and women were never able to afford either and worked as servants for slightly better-off common people, shop owners, or nobles.

That all changed after the Plague; people who survived were suddenly able to afford land. They were able to get married and accumulate wealth. Suddenly their children had an amazing opportunity: their daughters could get married to men higher up on the social or economic ladder because they had good dowries for them. And they could afford to buy apprenticeships for their non-inheriting sons to see that they were set up well in life too. Even the son that inherited the family farm inherited a much larger piece of land, because his parents typically added to it throughout their lives; he was no longer a subsistence farmer, but an affluent one.

It's interesting to note that births actually declined after the Plague. While reoccurring outbreaks certainly did a lot to keep the population numbers low in Europe, people also didn't have families quite as large as they had before the Plague. Some scholars have said that people lost the will to live and to bring children into the world when it looked as if it was about to end just anytime. However, there is evidence that medieval people were capable of practicing some form of birth control (even if it might not have always been effective).

Modern studies have demonstrated, in many different cultures, that the rise of wealth almost always correlates with a drop in the number of children born. Even in countries like Italy and Ireland, which are predominantly Catholic and are, technically, not supposed to practice birth control, the rise of wealth has caused a decrease in population. The United States is not capable of sustaining its population numbers without allowing in immigrants from poorer countries. Many places in Europe and Japan have dwindling populations.

It is possible that the rise of the middle class, just after the first outbreak of plague, lead to a suppression of population numbers. Rather than having a lot of children and hoping that a few would survive to adulthood, it became possible to have a few children and spend a lot of money on them to help them survive. In the first scenario, survival is pretty much left up to chance; in the second, parents are capable of manipulating the odds to their children's advantage.

It's interesting to note that when Europe finally reached high numbers of population again in the 19th century, there also arose a new class of utterly impoverished peasants, hardly capable of sustaining life: the people of the industrial slums.

Technological Impact

Loss of Talent

A consequence of the Plague that is often overlooked is its effect on workmanship. A precipitous drop in the quality of embroideries, in particular, was noted at the time, and has been documented by researchers. In fact, the quality of an embroidery piece can almost always instantly date it to either pre-Plague or post-Plague, so great was the decline in workmanship after the Plague. This decline in workmanship is undoubtedly seen in many other industries, not just embroideries.

The reason for this decline is two-fold. In one part, many talented people died, no doubt taking some of the secrets of their craft to their grave. There were also fewer of them to teach the next generation; guild laws in a variety of industries pre-Plague typically limited a master craftsman to just one apprentice, or maybe two, if the eldest one was a year from completing his apprenticeship. Post-Plague, however, there were so few people to teach, guilds had to change their by-laws to allow people to have more than one apprentice-which, of course, lessened the oversight and one-on-one training that apprentices received, and thus lowered the quality somewhat. In some cases, the number of years of apprenticeship was also lowered so that people would become Masters faster, however this too caused a decline in craftsmanship.

Need to Produce Goods Faster

The second cause of poorer workmanship was fewer people trying to make almost the same amount of goods. Embroidery is a very labor-intensive project, and for big pieces, more than one person would work on a section. So a single order for embroidered bed hangings might require the skills of half a dozen people. After the Plague, there might only be two people left in the shop capable of producing bed hangings, but the orders still came in. Not only did the Plague not affect the luxuries market among the wealthy, but the emerging middle class actually increased demand. So those two embroiderers had to work much faster and cut corners in order to get orders processed nearly as fast as when there had been six people working.

Not only did the quality of workmanship suffer after the Plague, but some things shifted so that they were not quite so labor-intensive. For instance, use of brocade fabric boomed after the Plague; before, garments were more often lavishly embroidered. But because embroidery, as mentioned, is labor-intensive, it became cheaper and easier to replace embroidered fabric with fabric woven into similar patterns by ever-improving looms.

Rise of Technology and the Modern Age?

I believe that this need for products and lack of skilled workmen to produce it was probably the spark of what eventually became the Industrial Revolution. The quality of medieval goods before the Plague could not be matched by any machine (not that anyone was particularly interested in making machines to replace people, since people were so cheap and readily available). However, as the quality of workmanship dropped and people grew used to lower standards, suddenly machines had the ability to compete.

While Queen Elizabeth was on the throne, a man invented a knitted stocking machine and asked the Queen to grant him a patent (which included a monopoly for sales) on it. She said the quality was not as good as what a person could make, so she didn't see a use for it. A few years later he came back with an improved machine and the Queen had to admit that his stockings were every bit as good as handmade ones, but she still refused to patent the machine, on the altruistic idea that it would put many women out of business. However, we know that later governments were not so concerned about the welfare of the masses.

Not only were machines capable of real competition at lower standards of quality, but with people in scarce supply and more expensive per head than ever, machines became money-saving tools. If a machine could replace a person, it would eventually pay for itself. That was certainly not the case in the pre-Plague days, when there were more peasants than jobs.

Modern Benefits to Genetic Resistance?

The Plague and Our Health Today

All persons of Western European descent are the offspring of persons who survived the Plague. In most cases, we are descendants of multiple ancestors who survived multiple outbreaks of plague.

Geneticists are just now beginning to understand how important that fact is to the health of modern people. At some point, someone noticed that whites and Arab-Caucasians do not contract HIV at the same rate as people from Africa and Asia. In fact, some whites do not catch HIV, even when exposed to it. In others, the disease doesn't progress, or progresses very slowly, even without medicine. Genes are just now beginning to tell why, and it goes back to the repeated outbreaks of plague.

When two certain markers are present in the genes, people who have them seem to be immune to plague (thus why some people never caught plague, even when they lived in a house full of people who died from it). Where one marker is present, relatively healthy people have a very good chance of surviving contact with the plague. Where there are no markers present, hardly anyone survives. Through repeated outbreaks of plague, Western Europeans were whittled into a group of people who typically have one or two markers; when they produce offspring, those offspring are likely to have one or two markers. Evolution, in other words, favored those people who had the markers, and they in turn passed those markers on to their children (which is probably a good part of the reason why subsequent outbreaks were never as widespread nor quite so deadly).

These markers are thought to be an important influence on a person's susceptibility or immunity to diseases like HIV. People with two markers seem resistant to catching HIV, while people with one marker seem to live longer and manage the disease better. People with neither marker have the most trouble and the shortest lifespan. Where plague did not appear-most places in Africa and some parts of Asia, and among peoples of North of South America-people are not very likely to have either marker, thus why HIV and AIDS seems to spread faster among certain populations.

HIV is not the only disease linked to Plague resistance. Antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is becoming very widespread in Russia (which, except for the extreme western section, was untouched by Plague), but has not yet managed to be a real threat in Europe or America.

However, we cannot continue to bank on good genes for long; just as plague came along to decimate Europeans who had some immunity to small pox, measles and other diseases, so too are there new diseases which will undoubtedly get around the gene combination; some new combination of genes may be necessary to save from people from SARS, bird or swine flu or whatever else is next on the horizon. Just as we evolved to resist certain diseases, so too do diseases evolve to overcome our advantage. Another plague may be just around the corner....


The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. Robert S. Gottfried. The Free Press, New York © 1983.

The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents. John Aberth. Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, © 2005.

Medieval Households. David Herlihy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, © 1985.

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman’s World. Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, © 1999.

Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages: Social Change in England c. 1200-1520 (Revised Edition). Christopher Dyer. Cambridge University Press, New York, © 1998.

A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1295-1344. Judith M. Bennett. McGraw-Hill College, St. Louis, © 1999.

A Note About the Pictures

As you can see from the scythe, the image of the Grim Reaper goes back to the middle ages (most of these prints are from the late 1400's through the 1500's). Another popular representation that has not survived into modern culture was death with a bow and arrow. This was meant to symbolize how quickly, and without warning, you could be struck dead. Death was also sometimes shown riding a horse, which was connected to John's vision of the Apocalypse in Revelation, and the fourth figure, Death, who rides a pale horse.

What looks like a snake with or on the skeletons is actually meant to represent a worm. The fleshier corpses are sometimes shown with open abdomens and something in them; those are also supposed to be worms. Worms symbolized the decay (and corruption) of the flesh. You don't just die, your body rots away to nothing.

Death art (also known as macabre art or danse macabre) was popular after the Plague. In one way, it was just a manifestation of what everyone was talking about-the way Americans made 9/11 commemorative T-shirts, bumper stickers and art exhibits after that tragedy. In another way, however, it was a form of moral lesson. Some people even had jewelry featuring skeletons made so that they were constantly reminded of their own mortality. For some people, it made them more secular: do it now before something happens to you; while others became more religious: save your soul while you still have the chance.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      These are useful where did u get the information

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      @anonymous: awesome

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very useful!

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 

      8 years ago

      Good insights thanks

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @Lady Lorelei: It was amzing . I was doing research for my history topic and it had everything here!!! :)

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      9 years ago from Canada

      Your articles are always done with amazing style, character and grace. Fantastic as usual.


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