The Effects of the Black Death on the Middle Ages
During the height of the Middle Ages, Christian civilization went through a period of prosperity. For instance, the development of better farming methods enabled the production of more food; as a result, the population increased drastically. With the growth of agricultural production, commerce and trading expanded greatly and a large portion of the growing population tended to move towards towns in search for wealth and freedom. As a result, a new middle class (primarily created after the Black Death) was created from the lower class consisting of mostly serfs. Politically, both monarchies and the church grew stronger. For example, the monarchs were able to successfully consolidate their land; and the church’s doctrines were upheld with the help of scholasticism, that is the school of thought where theology and philosophy (faith and reason) are intertwined (Perry 189).
However during the Late Middle Ages, roughly the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Christian civilization throughout Europe went through a long period of decay. From 1301 through until about 1314, the first crisis took the form of “a general shortage of food” because of the unyielding population growth that could not be supported by the land. This was also compounded with the “limited use of fertilizers.” As a result of significant topsoil erosion, famines struck across Europe from 1315 to 1317. Even throughout the rest of the century, “starvation and malnutrition were widespread” (Perry 189). Adding to the misery to this time, the Hundred Year’s War, from 1337 to 1453, caused havoc for the French and British Kingdoms (Perry 190). Because of this war, thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed as well as thousands of French peasants were also killed. Additionally, huge amounts of “valuable [French] farmland was destroyed by English armies and marauding bands of mercenaries” (Perry 191).
After most of the serious famines were over and during the beginning of the Hundred Year’s War, a new tragedy developed and was known as the Black Death. The Black Death was technically called the Bubonic Plague, but the Black Death was the more common name at the time. More recently, the Black Death has also been mistakenly called the Black Plague too.
This plague was most probably originated from Mongolia and “carried by fleas on black rats.” It quickly spread all the way to the Black Sea across parts of modern day Russia, where Italian traders caught it and returned home with it. As a result of an already “undernourished population,” the Bubonic Plague had devastating effects throughout Europe (Perry 189). It could be attested that the Bubonic Plague has serious consequences in the social, economic, and psychological aspects of the Late Middle Ages throughout Europe. Furthermore, their effects also had considerable social and cultural consequences during the following Renaissance period.
The first and most major outbreak of the Black Death that occurred from 1347 to 1351 was a major catalyst of social upheaval throughout Europe. It is easy to understand the reasons for people fleeing the towns and cities, where the plague struck the hardest, considering an estimated twenty million people died during this period. That was approximately “one-quarter to one-third of the European population” even though some remote areas were spared from the plague (Perry 189). As a result, social mobility was very prominent considering how widespread the plague was.
The Bubonic Plague also had devastating effects on the economy during the Late Middle Ages. With the drastic population decrease, the production of food and goods also decreased. This allowed peasant farmers to demand higher wages and increase the prices of their products. Likewise, skilled workers could charge more money, since they no longer has as much competition assuming there was work (Perry 189). Even the church made huge profits by forcing fees on funeral services that were obviously in high demand at the time. It was the lords and the upper class who economically suffered the most, because they were the ones who owned the devalued farmlands and were forced to pay higher wages and prices al almost everything (Perry 189-190). In France and Italy, the kings, under pressure from the nobility, forced regulated prices and fixed wages in an attempt to stabilize the economy and stop social mobility. Thus, these kings used their power to ensure that the upper class maintained as much as their wealth and status as possible (Sherman 251). Consequently, the peasants rebelled and were massacred when they fought the kings’ professionally trained military. In Flanders, the free peasants were forced back into manorialism; as a result, a “bloody” five year rebellion transpired and eventually the nobility won (Perry 189). The English upper class took a different approach; they simply created new and exuberantly high taxes. Thus, the English “nobility suppressed the peasants” until they were unable and unwilling to rebel. In the cities, such as Paris and Florence, rebellions were started by the people who already gained some personal wealth for the first time and were forced to give up those profitable enterprises. Of course, their rebellions were eventually crushed by superior might too (Perry 190). Yet at the same time, the French and the English were fighting each other in the Hundred Year’s War. Obviously this war must have been a very costly expenditure for both kingdoms. In conclusion, the stability of the European economy started to crumble especially for the lower and middle classes, and the ruling elites did nothing to remedy the situation, if not make matters worse.
The psychological significance of several famines, the Hundred Year’s War, rebellions, and the Black Death was too much for the struggling Europeans. The tremendous emotional shock of watching a ravaging plague that caused people to die quickly and quite painfully that probably killed friends and family members was psychologically traumatizing. This created a state of shock and depression and sometimes even panic that spread across more than an entire continent (Sherman 265). As a result, some people because religious fanatics hoping the God would save them. For instance, some people “marched from region to region, beating each other with sticks and whips … to appease God.” Other people blamed other groups of people for the plague. For instance, some people blames the Hebrew people for poisoning their wells; and some Jews were even massacred against the papacy’s wishes. Some people even blamed the church for being too materialistic, too involved with politics, and not spiritual enough, since the church was extremely profitable during this time. For example, some people believed that God sent the plague as punishment for the sins of the church. Furthermore, some people even isolated themselves from outsiders so that they were less likely to catch the Bubonic Plague (Perry 189). Some people saw the plague as a chance to profit. Without the regular police to enforce the law, vandals looted empty homes more often (Sherman 249). In some instances, a new middle class, called the “nouveaux riches”, formed and took advantage of the collapse of older families by taking their wealth (Sherman 263). Others benefited life while they were still alive, by isolating themselves and having parties where they avoided excess eating and drinking, had entertainment, and listened to music (Sherman 249). During the plague, most surviving Europeans suffered from psychological instability that directly resulted in depression, panic, shock, and loss of faith while a smaller number of people profited immensely.
After the plague ended, “an unparalleled abundance of food and goods, and of a wild, irresponsible life of pleasure” took place. This did not last long even with “greater opportunities for social mobility” because goods quickly because scarce, prices doubles, riots and lawsuits erupted, and wars threatened (Sherman 263). As a result, society suffered a moral breakdown (Sherman 264). Interest in God and the church declined, heresy threatened, and even the spreading of “witchcraft” and satanic worshipping mushroomed across Europe (Sherman 266). In conclusion, the psychological effects immediately after the Black Death were still too overwhelming for the surviving populace.
During the end of the Late Middle Ages, the prosperity of the Renaissance first came into appearance in Northern Italy; although Italy was not unified and still occasionally inflicted by the Black Death. The plague even had significant influences on the social and cultural developments of the Renaissance Era.
During the Renaissance, the social impact of the sudden rise of trading and commerce that decreased considerably during the height of the plague resulted with the re-growth of urban cities. With the economy rising once again, these cities attracted bankers, teachers, artisans, and other skilled workers who fled during the initial outbursts of the Black Death. Another repercussion of the plague was the abundance of small families. However, this could be also contributed to the fact that men married relatively late in life, because they waiting until they were better financially situated in life, since they were no longer dependent on their families for support. Thus, the social outlook during the Renaissance was becoming optimistic even though the Bubonic Plague still threatened society.
The cultural aspects of the Renaissance represented a revolution from the old “Medieval” ways of thought to even older ways. These ideas were derived form the “rebirth” of classical literature from the Greek and Roman Civilizations (Sherman 271). The new primary school of thought during the Renaissance was humanism. This humanism was the basis for the end of scholasticism, whereby reason and logic was more important than religion (Sherman 274). However, humanism was not “anti-Christian;” but rather, a secular believe concerned with the physical world and the individual. Therefore, humanism can be viewed as the inevitable result of people becoming more aware of the world around them; such as how the “worldly” plague individually affected them. Also, humanism believed individuals, not just men, should stride to reach their highest potential through a liberal arts education (Perry 204). With the massive number of deaths from the plague, individual importance increased along with an increase of psychological insight for individuals. Since the plague had disastrous effects on politicians as well, this enabled relatively young males to gain political power with little or no experience (Sherman 276-277). Thus, the psychological impact of the plague was a push away from the religious ideas of the Middle Ages to the secular and individual thoughts of the Renaissance.
In conclusion, the social, economic, and psychological consequences of the Black Death were devastating and widespread for the European society during the Late Middle Ages. For instance, social mobility was rampant, the economy was crumbling especially for the lower and middle classes, and the psychological instabilities resulted with mass depression, shock, and panic. However, the Renaissance showed significant advances despite the impact of the Bubonic Plague. For example, the healing populace had a more optimistic viewpoint on life, believed in individual importance, and pushed for a secular philosophy in politics and life.
by Phil B.
- Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief Survey. Vol. I. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
- Sherman, Dennis, ed. Western Civilization: Images and Interpretations. Vol. I. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill, 1991.