In the fourteenth century, the face of Europe was forever changed by a devastating event known as the Black Plague. This plague would rear its ugly head time and again throughout Europe in lesser outbreaks right up through the eighteenth century, when it finally disappeared from the continent for good. However, its initial appearance happened in the fourteenth century, and this debut performance was its most dramatic and destructive.
Called the “great mortality” by contemporary writers1, for the great number of people killed in the outbreak, the term “black plague” or “black death” became more commonly used later on as more outbreaks hit the European continent. Carried by fleas on rats, the Black Plague is now commonly thought to be bubonic plague, a disease characterized by sub-dermal hemorrhages that blacken the skin; it is highly contagious and has a high mortality rate. It is thought that Black Plague first entered Europe from Asia, along the silk roads that merchants used to travel between the continents for the purposes of trade. 4 1Boccaccio, Giovani.
The Decameron. Signet Classics: New York. 2002 (reissue). 4Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Harper Collins: New York. 2005. When the Black Plague first hit Europe, the conditions in Europe were ripe for a devastating outbreak. Warfare and a widespread famine that lasted nearly a century had weakened the population of Europe to the point that the people were extremely vulnerable to disease. Famine also hurt productivity by weakening workers, thus further reducing the output of food and other necessary goods; it was an ugly, self-perpetuating cycle.
In a population already suffering and on the brink of disaster, the Black Plague, which first made its European appearance in 1347, was a final push toward a dramatic re-alignment of society. Over one-third of the population of Europe was killed by the Black Plague (and over half the population in Britain). It wiped out entire families, and even entire communities. When it was over, the stunned and decimated population had to face a virtual rebuilding of their entire society from scratch.
However, as devastating as the Black Plague was on the inhabitants of Europe, and as hard as things were on the survivors, the Black Plague did have some unexpected benefits for the survivors and their descendants, benefits that would improve the overall quality of life for everyone in Europe, peasants included, for generations to come. One of the most immediate benefits to survivors of the Black Plague was an increase in wages. Before the population was decimated by the Black Plague, Europe had been drastically overpopulated for its resources, resulting in widespread poverty, especially among the peasants.
After the Black Plague, however, labor came at a premium, due to the reduction in the population. There were not nearly as many people available to do much-needed work, and therefore those who were available to do it were more sought-after. As a result, wages increased, because employers were now competing for the smaller pool of workers, rather than workers competing for a smaller pool of jobs, as had been the case before. With higher wages, survivors were better able to provide for their families, and the standard of living for many families dramatically increased.
In fact, some families fortunes increased so dramatically that they began to live as the nobility did, dressing in fine clothes, living in fine houses, and even employing servants of their own. In some European countries, the nobility were so threatened by the new upward mobility of the peasants that laws were enacted that regulated just what the peasant class could wear and where they could live, so as to prevent the peasant class from mingling with the nobility or trying to become part of the nobility2.
In fact, increased opportunities for social advancement were another unexpected benefit of the Black Plague for survivors. Before the Black Plague, Europe was fairly 2Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made. Harper Perennial: New York. 2002. entrenched in the feudal system, whereby peasants worked the land for wealthy nobles, being allowed to take only a small portion of the harvest they worked to bring in for their own use, and being pretty much tied to the land of their patron for life.
After the Black Plague, the surviving population realized it now had options. With so few peasants available to work the land, landlords began competing to attract tenants to their estates, a phenomenon that was new in Europe. Previous to the Black Plague, landlords had a self-propagating population of peasants on their land, generation upon generation of families that stayed on the same land, on the same estate, and worked under whatever conditions the landlord set, as there was nowhere else for them to go.
However, after the Black Plague, landlords offered incentives for peasants to come work their land, incentives ranging from actual wages to improved living conditions to increased freedoms. In fact, some historians believe that the conditions in Europe just after the end of the initial Black Plague laid the roots of what was to become capitalism centuries later. A reduction in the population also meant that there was an increase in the amount of fertile land available to the population.
With entire families wiped out, sometimes noble or land-owning families, their land became available, land that had often been in the same family for centuries. This opening up of new land created opportunities not only for landlords to increase their holdings and attract new peasants to work for them, but also created opportunities for upwardly mobile peasants to become landowners in their own right. With land available for those who could afford to purchase it, many peasants found that their newfound increase in wages also bought them the opportunity to become settled on their own land, and, in effect, their own masters.
The Black Plague also, in effect, put an end to the century-long famine in Europe. With fewer people to feed, there was more food available for those who were left. The opening up of new, tillable land on which to grow food, the demand for labor that produced more food, and the increase in wages that allowed a family to buy more food, all led to an increase in consumable food available for everyone. As a result of the Black Plague, the survivors became better nourished and healthier, and thus better able to work to produce more food, as well as better able to fight off new outbreaks of disease as they came.
Even with an increase in wages and other benefits attracting most of the available workers after the Black Plague, there were still too few people around to work to do everything that needed to be done in the time in which it needed to be done. Therefore, out of need, a plethora of labor-saving devices began to be invented following the Black Plague. These devices helped to speed along necessary work, and reduced the number of people necessary to complete certain jobs. The spinning wheel is an excellent example of this.
The spinning wheel was a post-Black Plague invention that dramatically reduced the time and effort involved in turning wool into thread. 3 With more thread able to be produced more quickly than by traditional methods, cloth was able to be weaved quicker and in greater quantities, thus creating an abundance of fabric available for sale and for personal use. Springs and gears were invented to control the hands of clocks. Horseshoes and spring carriages were invented that eased the burden of travel and increased its efficiency.
Three-crop field rotation was invented, which increased farming efficiency by dropping the old idea of individual farming plots and introducing the idea of open-field communal farming. In addition, heavier plows with wheels and horizontal plowshares were invented, which saved much time and labor in the process of farming. Finally, the ultimate of all medieval inventions, the printing press, was invented post-Black Plague, an invention that saved an enormous amount of time and energy by ending the need of copying books by hand, thus making the written word more widely available to the general public.
3 3Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Harvard University Press: Cambridge. 1997. The effects of the Black Plague were felt in every facet of life, not just social and economic. The Black Plague utterly changed the face of life in Europe forever. The plague even affected the art of the times. Whereas before the Black Plague, religious themes were the most common topic of art, after the Black Plague, a more pessimistic feeling pervaded a society that was terrified of the plague returning.
As a result, themes of death became dominant in the artwork for more than a century after the plague. The prestige and authority of the Church were also negatively affected by the Black Plague. Because the church was not able to cure victims of the plague, or even explain what was causing the plague, cynicism of the church grew among the populace. As a result, many sought out alternatives to the traditional church, particularly through smaller religious cults such as self-flagellants (who flogged themselves in atonement for the sins that supposedly brought on the plague).
Others sought out secular solutions to ending the plague. Further, because so many monks died in the plague (from living in close quarters and from generously tending the sick), the church experienced an influx of new, less dedicated clergy, who were more opportunistic than the old guard, and contributed to an upcoming period of severe corruption within the Catholic church that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. 2
While the Black Plague was a devastating event for all of Europe, killing millions, it left behind conditions that lead to some positive changes in European society. While wiping out entire families and towns, the Black Plague nonetheless created a fertile ground for economic improvement and upward social mobility for the underclass in its wake. The Black Plague led to the downfall of the feudal system and created the conditions that later ushered in the Age of Enlightenment.
It ushered in a new age of labor-saving inventions that changed the face of production in the world. Because it was such a powerful force on both society and the psyche, the Black Plague also ushered in an era of change in both art and religion, changes that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, which in turn led to the founding of America by the Puritans. The Black Plague, though it destroyed, also provided the seeds of sowing something new and good. 2Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made.
Harper Perennial: New York. 2002. Bibliography Boccaccio, Giovani. The Decameron. Signet Classics: New York. 2002 (reissue). Cantor, Norman. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made. Harper Perennial: New York. 2002. Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Harvard University Press: Cambridge. 1997. Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. Harper Collins: New York. 2005.
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