THE BLACK DEATH
AND ITS EFFECT ON
THE HISTORY AND
THE WESTERN WORLD
21 February 1975
W. Randolph Stilson
The Black Death of
1346 - 1348 and its relation to historical change is not one of direct
cause but of contributory effect. The disease helped cause historic and
social change, but the change (especially in economic systems) was not
initiated by the historical event known as the Black Death but
accelerated by it.
In this paper I hope
to show what effects the Black Death has had on the history and
socialization of Europe and consequently on the United States. Most is
fact or interpretation by experts, but I have interspersed some serious
speculation on what would have happened had the Bubonic Plague not
appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century?
significance of this paper is based on English history and how the
plague helped cause major changes in the socialization, social
structure, and the history of England thus effecting the subsequent
history of America as well. In addition, plague in the history of
France and that of Scandinavian countries may also have some validity in
speculations on how the Black Death has effected American history and
endemic in an age of narrow, filthy, and sunless streets and almost
complete ignorance of sanitation, but there existed no parallel for the
plague which came sweeping out of the East in 1347 'by operation of the
superior bodies, or rather for our enormous iniquities, by the just
anger of God'"
These words aptly
describe the setting in which the Black Death occurred. The towns and
cities were poorly prepared to handle such a catastrophe. The people
lived in dirty, unsanitary, and crowded towns with open sewers and here
they were more prone to all epidemic diseases. The country folk and the
aristocrats and nobles in their country houses were comparatively safe
from plague though it often invaded the country as well because of
roving plague victims who did not realize their own sickness or did not
care if others caught it from them.
Many of the
townspeople, though not sick with the plague, died of starvation while
attempting to run away from the cities where the pestilence was
destroying the population. "The people did not understand it (the
plague) and feared it so terribly that it sent a tremor through the
whole of society". Their fear can
be seen in the characterizations they made of the Black Death. Much art
and popular imaginings during this time depict the Black Death in a
variety of ways: "An armed man on a huge black horse, or a vast,
blackcoated giant towering above the tops of the houses".
Dancing also was used to try and express the plague in a concrete form -
thus the "Danse Macabre" came into
The Church used the
Black Death as an opportunity to show the uncertainty of human life and
to impress upon the people the idea that master and peasant were indeed
equal at least in death. The people responded by asking, "Why us"? Why
was the plague visiting them and how could it be sent away? The pious
turned to God and the Saints for answers. Others became more anxious
about sin and damnation and the popular religion of saints, the Holy
Virgin, the Pieta - and fear of
demons became common. The practice of selling indulgences (or pardons
from sins) for money or other gifts was increased by the church - a
practice which would be condemned by others after the disease had
It is not surprising
that all this should happen. People were superstitious and when, in the
evening, cartloads full of the dead were pulled through the streets
towards the burial trenches, it is a little easier to understand why the
people behaved as they did. So
great was the number of dead that in many areas there was no one left to
bury them. Those bodies which were buried were likely to be dumped in a
shallow pit along with many others - clothed and unclothed - and covered
with a scant covering of earth. There was no time and little money for
digging individual six-foot-deep graves. Only the rich could afford
coffins and burial in a church cemetery.
"The Black Death was
not just another incident in the long list of epidemics which have
smitten the world. It was probably the greatest European catastrophe in
history". Let us now see why.
WHAT IS THE BLACK DEATH
Origin of the Name
Briefly, the Black
Death is what is known now as the Bubonic Plague. The disease became
identified as the Black Death because of the enormous amount of dead and
the color of the corpses. The speed and result of the disease is shown
in this description by a physician in the Great Plague of London in
1665. The physician describes "the fifteen year old servant of a
certain William Pick of Petticoat lane who developed buboes on a
Thursday and died the following Sunday. The autopsy, in his own words,
'much exhilerated by spirits'. The boy's body was placed in an open
courtyard with a porringer containing sulphur burning beneath it, and
the doctor's description speaks for itself. 'A skin so beset with spots
black and blue more remarkable for multitude and magnitude than any I
have yet seen'".
Other names for this
disease are known according to the environment in which it takes place.
In urban areas it is sometimes called Murine (rat) or Urban Plague. In
desert or rural areas with sparse human population but a large
population of infected rodents, the disease is labelled Sylvatic
(woodland) or Campestral (field) plague.
Types of Plague
There are three
types of plague which can appear separately or together. The most
common form is the bubonic type. "Bubonic refers to the characteristic
bubo or enlarged lymphatic gland which usually occurs in the groin but
also in the armpit or on the neck. The disease is spread by fleas from
rodents which have the plague bacilli.
The second type is
the Pneumonic plague. This is the contagious variety and the most
dangerous from the point of view that most epidemics and pandemics are
caused when the disease changes from the bubonic type to the pneumonic
one. Pneumonic plague can be spread directly from man to man just like
the common cold. The breath and sputum of the victim can spread the
bacilli when he speaks, coughs, or sneezes. Any bystander is in danger
of catching the disease by inhaling the bacilli. The characteristic
symptom of this type is the blood-stained sputum as in ordinary
pneumonia. The widespread and high mortality of the plague indicates
that this was the predominant form of the disease in all the major
The third type and
the most deadly for the individual victim is the Septicaemic form in
which "the organism, Pasteurella Pestis rapidly multiplies in the
bloodstream causing a high temperature and death from septicaemia".
In this case, blood poisoning occurs before buboes can develop.
As stated above, the
organism responsible for all forms of plague is the bacilli Pasteurella
Pestis, also called Bacillus Pestis, or Yersinia Pestis after one of its
two discoverers. The bacilli and the disease are normally found in rats
and other rodents. In most of the European epidemics, the plague was at
first of the bubonic type which can only be spread to humans by the
fleas of rats. This will only occur if the flea cannot find a rodent
host and so the outbreaks of plague in humans can usually be forecast
when large numbers of rodents, (especially rats) have died from the
In England and
probably in other European countries as well, the Black rat (rattus
rattus), also known as the Old English Rat, was the main carrier of the
plague bacilli. This particular rat is companionable with man, that is,
it likes to live in close proximity to man. This allows for more
chances of human infection and consequently the spread of the bubonic
plague to small epidemic levels - perhaps two to three hundred human
deaths per week.
Today there are many
areas in which Pasteurella Pestis is still endemic. The countries in
South America, the Indian sub-continent, China and Indo-China, and some
parts of Africa and the United States west of the Mississippi river have
large rodent populations which harbor the bacilli.
Prognosis of the
The plague is a
quick killer. Its onset is sudden. After a brief incubation period of
36 hours to six days, the first symptoms appear. "First symptoms were
headache, feverish, shivering and sneezing. These were followed swiftly
by the appearance of dark red spots on many parts of the body and
painful swellings or buboes like huge boils usually in the armpits and
groin, and sometimes by vomiting. The fever would augment rapidly, the
pulse become feeble and in a matter of days the patient would be near
death".The appearance of buboes occurred
about the second day.
Cures that Work and
At the time of the
Black Death no cure existed for any type of the plague. Medical science
had not developed enough to even distinguish between the types of plague
or to realize how it was spread. As a result of this ignorance and the
widespread fear of the unseen assailant, ninety percent of the infected
cases died. If they had been more observant, the physicians of that
time could have discovered the fact that the plague in its bubonic form
is not necessarily fatal. If the victims buboes burst and he is given
proper care, he could recover. However, if it was in the pneumonic form
there was no hope and the doctor would likely catch the plague while
examining the patient.
Commonly in those
times there were quacks selling amulets and talismans to the
superstitious, and the carrying of bunches of flowers - nosegays or
posies - to ward off germs and freshen the air was prevalent. This last
is mentioned in the nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie" which in
affect was probably made up to help people to recognize and avoid anyone
who had the plague symptoms:
"Ring around the
or small red spots of hemoglobin in the skin around the buboes.
"A pocket full
flowers mentioned above.
i.e., cough or
sneezes, often a final fatal symptom.
"We all fall
i.e., of course
signifying the end of the victims life.
The nursery rhymes
were probably of more value in preventing the plague than were the inane
prescriptions of the physicians. The Medical Faculty of Paris
report of October 1348 prescribed the following:
No poultry should be
eaten, no waterfowl, no sucking pig, no old beef, altogether no meat
fat. The meat of animals of a warm dry constitution should be eaten,
but no heating or irritating meat. It is injurious to sleep during the
daytime... It is dangerous to go out at night till three in the morning
on account of the dew. Fish should not be eaten; Too much exercise may
be injurious; The clothing should be warm, giving protection from cold,
damp and rain, and nothing should be cooked in rainwater. Olive oil
with food is mortal. Fat people should expose themselves to the sun.
Excess of abstinence, excitement, anger and drunkeness are dangerous.
Diarrhoea is serious. Bathing dangerous. The bowels should be kept
open by a clyster. Intercourse with women is mortal; there should be no
coition nor should one sleep in any woman's bed".
Though some of the
preceding may have helped prevent catching some other diseases such as
the common cold, most of it is as full of superstition and ignorance as
the quacks, most of whom made a fair profit but lost their lives in the
The first truly
helpful measure taken was the quarantine of sick individuals in their
own houses. This measure was accompanied by other useless methods
however, and even some which helped spread the plague further. For
example, large bon fires were lit and kept burning night and day at the
street corners and in front of every sixth house to "purify" the air.
Also, when a sick person was quarantined, his family was usually made to
stay with him. Thus many healthy people contracted the disease from
another member of their own family who would have desired their family
to escape the dreaded contagion.
progressed after the Black Death event of 1348, we find that other
methods of dealing with the plague and other communicable diseases
slowly come into existence, some by accident, others by intent. When
sea routes to the Indies were established, the land routes fell into
disuse. This fact, in addition to a quarantining of ships in the
harbor, helped rid Europe of plague. The agrarian revolution also had
an effect as it led to better housing for the peasant and helped exclude
rats from human dwellings.
By far the most
helpful new method for plague prevention at that time was the adoption
of health and sanitation laws which were intentional acts by most
European governments once they learned how valuable a prevention measure
it was for all diseases.
Today, treatment and
prevention methods are available and plague is no longer the mystifying
ogre it once was. Prevention now includes:
*Efforts to enhance
the resistance of the individual
*The isolation of
the sick and cautious handling of all infectious material
insecticides and rodent poisons eliminate the vectors of the bacilli.
DDT was used very effectively in World War II to prevent plague by
killing the fleas before they could infect the soldiers.
Aside from vaccines
using weakened and dead plague bacilli to build up the resistance in the
individual, two chemical medicines have been proven effective in the
treatment of plague. These are the sulfonamides and streptomycin.
I have tried to show
what the people of the middle ages had to contend with without the
benefit of today's miracle drugs or even the knowledge of what was
killing them. It is no wonder that their behavior was as it was.
The rest of the material to be presented should show how the plague
effected society as a whole.
III. A SHORT
HISTORY OF PLAGUE IN THE WORLD
The first known
existence of the bubonic plague dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece.
There is also a possible reference to it amongst the Philistines in the
Bible, "I Samuel" chapters 5 and 6.
Fall of the Roman
The fall of the
Roman Empire is perhaps partly a result of the plague. In 542 A.D., the
city of Constantinople "was struck by a plague that is said to have
killed three out of every five inhabitants; the decline of
Constantinople dates from this catastrophe".
This plague was known as the "Plague of Justinian" as it occurred while
Justinian was emperor of Rome.
Since one case of
pneumonic plague can cause a pandemic, it is a wondrous miracle that in
the one thousand one hundred years between 540 and 1666 there have been
only three. Justinian's Plague was one of these and coincides with the
fall of the Roman Empire. The second pandemic during this period was
the Black Death (1346-61) which closed the age of feudalism.
Invasion of the Black Death.
The Crusaders had
carried the disease back to Europe with them from the Middle East, but
the Black Death itself was begun in the small fortified trading post of
Caffa (now Theodosia) on the Crimean shore of the Black Sea. Here a
company of Italian merchants, engaged in overland trade between Europe
and China took refuge from an attack by a Tartar horde. The trading
post was besieged for two years but in 1346 the siege was raised due to
plague which is thought to have been introduced by the Tartars throwing
corpses into the fort.
From this small
trading post, the plague was spread to the Caspian Sea; north from there
to Russia and East to India and China (by 1352) by the Tartars. The
Italians departed for Genoa carrying the plague with them. The
contagion spread from there wreaked havoc throughout Europe and reached
Moscow from the west in 1352. It spread further to include parts of
Africa in the southern hemisphere and as far north as the Scandinavian
countries. It reached west as far as Greenland having an adverse effect
on the Viking settlements there.
contribution to the propagation of plague in Europe was the climate.
There was a series of three abnormally wet and cold summers culminating
in that of 1348, "when it is related the rain fell unceasingly from
midsummer until Christmas, implying a period of prolonged dearth with
consequent malnutrition, illness, and reduced resistance to infectious
The plague reached
France from Provence in 1347. Provence had received it from the eastern
Mediteranean area (Levant) in the same year. During the first
visitation of the Black Death in France (1347-1350), the population was
decreased by one-third. There was to be several more visitations in the
In 1348 the disease
spread from Normandy to England and by 1349 had reached Scotland. The
Scots might have avoided the touch of death from plague altogether but
seeing England in a weakened condition they made the fatal error of
going to war against the English and the plague soon had both countries
In Italy, the Pope
issued a decree to all good Catholics. Pope Clement VI (while sitting
in a palace isolated from the general populace and between two bon
fires) declared the year 1350 a holy year and promised complete
absolution from their sins to all who might die on a pilgrimage to
Rome. Two million souls made the journey, only a third of them
Effect on the
Several waves of
plague hit Europe between 1346 and 1361. The one in 1361 is considered
to have been the worst. In England alone, population studies show one
and a half million people missing between the years of 1349 and 1377.
In all of Europe it is estimated that 24 to 25 million people died, a
quarter to a third of Europe's population at the time. Both urban and
rural populations were effected so there was no salvation in running to
Plague in England,
The third great
pandemic to occur between 540 and 1666 A.D. has become known as the
"Great Plague of London" though it was grave in most of the rest of
Europe and the world as well. The Great Plague of London raged for only
one year in England (1665-1666 and was followed by the Great Fire of
London in 1666. Justinian's Plague and that of 1665 began as
rat-flea-man infections and spread from the coast inland. Those who
attended the sick in the early stages of the epidemic ran no greater
risk of catching the sickness than those who did not.
Records show that
plague was practically endemic in London from 1590 onwards. It was
originally brought from the continent by the armies returning from the
wars against France. The first serious outbreak in England in 1603
claimed 33,000 lives and the disease returned at ten year intervals
until the Great Plague.
The Great Plague of
London began as only the bubonic type. The rise in the weekly death
rate in London to 200 - 300 people per week can be attributed to a great
increase in the number of infected rats. But soon the weekly bills were
listing thousands of deaths which signified a direct man to man
infection. On 7 June 1665, several houses were marked with the "red
cross" to signify they had been sealed off and the occupants were
quarantined. "From the seventh of June to July 1, the weekly return of
plague deaths was 100, 300, 450, but thereafter the rise was
increasingly steep, reaching 2,000 by the end of July, 6,500 at the end
of August, and 7,000 at the peak in the third week of September".
The London Plague
reached its peak in September 1665, had a secondary rise in November and
finally ran its course by March 1666 when the last cases were reported.
At the end of 1665, seventy thousand out of a population of 460,000 were
lying in London burial trenches.
The 1665 plague was
part of the last large outbreak in Europe. It was the last outbreak in
London and its abatement is credited to the fire of 1666 which burned
down much of London. England had escaped most of the European
visitations over the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries and
after 1667 there was never again an epidemic anywhere in the country
until the most recent pandemic when the coastal towns became infected
After 1672 there
were very few cases of plague in western Europe. One of the major
exceptions to this was in Marsailles, France where 40,000 died in the
city and another 10,000 in the countryside round about.
"The bubonic plague
remained one of the more lethal European diseases for three centuries
after the Black Death". Then it disappeared
spontaneously from Europe although it remained endemic on the southern
and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in Asia, in Africa and South
America. Several possible explanations exist for why Europe was no
longer bothered by the plague. One states that the Black Rat had almost
disappeared from inland Europe by the 17th century, exterminated by the
stronger and more ferocious Brown Rat which is not companionable with
man. The most probable explanation is that with the institution of
health and sanitation laws, the cities became less of a favorable
environment for the spread of plague.
The only modern
pandemic, and the one which covered most of the world, started in Yunnan
Province in China. The rebellion of the Muslims in 1855 in China caused
the movement of refugees who carried the disease throughout China.
Twenty eight years after reaching the provincial capitol of Yun-nan-fu
the cities of Canton and Hong Kong were decimated (May 1894). By 1922
the whole world was touched; Bombay in 1896, Calcutta 1898, Japan and
the Philippines 1897; Australasia, Hawaii, Central and South America in
1899; Cape Town, South Africa and San Francisco, California in 1900;
Egypt and Singapore 1901; Bangkok. Thailand 1904; Guayaquil, Ecuador in
1908; Java in 1910; New Orleans, Louisiana and Colombo, Ceylon 1914;
Galveston and Beaumont, Texas and Pensacola, Florida in 1922. Nearly
all European sea ports were also effected as the result of the shipping
trade with Hong Kong.
In 1894, while the
plague was only in Hong Kong and the rest of China, the major
breakthrough in the medical treatment of plague came. Working
separately and independently, two scientists made the discovery of
Pasteurella Pestis. The discoverers were Alexandre Yersin, a French
microbiologist and Shibasaburo Kitasato, a Japanese physician. Thirteen
years later, the Second Indian Plague Commission of the British
government announced that rat fleas were the conclusive vectors of the
Plague entered the
United States in 1900. San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Florida and
Texas fell victim to a small epidemic which was part of the global
pandemic. All together, 121 persons were infected in San Francisco over
the four years of the epidemic (1900-1904). Of these, 113 died.
Evidence of rats as the source of the disease was abundant. Again, in
May of 1907 through November of 1908, plague struck down 89 of 169
patients. Rodents were trapped and examined. Two percent were plague
ridden rats in highly infected districts of the city.
occurred in New Orleans in 1914 (30 cases) and 1920 (25 cases, 11
died). There were also a total of 41 cases reported in Florida and
Texas. In the years 1942-44, infected rats were found in Tacoma,
Washington and in 1963 one infected rat was found in San Francisco.
carriers besides rats have been discovered in the last seventy years.
Oakland, California in 1919, thirteen cases of pneumonic plague were
reported followed by thirty one cases in Los Angeles in 1924, both
instances attributable to squirrels.
The total number of
cases in the United States between 1900 and 1969 has been 558. Of
these, 384 occurred in California and 65% were fatal. The picture is
brightening, for while 410 of those human cases (287 deaths) occurred
between 1900 and 1965, the rate has slowed considerably. Between 1940
and 1969 only 10 human cases have been reported (five deaths) from a
disease that in the fourteenth century completely decimated Europe and
the known world.
IV. Historic Effect
In the feudal
system, everything ultimately belonged to someone else. The King owned
everything and everyone else owed him some kind of service. "The great
lord held his lands from the king, the knight held his manor from the
lord; the smaller landowner from the knight, and the villein from the
village landowner". Rental was paid by
service. The Baron was a vassal of the king and had sworn fealty to
him. In return, the king would give the
Baron a tract of land which became his fief to hold as long as he
remained loyal to the king. The same relationship existed between the
knights and the Baron. This system provided local governments all
across Europe and also provided for the raising of armies. Providing
men-at-arms was part of the required service of the holders of fiefs.
At the bottom of the
system were the villeins and serfs. They owned nothing but owed service
to the hierarchy. The peasant was forced to work so many days upon his
lord's land before he might till the portion he had been given to
"Around the baronial
villa some fifty to five hundred peasants-serfs, half free, or free -
built their village, living not in isolated homesteads but, for safety's
sake, close together within the walls of the settlement".
Cooperative tillage of land may have been left over from a primitive
communism. Distribution of land was made by village officials appointed
by the Baron (manor landholder) and usually was quite equitable.
situation just prior to the Black Death was excellent. The economy was
based on agriculture and toward the end of the 13th century the harvests
were so good that the English were able to export grain to the
continent. This resulted in a higher standard of living in England
indicated by better roads and traveling conditions, a higher live birth
rate and life expectancy. By 1300, this resulted in an estimated
population of 3.5 to 5 million.
Due to the excess of
wealth from the abundant harvests, there was a greater circulation of
money and those who were obliged to do service to a lord or master were
more likely to commute their service by paying the lord in cash. In
this manner a peasant or villein would pay the rent on his land with
money then demand wages for working the land of his lord. (This of
course was inconsistent with the system of feudalism). As the oppressed
peasants became used to the new freedoms the new economy gave them, they
were less likely to settle for a return to the old ways. This was to be
forcibly expressed after the Black Death which helped to make it
impossible to return to feudalism.
During the Epidemic:
The Black Death was
the most significant cause of economic distress in the middle ages.
The immediate effect was a general paralysis. Trade largely ceased; war
between England and France was halted by truce (the Hundred Years War),
and peace lasted for six years. As the armies were terribly thinned by
war and plague, defense of the countries became a concern and towns were
required to supply men-at-arms and sailors, which helped to further
deplete the work force and caused greater economic hardship.
As the plague
increased in intensity, agricultural surpluses became harder to obtain
or preserve. Standards of living, so high just a few years before,
began to plummet (as measured by diets and furnishings). Only a few
leading commercial centers prospered though hard hit by plague. Money
surpluses, if any, were not put back into business to improve
competitiveness but were used to purchase land instead.
Within the populace
of Europe at that time, one or the other of two extremes in religion and
morals were being practiced. Morals for one part of the population
hardly existed and a cynical unhappy pursuit of pleasure swept this
segment. Others developed "a masochistic urge to accept or divert the
divine punishment" which resulted in the "mania for organized mass
existed prior to the Black Death but their ranks swelled with new
penitents during the plague scourge. The movement spread throughout
Europe. They were a mass of people who carried with them scourges,
(whips of leather strips with nails sewn into the tails) and with these
they would travel from place to place striking themselves and each other
on the back and legs until they were quite bloody. The Flagellants
thought the Black Death was a divine chastisement and so they sought to
divert the divine punishment by chastising themselves.
began the notion that the Jews were the cause of Gods wrath on the
remainder of the populace. The Jews were particularly suspect in the
spread of the plague. Mass persecutions resulted as "at Basel and
Freiburg all known Jews were herded into a large wooden building and
burned to death. At Strassburg over two thousand are said to have been
hanged on a scaffold set up in the Jewish burial ground".
The plight of the Jews became so bad that the liberal Pope Clement VI
had to issue two "Bulls" declaring the Jews to be innocent. Because of
the persecution in western Europe, many Jews fled to eastern Europe and
Russia where they were tolerated.
The Flagellants are
probably the first hint of the reformation. Again, as in the fall of
feudalism, the Black Death accelerated the course of events. The plague
led people to question the authority of the Church at a time when the
Church was weakened materially also. With the loss of manpower, the
Church was becoming impoverished because of its inability to cultivate
the vast tracts of land that were its main support.
Another cause of the
Catholic Church's loss of influence and power came with the people's
loss of love and respect for the Friars and clergy, "who had previously
been renown for holiness and charity," but now "gave themselves up to
'gayness and gluttony', while country parsons and parish priests spent
their time in London, touting for high places, instead of ministering to
their parishioners". This was perhaps due to
the large number of holy and charitable clergy who died of the plague
and who the Church had been forced to replace with those who were not so
devoted to the ecclesiastical life.
The clergy were not
the only ones to lower their high moral virtue. The city of Florence,
Italy, known during the Renaissance as the great initiator in morals of
dress, manners, speech, etc., had lost its highly moral identity just
prior to the Black Death (according to the writings of Dante and
Giovanni Villani). It might be thought that the plague would end the
downward trend of moral degradation but it did not. Instead of being
cowed back into the moral discipline which the Church demanded, the
Florentines "surrendered entirely to the joys of the world, which seemed
the more precious after the horrors of the plague".
Civic as well as moral virtue disintegrated.
Effects After the
stated, the authority of the Church was being questioned during the
plague. After the plague's dissipation all authority became subject to
questioning. Open opposition to the authority of Pope and Church came
in the person of John Wyclif, a notable theologian and master of Balliol
College, Oxford, (1620-1684). He not only questioned the Churches
power, but also attacked the worship of images and relics, the sale of
pardons, and masses for the dead. Wyclif was dismissed from his
position at Balliol College for his views but many people flocked to his
teachings and his large following became known as the Lollards.
The Lollards were
persecuted by the established Church as heretics and so became guarded
about their religious beliefs until Martin Luther began the
Reformation. As a movement, they surfaced only occasionally when a
leader arose as in the reigns of Richard II, Henry VII, and Henry VIII
in England. Luther had received many of his ideas for reform of the
Church from John Huss of Bohemia, one of his teachers who had been a
pupil of Wyclif. By 1350 the plague had abated leaving one-third to
one-half of Western Europe's population dead and had "bequeathed to the
survivors acute social and economic problems".
Morally and intellectually the Black Death "left an indelible
impression, heightening the violence, the ecstatic piety, the complete
depravity, which mark this stark period".
could not return to what had been "normal" before the plague. The
system was irrevocably changed by the loss of 20% of the population of
Europe by 1348 and an estimated 50% by 1381. The Black Death had
brought about a social and economic upheaval which continued to alter
the relationship between peasant and lord for many years after and
finally finished the toppling of the feudal system.
Hundreds of villages
and some small towns were left without any inhabitants. Those who were
left became quite prosperous, i.e., they had more money per capita, more
wills were probated, etc. Due to the decrease in the population there
was a buyers market. Prices fell steeply to a third of their previous
The manor survived
but did not retain the same identity. Lords lived away from their
peasant tenants, provided them little or no protection, and relied on
salaried managers to collect payments. During the harvest of 1349,
landowners had to offer high wages to get sufficient help in harvesting
their fields. Wages became at least doubled from those of pre-plague
years. Everything was in plenty for a few short years.
shortage in England meant that only a limited number of cattle could be
tended and only limited acreage cultivated. Land barons discovered that
they could operate more cheaply with hired labor and by turning much of
their cultivated lands into sheep pasture. To this end they created a
change in the appearance of the landscape by dividing the open fields
into smaller hedged or fenced enclosures. "The feudal lordship had
degenerated into an unsentimental economic practice".
shortage of labor was the cause of the disappearance of the many onerous
obligations and services to which the peasants were subject. Because of
it, the transition from servile to rental tenures was largely completed
by the end of the 15th century. Many serfs were freed during this
period and became free laborers. This resulted in the laboring class
becoming mobile for the first time in English history.
Another factor in this phenomenon was the natural desire to escape from
the areas where the pestilence continued. Finally, the loss of
population also resulted in the need for a "purposeful mobilization of
the available labour force" to assure the completion of the harvest in
the fall of 1349.
uprisings occurred subsequent to 1350. These were caused partially by
the heavy taxation and the new expressions of egalitarianism, both more
or less the offspring of the Black Death. The towns were re-populated,
(the birthrate doubled in the years after 1348), business and trade
resumed but the villeinage system was in decay. Two further outbreaks
of plague in the next thirty years (the worst being in 1361), and
reactionary legislation by governments to force peasants to work
according to the old feudal system, resulted in the Peasant's Revolt in
England (1381) and the Jacquerie in France (1358). Both were caused by
overburdensome demands placed on the peasants by the government composed
of the land owning aristocracy.
There were several
laws enacted in the years following the Black Death of which the primary
function was to tie the peasant to the land of his former master - to
keep the feudal system from dissolving completely. The Statute of
Labourers of 1351 stated that no laborer could receive more than the
wage paid him in 1346 and no employer could offer to pay more. It also
called for prices of commodities to remain at a fair level, i.e., at the
pre-plague level. This was the first price-wage freeze in European
history. The law was generally ignored by
everyone and could not be enforced so that in 1361, after the work force
had again shrunk from that years plague epidemic, another law was passed
which made it illegal for any worker to leave his job for another which
paid higher. It attempted to force the peasants and land owning
villeins to commute their required service with service rather than with
money. Even those who had commuted with money for that year already
were forced to perform their required service.
The Peasant's Revolt
(England) is a good example for describing nearly all the revolts that
took place at this time. It was the first English struggle between
capital and labor. Caused by war, the Black
Death, decaying feudalism, bad government, and the exploitation of the
lower by the upper classes in the cities, the last straw was the Poll
Tax of 1377. The objectives of the peasants were to get a "commutation
of all servile dues for 'a fair rent' of fourpence an acre",
the ending of serfdom altogether, and several other reforms in the way
they were treated. The revolt failed and was followed by severe
repression by the aristocracy, but the landlords were forced into the
awareness that in the future they would have to make the best bargains
they could with their villeins.
The New System
The last gasp of
feudalism in England came during the War of the Roses (1455-61) between
the dynasties of the House of York and the House of Lancaster who were
vying for the throne of England. Between the Peasant's Revolt and this
event, the landlord had retained ownership of the land and his "reeve"
(overseer of the laborers on the lord's fields), became the "steward" of
the estate who collected the rent from his lord's tenants. The
service-laborer or villein became the tenant farmer. The tenant farmer
again reduced the amount of arable land in favor of increased pasture to
reduce the expense of a large work force necessary to crop farming.
Sheep became the farm staple and in some areas completely replaced crop
farming. Here we have a reversal, for by the reign of Henry VIII, sheep
farming had caused a glut of labor. "We catch a glimpse of the
starving, out-of-work ploughman and reaper in the often-misquoted
'Baa Baa, Blacksheep,
have you any wool.
Yes Sir, no Sir, three bags full.
Two for my master and one for his dame
But none for the little boy who cries down the lane'
During the War of
the Roses, many of the old feudal aristocracy were either killed in war
or committed suicide and the tenant farmers bought up the lands of their
former masters. "Had it not been for the labour crisis that followed
the Black Death, the ex-villain would never have been able to take
advantage of the anarchy that accompanied the Wars of the Roses".
English society now became based on Saxon and villein ancestry rather
than on the Normans who had been an aloof caste, like the continental
aristocracy. "England's social system is strong because continuing
shifts have prevented a rigid differentiation between classes".
Through all this
social upheaval the governments of Europe were also being changed.
England and France provide excellent examples. The English Parliament
enacted three principals which were of great importance to the
development of popular government:
1. That grievances
must be redressed in return for new taxes.
2. Parliament was to
have a voice in choosing the King's ministers.
3. If the King
refused to recognize his limitations he might be deposed.
In France, the
"Great Ordinance of 1357" put restrictions on nobles by forbidding them
to leave France or to wage private war. It instructed local authorities
of the towns to arrest any noble violating the edict. "In effect the
aristocracy was to be subject to the communes, the nobles to the
business class; King, Prince, and Barons were to obey the chosen
representatives of the people. France was to have a constitutional
government four centuries before the revolution".
and bad government influence and distort the evolution of England in the
fourteenth century; War, pestilence, and bad government overwhelm France
in these years and make of her history a record of misery and horror".
England's history during this century is more important for the
development of popular government than that of France for this same
The Historic Effect
Revisited: What Might Have Happened?
The Black Death was
a single historical event in a series, one of great magnitude, and one
with many consequences. The indirect influences on history are clear
and give rise to many speculations on what might have happened had there
been no Black Death.
The impact of plague
was greater on England than any other European country. "Thus the Black
Death struck such a blow to the already weakened feudal system that it
lost much of its meaning within two generations and had entirely
disappeared within 150 years". On the
continent the system was more rigid and lingered on for centuries,
giving way year by year in one country after another to monarchy and
other forms of government. Had the plague not hastened the decline of
feudalism, parts of Europe might still be subject to this system which
negates any and all attempts towards progress. It might be said that
Europe as a whole might never have emerged into the modern epoch and
America may have never been discovered until much later without the
benefit of the eloquent philosophies of democratic government and
individual freedom which was a legacy of the plague.
The Black Death
changed religion drastically. The appeal of the Flagellants to great
masses of the population and John Wyclif's questioning of certain parts
of the Roman Catholic dogma were the initial stages in a larger
rebellion against a corrupted orthodoxy. "Thus it is not too much to
claim that the Protestant Reformation, the sailing of the Brownist
Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower from Plymouth on 6 September 1620 and
the foundation of Pennsylvania by the Quaker William Penn in 1681, can
be linked with the deviation from established religion that followed the
disaster of the Black Death".
Religion in the time
of the Black Death set the stage for another tragedy. In World War II
the most hideous crime was committed against the Jewish population of
Eastern Europe. Most people do not realize that this was not an
isolated incident. Because of the Black Death, the Jewish population of
Europe became identified as the traditional scapegoat. "The Black Death
intensified the mediaeval Christian tradition of the scapegoat-Jew and,
by causing the migration of so large a number to the east and north of
Europe, is linked to the pogroms of Imperial Russia and the gas-chambers
What effect has the
Black Death had on the history of the United States? Aside from the
obvious loss of those people who have died since 1900 of plague, the
only influence has been indirect, filtered through the history of the
European nations. One way in which the plague of 1346-1361 may have
completely altered the history of the North American continent can be
visualized through this quotation:
Indeed, it is just
possible that the devastation wrought in Scandinavia may ultimately have
had a greater effect upon world history than did the English
catastrophe. Ships carried infection to the Greenland settlements
founded by Erik the Red in A.D. 936. These colonies were so weakened by
the plague and by failure of supplies from enfeebled Norway that they
could not withstand Eskimo attacks. The last Viking settlers
disappeared in the fifteenth century and Greenland became an unknown
country until rediscovered by John Davis in 1585. It is thought that
the Viking settlements maintained sporadic contact with 'Vinland', which
was part of the coast of Canada or Newfoundland, so the Black Death may
have entirely altered the history of North America".
Even though the
Scandinavians were not the settlers of the North American continent, the
Black Death's effects on the development of popular government in
England and France have had a profound impact. From the ideas of
egalitarianism, to the new denominations within the Christian Church,
the influence of those years of horror in the fourteenth century is such
that in North America has developed the greatest representative
democracy in history and the most advanced society in the modern world.
William and Sherwood, Elizabeth J., Ed.The Columbia
encyclopedia. / Morningside Heights, N.Y.: Columbia University Press,
2. Brown, J.A.C.,
M.B., Chir.The Stein and Day
international medical encyclopedia. / New York: Stein and Day, 1971.
Frederick F.Disease and history.
/ New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1972.
4. DeFoe, Daniel.A journal of the
plague year. / New York: George Macy Companies, Inc. The Heritage Press,
5. Durant, Will.The age of faith. /
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
6. Durant, Will.The Reformation. /
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
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Benton, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1971.
Britannica.; Macropedia: knowledge in depth. Vol. 7, 8, 9.Chicago: William
Benton, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974.
9. Hamilton, A. "Bubonic Plaque:
It's Still Around but Under Control".