Black Death – Causes, Symptoms & Impact

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Introduction

The focus of my essay is on the Bubonic Plague also known as the Black Death that struck Europe in 1348, and its many effects on the daily lives of the people. Specifically understanding how the churches came to lose their influence over the European people due to the epidemic and the medical advances that came from this. It is interesting to see how drastically the people’s beliefs changed from something that they so deeply believed in, and to see the many effects that were caused by the Black Death.

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The Black Death brought many consequences to the people’s daily lives and brought many changes which will be analyzed in this essay. I hope to learn the kinds of effects that were brought upon by the Black Death and the modern medical changes that came of this. Analyzing how this devastating global epidemic came to be is important to understand and be aware that it not only brought death to people, but changes were also made because of this. In this essay, I will be exploring some of the changes that came from the Black Death which are identified as either positive or negative, and I will be analyzing thoroughly. The positive changes being that it improved European society specifically their standards of living, and the advancements that were made in both technology and medicine. The negative changes were depopulation, shortage of labor, and the disrupted customs of daily life. By exploring these changes, I will be determining whether most of the changes that were brought upon by the Black Death were short term or long term in the way that technology was made to improve medicine. A long-term effect would be the living conditions, trading opportunities, and education that came after the Bubonic Plague that brought negative consequences in the long run. Some of the short-term effects would be that most of the population died, there was famine, and the fear of death that struck people as the Black Death was happening rather than in the distant future which is what a long term effect would be. It is interesting to see how the Black Death brought many developments towards the future that may have improved the lives of the European people, as well as having changed their lifestyles. The spread of the Black Death brought consequences and huge impacts in areas such as cultural, religious, and economic influences. The sources I will be using are secondary sources such as academically high level books, and history books. In addition, I will be using primary sources such as a chronicle written in 1314 at the cathedral, and some writers wrote accounts such as documents. Furthermore, I will ultimately be analyzing the separation between state and church as Europeans began to become secular and the medical technologies that improved due to the faith that was lost in the churches, and whether this was ultimately caused by the Black Death.

The Start of The Black Death:

The Black Death came to Europe in 1348 greatly causing many changes ever since. It struck both in Asia and Europe when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. After this first encounter, it eventually came to be known as the Black Death or even the Bubonic Plague. In Europe there occurred about 20 million deaths (?) of Europe’s population was deceased. According to historian William H. McNeal, the arrival of the Black Death lasted for several years and shifted from town to town or region to region with the seasons. Long before the Black Death even came to Europe “people had heard rumors about a “Great Pestilence” that was a deadly path across the trade routes of the Near and Far East.” People knew that there was a deadly epidemic that was spreading around but they never could have imagined how deadly it truly was. The Black Death is thought to have come from a “population of black rats of the kind whose fleas were liable to carry bubonic plague to humans” and it is still today being questioned how this disease came to truly be. In which at the time people were not sure how the Black Death was spreading so rapidly, it was assumed that humans were the ones spreading the disease. This caused many people to become paranoid because one day a person could be healthy and the next day they could be dying from the plague. They ultimately thought that the disease was spread through others coughs and sneezes, while some thought that it could be getting transferred by something in the air. This installed a huge fear of death because in the end nobody was sure how people were truly becoming infected with the plague. The plague was hitting people hard and quickly. “People lay ill a little more than two or three days and then died suddenly. He who was well one day was dead the next and being carried to his grave,” writes the Carmelite friar Jean de Venette in his 14th century French chronicle. The symptoms that came with the Bubonic Plague were very deadly such as “fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and pains – and then, in short order, death.” It was later concluded but still being questioned that the Bubonic Plague was a disease caused by the bacterium in Yersinia pestis coming from rats who become infected and lived close to people. Before the Black Death occurred in Europe the daily lives of the people were under the influence of the Catholic church. The churches held an important role as they were an influence to the people in knowing what was right and what was wrong, making the church an important aspect in the daily lives of the Europeans. This was such a devastating phenomenon that brought upon many modifications to the people’s daily lives, the towns, and the medical technological advances that also came from this epidemic. The Black Death showed that the medical system in Europe was flawed as the doctors were not able to treat the disease that was affecting people. The changes that were brought upon by the Bubonic Plague may not have happened without it.

The Changes brought upon:

The Bubonic Plague brought many changes to the Europeans as well as other parts of the world where the outbreak had occurred. The changes that came with the plague were either positive or negative and changed the way society came to be. According to historian, William H. McNeal “human populations adjusted to confluence of the various infectious diseases in earlier times that were developed differently in different parts of Eurasia and Africa.” People had to learn to adjust to the new ways of life after the outbreak that came from the Black Death since so many changes needed to be addressed. The plague caused many people to fear for their lives because it was “an unfamiliar infection that attacked a population for the first time who had never been expunged from European memory.” The Bubonic Plague was usually not completely gone because it would at times return to places that had already been previously affected, but most of the people were already immune to it so it wouldn’t come to be of an affect to them as much as it had been in the past. People were becoming susceptible to the plague. There was a 60% decline in Europe’s population, which in turn affected agricultural prices because of the low demand that was coming from it. Another problem that was encountered was that there was a shortage of labors, causing the system of serfdom to end. The wages improved although the prices for food and goods fell. Since there was a small population of workers it gave them more opportunities to be more free and choose a job that they preferred. The Black Death set the stage in helping improve towards modern medicine and made changes to the public’s health. There was a greater emphasis on medicine that was based on science rather than their own faith and intuition. The medieval medicine in Europe slowly took a turn towards modern medicine as the doctors noted that they were not able to help treat the plague. The plague came to the Europeans as a realization that they were behind in there modern technology/medicine due to the lack of help they were able to provide. As the church was becoming less influential in the daily lives of Europeans they began to question their faith and looked for a reason as to why so many people were dying.The Black Death also drove a development in a much higher education than there was before. Without the Black Death, many of the substantial changes that occurred may not have happened this early on.

The Catholic Church

The Bubonic Plague had a huge impact on the way the Catholic Church ran. Before the Black Death hit Europe, the church’s power had been absolute, it was basically it’s own government that was ruling over the European people. It was a religion and a mindset that had been in all of the Europeans heart. The church would massacre people who chose to oppose them in any way and drove them away from their society. There were times when the secular state would try to assert their control from the churches power, but the churches were much more powerful and influential. Before the Black Death happened in Europe, the churches had been the center of influence for the people. Europeans believed that “these hospitals took more care of one’s soul than one’s body, since disease and sickness were regarded as punishments for sins.” This shows that everything was centered around the Church, it was something that was so significant to them that they did not feel the need to believe in medicine but rather rely on their faith. When the Bubonic Plague first hit Europe, the churches “explained that the plague had been God who was punishing the sins of the people. The church had called for people to pray, and it even organized religious marches, pleading to God to stop the “pestilence.” Even before the Plague had made it’s huge impact on the Europeans they still prayed and believed that God could treat their sickness during the medieval medicine time period. According to William H. McNeal, God had shown himself on their side, and each new outbreak of the infectious disease that had been imported from Europe. So at this point, Europeans believed that God would be their savior, they did not rely on any medical assistance but prayed to God that they will be saved. As the Bubonic Plague became worse, and affected many Europeans they began to question their own faith. Nobody was entirely sure how anybody was becoming ill so they came up with their own conclusions. Such as the Jews being responsible for the plague in an attempt to kill Christians and dominate the world, which set off a conflict between Jews and Christians. Pope Clement VI was the fourth pope to reside in Avignon, during the Black Death and survived the worst disease to happen in Europe. According to History and Culture, “He also offered protection to the Jews when many were persecuted under suspicion of starting the pestilence.” Pope Clement VI announced a religious order to stop the brutality against the Jews, because he believed that they were not responsible for the plague but it was God who was striking at Christian’s for their sins. As the Christians started to calm their anger towards the Jews, they ended up turning their anger towards the Catholic Church that did not seem to be helpful in curing the Black Death. Since the Church was not able to save the people from the disease, it lead to many Europeans to question their beliefs.

During this time period people did not necessarily believe in doctors or science, leading them to deeply believe that God could save them but since people were not being saved from the disease it lead to many Europeans to question their beliefs. They began to believe that the plague had been a punishment from God. Flagellation, is an “act of self-mutilation in which a person would beat/hurt themselves in order to make amends for their sins.” They would “each whip themselves which consisted of a stick with three knotted thongs hanging from the end. Two pieces of needle-sharp metal were run through the center of the knots from both sides, forming a cross, the end of which extended beyond the knots for the length of a grain of wheat or less. Using these whips, they beat and whipped their bare skin until their bodies were bruised and swollen and blood rained down, spattering the walls nearby. I have seen, when they whipped themselves, how sometimes those bits of metal penetrated the skin so deeply that it took more than two attempts to pull them out.” They would do this until one of them fell to the ground even then they would still continue and keep going the next day. In October 1349 Pope Clement VI announced publicly that the Flagellants were not supporting the regulations and principles of the Church. They were excluding people from being involved in the sacraments and services of the Church. By the following years the Flagellant Movement began to disappear. Not only during the Black Death was there a rise in the Flagellant Movement but there was also a widespread persecution of Jews. Referring back to my question whether the churches lost their influence over the people due to the Black Death, I would agree with this. People began to believe many different things when they were hit with this epidemic, that destroyed most of its civilization. Their views began to change over time because they started to realize that praying was not doing much in stopping the Bubonic Plague which led to the creation of modern medicine. The plague left many damaging consequences and left the churches reputation to suffer as well. As Europeans began to calm down and stop blaming the Jews, they turned their anger towards the Catholic Church who seemed to not be helping out in stopping the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague resulted in many local priest’s death or the abandonment of their parishes when the plague struck. Leading to the Flagellant Movement being a direct provocation to challenge the Catholic Churches dominance. Due to many people believed that the plague was a punishment from god they began to doubt their faith and question god as to why he would treat them in such a cruel way. Many could not commit to the church anymore because of that reason and decided to leave the church. The destruction that came from the Bubonic Plague was the loss of clergymen, who had often devoted their entire lives to doing work for god and had to be replaced by less experienced men. Some problems that they faced with these less experienced men is that they were corrupt and abused their power in order to have authority over the people. During the mid-fourteenth century the Jewish massacre arose because they were accused of poisoning town wells. The pogroms had a desire to kill the Jews even in some cases they would burn their homes and murder them in really awful ways. In one occasion 900 Jews were locked up and burned alive, this showing how paranoid the people were during the plague. And the Flagellant Movement which arose because of the Europeans who wanted to get rid of their sins and believed that self-mutilation was the answer considering that the church was not helpful.

Advancements in Medicine

Conclusion

The aim of this essay is to analyze the way in which the Black Death made its impact on the European people’s beliefs and how that affected the Catholic Church causing there to be a transition from medieval medicine to modern medicine. Having observed the ways in which the Black Death came to Europe and the power that the Church had before and after the Plague, as well as the history behind it, we can finally come to a reasoning as to the significance the church had over the people. As it has been revealed, the Bubonic Plague came to Europe and made its impact on humans in many ways specifically in the way the church was viewed afterwards and the shift of medicine. As the Europeans were very supportive of the churches considering they had a huge influence over them, they began to realize that they were actually no help when it came to the Bubonic Plague thus turning to their own conclusions as to what was spreading the Black Death. People began to believe that it was the Jews who wanted to kill the Christians, leading to a massacre of Jews. When it was proclaimed to stop the violence against them they turned their hate towards the church, which lead to the Flagellant Movement. The Bubonic Plague changed the view of the churches as they used to dominate the Europeans and were now being challenged. On the other hand, the Black Death may have brought positive changes to the people it also leads to a new way of life. The church was the center of people’s daily lives, people did not really believe in medicine and doctors but in god and praying. The black death brought a change to that as people realized that the church was not helping. The clergymen who were devoted to god began to die and people were scared because they could ultimately also die considering that god seemed to not be helping them out. In the same way, the church attempted to regain their power back and integrate themselves as the center of the daily lives of the people. But it was much too late Europeans were finding other ways to pay for their sins such as flagellation. The Bubonic Plague changed the way that people viewed the church as it became less influential in the daily lives of the people. In the end, there was a separation between state and church as people stopped putting their faith out in god’s hand and came up with their own conclusions as to what is causing the plague. They began to move into a more secular state as it was noticed that the Bubonic plague was not only killing peasants and people of lower classes but also clergymen and men of religion. If it were not for the bubonic plague, the church may have still been dominant and been the center of the daily lives of people. 

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