Black Death: the Social and Economic Repercussions on Florence

In the short span of a time of one decade, the Black Death had an instantaneous effect on the political, economic, social, cultural, and educational aspects of life. Europe had a major overpopulation crisis that had a slow and limited educational growth along with a low living standard. With the arrival of the Black Death in the 1340’s and 1350’s came the persistent loss of population.

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Europe suffered on of the especially significant death toll from the Black Death, in a modern range it is estimated that between one-third and one-half of Europe’s total population in a five-year time period were killed; but research does have a history of overestimating death tolls. With the European population at a low level caused many issues, specifically economically and socially. The Black Death created social and economic repercussions in Florence, but in the long term had a very positive effect on society and the economy.

Before one understands the economic and social repercussions of the Black Death, they first need to understand what the Black Death was. The Black Death has many names that have been used since its arrival in 1347 CE. Names included the Great Plague, the Black Plague, Plague, Bubonic Plague, medieval people called it the ‘blue sickness’, or ‘La Pestilience’ by the French. There are a multitude of names the Black Death went by, but Black Death is the most common. According to the Mayo Clinic “Plague is divided into three main types ” bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic ” depending on which part of your body is involved. Signs and symptoms vary depending on the type of plague. With the Bubonic plague being the most common from. It’s named after the buboes ” swollen lymph nodes ” which typically develop within a week after an infected flea bites you. Buboes may be: Situated in the groin, armpit or neck; About the size of a chicken egg; Tender and warm to the touch. Other signs and symptoms may include: Sudden onset of fever and chills; Headache; Fatigue or malaise; Muscle aches.” It is most commonly thought that the disease was spread by disease infected rats.

The Mayo Clinic notes that Yersinia pestis is the organism that causes the plague. This organism lives in small rodents and is transmitted to humans that fleas have bitten. These flees once fed on rodents that were infected, or by humans that had previously held an infected animal. The disease travelled so quickly, vastly, and easily because it was transmitted by rodents, who travelled across the Mediterranean on ships. The idea that the plague was transmitted through rodents is the most common theory behind the plague, but newer research proves otherwise. According to Scientists at Public Health England in Porton Down, for the Black Death to have spread so quickly and killed so many victims with such devastating speed, it would have to have been airborne. Therefore, rather than bubonic plague, which is transmitted to humans through bites from infected rat fleas, they concluded that this must have been a pneumatic plague that made its way into the lungs of the infected and spread through coughs and sneezes. There are many theories behind how the Black Death spread and there are still many unanswered questions, but for now the current evidence will have to do; and on a positive note, at least we have a cure incase the disease makes a comeback. While when talking about the Black Death we commonly resort to how the disease spread, another interesting topic is how the Black Death effected the social and economic aspects of society, specifically in Florence.

Florence, according to Robert S. Gottfried in The Black Death, was one of late medieval Europe’s most illustrious and prosperous cities (Gottfried 2). But, in the time that preceded the Black Death, Florence suffered a series of political and economic traumas, exacerbated by the failure of two of the city’s most important banks (Gottfried 2). Following this event, the Black Death made its presence in Florence by the winter of 1348. Gottfried notes that the city had official appointed to the duty of ‘cleansing’ the city of impurities, as well as refusing the entrance of infected individuals into Florence. In the spring time of the following year is when the plague was in full swing, but the first onset symptom differed from the of the Eastern plague, instead of a man bleeding from his nose, a warning of inevitable death, in Florence both men and women were affected by a sort of swilling in the groin or under the armpits, which sometimes attained the size of a common apple or egg. (Gottfried 2). These swelling were known as boils, and would soon spread all over the body, then they would manifest into black spots. In Florence alone, it is estimated that 45 to 75 percent of the total population died due to the Black Death. Due to the plague hitting Florence many economic repercussions occurred. Industries closed, food and essentials became highly priced, and the market system that brought in goods from neighboring countries crumbled. The rich fled for their lives, the ‘healers’ charged ridiculous prices, and the city was empty except for the dead bodies. The political, social, and economic tensions of the 1340’s worsened. (Gottfried 2), as Florentines began drinking, reveling, and spending; also known as an Epicurean attitude. Then came the forsaking of relatives, abandonment of children and spouses leaving their significant others.

The Black Deaths merciless nature of killing caused a shortage of working people, including skilled artisans, farmers, laborers, merchants, as well as masters and customers. Due to the shortage of working people, they gained the uppers hand over their masters because the masters needed their labor. The wages of workers skyrocketed because people were desperate for workers and laborers. Before the plague peasants, serfs, and laborers were tied to their master’s estate and received little compensation for their work, and many became malnourished and extremely poor. With the death of so many people these serfs became free to move around and find better working conditions, as well as better pay because of the desperate times. The lower classes were able to improve their standard of living, consuming better food of higher quality, as well as purchasing more luxuries. The elites did not like that commoners were making gains and tried to create laws that would roll back the gains, but the desperation of employers lead to the laws being ignored. Many noble families had lost entire family lines and were left with no heirs, so other families would take over the estates. It was important to the upper classes to keep division in the social structure and continued to press on laws forbidding commoners from certain luxuries. The Black Death was not the main reason feudalism collapsed and the mercantile class rose, but historians do think that the Black death made a major contribution in getting the idea rolling. The Black Death changed the lives of everyone, and nothing would ever be the same again, especially the religious influence on society.

In the early medieval times religion was a key aspect of European life. The church had a major influence of the daily life of Europeans. Before the Black death afterlife was more important than the present, it was important to receive the last rights and to confess one’s sins before death, to ensure salvation and entrance into the afterlife. With the arrival of the plague many people believed that God was punishing them. People turned to the church for help and guidance, but when the church could not help them, and their own people were dying, the church lost all its influence as well as the way people viewed the church. Europeans religion had failed them, and they started to question their beliefs, many turned to flagellation, the act of mutilating oneself through whipping and beating in hope to atone for their sins. Not everyone lost faith though, although, those who kept their faith turned to blaming others. This blame is called Anti-Semitism, which intensified throughout Europe, Jews were blamed for the Black Death spreading from the east to the west. In the article The Black Death and the Jews 1348-1349 CE from the book The Jewish History Source Book, it is reported that leaders in the Jewish metropolis of Toledo had initiated the plot and that one of the chief conspirators was a Rabbi Peyret who had his headquarters in Chambery, Savoy, whence he dispatched his poisoners to France, Switzerland, and Italy. Due to this rumor, many Jews were captured, arrested, and tortured. Christians would also send out mobs to kill Jews. Europeans also targeted friars, beggars, lepers, Romani, foreigners, and pilgrims. The quick assuming and acquisitions of Europeans proves that it is much easer to blame and create scapegoats out of others, rather than taking a moment to look back and investigate a real purpose behind the disease, which also proves the lack of education Europeans had at the time. In time, scientific research would prove that the disease had no relation to religion, or a specific religion for that matter.

The Black Death resulted in depopulation on a massive scale, as well as instant economic dwindling. Although, due to the severity of the lives lost, there was a plethora of goods, the reduction of prices, an excess of jobs and therefore a rise in wages. The standard of living shockingly increased after the Black Death and the demand for paid workers resulted in straying away from feudalism, and the developing a class of its own, the working class. While the Black death had negative short-term effects and is known as one of the most devastating events in Europe’s history, the Black Death also had major long-lasting positive effects on Europe and the future of western civilization. These economic and social events paved the transition from a time of deprivation and grave loss to a time of property, wealth, and innovation.

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