The Black Death or also known as The Black Plague is an infectious disease caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis. According to Medicinenet.com It is a bacteria found mainly in rodents such as rats and particularly in the fleas that feed on them. The disease with an unknown origin had reached Europe in the late 1340s. It was estimated to have killed 25 million people within years and lingered around for centuries in many cities. The disease was known as the Black Death which was a suitable name due to the symptoms that appeared on the sick. Large, black, pustule filled boils would appear on the body, usually in the armpit and groin of the infected person shortly before death. This disease was not specific to one type of person or status. According to a book called the Black Death: A Turning Point in History?, it killed young and old, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant, everyone was affected by the Black Plague. In this paper, I will be exploring how the Black Plague impacted Europe in terms of trade, economy, social status, religion, art, and the institution of a new medical protocol and procedure called quarantine.
The first way the Black Death impacted Europe was in terms of trade. According to khan Academy, Europe’s growing stability allowed extensive trade between East and West and within itself. Goods were traded throughout Italy, Europe, China, Constantinople, and the Greek Islands. Venice and Genoa had trading ports in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Historians found that Italy was a major trading post for general trade, and possibly through the use of it, the Black death was most likely spread. The infected fleas were either hiding in the goods like silk and other materials that were being traded or transported on the backs of rats that would hide on their ships or their carts. Ironically, according to an article on Prezi.com, Europe had advances and new methods of trading such as improved ships. Europe was now opening up new trade routes that ranged from Asia to Africa. But these new and improved ships and their new routes caused the black death to spread more rapidly and more effectively, so much that by the end of the year, trading had dropped by ninety- three percent.
Furthermore, according to the book The Black Death: Turning Points In World History, there were many attempts to stop the spread of this disease. New methods and restrictions were placed during mid-fifteenth-century that banned travel and trade from the diseased regions was the very first account of basic quarantine measures. Rulers of regions passed laws that no one could harbor outsiders that traveled to plagued ridden towns or if one was from a plague-infected household they were not allowed to move anywhere else. They tried separating people that had passed through disease territories from their merchandise to prevent a plague from spreading into a territory. But it was limited to those individuals that traveled through a plagued area and not the residents of towns. However, true nautical quarantine was not possible at the time to prevent the spreading of the plague to inland cities and towns.
These measures may have served to give a grid of information about regions and cities that were safe from the plague, but it was still far from being a flawless system. Some cities adopted the law that if one that was stricken was taken outside the city walls and left to die. It was treated almost the same as leprosy was in earlier centuries. If someone died of the plague, it prohibited the movement of household goods from the residence.
Another way The Black Death affected Europe was the economically and in its social status. As stated by Brown University, the Black Death affected both the economy and the social statuses of people in Europe in a drastic way. For starters, the economy became inflated abruptly and because it was deadly to obtain goods through trading and to produce them as well, prices of locally produced and imported goods started to become extremely high. This, in turn, affected everyone in Europe, even the peasants. The demand for workers became so high that peasantry no longer could serve one master and when they left a land, another lord would hire them immediately. The lords eventually had to make changes that could make the situation more lucrative for the peasants in order to keep them from leaving the land. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, a law was created by King Edward III in 1351 to counteract the shortage of laborers. It was intended to stifle the labor force by preventing wage increase and halt workers from leaving their homes in search of better working conditions. This law was called The Statute of Laborers (1351). One reason for this law was due to many peasants were able to increase their income by obtaining wealth, land, stock and property that was left behind from the death of rich or more affluent citizens. Homes and livestock were left to be claimed by all that was living. Court administrators were dead and therefore it was minimal ways to disprove ownership. Some of the living acquired so much wealth that they began splurging on various unholy and immoral indulgences, such as prostitutes and alcohol.
According to a book on the Black Death from the Turning Points in World History series, the legal systems of late medieval Europe had to respond to the social situation created by the epidemic. Under the conditions of the plague at the time, certain privileges went into effect. Women could now serve as witnesses and scribes. They were previously unable to be formally admitted into the guild of notaries and could not draw up legal contracts. At this point in time, desperate needs called for desperate measures and society needed certain services and they soon had to allow unlicensed people or people believed to be incompetent to perform them. Also, price movements in Europe provide the best evidence of directions for economic trends during this time.
The most immediate effect on the economy from the Black Death was producing general inflation. A quote from Florentine Matteo Villani in 1363 says,
…It was thought that there ought to be wealth and abundance of clothing, and of all the other things that the human body needs. But the opposite happened. Most things cost two times or more what they cost before the epidemic. And labor and the manufacturers of every art and profession increased in a disorderly fashion to double the price.
The prices of animal products- meat sausage, cheese and others also remained high as well.
In a summary, the Black Death impacted the economy as the standard of living became significantly higher. Furthermore, because the upper class or the nobility attempted to ignore the changes brought on by the Black Death, the peasantry of Northern France in 1358 rioted and eventually in 1378, oppressed guild members revolted. As a result, the social and economic structure that was in Europe was forever changed.
The Black Death also affected religion greatly in Europe. Livescience.com says that during the Black Death pandemic, there started to be a distrust in God and the church. People saw that despite their religious beliefs, the Black Death continued to spread, killing their loved ones and family members, and in turn, they started to question the relevance of both. Also, since so many priests ended up dying from the Black Death, church services in many areas stopped. According to the same book on the Black Death that is from the Turning Points in World History Series, people began to believe that the Black Death was a punishment sent by God and in turn, they would have to show that they have seen the error of their sinful ways through a form of self-punishment.
The book also stated that the anchorites of the early Christian era made their sufferings into a form of worship, the tradition then continuing in other various monastic communities. The first public demonstration of self-punishment as means of appeasing the wrath of God was led by a Perugian hermit named Rainiero in 1260, and the practice soon spread all over Italy. There was even a brotherhood of Flagellants, first appearing in Dresden, in Lent of 1349 than in Lubeck, Hamburg, Magdeburg, and all over central Europe. They were regarded by citizens and themselves as lambs of God- bearing the sins of the earth. Flagellants were also regarded as heroes, whipping themselves and asking for God’s mercy on the behalf of the less courageous sinners.
Furthermore, the book mentioned that the Jews were very much persecuted during the plague by the early Church. They became an object of hate as the Mosaic law at the time made them a perpetual insult to the newly established churches and a danger that must be distinct and apart from their Christian community. In fact, on January 9th, 1349, in Basel there was a whole community of several hundred Jews was burned in a wooden house specially constructed for that purpose on an island in the Rhine, and afterward, a decree was passed stating that no Jew should be allowed to settle in Basel for 200 years. The persecution of the Jewish people eventually got so bad that at Worms in March 1349 the Jewish community of 400 turned to an old tradition and burned themselves to death inside their own houses rather than be killed by their enemies.
The last way the Black death affected Europe was through its art. It took the lives of some of the greatest Italian painters. Literature started to become more dark and dismal. Stories depicting death and sickness was rapidly being produced. Even many songs and musicals were all about death and despair. Many artists such as the Lorenzetti brothers of Siena, did not get a chance to benefit financially from their art. Most became famous years after their early and untimely death. According to Montana University, the epidemic impacted Europe in such devastating ways that it left a sense of unmistakable sadness and despair. This eventually had manifested itself into the creativity of artists during this time of hardship, sometimes using their own personal experience with death. A common trend in artwork during this period was scenes of a person laying on their deathbed, a dying man or woman surrounded by some kind of social ceremony. Also, artists started depicting sick people alone in a room with the presence of death which is generally represented by an angel or decomposing skeleton. In many of these early paintings or sculptures during this time, death was also depicted as a form of a passage between life and illuminationperhaps to give people some thoughts of comfort as they very well may face a probable horrible death of one day.
This is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In my opinion, I believe that this painting represents the confusion, despair, and the sense of total chaos during the plague in European society as it had totally shifted the natural order of things there.
Furthermore, this is another painting called Danse Macabre or dance of death. In my opinion, I believe this shows that death at this point was starting to become a normal part of life in Europe and that people were unwillingly starting to accept it as the skeletons in the painting are still doing the things they would be doing if they were still alive, like dancing or playing an instrument.
In conclusion, the Black Death clearly affected Europe in harsh ways, changing it forever, through it’s trade, economy and social status of people within the country, religion, art, and even resulted in the first attempts at quarantine.
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