The Black Death: the Greatest Catastrophe Ever

As the Richter Scale measures earthquakes, the so-called ‘Foster Scale’ tries to quantify disasters. Conceived by Canadian geographer Harold D. Foster, it ranks calamities by tallying death tolls, physical damage, and emotional stress.

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According to Foster’s calculations, World War II (somewhat expectedly) tops the list of human disasters, but is closely followed by the Black Death, a plague epidemic of cataclysmic proportions, which repeatedly struck Europe in the second half of the fourteenth century. The disease wreaked such havoc that many considered it an antecedent of the second coming. An Italian chronicler reported in the pestilence’s aftermath that there was not a dog left pissing on a wall, while another spoke of the dead being interred in mass graves ‘layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagna.

In Constantinople, the ‘unexpected sword of death’ first felled thousands of victims in 1347, and then surged through the remaining Eastern Mediterranean like lightening. At the time, the once glorious Byzantine Empire was already on a ‘deathbed of anxiety,’ as the Ottoman Turks were consolidating their hold on western Asia Minor, their sights firmly set on Constantinople. The steady takeover of land by the steppe warriors from Central Asia spelled the realm’s last gasp in ‘a long series of Byzantino-Islamic confrontations, which first reduced and [ultimately] extinguished’ Christianity’s eastern outpost. The manner of the Ottomans’ conquest, however, has been a subject of historical reevaluation in recent years. While traditional scholarship emphasized the arrival of thunderous Muslim hordes, who massacred Christian infidels by the thousands, newer research indicates that the Ottomans instead made use of a much more humane ‘policy of allurement.’ Rather than seeking Byzantine subjection amid forced conversions to Islam, the early Ottoman conquerors tried to assimilate their new subjects through open-minded policies of accommodation and inclusion. In fact, some members of the Christian elites not only advanced under the Ottoman banner, but partook in the spoils of conquest. This creation of an ‘Islamochristian’ society temporarily redefined the customary fault lines between East and West by diminishing some of the bulwarks of mutual distrust and hatred. Although this cross-cultural syncretism was not to last, initial encounters between Turkish Muslims and Byzantine Christians give evidence that accommodation and tolerance were by no means unknown in the later Middle Ages.

Recent research also points to a paradigm shift in the appraisal of the Black Death’s aftereffects. Whereas Norman Cohn limited the epidemic’s consequences to ghoulish processions of chiliastic flagellants inundating the Low Countries and Germany, newer historians like Samuel Cohn Jr. and Robert E. Lerner have proposed a less ‘gloomy’ approach when discussing the plague’s aftermath. Although many survivors were left weakened and disheartened by this torrent of death, medieval Europe’s greatest disaster [also] prompted many to think how the present related to the future, resulting in a questioning of Christendom’s social and economic foundations.

Without a doubt, the suffering and devastations left by the disease were hellish. As people succumbed to death in droves, near anarchical conditions put a virtual stop to all economic and civic life. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, those who could afford it fled to the country, hermetically shutting themselves up in houses to avoid infection; others shed all inhibitions, since every man was free to do what was right in his own eyes. Many of the afflicted died alone. Boccaccio lamented that the horror of the disease so petrified people that fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.

Empathy and civility, however, were not always discarded. Surviving wills from the French city of Perpignan reveal that numerous families did not abandon their sick and dying, but had scribes (who apparently also did not shy away from dealing with the infected) record their final wishes. In Italy, initial panic about the source of the pestilence (was it due to eight-legged worms or venomous fumes that killed with their stench?) gradually gave way to sober-minded searches for a cure. Instead of blaming configurations of Saturn and Jupiter, doctors experimented with possible remedies. At the end of the century, a certain Stephanus of Padua claimed to have discovered a health regimen that triumphed over the plague and saved the life of his stricken wife, eagerly sharing his findings with fellow citizens to whom he dedicated his research. Other doctors across Europe soon followed suit. Instead of harking back to Galenic treatises and other ancient authorities, medical practitioners started to cultivate their own expertise and professional instincts. The plague was now seen as beneficial to medical progress: it had given post-Black Death doctors a new range of practical experience. A catalyst for scientific advancement, the disease sparked a new-found self-reliance in some of Europe’s medical communities that had been absent in pre-plague days.

Confidence in one’s personal abilities among physicians was accompanied by a questioning of the societal status quo among the lower classes. The high number of plague fatalities had brought on a labor shortage amid an abundance of arable land, impelling serfs and peasants to assert themselves in brash, unprecedented ways. A contemporary chronicler huffed, The workers in the countryside wanted to rent contracts that you could say that all they harvested would be theirs. And they learned to demand oxen from the landlord, but at the landlord’s risk. Such demands were unheard-of in pre-pestilence times. When the nobility objected and even sought to heighten workloads due to the scarcity of laborers, popular uprisings flared up across Europe. French peasants rebelled during the so-called Jacquerie of 1358, while England experienced the Great Revolt twenty-three years later. Egalitarian ideas were on the loose, causing the radical preacher John Ball to exclaim, When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? Although most of these disturbances were quickly crushed by royal and noble authorities, steady English resistance to serfdom rendered it so unprofitable that it gradually faded away. In view of these profound changes, one might argue that the plague’s pathogen not only provoked consequences for [people’s] bodies, it also changed their minds.

As parts of Western Europe underwent evolutions of thought, basic beliefs were not only shaken, but resulted in brief, pragmatic compromises in Asia Minor. After the Greeks’ disastrous defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Empire had progressively shrunk in size as first the Seljuks and then the Muslim Ottomans annexed more and more territory. However, the Turks”an amalgam of nomadic steppe tribes”did not believe in conquest accompanied by complete annihilation like their Mongols brethren, but in ‘conservation’ and cooperation. Although their invasions were destructive in certain places, practically-minded, fourteenth-century Ottoman leaders like Osman and Orhan ‘were far more interested in accommodation with their Bithynian Christian neighbors,’ rendering encounters between the two dissimilar civilizations less contentious than commonly assumed.

For one, the Turks’ amoeba-like expanding empire lacked the adequate manpower and resources to administer its new possessions. These were skills that their conquered subjects possessed in abundance. In the seventh century, the politically inexperienced Arab Umayyads had adopted efficient Byzantine administrative practices for their courtly machinery; the Ottomans did the same. Members from prominent Christian Greek families, such as the Evrenos and Mihal, were conferred positions of lordship (gazi) within Turkish ranks, irrespective of their faith. In fact, during the first one hundred years of Ottoman rule in Asia Minor, religion and nationality were not used as determinants as to who could join Turkish armies and bureaucratic ranks. At the time, most Greek gazi princes had little interest or need to convert, since they were assiduously courted by the Ottomans. Many Byzantines opportunistically attached themselves to the winning team in order to share in the spoils of conquest.

The early Ottomans were equally shrewd in their dealings with the Eastern Orthodox Church, leaving her possessions and privileges mostly intact. Cognizant of the fact that the proud Byzantines loathed being led by Muslims, whom they had always considered beneath contempt, they granted their Christian subjects freedoms that went beyond the customary concessions given to the People of the Book. For example, a preacher during the reign of Sultan Bayezid I (1389-1402) freely declared from the pulpit of a Bursa mosque that Jesus was in no way a lesser prophet than Mohammed. Moreover, Ottoman Islam at the time was tolerant enough to absorb certain cherished Christian traditions, resulting in surprising cross-cultural dialogues. Orthodox priests baptized Muslim infants for good luck, and Turkish sailors refused to go to sea until after the Christian Epiphany and the blessings of the waters.

This carrot-rather-than-stick approach produced a short-lived heterogeneous society, which included Christian peasants, scribes, and merchants, and was marked by bilingualism, social osmosis, and a Byzantine-led economy. Christians dominated in agriculture, but also in cities, because of their advanced mercantile and commercial practices. Marco Polo (1254-1324) disdainfully labeled the nomadic Turcomans of Anatolia uncouth cattle breeders, but praised the Armenians and Greeks, who live mixed with the former in the towns and villages, for their production of elaborate textiles and other, sought-after goods. The Ottomans, whose economy had traditionally centered on pastoralism and warfare, eagerly espoused superior Byzantine economic practices, such as the Christian tax structure.

With the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Mehmet II (1451-80), however, the Byzanto-Turkish version of convivencia came to a close. By this time, the Ottomans were no longer a minority conquest society, but a rising world power that had successfully embraced the institutions of the indigenous majority population, which rendered the need for social compromise and flexibility redundant. Most Greek Christians eventually converted to Islam, and together with their former conquerors, formed a nation that became linguistically Turkified, and culturally Ottomanized. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman sultans discarded the remaining vestiges of a religio-social Islamochristian entity. The Turks’ military frontline was inexorably moving towards the Balkans and Hungary, forcing civilizational fault lines to turn into chasms again. And yet, despite the short-lived nature of the diverse Ottoman-Byzantine frontier state, positive encounters between the two peoples had proven that a form of (religious) pluralism was possible [in the Middle Ages], a pluralism that even today many societies seem unwilling or unable to imitate or duplicate.

The calamitous fourteenth century was therefore not all darkness, but punctuated with bright spots. The plague unleashed death, but was later tamed. In its aftermath, serfs and laborers found their voice, some (in England) even their freedom. Historian Frank Snowden has speculated that the eventual triumph over the plague kindled a confidence in progress and the belief that perhaps mankind could master its environment and its destiny, thus setting the stage for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In Asia Minor, Muslims and Christians temporarily proved that co-existence was a possibility, thus establishing a far-seeing ideal whose attainment is still a work in progress in the twenty-first century.

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