The 14th century was an era of catastrophes. One such catastrophe was a pandemic which threw medieval Europe into turmoil: The Black Death. In 1347, The Black Death began spreading throughout Western Europe.
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Over the time of four years, the plague killed one third of the population in Europe with an estimated 25 million people dead. The Black Death killed more Europeans than any other endemic or war up to that time, greatly impacting the Church, family life, and the economy. These three social pillars were changed forever. The Black Death demonstrated in dramatic fashion the existence of new vulnerabilities in Western European society. It subjected the population of medieval Europe to tremendous strains, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubt traditional values, and, by so doing, these calamities altered the path of European development in many areas. One of the effects of the black plague was the devastating effect it had on the Church. Before the Black Death hit Europe, almost all things, especially elements of daily life, were under the influence of the church. The Church throughout Europe had nearly absolute power. However, once the plague hit, people believed it to be a punishment of God. They turned to the Church for help. But since the priests and bishops could not actually offer a cure or even an explanation, the Church lost a lot of its influence and for many people, their view of the world changed drastically.
The plague shook people’s confidence in conventional beliefs and authority (Zahler 33). The people blamed God for the occurrence of the plague and they thought it was a punishment of their sins. Quickly, the Church began to suffer. Before the plague, the Church had thousands of followers. When tragedy struck, the people strayed from the Church and blamed them for the plague. The Church had no explanation for the outrage, so the people were infuriated. The people thought of the Church as omniscient, so when the priests and bishops could not give them the answers they wanted, the Church began losing spiritual authority over its people. As the Church lost spiritual authority, the clergy of the Church began leaving. About sixty percent of the clergy abandoned their Christian duties and fled. The monasteries and the clergy suffered the greatest loss (Zahler 215). Many of the Churches finest leaders were quitting and some even moved far away to avoid the problems they were facing. Since many head officials were parting, the Church panicked and began aggressively recruiting others to fill the ranks. As the Monks, Nuns, and Friars continued to disappear, the standards for their replacements lowered. This caused the monasteries to be run by less educated people, leading to a decline of vernacular. As the Church weakened, the people’s hope declined. The commoners prayers were not working and the Church had lost almost all its respect and authority over its’ followers. The survivors were outraged at the doctors who did not cure the patients. The plague was prime factor in people’s turning to new influences in a search for meaning and positive values (Zahler 57). Since they believed God was punishing them, the people turned in hope of finding something new to believe in. One way people turned to cope with the Black Death was to become part of the flagellants, a group of religious zealots who demonstrated their religious fervor and sought atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance.
Despite condemnation by the Church, the movement gained strength as the Black Death grew, and the Church was powerless to stop them. More people began questioning the Church. The Church was critiqued on a daily basis, and people began to treasure worldly things and turned their backs on God. Another devastating effect the plague had was the abandonment of family life as well as persecution of Jews. In hopes of survival, many began to abandon what they had and moved to villages and country sides in hope of fleeing from the disease. Children abandoned the father, husband abandoned the wife, wife the husband, one brother the other, one sister the other. Some fled to villas, others to villages in order to get a change in air. Where there had been no [plague], there they carried it; if it was already there, they caused it to increase (Zahler 45). People often left those who they cared about to fend for themselves. Since the cities were more populated, those who left for the country carried the disease with them and infected those who previously lived on the countryside. The Black Death created a race for survival and all were playing. In addition, one question that was raised by the people of Europe was who to blame for the Black Death. They had already lost their faith in church, and as they continued to run from the plague, the people of Europe felt that they needed to blame someone for causing the outrage. At this time in history, Christians persecuted Jews in Europe and blamed them for bad luck and even bad weather.
As the plague attacked, whispers immediately started about poisonings of wells and of the air by Jews (Zahler 63). The European Christian’s of the time were racist towards the Jews. The Jews were forbidden to work in government and were shunned from the towns. This forced them to live on the outskirts of town in places called ghettos. Because of their isolation, the plague did not reach them immediately. Since they were not getting sick, the people automatically assumed the Jews were poisoning their wells as payback for their isolation. The Jews were thought to be irrational and were thought of as scapegoats. However, once the Jews began to fall sick from the plague as well, people began to show their responses in other ways. Artists and musicians of the time became dark and seemingly depressed. Before the plague, the music was up-beat and frequently heard while the artwork was frequently viewed. However, during the plague music was played very grimly and the art became somber. The artists were surrounded by the horrific nature of the Black Death. Some artists tried to translate the terror and sadness into their art and music. Many of those artist left alive created paintings and woodcuts that showed an angry God and sometimes demon-like creatures shooting arrows of plague in towns (Zahler 91).
These artists used their works to escape and to deal with what was happening in their current lives and reflect on the way they were feeling. Since many people went into depression, they began to lose the beauty of art and music they once had. The somber change in art and music showed the change in the world around them. People of the time became obsessed with the culture of death, and they demonstrated this every day. As the town’s obsession dwindled towards death, the children were left behind. Many believed the end of the world had come, so the views on children began to change as people lost sight of their loved ones. But there were others they had forgottenthe children. They were by all means frequent receivers of the disease and it killed them almost instantly or within a few hours (Zahler 19). The children in plague infested towns had premature exposures which allowed for the disease to affect them physically and mentally. Once infected, the parents of the children would abandon them on the streets instead because many could not bear to watch them die. The females who contracted the plague were especially disregarded because they could not carry on the family name for generations to come. The children could not provide for themselves, so they suffered greatly.
As everyday life and religious values were breaking down, the economy also changed drastically so that a new economic system emerged. Many people turned towards the lords of their manor with the hopes they could provide support and an answer to the madness that was occurring. In Europe in the 1300’s, feudalism was very common. However, massive loss of lives reduced the number of workers, and as a result, surviving workers were able to demand higher wages and greater independence, which contributed to the collapse of the feudal system. This was a common scenario, since many lives were taken daily, and with the population dropping quickly, the few that survived were able to demand more. The agrarian economy was damaged and had reached the point where it appeared to be almost prevented from recovery (Zahler 87). With feudalism declining, finding skilled workers was a challenge. Since there were few workers, it meant there would be less food which could be harvested, leading to a decline in the food supply. The few that survived could not produce enough food for the towns and cities, and those that could not get food died. Also, since finding people with skill was more valuable than ever, the land was not properly taken care of. The crops were abandoned and many died of starvation. The maintenance of the land rapidly declined leaving the economy in a severe condition. Lastly, trade between countries declined. People refused to have any form of interaction with each other, which led to a decline in goods being bought and exchanged. By 1350, the plague began waning off slowly. The immediate consequence of the Black Death was a massive reduction of the population; however, the plague also had many long term effects. The most significant result was the loss of the church’s authority over the population of Europe. In addition, the economic system of feudalism was destroyed, which led to workers asking for higher wages. Lastly, family life was significantly altered as people abandoned each other in hopes of saving themselves, and blamed others causing social unrest.
All of these factors contributed to Europe’s period of reduced prosperity. During the middle ages, the plague was known as all-destroying. One third of Europe’s population was reduced over a period of three years with considerable changes to its’ economy, church life, and family life. Through these losses, a tiny insect toppled Europe’s social structure and altered medieval society forever. WORKS CITED 1) “Black Death.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2018. 2) Damen, Mark. “1320: Section 6: The Black Death.” 1320: Section 6: The Black Death. Utah State University, 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2018. 3) Meissner, Daniel J. “The Black Death.” The Black Death. Marquette University, n.d. Web. 16 Nov 2018. 4) Zahler, Diane. The Black Death. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century, 2009. Print. 5) Cohn, Samuel Kline. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Arnold, 2002. Print.
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