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Black Death Impact on the Direction of Western Civilization


“The Black Death” is regarded in European history as one of the worst natural disasters, which occurred from 1346-1352 and spread across Europe. Many of those who survived lived in constant fear of the resurgence of the plague, but it did not end until the 1600s. The consequences of the epidemic were not only catastrophic during the infection period but also afterward as well. Michael of Pizza (ca. 1357), a Franciscan friar, claims that at the time of infection, the consequences of the plague were catastrophic (Platiensis). The Black Death epidemic affected Europe’s societal and economical structure.

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Origin and Spread of the Disease

The scourge originated in Asia and spread at an alarming speed which made it impossible to contain. There is an assumption that the main source of the Black Death Disease was Asia, where it started on the barren plains of Central Asia, and followed the Silk Road, and reached Crimea in 1346 (Lawler). The disease was presumed to have come aboard the merchant ships by fleas which were normally found on black rats. Mongolian domination of Eurasian trade routes made it possible to operate safely across more accessible trade routes.

From Central Asia, the pandemic extended to the east and west across the Silk Road by Mongolian troops and traders who took advantage of the unrestricted movement opportunity granted within the empire of Mongolia by the Pax Mongolia (Lenz and Hybel 55). The epidemic started in Europe with the assault on the last commercial station in the area, Caffa in Crimea, by the Mongols. The 1346 autumn witnessed the extension of the epidemic amongst the offensive troops and eventually penetrated the entire region (Gómez and Verdú). When spring came, the Italian merchants dispersed on their vessels, bringing with them the Black Death unknowingly. The virus steadily extended to people in the region of the Black Sea, and thereafter it continued to spread to the majority of European countries. This was caused by people who were relocating because of the plague.

Impact on People, Families, Communities, and Religion

Black Death destroyed Europe, which had already been affected by war, famine, and controversy in the Church, halfway through a century. The Church had transferred its capital from Rome to Avignon, France, to avoid internal fighting among the cardinals. Eventually, about 75 million people had succumbed to the disease (Gómez and Verdú). It took many years for the world’s population to rebound from the destruction of the plague, but certain societal changes, brought by seeing the bodies pile up in the streets, were lasting. The plague killed wantonly adults and children, rich and poor, and particularly in urban centers and among groups that had close contact with the sick. Entire places of worship packed with friars were wiped out by the scourge, and Europe lost most of its physicians. In the countryside, whole towns were deserted as people relocated to urban centers (Gómez and Verdú). The disease penetrated even the remote territories of Greenland and Iceland, leaving only wild cattle wandering free without one to care for them.

Immediately after the worst occurrences, the social effects of the disease were experienced. Many who survived also benefited from severe labor shortages, but once the peasants were bound to the farms, they had an option to choose where to work (Gómez and Verdú). Masters had to improve the conditions and make them more preferable, or risk having their land unused as peasants would move to seek better conditions elsewhere. This led to wage rises across the board. The taste of better living conditions for the poor was not to be forgotten. A few years later, when the landlords wanted to return to the old practices, the peasants protested causing uprisings across Europe. This resulted in the common people retaining their newfound freedom and decent wages. In Europe, since people did not have the wisdom to comprehend the plague, they assumed it was God’s retribution, and that the only way of healing the disease was to be forgiven by God (Wade). They then resorted to carving on their front doors the image of a cross with the words “God have mercy on us” on it.

People, therefore, responded with hopeful cures and reactions based on religion and faith, myths and spiritualism, and medicinal understanding, all of which were educated by the Catholics and Islam. Petrarch from Epistola Metrica, says that such reactions took several forms, but ultimately could not do much to prevent the progression of the disease or save those who were infected (ca. 1348). When people realized spirituality could do little to stop the spread of the virus and the misery of their family, their mistrust of God increased (Petrarca). This worsened the relationship between the people and the church, which was already in poor condition due to recent Pope controversies. Unfortunately, many clergies died, resulting in church summons and services in so many areas to simply stop (Green). The alleged inability of God to respond to people’s prayers led to the weakening of the church’s authority and the subsequent fragmenting of a cohesive Christian perspective.

These events culminated in a blame game between the Christians and the Jews. Giovanni Boccaccio, a 14th-century Italian writer, and poet challenged out whether the plague was sent by God for the corrective of mankind or whether it came from the power of the celestial bodies. Christians blamed Jews for poisoning public water sources in an attempt to sabotage European civilization (Boccaccio). The dissemination of this rumor resulted in the complete destroying of Jewish cities. On the other hand, it was simply a mistaken belief that was formed by cynicism from a section of Christianity believers, who realized that the Jewish community, compared to other groups, had lost fewer lives. This low number of deaths was attributed to their strict hygienic practices. Two thousand Jews were massacred in Strasbourg town in February 1349 (Green). While the same year in August, those residing in the two towns of Cologne and were annihilated.

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Nonetheless, as the plague escalated and conventional religious reactions collapsed, the Flagellant Movement originated in 1348 CE in Austria (possibly also Hungary) and extended to Germany and Flanders by 1349 CE (Dols). The flagellants were a population of passionate Christians, led by the Master, who moved from one place to another in the countryside. The group’s adherents would whip their bodies in a show of repenting both their sins and those of humanity, they would collapse to the ground in hysteria and ritualistic manner, and direct community in the persecuting and mass executing the Jewish people, Gypsies, and other minority groups (Dols). Pope Clement VI (l. 1291-1352 CE) banned the group, terming them as an immoral and ineffective group of fanatics.

Healings were often motivated by religious interpretation, like killing and cutting a snake (associated with Satan) and rubbing parts on one’s body. Through doing that, they were hoping that the sickness (being an evil circumstance) would be attracted to the “evil” of the dead serpent. Drinking a potion made of a unicorn horn was often considered to be successful as the unicorn was synonymous with Christ and purity. Stinking air was assumed to be the result of extraterrestrial action or paranormal energy (generally demonic) (DeWitte 445). These powers were forced out by scented candles or burning chaff and by bringing flowers or sweet-smelling weeds on one’s own body.

One could also disinfect one’s self by sitting close to a fire or pond, a lake, or a big hole used for dumping sewage (DeWitte 446). It was believed that the “evil breath” in one’s body would be attracted to the foul air of the sewage. People in towns relocated to their villages in the countryside. Incidentally, the poor families and farmers frequently left their territories in rural areas to the city where they sought to find better medical care and food (Varlik). Still, after the pestilence was acknowledged to be transmittable, inhabitants left segregated cities or areas and broadened the virus even further.

Christian vs. Muslim View and Responses of Plague

The response to the plague was told by the prevailing religions of the West and East, and also by the myths and belief systems of the regions, and portrayed as stories that clarified the disease. Scholar Norman F. Cantor claims that whenever faced with a dilemma, people in the Middle Ages have sought a remedy by diachronic (as opposed to synchronic) research (Lenz and Hybel 58). The diachronic is the historical narrative: “Tell me a story,” which evolves horizontally over time.

The Christians claimed that, first, the plague was God’s retribution for mortal sins, though it could also be induced by “poor air,” witchcraft and magic, and personal choices in life, particularly one’s piety or lack thereof. Second, the Christians could depart from the infected area to one which had not been affected. Third, the plague was infectious and could be transmitted amongst individuals; however, one could safeguard oneself through prayer, penance, charm, and daggers. To counter this, Christians responded by use of penitential ceremonies, mass attendance, fasting, intercession, use of amulets and charms. Flagellant Movement, on its part, responded by treatments and fumigation of “bad air,” move from affected regions, and persecution of marginalized communities, particularly Jews.

The Muslims, on the other hand, claimed that, first, the epidemic was a compassionate gift of God that gave martyrdom to the believers whose souls were immediately transferred to Eternity. Second, Muslims should not infiltrate pestilence areas and should not leave, but rather they should stay intact. Third, the disease was not infectious because according to God’s will, it came directly from Him to specific people. The Muslims then responded to these claims by first, attending prayers in the mosques, engaging in group processions as well as performing mass funerals, going through fasting sessions, holding prayers, and supplications. And also, through having increased faith in divine views, signs, and miracles (Benedictow). Third, the Islamic faithful also responded by using magic, amulets, spells in driving away from the disease. And lastly, by fleeing from areas affected by the pandemic. Fifth, by not pursuing the oppressed groups and respecting the Jewish doctors.

Effects Caused on European Societies, the Economy and Politics

The great human loss caused by the disease generated beneficial outcomes for the surviving farmers in England and Western Europe. There was augmented societal relocation, as depopulation additionally challenged the ordinary people’s already waning responsibilities to stay in their customary households. Serfdom never returned, and the land was ample, wages were high, and servitude was gone. Moving around and progressing further in life was now possible. The Black Death stimulated labor-saving procedures to be innovated, contributing to higher efficiency (Benedictow). There was a change to livestock farming from grain farming. Agricultural farming was laborious, as compared to livestock. Since the outbreak left large areas of farmland untouched, they were made accessible for grazing and thus placed more meat on the market (Benedictow). There was a consumption increase in beef and dairy-related products, as well as an increase in exportation of beef and butter products, which were coming from the lower states, such as Northern Germany and the Scandinavian.

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However, by putting pressure on sumptuary rules, the wealthy also attempted to obstruct these amendments, mainly in Western Europe and more progressively and effectively in Eastern Europe. These regulations controlled what persons were to wear so that the lords could pledge that the peasants, even with their increasing prosperity, did not commence dressing and behaving in the same manner as the richer members. Another strategy was to set rates and salaries so that with increased value, peasants could not seek more. In England, the Labor Law of 1351 was applied, ensuring that no peasant could request more pay than they had in 1346 (Benedictow). This was confronted with varying successes depending on the amount of uprising it spurred. Such a regulation resulted in the Peasants’ Uprising in England. The pandemic did bring a foreseeable end to lordship in the Western part of Europe. The manorial formation was by then in agony, but by 1500 the disease had ensured its extermination all through most of the Western part and the Central Europe region. Extreme movement of the populace from rural to town created a critical shortage of farm laborers’ (Benedictow). In England, between 1350 and 1500, approximately 1,300 villages were abandoned.

In regards to art and literature, the pestilence had a tremendous impact on European culture, which in particular turned morbid after 1350. The popular atmosphere was one of pessimism, and with depictions of death, modern art turned bleak. La Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) was a conceptual allegory, presented as poetry, drama, and written work (Bedyński 139). Its subject matter was the universality of death, representing the traditionalist thoughts of the experience that, no matter an individual’s position in life, the death dance merged everybody. This dance or drama is composed of the ‘portrayed Death’ taking a series of dancing figures, all in a skeleton-form, to the grave. The figures were derived from every walk of life (characteristically with a king, monarch, and priest, youthful individual, and a fine-looking young woman). Under the pressure of the disease, such works of art were prepared, educating people how insecure their survival was and how worthless the glories of life in this world were.


The Black Death was a catastrophic global Bubonic Pest outbreak in the mid-1300s that affected Europe and Asia. The church fell, communities and families were destroyed and the economies were ravaged by the plague. The disease took many lives and left everyone confused and devastated. Its first big influence was the total number of deaths, which has been recorded as one of the highest numbers of deaths caused by an epidemic. In all, the pandemic was a significant occurrence that profoundly changed people’s lives across Europe and Asia. The overall impact of the Black Death plague left an indelible mark in the history of mankind.

Works Cited

Bedyński, Wojciech. “Liminality: Black Death 700 Years Later. What Lessons are for us from the Medieval Pandemic?” Society Register, vol. 4, no. 3, 2020, pp. 129-144. Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan, Web.

Benedictow, Ole Jørgen. The Black Death and Later Plague Epidemics in the Scandinavian Countries. De Gruyter, 2016

Boccaccio, Giovanni. “The Decameron”. Brown.Edu, 2020, Web.

DeWitte, Sharon N. “Setting The Stage for Medieval Plague: Pre-Black Death Trends in Survival and Mortality”. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 158, no. 3, 2015, pp. 441-451. Wiley, Web.

Dols, Michael Walters. The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton UP, 2019.

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Gómez, José M., and Miguel Verdú. “Network Theory May Explain the Vulnerability of Medieval Human Settlements to the Black Death Pandemic”. Scientific Reports, vol.7, no. 1, 2017. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, Web.

Green, Monica Helen. Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World. Arc Medieval Press, 2015.

Lawler, Andrew. “How Europe Exported the Black Death”. Science, 2016. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Web.

Lenz, Kristina, and Nils Hybel. “The Black Death”. Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp. 54-70. Informa UK Limited, Web.

Petrarca, Francesco. “Francesco Petrarca: Ad Seipsum (To Himself)”. Brown.Edu, 2020, Web.

Platiensis, Michael. “The Testimony of Michael Platiensis on The Plague (1347)”. Scott Oden, 2020, Web.

Varlik, Nükhet. Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Wade, Lizzie. “The Black Death May Have Transformed Medieval Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa”. Science, 2019. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Web.

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