The Plague or the Black Death was the most catastrophic epidemic in the history of humanity. It devastated the populations of cities and villages and caused considerable political and social changes. Within the passing of only a few years, the population of Europe decreased by 30 to 50 percent. The plague had a transnational nature, spreading from East to West and affecting all kinds of settlements, even the remotest ones. The disease originated in China in the middle of 1300. Consequently, the Chinese population declined from 120 million to around 60 million (Howard 171).
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Mongol armies and merchants carried the virus along the Silk Road, and ships eventually brought it to Europe. The epidemic spread at a tremendous pace, taking city by city and country by country as the terrified people fled their towns and carried the virus to neighboring settlements. The plague did not happen only once; it was a recurrent pandemic that used to come back every few years with various effects. There were cases when whole families died overnight, but sometimes only one person in a house would be plague-stricken. Modern scientists still have many questions about the origin of the plague and its lethal character, yet they all agree that its cause was a pathogen known as Yersinia pestis.
Back in medieval times, the Black Death became the greatest fear and concern of European and Asian society. The level of medical knowledge was not sufficient to explain the unpredictable nature of the disease and find a cure for it. The Church claimed that the plague was sent by God as a punishment for sins. Christian authorities systematically passed laws against sexual crimes, heresy, and improper behavior. In times of the Black Death, moral laws were intended to please God and persuade him to take away the plague and also convince ordinary people that immoral behavior led to the outspread of the disease. By the sixteenth century, the authorities figured how to successfully use “plague-time moral legislation as a means of social control” (Byrne 240). Due to numerous factors, the lower classes suffered from the plague the most. Traditionally, poverty was associated with immorality and therefore the lawgivers had grounds for their statements. Identifying the plague with the poor had also given a start to the new level of class discrimination.
The act of pilgrimage was very common among the religious people of medieval times and during the epidemic, its practice increased enormously. People flocked to distant cathedrals and monasteries to venerate the relics of the saints. However, they might have done more harm, as these crowds could carry the viruses further and travel to potentially contaminated villages. In addition to new legislation, the Church created some Christian works such as poetry, dialogues, and pamphlets meant to provoke a spiritual response from the readers and adjust their lifestyles in agreement with Christian virtues. However, the Church soon began to lose its influence on society. People noticed that the virus was as harmful to the priests as it was to the poor and sinners. So it could be seen that religion was powerless to prevent the plague.
Another phenomenon that followed the plague was abandonment (Byrne 2). The fear of a sudden unexpected death forced people to abandon even their beloved ones for the sake of their survival. Everyone knew that the Black Death had no cure and it spread from person to person, via air and human fleas. Having noticed the first symptoms, like high fever, swellings, and dark blotches, mothers could leave their children and children could leave their parents. The topic of abandonment became one of the dominant in contemporary art and literature, such as Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Byrne comments: “Dying alone was not only a physical horror, but it also meant that one would not receive sacramental Last Rites, Catholic spiritual aid for a final journey” (2). To keep their businesses running and avoid quarantine from the authorities, inn owners often hid customers or staff who had become victims and waited for them to die. Byrne adds that there were more brutal forms of abandonment, “when the communities expelled the sick, literally parading them to the city gates” (Byrne 3). Terrified of being left alone, people started to join different brotherhoods that guaranteed the Last Rites and a proper burial. There were particular organizations and nurses whose only duty was to comfort the dying and bury the dead. Usually, families cared enough about their deceased to give them a decent burial, but when the plague came, different measures had to be taken. The government used to appoint men to move the bodies and carry them to the plague pits and mass graves. It was important to bury the dead quickly. “The graves should be at least 6ft deep, and they’re always should have been three graves ready for the parish” (Sloane 34). Doctors, pastors, and officials often fled the cities but were criticized and sometimes even punished for abandoning their duties.
The most significant impact of the Black Death on society was the development of the classes. Both in Europe and Asia, the nobles suffered from the virus along with the poor. The rich had their privileges, such as better food and water, better medical treatment, and the opportunity to leave town and wait out the epidemic in other residences. Nevertheless, the status and wealth of the nobles depended on their lands and the people working on them. Since the plague killed half of the lower class population and forced the survivors to flee to non-affected cities, the cost of labor significantly increased. The landowners started to sell some of their lands to the farmers. There were a lot of arguments that the plague “brought about the end of feudalism” (James par. 8). Thus the yeoman class was formed. Farmers that did not flee their villages were able to take advantage of abandoned land. With each passing year, the number of peasants became smaller and smaller. Sections of the lower classes slowly started attaining prosperity and levels of social status previously more in keeping with the upper classes. “England grew into one of most dynamic societies in Europe with freedom of action and entrepreneurship” (Byrne 365). Destructive as it was, the Black Death helped to speed up the development of modern society.
Europe and the rest of the world changed dramatically due to the consequences of the plague outbreaks. Abandoned lands allowed the peasants to use them for farming and become more independent from landowners. In contrast to many other disasters, the plague only reduced the population and did not affect the property. The disappointment in religion as a tool to stop the disease led to mistrust of the Church and its role in government. The Black Death brought a great tragedy to humanity, but it also opened new opportunities for economic, social, and cultural development.
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Byrne, Joseph P. Encyclopedia of the Black Death. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
James, Tom. “Black Death: The lasting impact.” BBC. (2011). Web.
Howard, Michael C. Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012
Sloane, Barney. The Black Death in London. The History Press, 2011.