There’s a reason why the Black Death is one of the most well-known events of Medieval History. It could be ranked in the top ten world-changing events in all of History. In five short years between 1348 – 1352 life as we knew it changed radically. The Black Death killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population, over 100 million people. In five years. Damn.
I could tell you that the Black Death was actually two strains of plague, bubonic and pneumonic, and that depending on which kind you had you would either develop huge bloody, pussy cysts in your groin and armpits that would spread over your body, cause fever and vomiting blood or cause coughing, fever, and destroys your lungs. But that’s gross. I could tell you that the plague originated in China and spread west along the Silk Road and over sea and that it was carried by fleas that lived on rats that were aboard the ships. I could tell you that it came to Europe through Sicily and Genoa, and when people wised up and turned away ships from the east a ship docked in Marseille and unleashed the plague there.
But that’s not the interesting part.
First of all, what the heck? How on earth could one disease be so virulent that it would decimate an entire continent? Well, you have to understand what was going on in the 14th century to understand that.
Basically, the 14th century was crappy. I’m going to write an entire other Medieval Monday post about just how crappy it was, probably next week, but in a nutshell, the prosperity of the High Middle Ages kind of kicked everyone in the nards. The population of Europe exploded in the beginning of the 14th century. Women were having an average of 5 children. And while, as I mentioned before, the nobility could cart their kids off to the Church as oblates and not have to worry about the problems of inheritance anymore, society in general still had to worry about feeding them. Then the economy collapsed. Then there was a massive climate change (possibly caused by a gigantic volcano that exploded in Java and filled the Earth’s atmosphere with so much ash and sulfur that it lowered the overall temperature of the planet by 3-5 degrees!). Medieval agricultural methods couldn’t keep up with production demands. So there was a famine. And guess what… malnourished people have crappy immune systems.
So what really happened was a Worst Case Scenario of epic proportions. A vicious disease arrived in Europe just as the population was at its weakest point in hundreds of years. What happened next was a veritable bloodbath.
Back to those statistics. Things were bad or worse depending on where you lived. In the epicenter of the epidemic, Italy, Southern France, and Spain, 75-80% of the population died. In Northern France and areas further away from the Medditerranean it was closer to 45-50% that died. And in Germany and England it was more like 20%. However, the plague never really disappeared in England, which endured recurring outbreaks until another massive outbreak in 1665&6. All those deaths happened within a four year time period.
Four years! Think about that. In the time it takes to complete an average college degree up to 80% of your classmates would have died.
With one strange exception. Poland. The number of cases of the plague in Poland was almost nil. The same goes for a few other cities here and there. Why? Nobody knows really. One theory is that Poland was isolated enough in the sense that it was just not important enough for many people to go there. Another is as crazy as a speculation that maybe they had more cats there to kill the rats that hosted the fleas. I like that theory myself. And I also think it would make for a fantastic time-travel novel.
Anyhow, think of how the death of so many so fast would have effected everything in your life. First, there’s a good chance most of your family would have died. If you were a noble this might throw the whole question of inheritance into chaos. Remember how you had too many children and gave a bunch of them to the church? Well suddenly all your heirs are dead and no one knows what will happen to your land. Interestingly enough, it was at this time that inheritance law was changed so that daughters couldn’t inherit. Because what would happen if all of your sons died? Your land would pass into the hands of your daughter’s husband’s family who might as well be complete strangers. Even if you did manage to keep your holdings in the family, who’s going to work the land? Most of your labor force died as well.
Of course for those lucky enough to escape the Black Death this was a Golden Ticket. Laborers could suddenly charge huge fees to work. Mobility amongst the peasantry was especially high. Anyone who could provide any service or practice any craft was so in demand that they could make fortunes doing what they’d always done. There was also more geographical mobility. On the one hand, some people moved to escape the plague, but others moved because people were paying more for labor.
But with all this sense of transience and the inevitable death dawned one of the most depressing psychological eras of European History. There was an overwhelming feeling that you couldn’t escape Death. It was coming for you and it would wipe out everything and everyone that you loved. So what do you do about it? Well, a lot of drastically different things.
On the one hand, for some odd reason a lot of people blamed the Jews for the plague. Jewish towns and settlements across Europe were wiped out. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered long before the plague could get them.
On another hand, people went hedonistic. Because, hey, if you’re going to die tomorrow, why not eat as much as you want, drink as much as you want, and have as much sex as you want today? Orgies became very popular and sexual variety, for lack of a better way to put it, was at an all-time high.
And on yet another hand, extreme religious orders became popular. Like the flagellants. Because what better way to atone for the obvious sin of the world that God is punishing with a catastrophic plague than by whipping yourself ‘til you bled?
The world was a mess. Art and literature reflects that. And no one had any hope that it would get better any time soon. So what is the clear solution when life has gone down a certain creek without a certain implement? What’s the best thing to do when an average 50% of the population has died horribly? Why, start a war that lasts for a hundred years, of course. But more about that later.
And so, I leave you with this highly educational video about the Black Death: