The Black Death
The Black Death stands out as one of the most destructive pandemics to occur in human history that claimed many lives in Europe between 1348 and 1350. The underlying cause of the pandemic has been a controversial subject, characterized with different perspectives concerning the explanation for its cause. The first reports of the Black Death were in Europe during the summer of 1346 and this occurred in the town of Caffe in the Crimea. The city of Caffa was under siege by the Tartars who would launch corpses infected with the disease over the walls of the city with the intentions of weakening the city’s defenses. The residents of Caffa escaped the attack to other areas through use of boats and in the process carried the disease with them. The Black Death was a term which collectively referred to three separate plagues with the Bubonic and septicaemic plague being carried by fleas while the pneumonic plague was viral in nature and was spread through the air.
The Black Death killed approximately 30-40 percent of the population, resulting to a significant reduction in the world’s population (Byrne, 2004). As the population in Europe started growing, cities began to grow at unprecedented rate bringing with it conditions like waste accumulation, overcrowding and water pollution which only served to provide an enabling environment for the black death to occur. Various sources attribute the main cause of the Black Death to be the outbreak of bubonic plague as a result of the bacterium yersinia pestis. The plague spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean as a result of being carried by oriental rat fleas residing on black cats which resided in passenger and merchant ships.
Recent forensic search reveals that the major cause of the Black Death was a bubonic plague thought to have originally come from China and spread to regions of Europe by merchant ships. The European’s population recovered from the plague in duration of one and a half centuries. It is evident that the Black Death pandemic had vast effects on the religious and socio-economic turmoil on the history of Europe.
In order to ascertain the religious and socio-economic consequences of the Black Death, it is important to first analyze an overview of the causes of the Black Death pandemic. Prior to the onset of Black Death during the mid 14th century, Europe had not witnessed epidemic ailments. Historians contest that the Black Death had its origin in China and spread to other parts in Europe by ship. It is evident that the scale of the Black Death pandemic had severe impacts on the social structure of Europe’s population (Campbell, 2009). Due to lack of contemporary records concerning the plague, the principal cause of the pandemic has been subject to controversy with different researchers and historians contesting to different causes of the pandemic. The most accepted explanation for cause of the Black Death was the bubonic plague, which argues that the pathogen responsible for causing the plague is Yersinia pestis transmitted by rats and fleas (Herlihy, 1997). The following section outlines the consequences of the plague with respect to socio-economic and religious factors.
The massive population losses associated with the Black Death meant that it had some effects on the social, economic and religious structures of the European population during the 14th century and the subsequent years that followed in the history of Europe. A rough estimate on the mortality rate of the Black Death suggests that in a period of two years, the pandemic claimed one out of every three lives, nothing like that had ever happened in human history. For instance, it is estimated the Black Death claimed lives of about 45-75 percent population of Florence within one year, resulting to the collapse of its economic system (Herlihy, 1997). About 60 per cent of Venice population died within a span of 18 months, approximately 500-600 deaths daily. Such death rates had significant effects on the population structure of the most affected areas. Higher mortality rates affected certain professions whose line of duty required contact with the already sick, for instance the doctors and clergymen (Ormrod, 1996).
The survival rates during the times of the pandemic for such professions were low. For example, eight physicians died out of nine in Perpignan. The high mortality rates significantly affected the religious structure of Europe’s population since most of the clergies had contact with the patients, and this implied that their survival rates were at stake. Historical accounts report that 30 percent of the cardinals succumbed to the pandemic. Recovery of the population loss took approximately 150 years, with urban population recovering faster due to factors such as immigration. Population in the rural areas recovered gradually also due to increased migration to the urban centers. Special groups were the most affected by the Black Death Pandemic, for instance, the friars. It is evident that the Black Death drew a dividing line in the middle Ages into a strong medieval culture and later middle Ages characterized by a strong population and a reduced population respectively (Byrne, 2004).
The Black Death was responsible for economic disruption in Europe during the 14th century, and its effects propagated in the following years. The most affected were the urban cities since they experienced an economic meltdown due to disruption in business activities because there was no time to concentrate on business yet a plague had hit the population. Projects such as building and construction came to a halt. The plague significantly affected Mills and machinery industry by inflicting death on the skilled personnel who had the ability to attend to such machineries (Olea & Christakos, 2005). The Black Death did not spare artisans either, resulting to an economic sabotage for the guilds. This reveals the severity of the labor shortage during the years that the plague was peaking and the subsequent years that followed. As the population reduced, Europe supply of goods increased sand since there was little population, the prices significantly dropped. This meant that those who survived the plague, their standard of living increased. The economic activities in the rural areas also succumbed to the pandemic. This is because most of the population died, and the few survivors decided to move on. It is evident that there was labor shortage in the rural areas during the peak of the pandemic (Olea & Christakos, 2005). It is arguable that the economic disruption caused by Black Death is responsible for the guild revolts that occurred during the century and rebellions in the rural areas of Europe. For instance, England witnessed the Peasant’s revolt during 1381. There a series of revolts that occurred in Europe, such as the rebellion from Catalonian that took place during 1395, and the Jacquerie rebellion that took place during 1358. This serves to reveal the impacts of the Black Death pandemic with regard to economic disruptions and the social structure of Europe’s population (Olea & Christakos, 2005).
The Black Death pandemic affected all of Europe’s population without discrimination, therefore having serious effects on the social relations of the European population. Most chronicles reported that the plague affected everyone, irrespective of one’s social status. Generally, all the elements that made up the community suffered from the plague. For instance, learning institutions found in places mostly affected by the plague closed down. Historical accounts report that only 26 professors survived out of the 40 found in Cambridge University. Religious institutions also succumbed to the effects of the plague through death of the priests and Bishops and their successors (Ormrod, 1996). The most affected religious institution was the Catholic Church. The increased mortality rates associated with Black Death had immense effects on social relations among European population. The European population during the time had no knowledge of the underlying cause of the plague during the time, because of this; they vested their vengeance of the Jews and other foreigners as possible causes of the plague. This is evident by the massive attacks on Jewish communities during 1349. Even the European governments had no mechanism to approach the plague since there was no one who knew how the plague was transmitted from one person to another; as a result, people believed that it was God’s wrath, which resulted to such devastating occurrences (Herlihy, 1997).
The Black Death pandemic had cultural effects in terms of art and literature in Europe within the generation that had a firsthand experience on the plague and subsequent generations. Chroniclers, who were famous writers, are the ones responsible for keeping records on the events of the Black Death. The despair associated with Black Death got its way into the famous works of art and literature in Europe during the later years in the 14th century. The most striking evidence is the tomb sculptures of the times (Olea & Christakos, 2005). Black Death significantly influenced the decorations on the tomb sculptures. The onset of the 1400 saw some tomb sculptures being designed as a way of remembering the pandemic. Artists who designed sculptures on tombs incorporated themes depicting the Black Death by sculpting bodies showing the signs of the pandemic. The pandemic also got its way into paintings of the time, with a painting style commonly referred to as danse macabre, meaning the Dance of Death (Herlihy, 1997). The painting style emphasized on a combination of skeletons interacting with normal beings during their undertaking of daily activities. The most striking element about the paintings is that each scene had an element of living combined with skeletons. This works of art and literature were commissioned with the aim of remembering the Black Death pandemic. Therefore, the Black Death played a big role in influencing subsequent works of Art and Literature across Europe. (Byrne, 2004).
The Black Death pandemic played a significant role in influencing the political cause of Europe. A significant number of political nobles and reigning monarchs died of the plague. The most notable being the queen of France and the queen of Aragon. The plague also affected government operations since it caused the adjournment of parliaments. The war in Europe came was affected by the plague since most of the soldiers died because of the Black Death pandemic. The most notable political effect of the Black Death pandemic was at local levels of governance, whereby city councils were destroyed and the closure of courts. The effects on political disruption were not permanent because government had to resume its duties immediately after the Black Death pandemic (Cohn, 2002).
An overview of the effects of the Black Death Pandemic serves as a demarcation of the Middle Ages in the European History. The consequences of the Black Death cannot be underestimated in the history of Europe. The economic, social and political disruptions of the Black Death marks an integral part of the History of Europe as evident in its effects described in the paper. It is evident that the Black Death pandemic had vast effects on the religious and socio-economic turmoil on the history of Europe.
Byrne, J. (2004). The Black Death. London: GreenWood Publishing Group.
Campbell, B. (2009). Factor markets in England before the Black Death. Continuity and change, 24 (1), 79-106.
Cohn, S. (2002). The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance. London: Arnold Publishers.
Herlihy, D. (1997). The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Olea, R., & Christakos, G. (2005). Urban Mortality and the Black Death. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.
Ormrod, W. (1996). The Black Death in England. Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins.