The Bubonic Plague is a grim but at the same time impressive page in the European history. This event triggered serious changes in society and economy. Naturally art and culture could not have left it without noticing and references to the Black Death are to be found in literature, paintings and other art forms.
Today most of the scholars agree that the most probable way by which the Bubonic Plague came into Europe was through trading. As for the trading route which was the main channel of the spread of the disease, the book by Robert Gottfried says the following: “Historians debate which of the trading routs was most important in the spread of the Black Death. It is likely that the overland route through central Asia was most crucial”(Gottfried, 36). The main reason for this assumption lies in the fact that the bubonic plague is supposed to have started in China, therefore central Asia appeared to have been the hotbed of disease. Fleas and rats that were usual inhabitants of the merchant ships carried the disease and in the October of 1347 the plague came out in Sicily in the city of Messina. (Porter) When the citizens of Messina understood that the terrible sickness was brought into town on merchant ships, those ships were expelled from the port. Consequently the ships sailed further and brought the disease to other areas. In a month’s time the islands of Corsica and Sardinia were infected as well. Meanwhile the citizens of the infected Messina started panicking and fleeing from the city to the neighboring countryside thus spreading the disease further. After having reached Italy it did not take the Black Death much time to cover the rest of Europe. Besides, the book by Diane Zahler points out the following fact regarding the situation that preceded the plague: “Climate change three decades earlier had created famine, weakening the population. War and filthy living conditions bred vermin that carried diseases”(Zahler, 21). Therefore one may conclude that people were weakened and prone to yield to the coming disease.
This pandemic of the 14th century was sure to bring great changes to European society. As the book by Joseph Byrne cites: “It shocked the economic and social patterns that Europeans had been developing for over 300 years” (Byrne, 57). The single fact that the population of Europe is claimed to have reduced by about 40 percents assumes that social changes did take place. It is important to mention that some social classes suffered from the disease more than others. Church was especially affected as the priests had to be in contact with the infected people, trying to provide them with consolation. The church lost a lot of its members and therefore much of its power. Large cities suffered more than villages. It was not an unusual thing when a city had been left with only half of its population when the plague started to cease. Besides as a lot of peasants died in the course of the plague, cheap labor reduced greatly. That caused the landlords to compete for peasants by raising wages and offering them freedoms. For that reason some scholars even refer to the plague as to the cause of the end of feudalism in England. Therefore one may say that the plague had positive consequences as well. Some historians even argue that social upheaval caused by the plague later gave rise to the Renaissance. (Gilman)
Whatever the positive consequences of the pandemic of the 14th might have been, the negative ones definitely prevailed. A terrible disease from which no cure could have been found caused great panic, grief and chaos in the European society. The book “The Earth and its Peoples: A Global History” refers to the psychological effects of the plague on the 14th century society as follows: “The plague left a psychological mark, bringing home to people how sudden and unexpected death could be. Some people became more religious, giving money to the church or hitting themselves with iron-tipped whips to atone for their sins”(Bulliet, Kyle, Johnson, 352). As neither physicians nor priests helped one of the first explanations the minds of the people living in Middle Ages could have thought of was certainly the divine punishment for mortal sins. Unfortunately another explanation which the people attacked by despair and fear found rather satisfying was that some group of people should have caused the disease deliberately, using poison. Suspicion fell on Jews causing many attacks against Jewish communities through all Europe. 2000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg in 1349. Other social groups that often became scapegoats during the plague included Roma, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims and lepers. (Lindberg)
The whole atmosphere that reigned over Europe in the 14th century was sure to be reflected in works of art and literature. Jim Olihoff in his book “The Black Death” shows the readers the following grm picture of the events: “In other towns there was no one left to bury the dead. Burials were so quick and shallow hat wild animals sometimes dug up the corpses”(Ollhoff, 5). People witnessed death, religious fanaticism, fear and cruelty. A lot of the depictions of people dying from plague appeared. Many accounts of the Black Death written by ordinary men started to emerge. References to this historical event can be found in such pieces of literature as “The Decameran” written by Boccaccio and “The Canterbury Tales” written by Chaucer.
It is interesting to note that the reasons why the plague started to subside are still a matter of heated discussions among the scholars. No one may give convincing explanation of what could have eliminated the disease. Quarantine and personal hygiene are two of the most often mentioned assumptions on this matter. People were trying to keep away from those who were infected. They stayed at their homes and did not came out to streets. Besides those who had money and possibilities were leaving big cities. At any rate by the year 1350 the disease started to cease.
The plague of the 14th century definitely had not only historical but also cultural significance for the Europeans. Though one cannot say that the images associated with the name “The Black Death” are the positive ones it is hard to deny that they are bright and impressive. The reference to this event immediately triggers the images of death, fires and rotten corpses and if an author wants to create a corresponding mood, for example when writing a horror story or a piece of gothic fiction or even a historical novel, he or she may be sure that setting the scene in the times when the Black Death was ravaging Europe will guarantee the attention of the readers.
Bulliet, Richard, Kyle, Pamela, Headrick, Daniel and Lyman Johnson.The Earth and Its
Peoples: A Global History. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2011. Print.
Byrne, Joseph. The Black Death.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.
Gilman, Ernest. Plague Writing in Early Modern England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.
Gottfried, Robert. The Black Death.New York: The Free Press, 1985. Print.
Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. Print.
Ollhoff, Jim. The Black Death.Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company, 2010. Print.
Porter, Stephen. The Great Plague. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing Plc, 2009. Print.
Zahler, Diana. The Black Death.Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009. Print.