The Black Death that plagued Europe from 1347 to 1350, is the single most important historical event, covered in class this semester. The disease plundered the cultural and economic aspects of Europe, during that time period. The darkness of the plague is estimated to have killed between 75 million and 200 million people, roughly 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. The disease, as horrible as it was, gave way to the end of feudalism and the birth of capitalism and unions, The Renaissance, and The Protestant reformation. Its importance, is beyond measurable, and helped to transform Europe into the Europe that we are familiar with today. The Black Death was one of the most destructive epidemics in the history of the world. During the time period of 1347 to 1350, every fourth person you saw would die within three to four years. It was a disease that, next to the flu pandemic of 1918, would kill the most humans in medical history. Roughly one-third of Europe’s population would perish due to this disease. It first arrived on the scene in 1347 from Asia and passed through its european trading routes, via rats and fleas. This type of plague was a Bubonic plague. The Bubonic plague is a bacillus that parasites, such as rodents, carry on their backs, that was principally seen in the Middle Ages on black rats. (Cantor 11)
The disease attacked lymph, respiratory and circulatory systems and more often than not, there was a 100 percent mortality rate for those infected. Crowded, more populated areas such as cities, were more affected than smaller rural villages. It popped up in Messina, Sicily, first, through a trade route that ran from the Black Sea, past Constantinople, and through the Mediterranean, then to Italy. The rodents aboard the ships scurried from the ships inland, and it spread from there. Soon the people of the city suspected that a horrible sickness had come about through the ships in port, and told them to leave, subsequently spreading the disease further. It also spread through citizens leaving the city and heading for the countryside hoping to avoid the inevitable, contracting the disease. Prior to that, at the tip of the trading route that acted as a passageway for the disease into Italy, the plague was running rampant. The Mongols coming from Asia were attacking a Genoese trading station of Kaffa in Crimea. During the Mongols attack which lasted three years, a sickness broke out amongst their forces, when reinforcements carrying the disease came and infected their forces. The Mongols were so heavily affected that they decided to catapult dead, affected bodies over the city walls in hopes to kill its citizens with the stench. When the Italian refugees tried to leave Kaffa and head back to Italy, they took the disease with them. Another way the disease spread was through Flagellants, who openly practiced penance in public places, by whipping the sins out of themselves.
They traveled all over Europe and helped spread the disease even more, until 1349 when the Pope ordered authorities to suppress them. With lack of time and adequate medical equipment and knowledge to combat the plague, Europe fell victim to its power devastatingly fast. With the Church’s looming influence on society, they left many feeling that this was an act of God, and doctors’ services would be futile. After the Black Death ravaged Europe, with no exceptions to nobility, the feudal system, much like the people working it, began to disappear. Western Europe’s feudal system had thrived for centuries before the black death struck. After the plague had subsided, there was an immediate lack of trade, and fertile farmland going to waste, due to the reduced amount of workers. “When the Black Death decimated this peasant population, the effects were not immediate. Peasant labor was not in short supply prior to the plague, so there were enough peasants to fill jobs left by victims of the plague. As the years went on though, the labor was not there like it had been in previous generations.” (Peschke, “The Impact of the Black Death”) In the early years, there were so many workers, that people could be replaced instantly if they were not working hard. This lead to workers being hired and being paid for a year, rather than giving the perks of working as a serf to them. In this instance the Lords who owned the lands, had the upper hand. After the Black Death, due to the lack of workers, the peasants held the upper hand.
“The peasants were trying to improve their position in a labor market favorable to themselves” (Cantor 89) The Black death brought about a new way of life, in more ways than one, and this is what some consider to be the first signs of capitalism in the world. “The shortage of labour compelled them to substitute wages or money rents in place of labour services in an effort to keep their tenants. There was also a general rise in wages for artisans and peasants. These changes brought a new fluidity to the hitherto rigid stratification of society.” (“Black Death”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.) In simple terms, people began to migrate to whoever would offer the best deal. This also lead to people perfecting their skilled labor. Along with general labor in high demand, skilled laborers were highly sought after, as they were scarce. This is where an appreciation of the skills and labors began. It also leveled the playing field and it allowed more people to learn a set of skills or a skilled labor, which leads to the Renaissance. As the reality of post plague Europe set in, many people began to question God, and the Catholic Church. Towards the end of the 14th century people wanted to become more educated in order to understand what had just affected them years earlier. More philosophical reasoning was sought after and the Renaissance were born.
The strict nature of European society before the plague, gave way to a gasp of relief after it. With the chaos subsiding, people were free to think for themselves. They developed a new modern way of thinking, as opposed to the backwards beliefs of the Middle Ages. Freethought, allowed people to break themselves away from the power of the church, thus leading to the churches decreased world domination. Art, which was heavily affected maybe tells the most triumphant tale of the plague. During the plague Art was very dark, with lots of it depicting God’s power and punishment of people. The people of this time believed this was an act of God, thus the art stemming from that idea. The Grim Reaper was concocted at this time, giving way to art showing the anguish of man from the plague. After the plague and through on into the Renaissance art started to change. Its change coincided with the change in human thinking. The thought of humanistic belief, that man was the center of the universe, was what began to change and thus changed art and society.
Humanistic thinking is directly linked to the downfall of the Catholic Church and the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Through the invention of the printing press, people were able to mass produce bibles for purchase in different languages, so that one could interpret the bible for themselves. An increasing amount of faith was placed in human reasoning, and left ordinary people feeling as if church leaders were fighting for power and wealth, rather than representing god. Scientific advances had people questioning the church, and faith in god was lost amongst the masses after the Black Death. People believed that the plague was God’s way of punishing them for wrong doings, leading to a loss of hope. This lead the church to exploit the lost hope by selling indulgences to people. Indulgences were acts, prayers, or sacrifices performed by members of the Catholic church, that could take away all or part of Purgatory from oneself. Purgatory is the state of being one goes to after they die in order to make up for the sins they committed.
Essentially these indulgences acted as a “get out of jail free” card, and would allow you to bypass purgatory and go straight into heaven. The most famous indulgences sold were by Pope Leo x, who began to sell indulgences for money to build the new St. Peter’s Basilica. This led to other priests taking advantage of the sacred, bullied catholics, and selling things such as complete absolution of all prior sins committed. These indulgences gave way to Martin Luther who believed they were false doctrines. Martin Luther thus began the protestant reformation, which led to him nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The 95 These were merely observations the church and its clerical abuses, especially of indulgences. It was the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation.
The Black Death, was the most important historical event covered in class this semester. Its effect on the course of European history is forever visible. Most everything that changed after the Middle Ages can be directly linked to the plague. Its historical value can not be measured and had the world not lost millions of people during these dark times, the world would not be what it is today.