Medieval europe - Middle ages Essay Example

This research paper will reflect the socio-economic standards alive in medieval Europe and the contributing factor they were to the plague (Black Death) - Medieval europe introduction.  The argument of the paper will be that it was due to the squalor of the time period that gave rise to the possibility of the Black Death being as devastating as it was.  This squalor was brought on by an extreme hierarchal system, or the feudal system and will be given a brief historical background in the context of this research.

Feudal System History
The feudal system that existed in Medieval Europe was the main contributing factor the economic status as well as the living conditions by which people prospered or despaired[1].  The way of life that existed for these people adhering to a hierarchical system paints of picture of great wealth in consideration of the higher class and extreme poverty for the working class.  All of these conditions measure out to form the medieval ages; an age by which the class system prospered to such an extent that human life was at risk.  That is to say, that because of the living conditions, the lack of privacy and the advocacy of public being the main component of everyday life, disease was allowed to spread rapidly as in the case of the black plague[2].


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The ultimate goal of the law enforcement of medieval Europe; that is the knights, and the ministry adhered to upholding social justice and as an aside to this, they also gained a lot of wages in booty and plunder.  In the Middle Ages this proved to be difficult as society was adhering to its own laws of society which was ultimately ruled by nature.  The middle ages was not an age of enlightenment instead it was an age by which men lived more like animals than like civilized people.  This is proven by the very fact that nature was an all encompassing force that was overwhelming in its breadth as Block states; The men of the feudal age were close to nature…and nature as they knew it was much less tamed and softened than we see it today…The wild animals…prowled in every wilderness, and even amongst the cultivated fields.  This caused the feudal man to hunt and to abide by the laws of the hunt more so than abiding by the laws of cultivated society.

This led more to a state of primitive life than social life.  Man was ruled and influenced more in his daily routine by nature, by hunting by animal attacks and precautions than he was instilled with the fear of the ranked knights whose job it was to enforce the law and even less influenced by the church.  This hierarchical system paid less attention to the justice of the poor, whose close ties with nature were definitive in defining Medieval Europe[3], as Keen so succinctly states, “The law’s object is ultimately to uphold social justice, and to the Middle Ages social justice meant a hierarchical social system”.  Thus, the poor man was forgotten in social justice because he was most definitely at the bottom of the social ladder.  However, in the case of the bubonic plague some peasantry found a way in which to prosper

The most enterprising peasants seized the opportunity to purchase customary or freehold property as well as to lease demesne land. During preceding centuries, a growing disparity had emerged in the size of holdings occupied by peasants. The dislocations of plague enabled prosperous and vigorous peasants who preserved their health to accumulate extensive land holdings. By the sixteenth century, many of these rich peasant–so-called kulaks–had become country gentlemen (Green 67).

The abuse of hierarchical positions in society was rampant in Medieval Europe; that is why the common man was less trusting of the clergy[4].  Te abuse of hierarchical positions in society was rampant in Medieval Europe; that is why the common man was less trusting of the clergy.  The clergy was especially fraught with cloak and dagger schemes and of hoodwinking to less than educated peoples of society.

The Inquisition itself is a prime example of the extreme abuse of power by the clergy in Medieval Europe.  They used force and their unwavering and diabolical belief in a vengeful God to convert nonbelievers into Christians but the truth is that they used their social power to murder their opposition for whatever reason and mostly it had nothing to do with religion but with control.  The clergy in Medieval Europe wished to control society and gain the power that existed with such control.  Jorges in The Name of the Rose has exemplified this point by trying to admonish laughter and all forms of comedy from Aristotle’s Poetics so that the ideas of Aristotle do not enlighten society.

The state of power that existed in Medieval Europe in reference to monastic circles and Abby was due chiefly to the primitive mind of the lower social status,

The years of high mortality at Westminster–and we must look for the epidemic years among these–begin a little too late to explain the high average rate of mortality which is already in evidence in the second decade of the fifteenth century; and their continuance in the early sixteenth century did not prevent a fall in average mortality and a rise in life-expectancy then. Arguably, the years of high mortality do not quite explain the scale of the decline in life expectancy occurring after c. 1435: there are not quite enough of them. In fact, the experience of mortality at Westminster directs our attention quite as much to endemic as to epidemic disease, and to the chronic complaints as much as to the acute. But we must, of course, remember that plague may itself have been endemic in the town of Westminster in the late Middle Ages, as perhaps it was in London. (Harvey 144).

Since the medieval man was ruled by nature in nature in order to explain the unexplainable there must exist a supernatural force, that is, God.  Since God then could be called upon for miracles, could be justified for punishing the wicked it is only correct that God also developed into a major leverage tool by which monks could wield their power and influence society and get away with the Inquisition; it was all done in the name of the Father[5].  The supernatural was explained by God and so different ascetics were developed to appease God in both monastic circles as well as the common man as Block states, “This characteristic was especially marked in monastic circles where the influences of mortifications of the flesh and the repression of natural instincts were joined to that of the mental attitude vocationally centered on the problems of the unseen…rational was not considered of the highest priority”.

The brotherhood that sprouted from the condition of not being alone in Medieval Europe also lead to the artificial families of brotherhood in regards to knights as well as monastic orders.  So it was that close-knit groups were formed and became the staple of Medieval Europe and so it was that the Inquisition existed.  The Inquisition became a secret among these close-knit groups and loyalty was essential and as Duby emphasizes, “In feudal society, any individual who attempted to remove himself from the close and omnipresent group to be alone, to construct his own private enclosure, immediately became an object of either suspicion or admiration”.  In addition, since these close-knit groups were an artificial family and their loyalty was necessary, any lack of adherence to the group was treated as an infraction upon the group and subsequent punishment was issued.

The strict adherence to even miniscule rules and mores in the medieval culture was not only necessary but if not done properly extreme social grievance was created as Rybczynaki states of chairs and one’s place or lack of place with them, “They were symbols of authority.  You had to be important to sit in a chair–unimportant people sat on benches”.  Even in dress Medieval Europe acquired a class system designed for each garment as Rybczynaki further states, “Order and ritual governed medieval life to an extent which we would find intolerable.  This is evident in the rules that governed how people dressed.  The prime function of medieval dress was to communicate statue”.

What was significant in Medieval Europe was not the private life of a citizen but rather their place in society.  Monks could get away with murder simply because they divined it was God’s wish but the poorer man had to suffer in the physical life for his transgressions.  Medieval Europe presents a case in point; it develops its history with strict guidelines to the hierarchical system and even Monks must adhere to his proper place in that system.  The external world, the world of symbol and representation in Medieval Europe was the only significant world.  The private lives of citizens, their households, their clustered living quarters and ways of life though infested with disease was not necessary to the ultimate goal in society; that is, status.  The hierarchical system of Medieval Europe was the ultimate driving force for every class of society and this is especially prevalent in Medieval Europe.

Economy & Politics of England Before and After the Black Death
During the 14th century Europe, especially England, saw a problem which is characterized as the silver famine, “…many writer on fourteenth-century problems to their immovable conviction that the fourteenth century was a century of low prices in which demesne farming was unable to pay its way.  And even the most distinguished quarters the conviction that prices for farm produce were only high for short periods and exceptional reasons is profound…real wages after the Black Death failed to rise as much as money wages did owing to a brief spell of very high agricultural prices on the morrow of the pestilence” (Bridbury 578).

With the coming of the Black Death English wages were raised,

Plague relieved pressure on the land, and the whole bundle of social and economic trends surged into reverse. Food prices fell; wages rose. Great landlords, who in the thirteenth century had benefited from high rents and low wages, found themselves hard-pressed to obtain suitable tenants to occupy their properties. Exploiting their advantage, tenants demanded and received lower rents and long-term leases. At the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, rents averaged 84 deniers per arpent from 1360 to 1400, 56 deniers from 1422 to 1461, and 31 deniers from 1461 to 1483.  Leases of twenty and forty years’ duration became common, and a few estates, like Chertsy Abbey in England, granted leases for 200 and 300 years! (Green 66-67).


After the initial beginnings of the plague, wages steadily increased and this continued into the fifteenth century.  Thus, farmers were forced to pay more for labor even after the Black Death and so, the farmers could not turn a profit with any success.

While Great Britain, then, began to build for a prosperous future, the rest of their main competition spent decades simply rebuilding their destroyed countries; although England had in the past exhibited its own lack of hegemony with the occurrence of the Black Death and the wage increase in farming, “And the harvest of 1349 was collected adequately enough to provide for survivors without difficulty: for 1350 was also a year of low prices.  Then the harvest failed, or the harvesters failed: for 1351 was a year of scarcity…Prices rose in 1351 to the level of 1272, 1295,1310, 1315,1324, 1331, 1332.  They did not raise as high as they did in 1316 or 1317…In 1352, as a result of the 1351 harvest, prices really soared…” (Bridbury 584).   The country became a strong political leader in the world despite its harrowed past and loss of life to the plague[6].

The Plague
The Black Death made its way to Europe in 1348 and came to London as the Great Plague in 1665 (Bean 423). It was in the late 1340s that the bubonic plague swept over Europe, creating calamitous loss of life. Initial mortality may have been a third of the populace, but successive recurrences of pestilence augmented losses. However, contrary to this point Green states,

The Black Death could perhaps be regarded as a biological catastrophe; yet it is doubtful whether the Black Death, even if taken in conjunction with other great epidemics of the fourteenth century, could by itself account for the population trend of the later Middle Ages. . . . [S]igns of falling trends appear before the Black Death and do not disappear after the direct effects of the great pestilences should no longer have been felt. (Green 73).

In 1350 the plague had devastated most of Europe.  The mortality rate ranged from 20% to 90% from rural villages to urban towns.  It has previously been stated that the Black Death lead to at least a third of the world dead which totals to about 20 million (Galli 37).  By 1410, England may have lost half of its pre-plague populace, and similar losses arose elsewhere in Europe. At some point in the later fifteenth century, population expansion recommenced. specifically when this recovery began and how it was spread out across Europe is uncertain, but once under way, the resurgence continued robustly through the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century “population retreated once again, but in the absence of universal catastrophe on the scale of plague, the retreat was uneven and comparatively modest” (Green 63).

It was not only the Black Death which devastated the population of Europe but the subsequent plagues that also contributed to the loss of life during these periods.   Bean discusses the effects of the Black Death through the succinct words of Mr. John Saltmarsh

There was…a succession of epidemics in England, on a national scale from 1361 to some point in the fifteenth century; thereafter on a local scale, and restricted to the towns, and especially to the greater towns…More than nay single catastrophe, this gradual but continuous decay of her national prosperity…The period in the middle of the fifteenth century which was-if we may judge by London—especially unhealthy coincides with the deepest point of the depression; and the gradual slackening of the power of plague, which naturally sets in as its reign wears on, would permit the gradual recovery of the early Tudor period (Bean 423).

Bean goes on to state that the end numbers, or the amount of dead due to plague across England resulted in a reported statistic of one third.  Thus, when the plague hit in 1361 the population was already suffering a tremendous blow.  Bean’s argument consists of whether or not the population began to steadily decline even further after this initial declination in numbers from the Black Death in 1361and reported upon the time period after this event until the beginning of the Tudor period.  Bean’s arguments consist of a tertiary approach as states, “first, the nature and habits of plague; second, its chronology in England in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; and, third, an analysis of any material which might throw light on the resulting death-rates” (Bean 424).

The Black Death or the bubonic plague is attributed to the infestation of rats who had the disease and caught it from infected fleas.  The rats were travelers, hoarding in boat voyagers and when the vessel docked the rats would introduce their disease to different parts of the country which is how the disease spread so quickly.  Since the disease was esteemed to have been caused by rats, historically it was the lower rungs of the socially and economically deprived who were in close contact with rats.  These people were workers and as such were exposed more readily to the plague through rats than the nobleman,

Plague had swept away up to 33 percent of the population in the years around 1350, and recurring epidemics had kept the population well below its late-thirteenth-century level until the sixteenth century. By the time Prince Henry the Navigator launched the Portuguese overseas explorations, population pressure had eased all across Europe. As for the Marxist contention that class conflict between lords and serfs had reached an impasse, that too had subsided with the demographic blowout of the plague. If there was a feudal crisis after 1450, it involved the decline of the lords’ bargaining power and the consequent emancipation of the serfs. Population decline might have occasioned a fall in the volume of international trade, with the effect that some commercial towns were weakened, but per capita income for working people–and that represents the vast majority of Europeans–rose in the fifteenth century (Green 155-156).

Thus, the economic issue of the Black Death becomes apparent even in its origins.  The people who were infected then were the mass amounts of the common countrymen of Europe who lived in squalor and were exposed to flea bites or even to rats.  Therefore even in the initiation and first understanding of the plague the socially or rather the poor people of Europe were more likely to be infected than the rich and thus the association of the plague being a disease of the impecunious,

There must in the first place, be a large number of infected rats in close proximity to human beings.  In the second place, these must act as hosts to a species of flea which will readily attach itself to human beings and attempt to fee on their blood.  Researches in the course of this century have shown that the chief role in transmitting plague bacilli from rates to human beings is performed by one speicie-Xenopsylla cheopis. (Bean 425).


Also, since the rats were products also of trade and ships their expansion into England and Europe would have been in urban areas which thus perpetuated the outbreak of the plague.

For many children, the plague led to a destitute lifestyle and to vagrancy and crime; with families displaced and children left orphaned if not already dead they were left to fend for themselves in whatever capacity possible. To combat this, the government of England mandated elementary schools for the youth in an effort to curtail their turn to vagrancy. However, this did nothing to curb the poverty, nor did ease the burden on the families.

The increase in poverty from high wages being enforced to pay for labor for many farmers and their families meant that even younger members of families were forced into work. The truth of the matter became such that children as young as seven years old, were working up to fourteen hour days in appalling conditions in order to help support their families.

For many of the children of Great Britain, the Black Death was a time of great poverty, and tremendous hardships. The early longevity brought on by improvements to sanitation technology was outweighed by the spread of disease in the poorly constructed urban areas.

Though much attention was paid to the crime that this poverty caused and motivated increasing numbers of children to commit, little was done to really change the conditions until well into the latter half of the fifteenth century.

In urban areas the plague quickly spread because of the living conditions of the people and the constant contact everyone had with each other; however Bean contradicts this statement by giving his viewpoint of having no real proof of whether or not the spread of the bubonic plague led to the decline in numbers in England as drastically as 1/3 of the population.  Also, he states that a lot of the population became urbanized in the Tudor and Stuart eras and the description given of the plague outbreaks does not afford toward such a decrease in population (Bean 435).

It is obvious that the origins of the Black Death are debated upon but the common theory is that rats spread the disease across Europe.  In its devastation, the plague leveled the population of the world to some degree in not just Western Europe but ranging towards Russia as well as China.  The subject of the English economy prior to, during, and after the plague leads a historian to believe that just as today money market schemes initiate problems in policy so did the raising of wages lead to the decline of the farmer’s future in England since hiring a laborer was increasingly difficult.  Although children did give some sacrifice towards building and maintaining a farm their work was not enough and also because of the plague, whole towns succumbed to disease and slowly the countryside was swallowed back into nature.  The Black Death seemed to affect the poor more often than the hierarchy of an empire which is attributed to the fact that the poor lived in squalor and closer to the rats who carried the fleas who carried the disease, however, once the plague began, its growth was exponential and it did not suffer biases on what social class it killed.  From this research paper it may be surmised that the Black Death was devastating but that England and neighboring countries rose from the ashes and formed a stronger society.
















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[1] This is true to the extent that indentured servitude was widespread around Europe and very prevalent in England.  A peasant or a servant owed a lot to the landlord who goaded his land and wealth over the common people.  His prestige and money led him to request of his tenants outrages rents in order to secure their stay on his property and their continual pay-off to him by working the land and doing other jobs around the countryside in order to pay for housing etc, and later in England as Green states, Falling population since 1350 had reduced pressure on the land. The least productive lands had been taken out of cultivation; Baltic grain was beginning to arrive in northwestern Europe in sufficient quantity to permit English landlords to transform arable land into grazing land; and increasing numbers of workers in the Lowlands were leaving agriculture in favor of industry. Even after the Americas were discovered, there was no inordinate rush to bring the new lands into cultivation. North America lay vacant for a century. The Portuguese held a claim to Brazil for over thirty years before they initiated formal settlement there. When settlement was undertaken, the reason was not to supply food to European markets but to prevent another European power from claiming the region.
[2] Thus, the disease can almost be seen as a social disease since its prevalence was found in urban sites; while the bubonic plague also was found in the countryside it was more devastating in the cities where citizenry were in close contact with one another and rats were found in a lot of the food and thus fleas and lice were also instigators to the perpetuating plague.
[3] This is also why medieval medicine was based on fantastical methods such as leeches, or magical spells which got rid of demons or ghosts from the person.
[4] This distrust would later lead to different revolutions in England in regards not only to the Church but to politics which will also be later discussed, however, in these new policies founded after the Black Death, the Church’s opinion and the wealth with which it was founded was thwarted after the Tudor era of England.
[5] Thus the Black Death was attributed as God’s retribution on the sinners.  The Black Death forecasted remarkably well for the Catholic Church allowing it to prosper as people in England turned increasingly for answers toward secular reasons.  The Church provided the definition of the plague as God’s wrath and a new era or religious zealots were born in England which further spurred the Inquisition as has prior been mentioned.
[6] The rise in population in England may be attributed to their success in war and the gaining of foreign lands, but may also include the fact that England was quickly becoming technologically advanced as can be seen with the industrial age in its later history.

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