THE BLACK DEATH
The bubonic plague also known as the Black Death—because of the way it discolored the body, was the worst disaster of the fourteenth century. After the invention of the three-field system—an agriculture system of crop rotation that was used in medieval and early-modern Europe; the population doubled within 300 years (1000-1300) and began to out-pace the food supply. From 1315-1317 crop failures resulted in the worst famine in the Middle Ages. Years of over-population, economic depression, and famine had weakened Europe’s physical health and primed conditions for the bubonic plague to strike with the greatest force in 1348. It is believed to have originated in Asia and followed trade routes to Europe, it was transported by ships carrying rats. The rats bore fleas that were infected with the plague. It appeared in Constantinople in 1346, Sicily in 1347, and through the ports of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa in 13481.
Physicians had little or no understanding of how to handle disease or take basic measures to prevent it from spreading. The disease was catastrophic and there was no defense. The daughter of King Edward III, Joan—died from the disease on her way to her wedding. Entire families where sometimes wiped out and the papal court at Avignon was reduced by 25 percent2. People became obsessed with death and dying and looked for an explanation. A popular belief held at the time was that corruption in the atmosphere had created the disease; earthquakes released poisonous fumes. According to an Italian observer Giovanni Boccaccio, “some sought a remedy in moderation and a tempered life, others gave themselves over entirely to their passions”. Still, there were others that chose to leave the cities and populated areas living a life of seclusion.
One of the most extreme reactions came from a religious group known as the Flagellants. Believing they would receive divine intervention they would beat themselves in a ritual until they were bleeding. The event became so disruptive and threatening to the community that the church banned the practice3.
Whole villages were eradicated by the plague. The high depopulation brought on by the plague had severe economic consequences. Agriculture prices fell because of weak demand, farm labor also decreased resulting in an increase in wages. The price of luxury goods produced by the skilled artisans also rose. Many serfs abandon their labor services and pursued more rewarding jobs in skilled crafts. Basically, the indirect effects from the plague interrupted the social economic status within Europe by increasing wages due to lack of supply—resulting in a chain reaction across the economic spectrum4.
To many living in the fourteenth-century death become too familiar. Depending on the source used for calculations—the bubonic plague left two-fifths of the population dead; it did not distinguish social status, rich, poor, young or old. Both, princes and commoners buried their dead in the same communal pits. Medieval art depicts the living and the dead embracing. The picture on the cover page of this article is from late-medieval allegory (1493); known as the “Dance of Death” serves as a reminder of their mortality5.
1. Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage, 292.
2. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Black Death “2015, https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death (assessed October 27, 2016)
3. Giovanni Boccaccio, “The Black Death” 1348,http://www.historywiz.com/primarysources/blackdeath.html (accessed October 27, 2016)
4. Kagan, Western Heritage, 293.
5. Ibid., 296.
Boccaccio, Giovanni, (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930);
“The Black Death”. The Decameron vol. I (1348). http://www.historywiz.com/primarysources/blackdeath.html (accessed October 27, 2016)
Encyclopedia Britannica, “Black Death “2015, https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death (assessed October 27, 2016)
Kagan, Donald, Ozment, Steven, and Turner, Frank M. The Western Heritage New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007), 292-296