The Black Death is the name later given to the epidemic of plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351. The disaster affected all aspects of life. Depopulation and shortage of labor hastened changes already inherent in the rural economy; the substitution of wages for labor services was accelerated, and social stratification became less rigid. Psychological morbidity affected the arts; in religion, the lack of educated personnel among the clergy gravely reduced the intellectual vigor of the church.
In less than four years the disease carved a path of death through Asia, Italy, France, North Africa, Spain and Normandy, made its way over the Alps into Switzerland, and continued eastward into Hungary” (Microsoft Bookshelf, page 1). After a brief respite, the plague resumed, crossing the channel into England, Scotland, and Ireland, and eventually made its way into the northern countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and even as far north as Greenland. In other words, the plague touched almost the entire known world.
So much death could not help but tear economic and social structures apart. Lack of peasants and laborers sent wages soaring, and the value of land plummeted. For the first time in history the scales tipped against wealthy landlords as peasants and serfs gained more bargaining power. Without architects, masons and artisans, great cathedrals and castles remained unfinished for hundreds of years. Governments, lacking officials, floundered in their attempts to create order out of chaos. The living lost all sense of morality and justice, and a new attitude toward the church emerged.
Medieval people could find no Divine reason for the four-year nightmare, and dissatisfaction with the church gave impetus to reform movements that eventually broke apart the unity of the Catholic Church. The plague itself was disastrous enough, especially in the appearance of more than one form during the same epidemic. But coming when it did was as catastrophic as its form. The middle 14th century was not a good time for Europe. The European economy was already in difficulties. It was approaching the limits of expansion, both on its frontiers and in reclaiming land from forest and swamp.
The arrival of the Mongols and the Ottomans had disrupted trade routes, and certain areas of Europe were edging into depression. “The Church was in poor shape as well. The popes resided at Avignon, not at Rome, to the scandal of many. Heresy could be found in England and Bohemia and southern France, and the Church seemed unable to control it (Encyclopedia Britannica, p. 58). ” The Holy Land had been lost in the 1290s and efforts to recover it had been dismal failures. The Black Death exacerbated the difficulties created by war and a constricted economy.
There is a relationship here, of course. The effects of the plague were made worse because of these other problems. And the problems themselves were redoubled because of the plague. Another major problem was the Jewish population. In village after village, the common people laid the blame of the plague at the feet of the Jews. Hundreds of Jews were accused of poisoning wells and put to the question, medieval code for torture, and burned. Despite this, the Jews were also provided- by Casimir the Great of Poland- protection from pogroms and ritual murders at the hands of the Christians.
When the Black Death raged through the German lands between 1348 and 1352, over 300 Jewish communities were either destroyed or expelled from their homelands. The Black Death changed the demography of Europe substantially. Aside from the Plague deaths, there was also a decline in the birth rate. The net result was that by 1400, Europe’s population was half what it had been in 1345. This is known with some accuracy from the many Medieval church, census, and tax records that have survived. Europe’s population took about six generations to recover. Cities were hit hard by the plague.
Financial business was disrupted as debtors died and their creditors found themselves without recourse. There was simply no one to collect from. Construction projects stopped for a time or were abandoned altogether. Guilds lost their craftsmen and could not replace them. The labor shortage was very severe, especially in the short term, and consequently, wages rose. Because of the mortality, there was an oversupply of goods, and so prices dropped. Between the two trends, the standard of living rose for those still living. The Black Death speeded up the changes in medieval society that were already under way.
The most immediate effect of the Black Death was a shortage of labor. Much land could no longer be cultivated. In response, the nobles refused to continue the long common practice of gradually eliminating serfdom by allowing the serfs to buy their freedom. Over the centuries it had been realized by some that free tenants were more productive than serfs, and this had led to a gradual breakdown in the use of serfs. With the post-Plague labor shortage, many nobles tried to reverse the process in order to keep their land under cultivation and their income up.
Free tenants were taking advantage of the labor shortage to demand better terms from their landlords and that the nobles were reluctant to see their incomes reduced. Governments tried to fix wages, but the labor shortage was irresistible. If their feudal lords would not relent, serfs simply fled to areas where wages were higher or land rental terms lower. The shock of the Plague caused many peasants to demand a restructuring of society, often with a religious fervor. An approximation of democracy was demanded and with it a curbing of aristocratic rights and privileges.
When these hopes for a better life were curtly dismissed, or savagely repressed by the nobility, many commoners rose in rebellion. The French Jacquerie of 1358, the English Peasant’s Rebellion in 1381, the Catalonian Rebellion in 1395, and many revolts in Germany, all serve to show how seriously the mortality had disrupted economic and social relations. “Unrest was everywhere” (Microsoft Bookshelf, page 1). None of the rebellions were successful. But in the end the disintegration of the manor system of managing agriculture began. A land rent system, with the freedom of the peasants recognized replaced it.
This system still exists in many parts of Europe, although the desire of peasants to own their land eventually led, centuries later, to migration to places like Russia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas” (Encyclopedia Britannica, pp. 58-59). There was never enough land, and dividing it among the sons soon led to economically untenable situations. The higher wages and the small manufacturing caused high inflation and commercial classes attempted to maintain their position by getting laws passed regulating who could enter their industries.
This simply caused unrest in the cities, as landless peasants rioted for the opportunities now denied them. Higher wages meant that many people had more money to spend on themselves. New industries arose to meet the demand. Governments also had to adapt. Land was abandoned, rents were not paid, and tax revenue declined. This had a drastic effect on the war, as the wages of mercenary soldiers increased while available tax revenue decreased by more than 50 percent. The French also suffered from the collapse of the system of free military service as a feudal obligation.
There was fewer trained soldiers available and those that were still around wanted a lot more money or simply had better financial prospects doing something else. As a result of the Plague, the French went over to a system of paid, professional, army, something the English had been doing for a long time. Coming at a time when taxes were lower than previously, this led to smaller armies. The post-Plague world was one of vastly increased opportunity for inventive and capable individuals. While the Black Death killed off medieval society, it gave birth to the beginnings of our own industrialized consumer society.