The Black Death
How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ship’s hold, and covered with a little earth. ~ Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th century
The episode that closed the Middle Ages began in 1348, as bubonic plague reached Europe from Asia. The Black Death spread rapidly along trade routes, infecting cities and towns.
For 2 years the Yersinia pestis bacterium ravaged the continent. Nearly 90% of the population of Paris died. Europe as a whole lost at least 1/3rd of its people. Some mortality estimates run as high as 60%. 75 to 200 million people died.
The Black Death traveled down the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. From there, oriental rat fleas, riding on the black rats that were regular stowaways on merchant ships, made their way throughout the Mediterrean and Europe.
The pandemic became endemic as the bacterium evolved into several forms of plague. New outbursts occurred every 10–15 years until the end of the 14th century.
The cause of the Black Death was unknown at the time. Superstition took hold and spurred religious fanaticism. Various minorities were blamed, including Jews, foreigners, friars, pilgrims, beggars, lepers, and Roma (gypsies). People with skin diseases – lepers and those with acne or psoriasis – were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe.
The Black Death itself was furthered by superstition. Cats, which normally kept the rat population in check, were slaughtered in large numbers: feared as consorts of Satan.
Pogroms against Jews were popular. The Jewish communities in Cologne and Mainz were exterminated in 1349. By 1351 210 European communities of Jews were wiped out.
War added to the calamity. During the 100 Years’ War (1338–1453) between France and England, much of western France was devastated by a deliberate policy of destruction. In eastern Europe, the venerable Byzantine Empire finally succumbed to the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks.
While the Black Death was the most melodramatic crisis of the medieval economy, it only compounded a dismal situation. By the end of the 13th century population growth was slowing from the past 2 centuries.
Toward the end of the 13th century, the extensive deforestation of earlier centuries stopped. In some areas, including Spain and Italy, the loss of trees had contributed to soil erosion and fertility decline. Farther north, landlords opposed further clearings, fearing for their hunting privileges, while peasants needed the remaining forests for firewood and grazing animals. Disputes between peasants and lords erupted over forest use, with occasional outbreaks of violence.
With no new arable land, the meadows and pastures previously used for grazing were converted to growing crops. This led to fewer livestock, and less manure fertilizer; worsening a shortage that already existed.
Even as more land was brought into cultivation, crop yield declined. The new lands were not as productive, and efforts made to increase yields were too little and too late.
The climate turned unfavorable in the 14th century. In northern Europe, winters became colder, longer, and wetter. The entire Baltic Sea froze over on 3 occasions.
Grain refused to ripen in Norway. Grapes would not grow in England. Crop failures and famine increasingly afflicted the continent during the 1st half of the 14th century. The Great Famine of 1315–1317 hit all of northern Europe. The death rate leapt to 10 times the norm.
As the medieval economy expanded in the 12th and 13th centuries there came the trend to turn labor services into money rents, whereupon landlords leased their demesnes to the more prosperous farmers. As growth continued, the prices of agricultural goods rose while wages fell, owing to surplus population.
While those with land made out well, peasants found themselves in steadily worsening straits. Meantime, kings and other rulers were increasing the tax burden.
The Black Death reversed the wage-price squeeze. Demand diminished with the sharp population drop. Prices fell precipitously while the labor shortage shot wages skyward. The first reaction by the authorities were wage controls.
With all the dramatic upheavals, long-simmering resentments against oppression turned violent. Flemish workers and peasants rose up against their lords and masters during the Great Famine. During the 2nd half of the 14th century, revolts, revolutions, and civil wars erupted all over Europe. The violence seldom achieved its intended aims; but, in western Europe, the changed economic conditions released peasants from manorial bondage.
Despite the strength of the ruling classes, controlling labor proved impractical, as landlords competed with one another to attract peasants to work the land. Real wages were the highest ever in history to date and remained unmatched until the 19th century.
The Black Death and its aftermath proved a strong social purgative. Western Europe was poised to enter a period of renewed vigor as the 15th century dawned.
Increased competition resulted in regional shifts in manufacture and trade. Some cities, such as Venice and Florence, exercised military force to extend their dominion.
Regional alliances jockeyed for power. The German Hansa – a league of trading cities – revived, and for almost a century dominated trade in the North and Baltic seas, until overwhelmed by Dutch and English organizations toward the end of the 15th century.
In contrast to western Europe, social evolution in eastern Europe went in reverse. There were fewer towns in this less-populated region. Market forces were weaker. After the Black Death, town life withered and markets mummified. The economy reverted to subsistence. Peasants had the unhappy alternatives of serfdom or fleeing to unoccupied or uncharted lands, a prospect fraught with peril. Unchecked by higher authority, landlords forced peasants into a servitude not experienced in western Europe since the 9th century.