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The Cause and Effect of the Black Death

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Over the years many tragedies have affected the arts and the way people express emotion. However, during the fourteenth century there was nothing as devastatingly inspiring as The Black Death. Commonly known as the bubonic plague, the Black Death swept the west and left people throughout Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa cheerless and filled with grief. Although the plague devoured the population, famous writers, painters and playwrights were influenced as it changed an era where the church ruled the art world. The aftermath of the Black Death showed changes throughout Europe, not only towards the church but also in a new way of life.

Originating from Asia, and known then as “the Great Mortality” or “the Pestilence” (Sardis Medrano-Cabral) the plague was carried to the west by flees on the backs of black rats that made their way onto ships destined for the Mediterranean ports. Once infected, the lymph glands under the armpits and groins of the victims filled with puss and began turning black, coining the name The Black Death. After the arrival of the black boils death shortly followed ranging two to three days. Many believed the disease was spread through the air, desperate for a remedy those lucky enough to afford the luxury would stuff their pockets with perfumes, oils, and flowers to help keep the deadly infection at bay. The plague struck in four waves from 1347 to 1375 and in the end annihilated nearly fifty percent of Europe’s population in less than a century (Fiero, 4).

Many famous writers began to tell stories about their experiences with the Black Death. One writing that became famous was the Decameron. Written by the Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the Decameron was a combination of stories through the eyes of ten young people forced to flee their home in Florence in hopes of finding safety in the country. In the Decameron Boccaccio described how many citizens of Florence were forced to break away from the normal tradition of death and burial, as they had no choice but to leave their homes and loved ones behind (Fiero, 5). With a great deal of the population whipped out, competition began to arise in the writing community as it became more and more common for everyday writers to document their experiences with the plague. One shoemaker, tax collector turned chronicler writer by the name of Agnolo di Tura of Siena wrote about his personal account in the face of The Black Death He wrote:

It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful thing. Indeed one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. And the victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath their armpits and in their groins, and fall over dead while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. (The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle) The dark theme used in Di Tura’s writings could be seen all over Europe as people tired to cope with the pain of losing the ones they love. The art in the years after the Black Death took on a way of showing that all would be united through death. Many began to refer to death as “The Great Equalizer,” meaning that no matter what statue of life or wealth all would fall into death’s grasp eventually. It was clear now that every man must die and receive final judgment. For example a poet by the name of Francois Villon, known as the greatest French poet of his time wrote: I know this well, that rich and poor Fools, sages, laymen, friars in cowl, Large-hearted lords and each mean boor, Little and great and fair and foul, Ladies in lace, who smile or scowl, From whatever stock they stem, Hatted of hooded, prone to prowl, Death seizes every one of them. (Fiero, 7)

The Black Death resonated not only through writing in the fourteenth century but through other artistic mediums as well. One theme that seemed to pop up often was the “Dance of Death,” or danse macabre. Dance of Death started in plays where death was portrayed not as a destroyer but instead as a messenger from god summoning the victims to the afterlife (Herrmann, Charles, and George Williamson). However Dance of Death was not only portrayed through plays. Many painters and woodcutters such as Bernt Nortek and Hans Holbein depicted various skeletons, imagined to be the subjects of death, grabbing the living and inviting them to what appeared to be a dance. Those in the paintings were people from all aspect of life, from children to church officials. However the skeletons in the Dance of Death images were not illustrated with faces of anger or deceit, but instead were pictured with sly smiles and expressions almost mocking their victims (Fiero, 7). With a style of death waiting in a room, on a deathbed, or even lurking streets in the city, as seen in the painting “Plague” by Arnold Bocklin (Sardis Medrano-Cabral), many paintings during this time attempted to embody the accomplishment of death over its unaware prey.

An additional scenario seen throughout the 14th century in religious portraits was a deathbed scene, a dying victim surrounded by ones they loved in a ceremony. However after the Black Death, when mass graves were more common the death scenes took a troubling turn, the passing on were pictured alone in a room with a representation of death such as skeleton or angel (Sardis Medrano-Cabral). The Black Death had a strong toll on how people of the fourteenth century viewed life and death. Art in the time before the plague portrayed death as a passing between earth and the spirits above, nevertheless after the plague many feared death and believed it came as god’s punishment for sins (Sardis Medrano-Cabral). In the years following the plague people started to wonder why it came about. Some took it as an act of god, determined that god was displeased and sent out punishment.

Others saw the plague as a warning, especially the clergy whose careless and wasteful antics had not been a secret (Fiero, 6). Those who believed the plague had been the work of God advised Christians to return to the church. Some such as Flagellants took on drastic means, lashing their bodies in a form of self-inflicted punishment as a way to say they were “sorry” to god. Several individuals took the Black Death as a realization to celebrate life and “eat, drink, and be merry” in what could be the final days to live (Fiero, 7). In conclusion the Black Death really served as a turning point in the middle ages. Christians turned away from the church displeased with a god that could do so much damage to mankind. People all throughout Europe began to feel hell was more realistic and the idea of heaven more remote (Sardis Medrano-Cabral). With all this anger being poured at the Catholic Church for their lack of support to those affected by the Black Death, art began to take on a more haunting theme.

Cited Sources

Fiero, Glroia K. The Humanistic Tradition Book 3 The European Renaissance, the Reformation, and Global Encounter. New York: McGraw-Hill College, 2010. Print Herbermann, Charles, and George Williamson. “Dance of Death.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 27 Jan. 2013. Web Medrano-Cabral, Sardis. “The Influence of Plague on Art from the Late 14th to the 17th Century.” Insects, Disease, and History. Dr. Gary Miller and Dr. Robert Peterson. 24 Jan. 2013. Web. PLAGUE READINGS from P. M. Rogers, Aspects of Western Civilization, Prentice Hall, 2000, pp. 353-365. Print.

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