The effects of the Black Death on Medieval Europe
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Medieval Europe was under an extreme burden at the turn of the century. The demographics of medieval Europe grew to an unprecedented scale. The population had grown to the brink of starvation. Only under the best conditions would the field’s yield enough to feed the population. The Black death struck in 1347 and decimated the European population. The black death was a necessity to prevent overpopulation and economic decline.
The economy of the fourteenth century was in a state of decline. The population boom along with the shortage of food was leading Europe down a road to starvation. The climate in western Europe also was beginning to change at the turn of the fourteenth century. This caused a very wet climate and greatly adversely affected production. The climate change led to one of the worst famines in Europe’s history. In 1315-1317, The Great Famine hit Europe with devastating consequences. The wet climate caused plants to decay before they were ready to be harvested causing extremely poor harvests. The great famine affected all of Europe unlike previous famines which were localized. The reality of this famine is that relatively few people died at first but they were weakened when all the food reserves gave out. People started to forage in the woods for food and they started to eat the seed used to plant grain because there was nothing else to eat. Due to the fact that most of the seed used for planting was eaten there was very little to plant causing the famine to escalate further. It was not until 1325 that Europe began to recover to pre-famine levels.
The population of the medieval world grew steadily after the decline of the roman empire.
In the 12th century the population grew in staggering leaps. The population boom caused Europe to reach the brink of its food supply levels. Improvements in agriculture helped increase the amount of food available but the food levels couldn’t keep up with the population increase. During the Great famine there were many deaths but this still didn’t curb population growth. Europe was looking forward to many more widespread famines unless the population declined rapidly.
The main outbreak of the Black Death lasted from 1347-1351 and was the worst plague in history at that point. “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.” New outbreaks also occurred in 1360,1368-70, 1375-1378, 1380-1383, and 1399-1400 in localized areas of Europe. The plague was brought to Europe by Genosean trading ships. In October of 1347, The ships unloaded their cargo at the Italian port of Messina. They also unloaded another very dangerous cargo as well, Rats infected with the bubonic plague. The plague spread through Europe like a wildfire decimating populations wherever it went. The plague spread into France by June of 1348 and reached the British Isles by 1349. The bubonic plague was spread by fleas that lived on rats.
The bacterium responsible for the plague was Y. Pestis and it caused the worst population decrease in human history. “Impossible to avoid . . . Spread by breath, clothes, and dead corpses that were infectious for 24 hours.” There were three types of the plague; bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic. The bubonic plague was caused by an infection of the lymph nodes and had a mortality rate of about 60%. “Bubonic plague with pneumonic complications which covered the victim in buboes . . . their limbs would blacken, his body would be shaken by convulsions, he would vomit blood and die without hope of recovery in three days.” The pneumonic plague was caused by an infection of the respiratory system and was 100 percent fatal. Finally, The septicaemic plague was caused by an infection of the blood and was also 100 percent fatal.
The plague decimated more than a third of the total European population or more than 25 million people. Wherever the plague came people fled, their lands and brother turned on brother. The damage to Medieval Europe’s society is incalculable because of the devastation. The black plague caused the church to lose most of its prestige and helped lead to the end of feudalism.
The plague had an enormous impact on the European economy. The widespread death left Europe with a severe labor shortage. Large landowners had to offer special enticements to persuade laborers to work for them. This led to an increase in the standard of living for the peasants. There was also a huge influx of luxury goods on the market which were now within the means of the lower class. Even though the plague had many short term benefits, it hurt Europe in the long term. The large landowners were paying so much for their workers they were unable to make any money themselves which forced them to lease out their land. In 1349 legislation was passed called the Ordinances of Labourers which stated that wages had to return to pre-plague levels but this law was largely ignored.
The severe shortage of workers also changed the type of farming done in Europe. “There was a change from farming to pasturing which was much less labor intensive and created a boost in the woolen and cloth industry.” Another important effect of the plague was the degradation of the church and priestly class. Many people grew angry because the church was unable to explain or deal with the outbreak. In England over 40% of the priests died. “This left a large gap, which was hastily filled with under qualified and poorly trained applicants, accelerating the decline in church power and influence that culminated in the English Reformation.”
There was no need to worry about the population boom after the black death struck. Over one third of Europe’s total population succumbed to the Black Death. “More than any single catastrophe, this continual sapping of the human resources of England would account for the gradual but continuous decay.” The consequences of the black plague devastated the demographics of Europe. After the remission of the plague there was a severe shortage of laborers. “Sheep and cattle went wandering over fields and through crops, and there was no one to drive or gather them.” Over 25 million Europeans died during the plague many of who being craftsmen, clergy, or skilled workers. The black plague sent Europe into a demographic decline that did not improve until the sixteenth century.
For all its carnage and devastation the Black Death had a positive side, It saved Europe from starvation and economic problems. With the population boom in the beginning of the fourteenth century, Europe couldn’t handle the population because of the limits of the food supply. “The plough was forced to take over poor, marginal soils which after a while brought diminishing returns; and as the very limits of cultivation were reached, the colonization of new land more or less petered out.” Overworked fields were a severe detriment to the food supply and caused poor harvests in Europe. If the population had kept increasing in Europe starvation would have been rampant. The Black Death devastated Europe’s labor force so hard it was crippled well into the eighteenth century. The Black Death also eliminated unemployment in most of Europe. In many areas of Europe peasants were packing into cities to try to find work. The amount of jobs couldn’t accommodate the influx of workers so there were many peasants that were jobless and starving. After the Black Death struck unemployment was virtually gone because of the huge need for laborers all throughout Europe.
The Black Death severely devastated Europe’s demographics and almost crippled it’s economy. The devastation caused by the Plague had far reaching consequences that hindered Europe’s growth for several centuries. The Black Death did however prevent Europeans from suffering prolonged starvation due to the overpopulation.
1. Fossier, Robert. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages 1250-1520. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
This book deals with the causes and effects of the Black Death on medieval Europe. It explains how the disease was brought west and how the epidemic spread. It also discusses the various types of the plague and their symptoms.
2. Oakley, Francis. The Medieval Experience. New York: Charles Scibner’s Sons, 1974.
This book covers all aspects of Medieval society before, during, and after the Black Death struck. It deals with political, economical, and societal issues the Plague caused.
3. Davis, William Stearn. Life on a Medieval Barony. New York: Harpert Brothers Publishers, 1923.
This book describes what it was like to be a peasant on a medieval barony. It also goes into great detail about how the peasants were affected by the Plague.
4. Kershaw, Ian. “The Great Famine and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322.” Past and Present, No. 59 (May, 1973): pp. 3-50
This article discusses what caused the food crisis in Europe before the Black Death struck. It shows what led up to the Great Famine and discusses its effects on later Europe.
5. Bean, J.M.W. “Plague, Population, and Economic Decline in England in the Later Middle Ages.” The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 3 (1963): pp.423-437
This article discusses the demographics of Medieval Europe before and after th Black Death. It also discusses how the economy was affected and how it took a long time to recover.
6. Ross, David. The Black Death in England 1348-1350. Britain Express. October 25th ,2003.
This web site goes over the effects and consequences of the Black Death on Europe. It discusses the economic hardships the people of Europe went through as a result of the Plague.
7. Robbins, Helen. “A Comparison of the effects of the Black Death on the Economic Organization of France and England.” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Aug., 1928): pp447-479.
This article discusses how the economy of Britain and France were affected by the Black Death. Its shows how each of these countries had to adapt to the new situation the plague brought.
8. Saltmarsh, John. “Plague and Economic Decline in England in the Later
Middle Ages.” Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1. (1941): pp. 23-41.
This article extensively looks into how the economy of Europe went into a deep decline after the Black Death. It also discusses how Europe reacted and dealt with the economy.