How did the Black Death affect European societies of the mid-fourteenth century?
The Black Death is the most significant natural phenomenon in human history and continues to be the subject of medical, historical and sociological analysis . The ‘first epidemic of the second plague pandemic’ devastated Europe between 1347 and 1351, killing 25 to 45% of Europe’s population (over 75 million people across the three continents affected) and created dramatic cultural, economic, political and social upheavals to mid-fourteenth century European society. The disease was caused by three different plague types, consisting of bubonic (60% fatal), pneumonic (100% fatal) and septicaemic (100% fatal); bacterial infections caused by Yersinia Pestis . The first records of Black Death in Europe, was October 1347 when a Genoese fleet of ships landed in a Sicilian port in Messina. Within six months the Black Death was rampant in all of Italy which was the most economically sophisticated and urbanized hub of all Europe at this time. From Italy, the disease had struck France, Spain, Portugal, England, Germany, Scandinavia, and by 1351 it had spread to north-western Russia . Italian scholar and poet, Francesco Petrarch best describes the epidemic and aftermath as, “O happy posterity who will not experience such abysmal woe, and will look on our testimony as fable” . The following essay will examine how the Black Death affected the cultural, economic, political and social parameters of Europe throughout the mid-fourteenth century.
A myriad of scholar writing’s was written throughout the plague addressing the social and medical impacts, yet more recent writings have assisted in understanding the psychological state of humankind, thus it’s cultural effect on European society. The plague had manifested a new era of art and literature, thereafter the Renaissance; possibly the most prolific era of art. The devastation of the plague had become somewhat of a new theme for the middle and upper classes to delve into the world of art and literature with a new morality. This was bought on by the new way in which death was depicted. No longer was death an airy heavenly portrait, instead an old woman “black cloaked, with wild, snakelike hair, bulging eyes and clawed feet and talons with a scythe to collect her victims” . Art historian Millard Meiss, describes how the artwork of this period drifted into a ‘dark’ period, a result of the trauma the Black Death had had . Not only was death depicted in a new way, but art historians had also noted changes in the way ‘resurrection’ and ‘Christ’ was illustrated. Christ was now endowed in a more hierarchal superiority, and his supernatural characteristics were more significant. Similarly to art, literature also took a step in a different direction following the grief of the Black Death. Italian author and poet Giovanni Boccaccio, works’ demonstrate the extent to how literature had changed through the psychological transition of pre to post plague. His early works are a guilt free vocation of poetry, far different from its gloomy, pessimistic and ascetic post plague works. Art and literature reflect the cultural in which it is surrounded, hence as grief and death so drastically transformed Europe inevitably the cultural works did too. Alike culture, the economic foundations of Europe throughout the mid fourteenth also saw radical transformation.
In demographic terms, the Black Death ended Europe’s several decade long Malthusian crisis; an agricultures production struggle to keep up with the increasing population growth that had diminished living standards. Throughout the Black Death the European economy experienced an abrupt and extreme inflation, with wage and living prices increasing by several hundred percent. This was the result of trade uncertainty both locally and internationally, along with the...