The Effects of the Plague on Fourteenth Century Europe and Medieval Man

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  • Topic: Black Death, Hundred Years' War, Medieval demography
  • Pages : 9 (2854 words )
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  • Published : December 13, 2005
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The 14th century was an era of catastrophes. Some of them were man-made, such as the Hundred Years' War. However, there were two natural disasters either of which would have been enough to throw medieval Europe into real "Dark Ages". The Black Death that followed on the heels of the Great Famine caused millions of deaths, and together they subjected the population of medieval Europe to tremendous struggles, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubt traditional values. These calamities altered the path of European development in many areas.

In his essay called An Essay on the Principle of Population , the English political economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), stated that since production increased arithmetically (2,4,6,8,10) and population increased geometrically (2,4,8,16,32), in favorable conditions the population of a region will eventually increase until there are not sufficient resources to support it. From 800 to 1300, the total production of Europe had increased steadily. Although there had been scattered food shortages in which people died of starvation, for the most part, the standard of living in Europe had risen even while the population had steadily increased.

By the beginning of the Fourteenth Century, however, Europe was suffering from a Malthusian crisis. Europeans were just barley able to feed, clothe, and house themselves because the balance between the population and resources had become very tight. Europe's booming population, made possible by a long period of unusually warm weather, no epidemics, the production of an adequate food supply, and longer life was beginning to strain the available space for the increased need for agricultural production in order to keep up with the escalating population. There was no longer any margin for crop failures or even harvest shortfalls. At the same time, the European climate was undergoing a slight change, with cooler and wetter summers and earlier autumn storms. Conditions were suddenly no longer favorable for agriculture.

In an effort to increase the land needed for agricultural production, land owners turned to slash and burn methods and cleared forests. The rocky countryside not suitable for crops was plowed under and was used exclusively for livestock pastures. Because of the population boom, the demand for foodstuff, and the need for land, the price of grain and meat became an obstacle to the comfortable life of the peasants and urban working class.

Approaching the second decade of the fourteenth century, Europe grew much colder. A wet spring in the year 1315, made plowing the fields almost impossible so very little was planted. The harvest was far smaller than usual, and the food reserves of many families were quickly depleted. People gathered what food they could from what was left of the forests: edible roots, plants, grasses, nuts, and bark.

The spring and summer of 1316, were cold and wet again. Peasant families had less energy with which to till the land needed for a harvest plentiful enough to make up for the last year's deficit and they possessed a much smaller food supply in reserve to sustain them until the next harvest. For two summers there was widespread crop failure in Western Europe and a great famine began to reduce the population.

By the spring of 1317, all classes of society were suffering, and as would be expected, the lower classes suffered the most. Draft animals were slaughtered, seed grain was eaten, infants and toddlers were abandoned by the roadside. Many elderly people voluntarily starved themselves to death so that the young members of the family might live to work the fields again. In Italy especially, malnutrition remained widespread and chronic, right until the eve of the plague. There had been famines before, but none with such a large population to feed, and none that persisted for so long. It was not until about 1325, that the food supply began to return to a relatively normal state,...
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