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BLACK DEATH AND MEDIEVAL EUROPE


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When I was a younger man, I remembered the panic and understood the threat of the epidemic known as AIDS. Initially, the virus only threatened the lives of same sex men, but it soon spread to the heterosexual community. The world witnessed a cultural change that epitomised a more traditional lifestyle when AIDS moved into the heterosexual community. The disease blamed on LGBTQ community and many other groups such as people from Haiti and Africa. Historians and other scholars are now writing the devastation of AIDS. These scholars are now comparing the epidemic to another disease known as the Black Death which occurred in the fourteenth century.

          “The Black Death” is familiar terminology for a disease that appeared in a century of calamity. “Within this period we can research, war, famine, disease, economic decay, political chaos and spiritual crisis and resulting social unrest which dogged the whole century.”{Backman, 2003; pg.369} The Black Death in thirteen-forty-eight is arguably the greatest catastrophe that had triggered events to end the dark ages. “The great plague arrived in Latin Europe-first appearing in Messina, Sicily-in November of thirteen-forty-eight, struck Marseilles, in southern France, early in thirteen-forty-eight and from there, it spread throughout the continent.”{ibid…pg. 375} Historians will tell you that it is difficult to calculate the precise number of casualties, but most agree that approximately one-third of the population in Europe succumbed to this disease. The number is staggering, but you as a scholar have to imagine a malnourished population living in squalid conditions without the sanitation practices of our present era. The bubonic plague of thirteen-forty-seven created dramatic structural changes in European society. These changes are evident in the economy, politics, church and culture.  This paper is written to analyse and determine if the bubonic plague had an over all impact on European society. I will prove that changes occurred due to feudalism and the secular power structure. I will not be investigating all of Europe. The research on the bubonic plague narrows its focus upon the state of England. 

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible

        The Black Death reached England in the summer of thirteen forty-eight. In this period England had experienced heavy rains. The harvest destroyed and England’s population was dealt a blow of enormous force with the loss of life on a scale that has not occurred. {Ormond & Backman, 1996. Pg 28}  The consequence of the plague had a lasting impact on the economy of England. The plague attacked anyone and anything. The rich man died from the plague, peasant girl, tavern hoar, priest and noble. The plague even killed draught-animals used to till the fields and dairy cows. As dairy was a staple in the peasant diet, its importance is valuable. The economic disaster was felt most in the production of wheat used for bread and barley which produced ale. Ale is the most common drink amongst the poor people because it was cheap and it could be kept for awhile before it went bad.

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                   The production of wool declined when the disease attacked the sheep. “The emptying of villages and district meant the ruin of vineyards.” {Backman, 2003. Pg 377} Wine was considered the drink of the rich and the noblest.  It was also one of the most productive trades of the Southern European countries and the region of Southern France. With the decline in the serf and peasant population, the liege lords and rich merchants could not find anyone to make them huge profits. The only solution was to increase the wages of the working class which increased the standard of living for the peasant folk. BLACK DEATH 5.gif

        The bubonic plague also changed the physical structure of the economy in that the farm lands were now given over to pasture, which was less (sic) labour intensive. The business of pasturing supplemented the lost income from agricultural products such as wheat and vegetables. The landowners turned these pastures into sheep runs which did boost the cloth and wool industries. In the future, these and became a crisis for poor tenants in the early eighteen-hundreds that faced eviction from land owners who wanted higher profit from the sheep runs. The physical structure of the economy was affected by the increased mobility people begun to have. Long gone were the days of a peasant or serf who was tied to the land by contractual or hereditary duties to a feudal lord. Because of the plague, many of these indentured serfs would just run away in fear of catching the disease. Moreover, it would sometimes take the lives of an entire farming community, so they had nobody to enforce these manorial laws when they left the fief.

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           The greatest change to the economy was the loss of skilled artisans and capable men who could read or write. The plague took the lives of many of these skilled and educated people. The immediate change was the regression of architectural structures. The buildings became very simple, and the expansion of new monuments and castles came to a stand still until the period of the Renaissance. Furthermore, the church suffered the highest losses because they always took in sick people to save the souls. When the bishops and various ecclesiastical members died, many universities were closed or became extinct. Thie result a loss of revenue for the church and university towns that provided high rents and other fees. The solution for the loss of skilled labourers and scholars was to advertise all across Europe. These skilled men included butchers, University professors, tanners, horseshoe fitters, bishops and paid soldiers. I believe that the great loss in the plague increased the number of mercenaries and paid soldiers across Europe. With the loss of lives, the Kings of Europe had to recruit outside of the country. The plague also brought many foreigners into new territories looking for work. Wherever the skill was needed the opportunity was available for this labourer. Moreover, some areas may have seen a decline in the wool production and some may have seen an increase because the disease may not have attacked certain animals in various areas. Therefore northern England may have needed one-thousand shear croppers, and Southern France may have only needed one-hundred. The final analysis is that urban workers profited from the plague (while rural farmers farmer’s remained stuck in poverty. {Backman, 2003, pg 378}

           Another change is the shift of workers from rural farms to migrate to the city in search of work. With the coming of unskilled workers to the city, the skilled artisans then demanded more money. For example, a man training as a carpenter is elevated to architect with the death of the designers. This increase in wages also developed new trade unions and it also indirectly created other avenues besides the church for political leadership or education.

                The political entity or makeup of many European states was The Crown, Nobility and the church. By the ending of the “Bubonic Plague,” the governments had inherited an intricate problem. The economy ruined and the peasant could now demand or control the rent they paid. The royal governments had tried to increase the tax because of the higher wages of the urban workers. The poor and the urban workers had now believed they were singled out to finance recovery. Moreover many governments tried to issue wage controls and freezing prices for manufactured goods. What we must remember is that manufacturing of goods was always controlled by the bourgeoisie and with the loss of draught animals and labourers to harvest the crops. The nobility very quickly realised that this rising middle class would become much wealthier than they had planned. The only solution was to impose their traditional privileges over the rural classes. In England, the landlords joined with the merchants. They created the statute of labourer’s in thirteen-fifty-one; this statute froze rents and wages. Later on, Parliament ordered a series of poll taxes in the thirteen seventies, which hurt the peasants again. The tax took more than ten percent of annual wage of each person living and working in a household. Because of these taxes caused by the burden of the plague. The peasant revolts, war and wage freeze, became a normal thing in the mid thirteen-fifties and onwards. To continue in the peasant of revolt thirteen sixty-one Simon Sudbury was murdered. More important he was the arch bishop of Canterbury, and a King did not kill him, a peasant mob murdered him. It is a political crisis. Because if the mob could kill the arch bishop, they could kill the King in the name of political change.      

           The cause of these political uprisings in England and across Europe linked to the depopulation of Europe, which had now created opportunities for the poor to rise and nurture stronger political doctrines. In later years the peasants and working artisans aligned themselves with a political group that took the name or title of ministers of the common people or the House of Commons. This new connection with politics and the peasants had diminished the value of the church to influence or control the peasant folk.   

         The Church in the earlier medieval period had ruled the continent with the anointed lords.  With the coming of the plague, the church put into a position where they needed to provide spiritual answers and miracles. They could not provide cures; they could only blame other religious groups. The most common religious groups to blame was the Muslims and more important to this manuscripts the Jewish community. The Jewish people had migrated to areas like Spain, France and England beginning in the sixth century.  In the period of the plague according to the Church, the Black Death was God’s punishment for the sinfulness of humanity. They also believed that the Jewish people with the help of the rabbi’s had somehow put this curse on Europe. However, the Jewish community was more hygienic they did not suffer a greater loss as the Christian population.  The result was a widespread prosecution, theft of properties and murder of the Jewish people in the name of religion. The church had promised cures, but more people died. Many of the clergies fled for their lives because the villagers began to start revolts against the church when they realised that it was a deeper problem than the Jewish nation cursing Europe. In England, more than forty percent of the clergy died in the period from thirteen-forty-eight to thirteen-fifty-one.  The mortality rate results in the decline of church power and the breeding ground for new religious heresies in the name of God.

     The most famous of these was the Flagellants and the Lollards. The Lollards stated that temporal matters had corrupted the Catholic Church and that its heredity did not justify its claim to be the true church.  Moreover the Lollards and other common believed it was time for a change because the Catholic religion was not the true house of God. In the fourteenth century, so many people wanted religious change, and these new radical groups provided the change. The monastic orders had promised to send the disease back to hell, and this was not happening. In the revolts against the Holy Roman Empire, new heresy like Lollardy paved the way. WycliffeYeamesLollards_01.jpg

           The Flagellants were not in England but they travelled throughout Europe, and initially, they were in favour with the church. The Flagellants would inflict pain on the body and some other form of torture. The Flagellants gave penance to God believing that by divine intervention, the disease dies. In the fourteenth century, the Flagellants were blamed for the plague in some towns because it seemed when they arrived the plague arrived too. The Catholic Church soon banned them. The plague had thus influenced church society. The one thing which is obvious from these figures is that the initial impact of the Black Death did not cause a crisis of faith or deter men from entering the priesthood. {Ormond, 1996 pg 89}  What it does suggest is that where the door was closed for men to enter into Catholicism. These new religious groups or fathers of Protestantism were now strong and ready to battle the old monastic orders for freedom and religion. This fight is religious warfare and a wider scope of a cultural revolution of society in England and the rest of Europe. The_flagellants_at_Doornik_in_1349

        The vigorous culture of European Civilization was dependent on art, music and new manuscripts. During the period of the bubonic plague and after Europe witnessed a complete turn around in the culture, which fought for artistic and humanistic freedoms.  However, it also showed the character and nature of the darkness of the plague within its art and new theology. “It put Europeans into a state of shock – shock from watching thousands of corpses pile up in the streets, shock at the complete failure of their religion to save them. Europeans began to question their old values {http://www.luc.edu/faculty/losses/bubonicanov6.htm} To continue so much of the artistic and literary expression of fourteenth century Europe was a direct result of what people saw of the plague. Imagine dead bodies piled as high as a mountain. Moreover, imagine a poor peasant receiving hundreds of gold coins just to pile these bodies and burn them to ashes. The medieval art of the twelfth century owes its style to romance, passion and chivalric warfare. ‘Gone were the days of beautiful maidens depicted in pictures with handsome knights willing to preserve the (sic) honour of the  lady

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This artwork of vibrancy colour and beauty changed dramatically after the bubonic plague had run its course. The paintings depicted death, rape and gloom. The physical nature of the work was stoic. The only analysis is the artist and thinkers were expressing feelings of hatred towards the church and nobility. The majority of the population had believed that the world was coming to an end. They had envisioned the coming of this day as the wicked day or the end of the world. Much of the blame placed on the church and the nobility. So much of the artwork depicts the end of the world or doomsday. The chains of the poor melted away from the hot fires of hell, and the Norman nobility who had first enslaved them in ten sixty-six were now feeling the wrath of God. Many of these people believed it was the end of the world and they took part in massive sexual rituals and some even denounced God. Evidence of 13th century Europeans believes that the world had ended founded in the pictures and the writings of art in Sicily and other parts of Europe. A prime example of this plague art shown in the pictures below.

 

 Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible

 

 

 

In the picture, we have skeleton horses, orgies and murder. The culture of the people who had not necessary denounced God but the power of the church and the nobility.

                This culture shock was not only noticeable in the areas of art. In marriage, the average person age changed. In the previous centuries, urban and rural males married rather late, to inherit land or capital to support a family. After the plague, however, rural men began to marry earlier at an age closer to that of their wives. The reason for this was the generation of this period now wanted to achieve everything before they died. This included marriage, children and sexual pleasures. In the decades of plague millions of men and women died without experiencing marriage. The era produced people who needed to experience life pleasures. Also before the plague, the music and costumes were brilliantly decorated. In the decades after the plague music was none existent. Even the poetry changed. For example, the English nursery rhyme titled “Ring around the Rosy”. They say that it started in the “Middle Ages when the Plague was rampant. The ‘ring around the rosy’ referred to the marks that showed up on people’s bodies, and the ‘pocket full of posies’ means the nosegays people would hold up to their noses to block out the stench of the dead. As we all know, the next line is ‘Ashes, ashes, we all fall’, meaning that so many died, it seemed as if everyone would ‘fall dead’.((anwers.com). Another story is the Pied Piper. The story is an account of hundreds of rats crawling out of the city sewers and hideaways to die. Many historians believed the date of the Pied Piper, was changed to a century before as not to bring a curse back to the world.”(Encyclopedia).

         The effects of the plague are finally identified culturally in the words of Petrarch. To continue Petrarch talks about art, he said that “though its beauty is a source of wonder to the masters of the art, the ignorant do not understand it. (Wilkins, 1959 pg 182-3) What Petrarch is saying is the families welcome a less worldly and less humanistic art than that of the earlier years.  A further study of Italy and early humanism shows you that the movement had started in Florence. Boccaccio, in the Decameron, writes of Florence, that ‘they’ dug for each graveyard a huge trench, in which they had laid the corpses. They arrived by the hundreds at a time, piling them up to tier upon tier as merchandise stored on a ship, each covered with a little earth until the trench would hold no more. (Boccaccio, pg.6-7) This suffering influenced and strengthened the minds of the free thinkers to be acutely aware of the church. It seems these humanists also relished in the idea that the church and nobility shall feel the wrath of Hades. The era of Boccaccio and Petrarch exuded deep emotions, but this was not feelings of chivalry or romance, it was pain suffering and fear. It was a fear of death and survival, but more important it was a fight to keep the new freedom inherited by the vagabond working class. The most significant works of art look like deep melancholy and emotional pain, suffering and death. However, whether this loss of artistic colour and vibrancy resulted directly from the plague is hard to say, because the scholars of art will tell you that art is always changing naturally. What I see though is the impact of the change and how it changed physically. What I mean is the talented churchmen and Kings had all their favourites. When this artist who did work like painting or wrote manuscripts for the nobility, when they succumbed to the plague, this opened the door for the artist of a lower middle class or peasant line to achieve personal expressions. What I believe is the plague indirectly freed many people to express themselves artistically and politically. This new expression owes much of its freedom to the events of the bubonic plague.

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          In conclusion, a bubonic plague is an event of an epic and devastating catastrophe, but it was not the only tumultuous event of the thirteen hundreds. We scholars analyse, the hundred year wars and the expulsion of the Plantagenet’s dynasty from France, along with the Great Famine, and the inquisitions of the church to expel the ‘Cathars and the Templar Knights as events that engineered great changes.  What is remarkable about the plague is some people who died in Europe. In fact, more people died in a three year period than in the two world wars.  To continue these changes could easily are the natural evolution of man in the society.  A more important element that evoked major changes in the middles ages was the humanist movement. In studying the circumstance in how humanism was born you learn of ‘flesh and blood and the struggles of people. A passion and political freedom that England and the rest of Europe achieved from the monastic orders and the liege lords.  Finally, the plague has been around before the bible, and it is still with us today. The symbolization is the grey or skeleton horse of death which in revelations brought great, war and famine. Symbolically speaking the grey horse of death did make me realise that we are not gods and we should look upon our eyes. But as scholars can we ignore the natural evolution of man and put so much, on us, on the plague being the most important reason for economic political and social changes. The ethical solution to this problem is to study the evolution of the German and English language in relations with the printing press and its freedom from the ruling Latin nobility across Europe.

Courtney Duncan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categorised in: Essays, Feature

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