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Black Death Case

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Monica Bryan

Western Civilization I

Mrs. O’Neal

Essay 11

What impact did the Black Death have on the society of Europe?

The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century was the most devastating natural disaster in European history, ravaging Europe’s population and causing economic, social, political, and cultural upheaval. In October 1347, the plague had reached Europe when Genoese merchants brought it from Caffa to the island of Sicily off the coast of Italy. The plague spread very quickly. Mortality figures for the Black Death were incredibly high. It has been estimated that the European population declined by 25 to 50 percent between 1347 and 1351 and the plague did not end in 1351.  The population collapse of the fourteenth century had drastic economic and social consequences.

Well into the thirteenth century, Europe had experienced good harvests and an expanding population. However, by the end of the century a period of disastrous changes had begun.  When the bubonic plague came to Europe, people were horrified by an evil force they could not understand and by the subsequent breakdown of all normal human relations. People left their family and friends, parents abandoned their children trying to escape this deadly disease. Knowing they could be dead in a matter of days, people began to live for the moment. The attempt to explain the Black Death and mitigate its harshness led to extreme sorts of behavior. People were saying the plague had either been sent by God as punishment for humans’ sins or been caused by the devil. Some resorted to extreme asceticism to cleanse themselves of sin and gain God’s forgiveness. Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning town wells thus causing a massacre against the Jews.  The Black Death affected the way people perceived life so for some survivors they came to treat life as something cheap and transient. Violence and violet death became more prominent after the plague than before.

Economic dislocation was accompanied by social upheaval. Both peasants and noble landlords were affected by the Black Death. The situation in which peasants are subordinates of lords no longer existed.  Europe experienced a serious labor shortage that caused a dramatic increase in the price of labor. At the same time, the decline in population depressed or held stable or falling prices for output. Landlords begun to experience considerable adversity and lower standards of living because they were having to pay more for labor at the same time their rents or incomes were declining. In England, aristocratic income dropped more than 20 percent between 1347 and 1353.  Aristocrats responded to adversity by seeking to lower the wage rate. The English Parliament passed the Statute of Laborers (1351), which attempted to limit wages to pre-plague levels and forbid the mobility of peasants as well. Such laws proved largely unworkable, however, they did keep wages from increasing as they might have in a free market. While the conditions of the landlords continued to deteriorate, the conditions of the peasants improved. But there were limits to how much the peasants would advance. The lords attempted to impose wage restrictions, reinstate old forms of labor service, and create new obligations. Peasants’ complaints became widespread and soon gave rise to rural revolts. Thousands of peasants with their leader, Wat Tyler, marched to London to meet the king, Richard II. They demanded a higher salary and strongly opposed the taxation. The revolt was not a successful one since “Wat Tyler was mysteriously killed and other rebels’ leaders were rounded up and hanged”. However, this did indicate that the society of medieval Europe was turbulent due to the invasion of the horrible Black Death.

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