How The Black Death Shaped The Word

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Abstract

The Black Death – this extremely lethal pandemic devastated Asia and Europe by wiping out about half of the population during 14th century. It is only natural that something as huge as this influenced almost every aspect of the life of medieval people, but it also brought a lot of changes for the generations after that. Some of these changes were positive and some not so. This paper focuses on the positive changes that happened in Britain during and after the outbreak of the plague and how some of these changes led to post-Black Death population that differed in many significant ways from the population before the epidemic. The paper analyzes both the long-term and short-term changes in economics, attitude toward the church, medicine and the lifestyle of people in Britain before, during and after the Black Death and tries to explain the significance of the pandemic and how it shaped the world.

The Black Death

The bubonic plague, aclso called “The Black Death,” has existed for thousands of years. It is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. These bacteria are carried by fleas, which can be transferred to humans through contact with rats. Flea bites carry the disease into the lymphatic system, through which it makes its way to the lymph nodes. (“Black Death”, n.d.). The first recorded case of the plague was in China in 224 B.C. but in the past 1,400 years, there have been three major plague pandemics around the globe. In 1334 in China the disease killed over 90 percent of the Hebei Province’s population with deaths totaling over 5 million people (“Black Death”, n.d.). Afterwards it spread along the great trade routes to Constantinople and then to Europe starting one of the deadliest pandemics in the history of the continent. Some argue that the plague is responsible for many changes or even improvements in the lifestyle of the medieval people. The Black Death was not exactly a good thing, but it is a fact that good things came from it.

How Did the Plague Reach Britain?

In 1344, the Mongolians decided to recapture the Crimean port city of Caffa from the Genoese—Italian traders who had taken the town in the late 1200s. The Mongols put the city under siege up until 1347 but then reinforcements arrived, bringing the disease to the front lines. In a very short period of time most of the Mongols died by the plague. Devastated by the plague they lost interest in the siege but before backing off they decided to do something which was later called “the first instance of biological warfare in history “ (Eastman, 2009). They put the corpses of their dead on their catapults and flung them over the defensive walls of Caffa. The Genoese watched in horror as the flying bodies kept falling upon their city, spreading the smell in all direction. The Italian traders tried to get rid of the bodies by throwing them into the water but it was too late, the air and the water supplies were poisoned, the Black Death was already in the city of Caffa. During the havoc of the dying people, some merchants and sailors managed to escape by ships to Europe, not knowing that they have been already infected as well. They made stops at Constantinople which is a large coastal trading city located between Asia and Europe, unconsciously infecting the whole city. After that the disease spread rapidly to Europe and Britain (“Black Death”, n.d.).

How Did the Plague Affect Britain?

It is known that in 14th century the Black Death killed around 40-60% of the population of Britain. It is only natural that one of the deadliest pandemics in history had a huge impact on almost every aspect of people’s lives. The people had no idea what is happening, chaos and terror spread to Britain and it is safe to say that for the people who lived at this time it was like an apocalypse. Although the Plague was devastating to the lives of so many, it certainly brought some positive changes to the world.

Impact on Economy

Among the most immediate consequences of the Black Death were the economical changes that happened then. As huge part of the population died there was serious shortage for labor to work in the fields and farms. This increase in demand allowed peasants to demand better living conditions and increase their social mobility by insisting upon having higher wages, which led to the enforcement of the Statute of Laborers in England, fixing wages at their pre-plague levels (“Black Death in England”, n.d.). This law provoked the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, which forced the landlords to improve wages and work conditions for serfs, thereby starting the end of the feudal system (Eastman, 2009). Also, the reduction in population considerably decreased the price of land, which allowed different agriculture to be cultivated (for example, beef and dairy due to an increase in pasturelands) (Eastman, 2009).

Impact on the Church

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Another thing that changed was the attitude towards the church. Huge part of the clergy died which naturally led to shortage of priests (Horrox, 1994). The clergy were significant members of society back then because they served as a direct link between the common people and the Church. During the crisis, people would go to the clergy for help and guidance but during the Black Death none of them knew how to respond and how to explain the death of so many people (Zentner, 2015). This and the fact that the church had explained the cause of the Black Death to be the inappropriate behavior of the people led to people losing faith in the church (Horrox, 1994). Priest and Clergy reputation declined as many people saw that the priests were just ordinary men. They were dying when caring for the sick, refusing to come in to contact with some and abandoning their posts in fear. Аs a result new and not educated priests were put in their place which led to a weakening in the teachings of the church (Zentner, 2015). It is very important to mention that the people of Britain did not experience a decline in their faith in God, but rather a decline in their confidence in the ability of the institution of the Church (Zentner, 2015). To some extend the Black Death was one of the first seeds of the Reformation.

Impact on Medicine

The outbreak of plague showed the medieval physicians that their knowledge on medical science and anatomy is clearly not enough (Herlihy, 1997). The way individuals studied the human body notably changed, becoming a process that dealt more directly with the human body in varied states of sickness and health (Herlihy, 1997). That’s how physicians developed practical medical procedures to improve the way patients are being taken care of in hospitals in attempt to achieve some sort of a cure rather than merely giving the sick people a place to die (Eastman, 2009). One example is the development of the ward system, in which patients with the same illness were housed together to facilitate their care (Herlihy, 1997).

Improvements in Lifestyle

A number of researches show that the generations which survived the Black Death were actually healthier than the people form the pre-plague period. There are theories that this is due to what is called natural selection (Wikipedia). Scientists like DeWitte made a research about this by comparing the bones of people buried in London Black Death cemeteries before and after the outbreak of plague. Her study examines whether the selective mortality of the Black Death, combined with consequent rising standards of living after the epidemic, resulted in a healthier post-epidemic population in London compared to the pre-Black Death population (DeWitte 2014). The results confirm that survival rates improved and people actually lived longer. This happened partially because of the fact that people in post-plague era had the chance to eat better food and public health was on much better (DeWitte 2014).

Non-Direct Effects

The plague influenced Britain in both direct and non-direct ways. A good example of how the plague impacted Britain non-directly is the Renaissance. The Renaissance started in Italy but about one century later it reached Britain and it certainly brought a lot of changes. Without the pandemic taking place during that time in history the Renaissance would probably have not happened when it did, if at all. When the plague was gone the generation that survived had no longer a strong attachment to catholic beliefs, so started searching for different answers, leading to the start of the Renaissance, or at least one of the reasons for it.

Conclusion

It is a fact that the Black Death definitely was a very unfortunate and dreadful event where millions of people lost their lives. The death of millions is not something that can simply be ignored but there are many other cases in history where tragedies lead some sort of improvement in the life of the next generations. For example, wars – much of the technology we depend upon today began as a kind of military technology. A lot of technologies and inventions started as military and then become global such as the Internet, computers, GPS, drones, digital cameras, microwaves, Penicillin, blood banks etc. (Willings, 2019). It can be said that in a similar way the plague managed to push the human kind to progress and develop. Of course, we cannot claim that someone’s life or happiness is less valuable than the development in different fields or beliefs but it is a fact that not everything that happened because of the Black Death was necessarily negative. Actually, the plague led to a number of positive changes in the fields of economics, medicine and the lifestyle of people after the pandemic, some of which might not have taken place when they did, if at all.

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