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Black Death Essay, Research Paper

Black Death

The most sever epidemic in human history, The Black Death ravaged Europe from 1347-1351. This plague killed entire families at a time and destroyed many villages. The Black Death had many effects beyond its immediate symptoms that contributed to the crisis of the Fourteenth Century. This plague not only took a devastating toll on human life, but it also played a major role in shaping European life in the years to follow. The Black Death divides the central and the late Middle Ages. This horrible catastrophe that occurred in 1348, swept through Europe causing numerous changes.

“The Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320’s.” This plague originated there and spread outward in every direction. In the autumn of 1347, twelve ships arrived in Messina, a port on the island of Sicily. Usually the people of Messina were eager to see the exotic products these merchants’ ships would bring from Caffa, on the Black Sea. This particular time the people found something astonishing. Instead of silk, perfumes, and spices, these ships carried a strange and destructive disease that would eventually change Europe forever.

City officials found very few people alive on these ships when they ported Messina. Dead bodies littered the decks and the ships reeked of decaying flesh. On the deceased they found large black swellings covering the bodies. These officials who inspected these ships feared that the disease that had slaughtered the sailors would spread to Messina. This fear led to the decree that no one, or any piece of merchandise was to leave the ships. They would not even allow the sick sailors to leave the ships or even get medical treatment. It is thought that the people of the ships, who were living in Caffa during the summer of 1347, were exposed to this terrible disease while fighting the Tatars. The Tatars were Mongolian warriors who attacked the city of Caffa, and had the city contained for months. They seemed to have the advantage and were expected to seize the city, until they suffered an unexpected blow that defeated their army. This unexpected blow was the plague. The plague broke out within their army and they were forced to retreat. The Mongolian warriors believed the disease was a curse put on them by the people in Caffa. Out of hate and trying to get revenge, the Tartars catapulted the dead bodies of the plague victims over the walls of Caffa. The plague soon began to spread after the Tatars retreated and the people of Caffa realized that the only way they were to survive was to flee the area. They boarded merchant ships and set sail for Italy. These ships where later found by the Missena city officials. The city officials could not prevent the disaster that would follow. Within days the disease spread not only within the city, but also the surrounding countryside. An eyewitness tells what happened:

Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from their city. But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial.

The wealthy nobles since of monetary security had the advantage over the poor. The rich could usually flee the towns and cities, where the plague raged unmercifully, and escape to their castles and villas in the country. In the country their were usually less people and cleaner reducing the chance of dirty and infested rats to enter the country homes. When this disease hit the coast of Italy people had no idea what they were encountering. All they knew was that masses of people were dying. Some thought it was due to the influence of celestial bodies. Others thought it was put upon them by the wrath of God getting them for their iniquities or sins. Even though they had absolutely no earthly idea where this disaster was coming from, they soon learned to recognize the symptoms.

Blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death; but in men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the armor thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, then minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had and still were an infallible token of death.

By the following August, this disease had spread as far as England. This is where people began to call this disease the “Black Death,” due to the black sores that was found over the entire body after contacting the disease.

The Black Death is an acute, infectious, contagious disease that affects rodents and humans alike. It is caused by a short, thick, gram-negative bacillus, Yersina pestis. In humans, plague occurs in three different forms known as the bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicemic plague. Bubonic plague is the most common form. The name derives from the appearance of buboes, or enlarged, inflamed lymph nodes, in the groin or armpit or on the neck. Bubonic plague is transmitted by the bite of insects that are normally found on rodents, and that seek new hosts when the original host dies. The bubonic plague usually would slay a person within five days. Pneumonic plague gets the name because it infects the lung and is often transmitted by “droplets sprayed from the lungs and mouth of infected persons; the infection may spread from the lungs to other parts of the body.” This in return causes septicemic plague. The pneumonic plague would take the life of a person within three full days. The septicemic plague infects the blood. “Septicemic plague may also be initiated by direct contact of contaminated hands, food, or objects with the mucous membranes of the nose or throat.” The septicemic plague that infects the blood, would often exterminate someone within hours. When this plague struck it murdered people with extreme speed. The Italian writer Boccaccio said that its victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

The Black Death struck during a period of time when Europe was facing many difficulties. The European economy was on the decline. “It was approaching the limits of expansion, both on its frontiers and in reclaiming land from forest and swamp.” Europe was also feeling oppression from foreigners (the Mongols and the Ottomans). These foreigners disrupted many of the trade routes resulting many areas to drop into depression. The climate was another problem, people in Europe was facing. “The overall climate was changing, with cooler and wetter weather creating lower crop yields even as the population was increasing.” Since there was a shortage of food people began to starve and have problems with malnutrition. The Church was facing many different problems as well. First of all any people felt there were a numerous amount of scandals occurring within the Church. The popes resided at Avignon and not at Rome. The Church was also unable to contain heresy in England proving its weakness. The Hundred Years War was transpiring causing many political difficulties. The Black Death exacerbated the problems and difficulties. The effects of the plague were worsened because of the other problems while these problems seemed twice as bad due to the plague as well.

People in Europe soon began to react and try to explain why and where the plague came. Many people who were ignorant believed that the plague was the vengeance of God upon a sinful world. This belief formed two extremes. One extreme was that people become completely devoted to God and religious. The other extreme was made up of people who if were asked would frankly state that they did not care about God and religion. These people felt damned already and wanted to live life the way they wanted. “Contrary to what you might think, the reaction from public officials, and from many churchmen, was that this calamity was not the vengeance of God upon a sinful world but was a disease.”

Those extremists who believed God brought upon this disaster out of anger began to do things to please God. One activist group was called the Flagellants. People formed “bands of people who wandered through towns and countryside doing penance in public. They inflicted all sort of punishments upon themselves…for the world’s sins in imitation of Jesus.” Yet, another group believed that the Jews were the immediate cause of the Black Death. The Jews were accused of poisoning the water supply. People in Europe, out of rage and out of the need for explanation for the plague, persecuted and massacred the Jews.

While many people were looking for an explanation for the Black Death some tried to find a medical cure. Several believed that the disease was transmitted through the air. There were many dead and dying which presented an awful smell and people believed in some way the smell was connected to the disease. “So, the living turned to scents to ward off the deadly vapors.” They burning of incense became popular. People began to burn: “juniper, laurel, pine beech, lemon leaves, rosemary, camphor, sulpher and other Handkerchiefs were dipped in aromatic oils, to cover the face when going out.” Sound was another remedy used. Cities and villages rang church bells, fired cannons believing the loud and unbearable sounds would drive the plague away. There seems to be no evidence that any medical doctor saved a patient with the plague. Medical doctors of the time believed the only method to get rid of the disease were bloodletting. Bloodletting is the draining of blood believing that if enough could be let out the disease would be forced out. Since the medical doctors did not know anything about sterilization, they would often use the same scalpel on several patients possibly aiding the spread of the disease.

The immediate effect of the plague on communities was devastating. “Families and friends were set against each other—the well rejected the sick.” Some people withdrew from all contact with others, hoping to avoid getting the dreaded disease. As the disease became more and more widespread, many people wanted to have a final confession or write up their last will and testament, but the priests and lawyers would not even get close enough to them to do it. Law hardly existed any longer in some areas due to the death of judges and administrators. The crime rate radically increased resulting much chaos and havoc through out the land.

The Black Plague not only struck creating much disaster and havoc, but also created numerous changes in Europe. Population was the most noticeable change. The Black Death took twenty-five million lives, at a time when Europe’s total population was only around sixty million, between 1347 and 1350. The total overall population loss in Europe was calculated to about one-third. In the year 1000 AD., the estimated population of Europe was 38 million people. In one century, 1100 AD., the population increased to about million people. The population continued to increase until 1347. In 1347, the total estimated population was 75 million people. This increase of population came to a drastic halt due to the Black Death. Between the years 1347 and 1352 twenty five million people died. The accounted population in 1352 was 50 million. This decrease in population occurred just under five years. The class that was greatly affected by the plague was the serfs. The plague left nobles without personal to work the land. Serfs that lived through the Black Death were able impose their lords to pay them. The demand of serfs went up as a result of the supply of serfs decreasing causing the willingness of the lords to pay for the work done by the serfs. Serfs for the first time had the luxury of choice. Some serfs decided to move into the cities finding occupations. Cities preceding the plague were left under populated with the desperate need of skilled craftsman. Those serfs who decided to leave the fields entered these needed positions in the cities. In response of the need of serfs to attend the nobles land, the nobles refused to continue the long common practice of serfdom. Prior to the plague serfs could gradually buy their freedom, but the Black Death left killing serfdom and the whole feudal system.

The Black Death was a catalyst promoting the economy. Since there was a shortage of labor the guilds were opened. Guilds or gilds were associations of men and women sharing common interests usually relating to business. The association was bound together by the intent of protecting the members’ self-interest. The guilds protected its members from competition and other outside factors that may hurt them in any way. For a short period of time just after the plague the guilds did not utilize the power and authority they possessed to keep people from entering the market, due to the population loss. The guilds were opened to fill the empty spots. Some, for the first time, had a choice of their occupation.

The drastic loss of population accounts for the hardest hit aspect of Europe after the plague. The hardest hit aspect of Europe preceding the plague was the economy. The economy, just preceding the plague became stagnant. Obviously, since there was a decrease in the population this initially affected the number in the workforce. The plague caused a shortage of labor. This shock in the economy allowed many peasants to demand a restructuring of society. “The biggest problem was that valuable artisan skills disappeared when large number of the working class died.” Those who had skills soon became more valuable than the rich people, restructuring society giving poor laborers more value and power. This value and power allowed the peasants, the poor, to demand for higher wages. These higher wages allowed people to have more money to spend on luxuries. This demand of luxuries resulted in the formulation and development of new industries to meet the demand. “English manufacturers created a new, and more profitable cloth-manufacturing industry based on the power of water mills, rather than cheap labor that was no longer available.”

Higher wages eventually created high inflation. High inflation means that a person could buy less with money. This fundamentally means that the money value decreased. This not only affected individual consumers, but small manufacturing industries as well. High inflation motivated competition. New industries arose producing similar products that competed with those industries producing the original product. Industries that felt threatened “attempted to maintain their position by getting laws passed regulating who could ether their industry.” This was successfully achieved through the Ordinance of Laborers in 1349 and the Statute of Laborer in 1351.

In 1349 the Ordinance of Laborers, a law, was passed regulating wage levels.

During all this confusion the church’s leadership in the lives of people weakened. Before the arrival of the Black Death the church was seen as on of the wealthiest and most powerful landlords in all of Europe. Unsurprisingly, monasteries, converts, prisons and other closed communities were doomed when the plague was introduced to them. When the plague finally subsided, many towns were left without a priest. Consequently, new priests were often ordained without adequate training, and frequently the selection of priestly candidates was hasty and ill advised, thus reducing the esteem people possessed for the church. The natural reaction people had towards this were, to not only question the church, but God as well. With the absence of religion in the everyday lives of a few led to a new philosophical era.


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