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Black Death 2 Essay, Research Paper


yourself alone on a street corner, coughing up bloody mucous each time you

exhale. You are gasping for a full breath of air, but realizing that is not

possible, you give up your fight to stay alive. You’re thinking, why is this

happening to me? That is how the victims of the Black Death felt. The Black

Death had many different effects on the people of the Middle Ages. To understand

the severity of this tragic epidemic you must realize a few things about the

plague. You should know what the Black Death is, the cause of the plague,

the symptoms, the different effects it had on the people, and the preventions

and cures for the plague.

The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague

or the Bubonic Plague, which struck in 1349, and again in 1361-62, ravaged

all of Europe to the extent of bringing gruesome death to many people of the

Middle Ages. The Black Death struck in 1349, and again in 1361-62, but was

restricted just to Europe (Rowse 29). It was a combination of bubonic, septicaemic,

and pneumonic plague strains (Gottfried xiii) that started in the east and

worked its way west, but never left its native home. One of the things that

made the plague one of the worst was that there were outbreaks almost every

ten years (Rowse 29), but still restricted to Europe. It is thought that one

third to one half could have possibly died by the plague (Strayer and Munro

462), with some towns of a death rate of up to 30 or 40 percent (Strayer and

Munro 462). Very few who were infected with the plague actually survived more

than one month after receiving the disease (Strayer and Munro 462). The Black

Death was an incredible event that effecte

d everyone on either a physical

or emotional level, or both. The Black Death was more terrible, and killed

more people than any war in history (Strayer and Munro 462). The plague was

so horrible and terrifying that people said it made all other disasters in

the Middle Ages seems mild when comparing it to the Black Death (Gies 191).


have been many disputes over what caused the Black Death, but only one is supported

with the most evidence. It is thought that on October of 1347, a Genoese fleet

made its way into a harbor in northeast Sicily with a crew that had “sickness

clinging to their very bones” (Gottfried xiii). The sickness this crew had

was not brought by men, but the rats and fleas aboard the ship. The harbor

tried to control the sickness by attempting to quarantine the fleet, but it

was too late (Gottfried xiii). Within six months of the docking of that very

fleet, half of the region had either fled the country, or died. That fleet,

along with many other fleets along the Mediterranean Sea brought the greatest

natural disaster to the world (Gottfried xiii).

The infested rat, called

the black ship rat, was carried in the baggage of merchants on board the ships

traveling all over the Mediterranean (Norwich 30). They didn’t know it, but

it was the people that actually spread the disease across the land. The plague

spread in a great arc across Europe, starting in the east in the Mediterranean

Sea, and ending up in northwest Germany (Strayer and Munro 462). It is incredible

that the plague hit Europe several times, but still no one understood neither

the causes nor the treatments of the epidemic (Strayer and Munro 462).


was another cause that some people strongly believed brought the disease into

their world. Doctors at the University of Paris claimed that on March 20,

1345, at one o’clock in the afternoon, a conjunction of three higher planets

Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars caused a corruption of the surrounding air, which

made the air become poisonous or toxic (Gottfried 110). This is a highly unlikely

theory unless you are coming from a basis of Astrology. Another explanation

of the plague that scientists gave was environmental factors. These scientists

thought that there were many earthquakes that caused toxic fumes to come from

the center of the earth (Gottfried 110), which, again, brought contaminated

air for the people. Certain historians have wondered if the plague could

have been caused by overpopulation of the continent, but they are not completely

convinced (Hoyt and Chodorow 632). Some people, possibly out of desperation,

turned their violence on the Jews and blamed them for the cause of the plague


rayer and Munro 463). Whatever the cause was, you could tell from looking

in a persons eyes that, ” above every person hung the terror of the Black Death”

(Strayer and Munro 476).

Although the Black Death was one of the largest

epidemics ever recorded, it did not have many visible symptoms. The actual

symptoms varied in different parts of the continent. The most ordinary symptoms

were black tumors or boils on your neck, and the coughing up of blood (Zenger).

One thing about coughing up blood that made the plague even worse, was that

when you coughed up blood, everyone in the room was susceptible to the disease

(Zenger). This is because when the person coughed up the blood, the bacteria

went airborne and infected the person of the closest proximity (Zenger). This

allowed the plague to spread more quickly and easily.

The Black Death had

more than just physical effects, but more extensive effects over the course

of 25 years. Such as physical effects, social and religious effects, economic

effects, agricultural and commercial effects, effects on architecture, and

effects on the future.

For two generations after the plague, there was almost

no increase in the population of Europe (Strayer and Munro 462), while the

rest of the world increased in population. After the plague had passed, Europe

seemed to suffer from a case of collective shell-shock (Strayer and Munro 463),

this made it look like all of Europe was hit by a deadly stun gun, but the

stun never wore off. What scared the people, was that the Black Death killed

more people than a hostile army and gave its victims no chance to fight back

(Strayer and Munro 462).

The Black Death had many different social and religious

effects on the common people of Europe. Some people dreaded the time when

the plague would come, and some people just sat back, ate, drank, and were

merry just as though they had never heard of the plague (Strayer and Munro

463). Although all the people suffered, the peasants suffered the most. This

is because they lived in such unsanitary conditions and had the least care.

In many places whole villages of peasants were wiped out completely (Hartman

235), and in less than one month.

The Black Death, along with seven other

plagues and diseases of the Middle Ages, was considered contagious (Durant

1002). Because they were contagious, a victim of any plague or disease was

forbidden to enter a city unless under separation (Durant 1002). Many people

actually thought that the Black Death was a punishment to society because they

were wicked (Hoyt and Chodorow 596), and because they did not repent for their

sins. Although the people withstood many effects, the social consequences

were surely less striking (Rowse 29). For not only were the people struck

in many ways, but they were also astounded, terrified, and bewildered of this

secretive beast lurking in every place they go (Gottfried xiii). Some people

think that the plague contributed to the moral disintegration of European

society (Strayer and Munro 462).

Many people sat around and faced the fact

that they would eventually be taken in by the plague, and some tried to do

something about it, religiously. Many people, religious or not, tried to take

refuge in Godly practices. Some tried easing their conscience through “exaggerated

penances” (Strayer and Munro 463), or others doubled their devotions and encouraged

revivals (Strayer and Munro). Varied people “filled their hearts with unbearable

anguish about the Sorrows of Mary and the sufferings of Christ,” yet these

same people filled with anguish flocked to executions and tore each other apart

in their frequent civil wars (Strayer and Munro 463). Almost all people thought

they would live through the plague if they gave into the surge of religious


Since people were dying left and right, it should be expected that

there would be a decrease in available labor. So now there are half as many

peasants to do the work, and the same amount of fields. This amounted to too

much work to do, and little peasants to do the work (Hartman 235). This would

obviously not work out. Everything was being ruined, overrun, or neglected

because of this sudden, but expected shortage of workers (Hartman 235). The

peasants saw this happening and they knew they could receive something good

out of this. The laborers also saw that they were on demand, and so they demanded

higher wages (Hartman 235). Now that wages rose, prices rose along with it

(Hoyt and Chodorow 635). The mortality rate of the region not only produced

a labor shortage, but a sudden increase in the income per capita (Hoyt and

Chodorow 635). When the plague had ended, half of the workers on the estates

of the nobles in England disappeared (Hartman 235).

You could see that the

Black Death shook the entire agricultural and commercial structure of the west

(Gies 226). The decrease of construction in the 14th century could be seen

along with the cathedrals started in the 12th and 13th centuries and never

finished because of the plague (Durant 894).

The effects on the future were

not as bad as the effects the 14th century people experienced. The European

population steadily declined after 1350 for the next century (Gottfried xiii).

It is said that “chronic depopulation characterized the 14th and 15th centuries”

(Gottfried xiii). In 1351, it was calculated that the total number of dead

in Europe was approximately 23, 840,000 people (Gottfried xiii). That is a

great decrease considering that there were an estimated 75,000,000 people living

in Europe before the Black Death struck (Gottfried xiii).

There were almost

no known preventions or cures for the Black Death except a few ideas that don’t

always help or don’t help at all. Some doctors instructed the sick to stay

by fires and to drink as much as possible (Zenger). One thing that kept the

disease from spreading more rapidly was keeping anyone infected with a disease

out of the cities (Durant 1002). After the plague had become extremely serious,

the town’s people exterminated the old black ship rat that carried the disease

(Rowse 29). This was there last attempt at getting their old lives back, but

it was too late for that.

Aren’t you glad we are living in the 20th century,

and not the 14th century!? The Black Death certainly had one of the greatest

effects on the world in all areas, and was also one of the greatest changes

for the people of the Middle Ages. If we want change in our lives, does it

always have to be the bad things that bring us back into reality? I should

hope not. It seems that bad or depressing situations give us a grasp on what

is really important in our daily lives, and that is what we all need.



Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.

Gies, Joseph

and Frances. Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.


Robert. The Black Death. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

Hartman, Gertrude.

Medieval Days and Ways. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.

Hoyt, Robert

and Stanley Chodorow. Europe in the Middle Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace

Javanovich, Inc., 1976.

Norwich, John. Britain’s Heritage. New York: The

Continuum Publishing Company, 1983.

Rowse, A.L.. The Story of Britain. Great

Britain: British Heritage Press, 1979.

Strayer, Joseph and Dana Munro. The

Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959.

Zenger. The

Black Death. California: Timeline Series, 1989.

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