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A sudden wave of disease that resulted in numerous deaths crashed over Europe in the mid-1300s. It was called the Black Death, and it did not discriminate. The Black Death attacked men and women with the same horrid symptoms. It killed rich and poor, young and old. The Black Death occurred several times in the 1300s, but the first outbreak, which lasted five years, was the worst. In that five-year period, the Black Death killed nearly one-third of the population of Europe. The rapid decline in population had many serious consequences. The changes in European society caused by the Black Death marked a turning point in history.

What Was the Black Death?

The Black Death has long been identified as a strain of the bubonic plague. The word bubonic comes from the word buboes, which are swollen lymph nodes. The buboes develop in the armpits, groin, and neck. The buboes turn black and eventually burst. A plague is a contagious disease often caused by flea bites. Once infected, humans can then carry the disease and spread it to other humans.

The Black Death was much more devastating than earlier outbreaks of bubonic plague. For this reason, many historians believe a combination of diseases contributed to the Black Death. Scientific evidence supports the idea that there were two types of Black Death, the bubonic and pneumonic plagues. The pneumonic plague results when the Yersinia pestis bacteria settles in the lungs. Symptoms of pneumonic plague include fever, excessive coughing, and bloody coughed-up mucus. The pneumonic plague is highly contagious and spreads very easily. In fact, people do not even need to touch each other for the disease to spread, because it can spread through the tiny droplets released when the victim coughs or when someone has close contact with an infected person. Left untreated, both types are fatal.

Why Was the Black Death So Widespread?

At the time of the Black Death, many trade routes were established throughout Europe and Asia. It is believed that the plague spread quickly from Asia to Europe and then throughout Europe by way of these trade routes. By one account, Italian traders brought the disease back from Asia after having plague-infected bodies flung at them.

Harbor cities were overrun with rodents and other flea-infested animals. Infected fleas hitched rides with rats off the docks and onto the ships. During the journey the infected fleas bit passengers, spreading the bubonic plague. When these ships docked at other port cities, the infected fleas and humans continued spreading the disease.

Unlike today, in the Middle Ages, people were not concerned with personal hygiene. Bathing and hand washing were not priorities. Flea bites were tiny, common nuisances. When examining victims of the Black Death, physicians at the time overlooked these small bites. However, these bites were clues to one of the carriers of the plague. The number of dead kept rising. Plague carts would pick up and dump victims into mass graves because there was not time for individual burials. Lacking protective clothing and measures, often those carrying and burying the dead would also fall victim to the Black Death.

Within five short years, between 1347 and 1351, the Black Death killed 25 million people in Europe. After all of the plague outbreaks during the 1300s, it is estimated that one in every three people on the European continent died, and some places lost over half of the population. The Black Death took whole families. It devastated entire villages. Once lively, bustling towns and cities were silenced as the plague spread. The Black Death was pandemic because it was so widespread. The Black Death was also an epidemic because it affected many people within a short period of time.

How Did the Black Death Affect Feudalism and Labor?

Regardless of its actual cause and transmission, the Black Death changed Europe forever. Before the Black Death, Europe operated under feudalism. Feudalism is a political and economic system based on the relationship between the lord and the vassal, or servant. Food was produced on feudal estates, or large manors. Servants, either enslaved serfs or freemen, provided the labor for the estates. Freemen lived and worked on the feudal estates in exchange for debt or future ownership of the land. Because of the high population and availability of servants before the plague, freemen wages were very low. Realistically, these freemen could never pay off their debts or rightfully own the land promised to them.

Immediately after the plague, there was a short period of abundance. Food seemed plentiful because there were many fewer mouths to feed. However, because so many people died across the region, there were far fewer people to plant and harvest crops. Agricultural production suffered.

The drastic reduction in workforce enabled the surviving serfs and freemen to demand higher wages. Manor owners had to compete for their workers. This new atmosphere of competition in the peasant classes led to greater social mobility and also promoted capitalism. People were more able to gain wealth and improve their class status, and trade was controlled by competition, instead of by the wealthy few.

In 1351 the rulers of the kingdom in England passed a new law called the Ordinance of Labourers. This law prevented workers from being paid more than their pre-plague wages. This law was a desperate attempt to reestablish order to the feudal society and prevent upward movement of the lower classes.

The nobles could not prevent society from changing. The lower classes gained some wealth, and the economic system of Europe began to change. Serfs were able to pay off debt and buy their freedom. Because of the labor shortage, some lords were forced to pay cash wages to keep their workers. Wealth flowed to the lower classes.

Farming had become a risky financial venture for the wealthy. Some feudal lords reversed their original plan. These lords kept, rather than promised, ownership of their land. The feudal lords rented their land to freeman for cash or a share of the crops. Renting provided an income. With the collapse of trade, there were fewer ways for the upper classes to earn a steady income. Once all the village land was leased, the lords would often raise their tenants’ rents.

How Did the Black Death Affect the Economy and Society?

Fed up with paying high rents to landlords, some freeman fled their small villages. They moved to larger towns and cities. Manufacturing, or the making of products to sell, was expanding in the cities. In the cities a factory system developed. The factory system, based more on mass production, replaced the guild. A guild was a formal organization made up of masters of a specific trade, such as merchants, silversmiths, and lawyers. Guilds created a hands-on educational system where new apprentices learned a trade from the masters. Before the plague, in order to work, you joined and worked through the guild. With the factory system, however, freemen looking for work no longer had to join a guild.

Guilds had been an important part of society. They encouraged cooperation and not competition. Members of the guild would take on new ventures and risks together. The members co-signed loans and mentored new apprentices. The attitude after the plague changed from concern about the group to survival of the individual. The decline in guilds also caused a decrease in civic responsibilities, or actions that helped the city and its citizens. Guilds provided fire services, repaired town walls, and even participated in seasonal festivals. With rise of capitalism and decline of guilds, there was no one to fill the roles and duties formerly served by the guilds. The overall sense of community and standard of living declined in these factory towns.

The peasants who stayed in the villages also lacked a sense of community. The villagers were frustrated with the nobility’s new regulations and unfair taxes. Throughout England peasants engaged in widespread and often violent revolts against the nobility. Eventually English authorities regained control of “rebel” areas. Although the revolts ended some taxes, the nobility simply raised other taxes.

Did the Black Death Give Rise to the Middle Class?

The Black Death brought about a decline in feudalism. The significant drop in population because of massive numbers of deaths caused a labor shortage that helped end serfdom. Towns and cities grew. The decline of the guild system and an expansion in manufacturing changed Europe’s economy and society. There was a shift from an agrarian, or farm-based, economy toward a manufacturing economy. New job opportunities and social mobility were created. With these social and economic changes, people’s attitudes also changed. They went from relying on their community for survival to relying on themselves.

The atmosphere that emerged after the plague was increasingly individualistic. These changes in attitude, industry, and human settlement might have eventually occurred in Europe even without the plague. However, the Black Death was a turning point that changed European history. The plague lowered standards of living in urban settings. It erased the feudal social system that had been in place for hundreds of years. Surviving nobles and peasants remained divided by a wide economic gap; however, within this gap, the seeds for a new middle class in Europe were planted.


Question (8 points)

  1. When serfdom ended after the plague, life for the newly freed was not easy. In what ways was life difficult for the newly free people in Europe during the 1400s? Provide details and evidence to support your answer.

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