The Black Death is, pound for pound, one of the most significant events in human history. It ravaged the eastern hemisphere from 1343 to 1353, leaving mountains of bodies and traumatized survivors. During those years, the Black Death, which is thought to have originated on the steppes of central Asia, killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of the world’s population. Though we usually focus only on its impact on Europe, it wreaked utter havoc in central and eastern Asia and the Middle East as well.
The plague came in three varieties: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. You’re probably most familiar with the bubonic plague, which is characterized by swollen lymph glands, also known as buboes, fever, pain, and vomiting blood. Bubonic plague is spread by infected fleas on rodents. Left untreated, it has a mortality rate of 80% within 8 days of infection. Think that’s scary? Then listen to this: pneumonic plague, with symptoms including fever, cough, and bloody sputum, can be airborne, and, left untreated, has a mortality rate of 90-95%. Finally, septicemic plague, which is incredibly rare, manifests in purple skin patches and high fevers; without immediate medical treatment, the mortality rate is nearly 100%.
In the 1300s, personal hygiene and general cleanliness was nowhere near what it is today. Forget a daily shower, some people in the late Middle Ages avoided bathing altogether. They believed that bathing was a depraved activity that led to immorality and sickness. So, between the smells of the people and the stink of the city streets, which were covered in garbage and sewage, the early 1300s would smell and appear absolutely horrid to us, but were no doubt a rat’s idea of heaven. Medical practice prior to the pandemic was, also, frankly speaking, a joke. If you’ve ever seen a TV show or movie that takes place in the medieval era, you’ve almost certainly observed common practices of the time, such as blood-letting, trepanning, and a firm belief in the humors (the idea that each person carried within them some mix of earth, air, fire, and water, and that good health depended on keeping those elements in balance).
Many people of the time attributed the illness to miasma, earthquakes, and the alignment of the planets, naturally. Others believed that that a wrathful God had sent the plague to punish the world for its sins, or that it was the end of the world, full stop. Still others blamed the Jews, who weren’t falling ill in the same rates as Christians due to superior hygienic practices, and claimed that the Jews were poisoning wells (during this period, over 200 Jewish communities all over Europe were destroyed). In other words, medieval people were quite happy to blame the plague on just about everything and everyone but the actual culprit. As the idea of cleanliness being a deterrent to illness didn’t take hold until the mid-to-late 1800s, the people of the mid-14th century were, by and large, out of luck.
With whole cities depopulated, 100 million or more dead worldwide, rampant persecution, fanaticism on the rise, and a completely demoralized population of survivors, the Black Death would appear to be, at first glance, one of the worst events in recorded history. However, I’m nothing if not an optimist, and so I like to look at the bright side of things. Believe it or not, the Black Death had one heck of a silver lining. In fact, it had several.
Firstly, the English and western European peasants who survived the pandemic received some huge benefits. The depopulation of the nobility was a (very slow moving) deathblow to feudalism. After all, if you are a peasant and the lord to whom you have an obligation to remain on his estate has just died, along with most of his family, then what incentives do you have to remain where you are? Following the plague, land was cheap and plentiful, there was enough food to go around, and demand for workers led to higher wages all around. For the first time, former serfs experienced social mobility.
A similar improvement in the quality of life also reached urban workers. Rents went down and wages went up; in fact, in England, farmhand wages fully doubled! Like the former serfs, urban workers suddenly had both the resources and the flexibility to move from one place to another. Between these urban workers and former serfs moving in from the countryside, cities repopulated much faster than rural communities, leading to the re-urbanization of the continent and, eventually, the industry-based, cosmopolitan lifestyle that would characterize much of Europe in centuries to come.
As one might expect, the traditionally wealthy and powerful did not give up their stranglehold on the economy and cheap labor easily. Lords tried to force lower wages, but the workers, who had enjoyed their taste of freedom and (relative) prosperity, began to organize and fight back in a series of revolts throughout Europe. Though the workers’ attempts were largely unsuccessful, these rebellions are widely considered among the earliest attempts to form labor unions.
Finally, as strange as it sounds, the Black Death was absolutely wonderful for the environment. Europe had been overcrowded before the plague arrived, to the point that, well over a hundred years earlier, much of central and southern Europe had been completely deforested in order to build more farms. The precipitous drop in population left many farms vacant, and so they returned to nature. The trees grew back and the native flora and fauna returned to many areas.
Though the plague has returned to ravage different areas of the globe again and again in the years since the pandemic, and exists to this day, no subsequent outbreak of the disease has had quite the same impact on society. However, it would be foolish and arrogant to think that a world-shattering pandemic along the lines of the Black Death could not – or will not – happen again. Modern medicine is a thing of beauty, but, as Jeff Goldblum would say, “Life, uh…finds a way.” Our tendencies both to overmedicate and to disobey doctor’s orders to finish a full course of antibiotics regardless of improved health can lead to antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Recent outbreaks of illnesses like ebola, SARS, the swine flu, and the bird flu have tested our preparedness to the limits. Despite our advanced technology, we still live our lives very much by the sufferance of nature, and every so often, nature decides to get rid of some of us. It will do so again; the only question is when.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut. Following the Black Death, arts and literature took on morbid overtones. This woodcut is a splendid example of danse macabre, the idea that no matter what one's station was in life, we are all united by the dance of death, the great equalizer.
Gottfried, Robert. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe.
Buy it here.
Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devestating Plague of All Time.
Buy it here.