Anyone who lived through the year 2020 has probably heard the word “pandemic” about a thousand times too many.
This was a tragic year. There’s no doubt. But if we zoom out and place it in perspective, the Covid pandemic of 2020 was small potatoes compared to the Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century.
Sure, the world’s population was smaller. But the chance of death was much higher, and this disease, which we can now cure with antibiotics, killed a much larger percentage of the population.
The Plague caused more than just the loss of human life. It also brought about economic catastrophe and caused religion, mainly Christianity, to take an interesting spin.
No matter which way you look at it, the Plague was a defining moment in Medieval European history.
The Origin of the Plague
The Plague, which was a specific form of a Bubonic plague, named after the bacteria that causes it, first struck in the year 1346 AD. Initial cases appeared in southern Europe, mainly Italy and Greece, as well as some eastern regions such as modern-day Turkey and Kyrgyzstan.
Once it hit, it spread like wildfire. By 1348 AD it could be found all across Western Europe, and by 1353, it was into North Africa and much of the Middle East.
No one is really 100 percent sure where it came from, but various theories exist.
One of the most popular is that it came from fleas on rats that had made their way from China on Genoese merchant ships traveling to different ports throughout the Mediterranean.
Another theory says that it came from invading the Mongols, a group from east Asia that conquered and settled lands as far west as Hungary.
No one really knows for sure. And it’s possible both theories are correct as well as others. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The end result was the same: massive amounts of death.
The Spread of the Plague
While no one knows for sure what initially caused the plague, we have a pretty good idea as to why it spread as quickly as it did.
To put it simply: filth.
Medieval cities were disgusting.
First, they were crowded.
A lack of adequate housing meant people were literally living on top of one another, and those who couldn’t find a place to sleep often did so in the street. Animals were also allowed to roam the streets, and few places had cleaning crews on the payroll to clean up after them. (By few we mean none)
But animals weren’t the only ones causing the filth. Humans were just as bad. No one had running water, which meant no flushing toilets. Waste, yes we mean number one and number two, was often flung out into the street for the rain to wash it away.
But what happened when it didn’t rain? Just imagine the smell.
Add in the fact that people didn’t shower regularly, wore the same clothes over and over again, and didn’t brush their teeth and it’s easy to see why a deadly disease could run rampant in Medieval Europe in the 14th century.
In many ways, these cities were ticking time bombs of disease. The plague was simply the flame that lit the fuse.
The “Black Death”
Today, we call this pandemic the Bubonic plague. But at the time, people had no idea what it was, so they called it like they saw it.
When you got infected with the bacteria, it would start to kill your flesh while you were still alive, turning it black. This, plus the fact that you were nearly guaranteed to die if you got it caused the people of the time to refer to this disease as simply the “Black Death.”
Well, that’s because it was.
Another thing that freaked people out was the speed with which it could kill you. Someone could go to bed feeling just a little bit off and never wake up in the morning. It worked that quickly.
In total, the Black Death killed around half of the population of Europe in the mid-thirteenth century. Yes, that number is right: one-half, one out of two, fifty percent.
However you want to put it, it’s a massive number, and it had a truly devastating effect on European and Middle Eastern society at the time.
The Plague’s Impact on Society
The Black Death was first and foremost a tragedy. It brought on unprecedented levels of human death and destruction and wreaked havoc on the daily lives of people at the time. But beyond this, the Plague, which was at its worst for less than 10 years, had far-reaching consequences on the history of the Middle Ages.
The Plague’s Impact on the Medieval Economy
The first is that it brought about complete and total economic collapse. The reasons for this are obvious: with half the people dead, there were half as many workers to do the work needed to keep society moving forward.
Trade also came to a screeching halt. People began to forget about exchanging goods with foreign lands and were forced instead to focus on providing for their own survival.
But the economic impacts of the Plague could be felt well into the next century.
Due to so much death, people across Europe stopped mining gold and silver, the two metals used to make coins. Over time, as people, mainly the aristocracy, kept spending money, the supply of coins in Europe dried up, creating the Bullion Famine of the late 15th century that created mass hunger and economic stagnation.
This crisis was caused by the basic fact that Europe ran out of gold and silver to make money. And when there’s no money, the economy screeches to a halt.
So, while it would have been horrible to experience the effects of the Black Death while the disease was spreading, surviving into the decades that followed wouldn’t have been much fun either.
The Rise of Religious Fanaticism
The Plague was a truly horrible thing to experience. And given the level of scientific knowledge people had at the time, it must have been even scarier. Today, we know that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses, and, for the most part, they can be defeated with antibiotics and vaccines.
The people of the Middle Ages didn’t know any of this. For all they knew, the Plague was a punishment from God for their sins. Considering how religious people were at the time, this was actually a pretty common belief.
As a result, people began to resort to some pretty crazy ideas, at least they seem crazy to us.
One of the most shocking was the increase in popularity of flagellations. This was the practice of beating oneself, sometimes almost to death, as a way of punishing yourself for your own sins. The idea was that if you did the punishment yourself, God would spare you the Plague.
Obviously, this didn’t work. But for people at the time, they were willing to try anything.
Modern images of the Middle Ages as a backwards time dominated by whacked out religious ideals usually come from this period. People were desperate, and religion was the only way they had to cope with and understand the horror that was unfolding in front of their eyes.
Europe After the Plague: The Enduring Impact of the Black Death
Eventually, the Plague subsided. The worst of it was over by 1360 AD, but cases continued to appear in alarming numbers for decades after. And even if cases didn’t appear, the fear remained. People worried that at any time an outbreak could occur and all they held dear would be lost.
This fear manifested itself in some ugly ways. One of the worst were the persecutions. Believing God was responsible for the Plague, the Christians of Europe sought other religious reasons for the horror. Many began to believe it was the fault of the Jewish people in Europe due to their “unholiness.”
Jewish communities across were persecuted, either politically or violently (meaning they were killed or beaten) in the years after the plague. This caused many of the Jews of Europe to move east and find new places to live.
Moving Towards Rebirth?
However, for as tragic as the plague was, it could almost be considered the darkest moment before the dawn. The massive amounts of death that occurred in such a short time shocked everyone, and in the period directly after the plague, there was a renewed interest in the arts, especially art that depicted happiness and beauty.
Something, anything, to get people’s minds off death and disease.
This emphasis caught on and combined with other changes in society to give birth to the Renaissance, an artistic movement that is often considered a golden age of European culture.
In the period after the Plague, scientific research also became increasingly important and people began turning away from the Church, leading to the Scientific Revolution that gave birth to the modern, industrial age.
Of course, there were many reasons why European history changed course in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the catastrophic nature of the Black Death was an important turning point that defines the Medieval story.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao