The Black Death

There were two important forms of the plague. One, the bubonic plague, was characterized by high fever and glandular swelling in the groin and the armpits. Its bacilli developed in black rats and were carried from them to humans by fleas. The other, the pneumonic plaque, was a lung disease transmitted from one person to another by coughing and sneezing.

The first catastrophic epidemic of the plague during the late Middle Ages has become known as the Black Death. It apparently originated in Asia and moved westward along the trade routes, entering Europe in 1347 during a period of inadequate harvests, when the poor had little natural resistance to combat the disease. In three years, the Black Death spread to nearly every country in Christendom, decimating the villages and towns in its path. Such obvious symptoms as gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs, violent pains in the chest, vomiting and spitting of blood, pestilential odor from bodies and breath, tumors in the groin, arm pits and the neck, constipation or diarrhea, and purple spots (caused by subcutaneous hemorrhages) marked the victims. Frequent stabs of pain gave rise to the conviction that the stricken were being shot with arrows by some invisible demon.

Most estimates suggest over one-fourth of the population of Europe was wiped out, the losses being heavier among the poor than the rich, the elderly than the young. Some localities suffered severely, others lightly, but after the plague had spent its force around 1350, it returned with almost equal vehemence in 1360-61 and many times thereafter.

The little town of Givry in Burgundy had about l,600 inhabitants when the plague arrived in 1348, but between August 5 and November 19 there were 615 deaths. The city of Florence had 114,000 inhabitants in 1338, and only 45,000 to 50,000 in 1351. Partial recovery followed in most localities, only to be halted by the return of the plague, so that the north German cities were at least 20 per cent smaller at the end of the 15th century than they were at the beginning of the 14th. Zurich had 12,375 inhabitants in 1350 and 4,713 in 1468. Catalonia, a country in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, recovered rapidly from the first onslaught and boasted 95,000 homesteads in 1365, but in 1497 it had only 59,000. England had 3,700,000 inhabitants when the Black Death struck in 1348, but only 2,100,000 in the early 15th century.

As high a percentage of the population lost their lives as is usually predicted if Europe were subjected to nuclear war. When the plague struck a city, it moved rapidly, often taking a proportion of the population equal to that killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is difficult to evaluate the impact of the Black Death on European civilization. The modern world has not yet had to suffer so acutely either from Disease or war. Today, when epidemics strike, the suffering can be attributed to natural causes and mitigated by medical and social services. The 14th century man, on the other hand, often thought in terms of an angry God or of vengeful demons. To the horror of death was added the fear of the supernatural and inexplicable and inexpiable.

A Flemish chronicler thought he knew what happened: He wrote how,"in the East, hard by Greater India, in a certain province, certain horrors and unheard-of tempests overwhelmed the whole province for the space of three days. On the first day there was a rain of frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions, and many venomous beasts of that sort. On the second, thunder was heard, and lightning and sheets of fire fell upon the earth, mingled with hailstones of marvelous size, which slew almost all, from the greatest even to the least. On the third day there fell fire from heaven and stinking smoke, which slew all that were left of men and beasts, and burned up all the cities and towns in those parts. By these tempests the whole seashore and surrounding lands were infected, and are waxing more and more venomous from day to day. And now it cometh round the seacoasts, by God's will, after the following fashion.

For, in Jan. of the year 1348, three galleys touched at Genoa, driven by a fierce blast from the East, horribly infected and laden with divers spices and other weighty goods. When the men of Genoa learned this, and saw how suddenly and irremediably they infected other folk, they were driven forth from that port by fiery arrows and divers engines of war. For no man dared touch them. Nor could any man deal with them in merchandise, but he would die forthwith. Thus, they were scattered from port to port, till at length one of these aforesaid three galleys came to Marseilles. At whose coming all who took precautions were infected and died forthwith."

Before the unknown horror, brave men became panic-stricken and men of responsibility deserted their charges. Magistrates fled from stricken cities, physicians refused to attend the sick, clergymen to administer the sacraments, and notaries to write the wills of the dying. Few had the courage to expose themselves by burying the dead. "Neither kinsfolk nor friends nor priests nor friars went with the corpses, nor was the funeral office sung," wrote a Sienese chronicler, "and I, Angelo da Tura, buried five of mine own children in one grave with mine own hands, and so did many others likewise. And beyond this some of them were so ill covered that the dogs drew them forth and at many bodies about the city."

As though war and plague were not enough, three hundred years of economic advance came to an end in the early 14th c. The causes of this economic decline are not fully known, but the fact that there were signs of it in some places before the Black Death or the wars suggests that the economic system itself was at fault. By 1300, in the more thickly populated portions of Europe, there was no new land suitable for farming, and there were indications of lower yields per acre because of land exhaustion or the use of marginal fields. New technological advances were necessary if food was to be found for a population that increased rapidly unless checked by war or disease. But medieval Europeans failed to meet the challenge. No new ways were found to improve agriculture and there were widespread famines. Not until the eighteenth century did technological progress and social change permit new advances comparable to those achieved during the high Middle Ages.

The wars and plagues also had their economic effect. Certainly the Black Death, which in a few months carried off over half the population of some towns. was significant, although economically less catastrophic than one might think. If it sharply reduced the number of consumers and accounted for much of the decline in trade that surviving statistics suggest, it also reduced even more substantially the number of producers, since the poorly fed workers were more susceptible to disease than be well-to-do burghers. As a result, for over a century there was a shortage of workers that forced employers to pay higher wages in spite of their resistance, and the standard of living of the lower classes actually improved.

More serious for the urban economy, perhaps, were the wars that disrupted trade and led several kings to repudiate the debts which they had incurred to put armies in the field. When, for example, Edward III of England failed to meet his financial obligations in 1343, two great Florentine merchant- banking houses were bankrupted and other firms were adversely affected. Thus, the Hundred Years War between England and France damaged the Italian economy and contributed to the depression.

The cessation of economic progress led to social strife in the towns. The merchants, who had hitherto played the dominant role in municipal government, now sought to use their political power to support their economic position. Their interests frequently clashed with those of the craft guilds, because the latter, faced with declining markets, sought to raise protective tariff walls around their towns to prevent outside competition. They also tried to make more stringent economic regulations within the towns and to halt, forcibly in some instances, the manufacture of cloth in neighboring villages. The merchants, of course, tried to block these efforts because they depended on inter-urban and international trade. They were assisted by the handful of industrialists who were circumventing the guild system by arranging for peasants to make cloth in neighboring villages. Revolt often seemed the only recourse for the craft guilds, and there were frequent uprisings in the Low Countries and northern Italy where the economy had been further advanced and where, therefore, the depression caused the most unrest.

Rural agitation was equally severe, for the noble was badly hurt by the economic decline and sought to make good his losses at the expense of the peasant. The Black Death and the wars created a labor shortage in the country as in the towns. This shortage forced the price of agricultural labor up, but the nobles tried to circumvent this natural rise by every means in their power. Prior to the catastrophes, they had usually found it to their advantage to free their serfs and to commute their labor services into money rent, but they now tried to halt this movement in order to avoid paying high wages.

Thus, these were years of trial for the noble as well as the peasant, for the merchant as well as the guildmaster and the journeyman. The old order had ceased to work and no one fully understood why.

During the late Middle Ages than, Europeans lived in the midst of wars, plagues, and social unrest. The Church was still in need of reform. Heresy was spreading. The old authorities--whether king, noble, or pope--were discredited in many eyes. Old customs no longer sufficed and old institutions no longer worked. No one understood what was happening and no one had a bold, original program to propose for the future. The idea of earthly progress. of economic, social and moral betterment had scarcely been born. The optimism that had characterized the 13th century yielded to a profound pessimism: "I, man of sadness, born in an eclipse of darkness, and thick fogs of lamentation," wrote one chronicler, and his autobiographical sketch could have applied to the age as a whole.

Because the world seemed to be disintegrating, an emotional instability replaced the serenity of the earlier age. Man laughed and cried at the slightest provocation. They were alternately cruel and merciful, generous and grasping, devout and immoral, loyal and treacherous. This tendency towards opposite extremes resulted from the general insecurity of the age and has been called "the violent tenor of life." Some sought to restore the old system by glorifying its customs and values to the point of absurdity.

The tendency towards extremism can be found in the religious life of the period. Fasting and mortification of the flesh were practiced by some to a degree unknown before, but there were instances of equally extreme forms of licentiousness. Mysticism and religious emotionalism flourished in many forms, yet there were those who sought the assistance of the devil. Gilles de Rais (1404?-1440), patron of the arts, one-time companion of Joan of Arc, and Marshal of France, sold himself to the devil in return for knowledge, power, and wealth. In the diabolical rituals performed in his castle, he and his cohorts sacrificed scores of children.

Others sought contact with the underworld, and their crimes lent a small degree of justification for an increase in the number of trials for witchcraft. However, the vast majority of those who were condemned for witchcraft suffered because their fellow men could imagine only two reasons for the disasters of the period: either an angry God was punishing them for their sins or their neighbors had turned the demons of the underworld loose upon them.

Perhaps the temper of the age can be seen best through its abnormal preoccupation with death and decay. In sculpture, in painting, and in stained glass, the human body was often depicted as it would appear after death, with the flesh first appeared, the Dance of Death. That crowded city did not have enough cemetery space to bury its many dead. After a corpse had rested for a brief period in the Cemetery of the Innocents in the heart of the city, it was dug up to make room for another. The bones were piled in the charnel houses, without distinction of rank, for all to see, a lesson in the frailty of earthly glory and a suggestion that even death brought no repose.

This scene in the daily life of the Parisian inspired an artist to paint along the cemetery.s cloistered walls a series of persons fully clothed in all the dignity of their earthly station but each figure accompanied by its own future corpse, leading it onward to the dance of the dead. Had this macabre theme been confined to the cloister wall of the Cemetery of the Innocents, it would have had little significance. But it was reproduced in many churches, it influenced such great writers as Francois Villon, it was acted out at the court of the dukes of Burgundy, and it was depicted in a book as early as 14 85. The motif had a meaning for the age that it is difficult for us to understand.

Thus, the medieval civilization was dying and seemed almost conscious of its fate. The experience was painful, especially in France and the western portions of the Empire where the roots of that civilization were deepest. In dying, it would give birth to something new.


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