The epidemics of infectious diseases have always had a strong impact on the life of the society. One can easily recall the catastrophic epidemics of the past, which has resulted in the entire cities dying out. In particular, the mankind will always remember the plague epidemic called the Black Death that took the lives of a quarter of Europe’s population in the XIV century. The plague has come to Europe several times, but the epidemic of the XIV century was the most severe out of them. It has occurred predominantly in the bubonic form, affecting the population of Asia, Europe (1346-1350), North Africa, and Greenland. By the end of 1347, the plague has reached Marseilles, covering the territory of France and Spain. Through the major ports of southern Europe, the epidemic has reached England, Norway, Schleswig-Holstein, Jutland and Dalmatia, and, finally, Germany. The mortality rate was very high since almost no one of the affected people was able to recover. From one-third to a half of the population of large cities died from the plague. The small towns often died out completely. The contemporary medicine could not explain the causes and spread of disease and suggest the efficient treatment for it. The plague was seen as a punishment for the sins of people. In particular, Pope Clement VI has referred to the plague as to a secret judgment of God.
It is clear that such serious and large-scale epidemic would have had a significant impact on the society, resulting in its irreversible changes, which have attracted the attention of many historians and chroniclers. Therefore, the following research is dedicated to the study of the cultural and social consequences of the Black Death to Europe examined by historians, and the potential changes in the mentality of the contemporary society that were triggered by them.
Despite the fact that the views of the historians on the social consequences of the Black Death are quite different, all of them agree on their significance. In particular, David Herlihy notes that the most significant consequence of the epidemic was a sharp decrease in the number of people, thus destabilizing social relations that seemed to be unshakable. In turn, the European feudalism gave its first crack. Many shops that were virtually closed as the craft was passed on from father to son were taking new people. The Church was also forced to recruit the new clergy because of its significant depletion as a result of the epidemic. In addition, the lack of men in the sphere of production has resulted in the involvement of women in it, resulting in their engagement in activities that were previously considered as not fitting for them.
On the other hand, Philip Ziegler considers the decrease of the influence of the Church as a significant social consequence of the plague. The accusations of greed and simony (purchase and sale of church positions, sacred rites, and sacraments) as well as the apparent helplessness of the clergy in the fight against the disease have weakened its influence. In addition, the number of priests and monks fell by almost 40%, with a huge number of churches being empty. Trying to fill this gap, the higher clergy was forced to reduce the requirements for candidates. As a result, the new contingent of the churches has become younger and more ignorant than usual. Due to the Black Death, the level of education of the clergy, which was high enough before the plague epidemic, decreased drastically. All these factors have put an end to the dominant position of the Church in the European society.
Various historians, including Herlihy, also regard the change in the labor relationships as a social consequence of the Black Death. In particular, the shortage of the workforce has allowed day laborers, farm laborers and various servants to bargain with their employers, demanding the best working conditions and higher pay for themselves. Survivors were often in the position of wealthy heirs that received the land and revenues of the relatives that died during the great epidemic. The lower class immediately took advantage of this circumstance in order to get a higher position and power for themselves. In particular, the commons started demanding the most expensive and exquisite dishes for themselves. Women and children flaunted lush dresses that previously belonged to the people, which did not survive the plague. Even inexperienced and untrained servants as well as artisans and workers in the fields required an increased payment for their services. All these factors have determined the development of bourgeoisie – a social class, which has defined the fate of the entire Europe in the following centuries. Moreover, William Naphy and Andrew Spicer note that the lack of manpower in the agricultural sector has resulted in the gradual changes in the structure of production. In particular, many grain fields were turned into pastures for cattle, where one or two of the shepherd could handle the huge herds of cows and sheep. In the cities, the high cost of manual labor has led to an increase in the number of attempts to mechanize the production, which allowed enjoying the fruits in the following centuries.
The mentioned changes inflicted by the Black Death have also influenced the economy of the medieval Europe. Naphy and Spicer have noted that the second half of the XIV century was characterized by the growth of inflation and high food prices (especially for bread, as a decrease in the number of workers in agricultural sector has affected its production). Losing its power, the upper class has tried to go on the offensive. In particular, in 1351, the Parliament of England has accepted the Statute of Laborers, prohibiting paying the workers more than before the epidemic. The taxes have been increased in order to retain the boundary, which has been blurred after the epidemic, between social classes and make it inviolable by accepting the laws of luxury. Thus, depending on the position in the social hierarchy, there were limits on the number of horses one could possess, the length of women’s loops, the number of meals served at the table, and even the number of mourners attending the funeral. However, all the attempts to ensure that such laws were followed by the people were in vain.
In response to the attempt to limit their rights that were won at a heavy cost, the lower class has responded with an armed action. In particular, John Hatcher studies a wave of revolts against the tax authorities and the governments that has spread throughout Europe to the Black Death. Many of them were brutally suppressed; nevertheless, the claims of the upper class were restricted for a long time, which has led to a rather rapid disappearance of corvee duties and mass transfer from feudal relations to the land lease. The growth of self-consciousness of the Third Estate, which started in the days of the epidemic, has not stopped and reached its peak during the bourgeois revolution. In turn, this fact has led to a peasant uprising in 1381, with the rebels reaching London, burning the Savoy Palace that belonged to John of Gaunt, and killing the chancellor and treasurer. Their primary demand was the abolition of serfdom; they did not rest until the intervention of the king. The uprising was eventually crushed, but the social changes it has triggered were irreversible. As a result, by 1400, serfdom in England has come to naught, being replaced with a system of so-called copyhold.
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Thus, from the point of view of the modern historians, the plague epidemic can be considered a major social crisis. Despite each of the historians proposes a unique overview of its consequences, the combination of their findings allows receiving a rather precise picture of the effects it had on the society. The epidemic did not just lead to a significant loss of population, which, fortunately, has managed to grow later. It had a significant impact on the very history of the Middle Ages, leading to the emergence of reformist currents in the Church as a result of the distrust of people to it as well as their disapproval of the activities of the clergy. It has also played a huge role in the development of public relations that included peasant revolts, the weakening of feudal dependence, and the emergence of the first labor legislation.
Along with its social impact, all the historians agree that the Black Death had a significant impact on the European culture. They note that, from the point of view of medieval man, the plague was highly unusual as it killed young and old, wealthy and poor people indiscriminately. The death from it was inexplicable and unpredictable, which had a strong impression on the minds of people. Taking into account the significance of religion in the life of the contemporary society, it is clear that the plague was considered a punishment for the sins of humanity. Thus, it was believed that mankind could be saved only through the consolation of God’s wrath with prayers and tortures of the flesh. In the minds of the masses, the epidemic took the form of arrows the enraged God has thrown at people. The evidence of such perception can be found in the contemporary art as well as that created after the plague. In particular, the image on the church altar panels in Gottingen, Germany (1424) shows how God punishes people with arrows, seventeen of which have already hit the target. The Gozzoli’s fresco in San Gimignano, Italy (1464) depicts God firing the poisoned arrows to the city.
Samuel Cohn notes that the epidemic has started a new tradition among the Christians. Searching for protection from the wrath of God, the faithful sought the intercession of saints. It should be noted that the plague has not spread in Europe since the times of Emperor Justinian and, therefore, there was no need for such intercession. Saint Sebastian, who protects people from diseases, is traditionally depicted as being pierced by an arrow. In addition, the image of Saint Roch, pointing at plague bubo on his left hip, has become quite common. Finally, Holy Virgin was also considered an intercessor, depicted with a heart pierced with spears or arrows as a sign of mourning. Such images have begun to spread during and after the epidemic, sometimes being combined with the images of an angry deity.
In addition, Cohn claims that the Black Death has influenced the contemporary art, leaving a rich cultural heritage. In particular, one of the famous images of the time was the Dance of Death (La Danse Macabre) illustrating dancing skeletons. The painting by Pieter Bruegel named The Triumph of Death depicts skeletons, symbolizing the plague, which kill all the living things. Florentine plague was the background for the famous Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Petrarch has mentioned plague in his famous poems to Laura that has died during an epidemic in Avignon. Troubadour Peire Lunel de Montech has described the plague epidemic in Toulouse in a series of mournful Sirventes.
As described by Cohn, the plague has also influenced the very mentality of people. The records made by the contemporary chroniclers show that the frenzied repentance and mortification of the flesh was rather common at the time. In 1349, the processions of flagellants have become quite common in Europe, except Britain and Denmark. Half-naked participants were moving from town to town, carrying the red crosses of the penitents. Standing before the altars in the temples, they mercilessly flogged each other with whips. In the penitential songs and prayers, bloody and mad people asked God to stop the plague. On the other hand, many historians and chroniclers note the unbridled revelry caused by the plague: the entire cities in France and Germany were singing and dancing. Noisy weddings were conducted, lavish dinners were given, and magistrates staged entertainment marches and masquerades. The reasoning behind this behavior was the inevitability and unpredictability of death at the time. Therefore, people wanted to live the life to the full, without being restrained by moral and religious limitations. Such attitude has also contributed to the consequent changes in the mentality of the Europeans.
In addition to the decadent mood, the epidemic has caused total destruction of the contemporary traditions; for example, even the funeral rites have been changed. Naphy and Spicer connect it to the extremely high mortality rate. Indeed, people were dying so often and in such large quantities that they were no longer buried in the individual graves. In particular, the lack of place for the traditional burials in Avignon has forced Pope Clement VI to allow the burial of the dead in the waters of the Rhone River. However, the burning of people that have died from the plague, which was common to the antiquity, was rarely practiced. By perceiving the cemetery as a sacred place, people living in the Middle Ages did not dare to arrange burial far from towns or use lime to disinfect the plague grave, which exacerbated the problem.
However, despite the mentioned decadence and ignorance of the society, the period after the plague epidemic was a perfect time for producing new ideas and awakening the medieval mind. In the face of grave danger, medicine has awoken from a long slumber, entering a new stage of its development. However, as noted by Cohn, this development was rather polarized. On the one hand, the medieval doctors were powerless against the epidemic. In particular, the father of the French surgery, Guy de Chauliac, has referred to the plague as to a humiliating disease. The Franco-Italian physician, Raymond Chalin de Vinario, has claimed that one cannot blame the doctors that refuse to help the people suffering from the plague as no one wanted to follow the patient to an early grave. However, even in spite of difficulties, the doctors tried to treat their patients and study the mechanisms of the disease. Despite the fact that the disease was incurable at the time, scientists and doctors did not remain indifferent to it, which has resulted in the emergence of an independent genre of the medieval literature – the so-called plague works. One of the first works was a treatise named Compendium de Epidemia, which is referring to 1348, i.e. the initial period of the Black Death. Due to the intensive studies of the disease, the mechanism of its distribution has been identified, which has allowed developing a set of preventive and protective measures against it. Therefore, the Black Death has played an important role in changing the status of doctor in the European culture. It has also resulted in the emergence of health legislation and urban sanitation, namely the introduction of quarantine. In the XVI-XVII centuries, the status of the so-called urban doctors has also been improved. As a result, a large number of medical universities have been created throughout Europe.
Finally, Colin Platt claims that the plague has resulted in the change of moral values in the society. In particular, the omnipresence of death has led to the spread of piety in the higher strata of society. For example, several colleges of Cambridge University were founded shortly after the end of the epidemic. Among them is Trinity Hall; it is ranked fifth in the list of the oldest educational institutions in the United Kingdom founded by William Bateman, the Bishop of Norwich. The Black Death has led to the loss of a significant part of the English population; Bishop Bateman himself has lost about seven hundreds of priests. Therefore, the decision to build a new college was made due to the need for refreshing the clergy. Thus, at first, Trinity Hall was a source of manpower for the English churches prior to becoming one of the major educational facilities of England.
Thus, the historians have different points of view on the cultural consequences of the Black Death for Europe. However, all of them agree on the statement that the Black Death gave a push to the cultural development of the European society. In particular, education and medicine have received much attention as a means of countering the effects of the disease. In addition, it has lead to the transformation of the system of moral values of the society, resulting in a more unrestrained although sometimes zealous attitude of the people towards life. Finally, it has provided a rich background for the contemporary art.
After analyzing the insights on the consequences of the Black Death provided by various historians, it is possible to conclude that it has changed the very mentality of the Europeans. The dissatisfaction with the actions of both the nobility and the Church has resulted in the growth of self-consciousness of the Third Estate (peasants and commoners). Moreover, the lack of the workforce and the excessive amount of resources has allowed people to dictate the rules to the upper class. Taking into account the fact that the price of such self-consciousness as well as the newly acquired rights was quite high, it becomes clear that people were willing to protect them at all costs. This statement can be justified by the excessive number of revolts that took place during the plague epidemic and after it. In addition, with the Church losing its previously unshakable social status, people have started rethinking their place in the world. This effect has been strengthened by the incurability of the disease, and, therefore, the unavoidability of death, which meant that the mankind could depend only on itself. Such thinking has given a boost to the development of many areas of science, which was also fueled by the desire to understand the world even better. In particular, the Black Death had a significant impact on the development of medicine, resulting in the emergence of the new preventive measures that are used even today, namely quarantine. In addition, the omnipresence of death has given an inspiration to a wide array of artists, poets, and musicians, which have left a rich cultural heritage. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the Black Death has triggered a change in the mentality of the European society, being a moment of crisis that has signified the world’s passing from the Middle Ages to the modern times. In turn, it has resulted in the significant changes in the social structure, the development of natural sciences, and, therefore, has contributed to the evolution of the world to its modern state.