The Black Death and the Crisis of the Later Middle Age Essay

The Black Death and the Crisis of the Later Middle Age


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The Black Death was a catastrophic plague epidemic that severely afflicted the demographic and economic structure of middle age Europe. The disease raged through Europe from 1347 to 1351, and there are estimates that during these four years, it consumed approximately 20-25% of European population of the time[1]. The social, economic, religious and cultural setback of almost sudden demise of a significant proportion of the population was profound and it brought an upheaval in the outlook, approach and beliefs of the remaining people. Entire villages, towns and provinces were swept clean by the diseases, and it necessitated a foundational change of social structure in Europe to run the affairs of kingdoms and nations.  There are still academic disputes on the origin of the disease, its actual form, its possible spread rout, and the true number of people it killed. However, the common agreeing point among all the disputes is that Black Death caused heaviest known mortality in the recorded human history and it precipitated a crisis that was instrumental in shaping forthcoming years of Europe.

Time Line of the Disease

Creditable evidences point that the virus of Black Death originated in Tche province of China in 1333 where it killed almost 5 million people and from there it followed the trade routes to the West, creating a wide trail of death and destruction in its path through entire Asia. Whole villages and towns and even provinces, were depopulated in many countries. In some places ass in India the casualty was more than 90 percent[2]. The universality of the disease did not leave any area untouched in its path and it took an equally heavy toll on Mongol Empire as well.  The disease moved from China to Crimea and from there it routed Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt before entering Constantinople, the gateway of Europe.

By 1347-48 the disease had reached Sicily and Venice and had caused enormous death toll across entire Italy by 1348. Within months, it swiftly spread to the neigboring Europe, including Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and Hungary. In France, the disease reached in October, 1348, after virtually destroying Gascony and Spain[3]. The mortality was so great in France that cemeteries were soon filled and the dead bodies were thrown into rivers to prevent their decay. People were forced to open new cemeteries where bodies were simply laid on top of each other. In the August of the same year, the Black Death  entered England. Scotland contracted the disease when it made the mistake of attacking England in 1948 and from there it spread to Ireland. England was a trading nation and due to its close connections with most of the Europe, it also provided the disease with its biggest expansion route.  From England the trading ships carried Black Plague to Norway, in 1349, from where it spread to Sweden, Denmark, northern Germany and Russia by 1351, completing a full circle of entire Europe[4].

Consequences of Black Death

The first question that we face is- What was the final mortality count? In all honesty, it is impossible to know the exact number of people who died by the disease. Accounts by many contemporary writers are certainly magnified version of reality and their writings were composed in days of black terror and fear of impending death. However, the final death toll is likely to be much less than ‘half the population died’ belief widely held, and 22-25 percent of casualty comes more close to actual figure. But, it must be kept in mind that even this percentage implied death of almost a 50 million people, a toll that would had most certainly wrecked both physical and psychological havoc through Europe.

The immediate impact of Black Death was to create a sudden surplus of commodities and goods in market at extremely low prices. The chief characteristic of Black Death was killing masses in their entirety, which implied that properties and goods of entire villages and towns that were wiped cleaned by the plague were left unclaimed once the epidemic was over. These accumulated stores of goods, real properties, produces and valuable was swiftly taken over by survivors, who were living in a society that was seeing a partial breakdown of order and structure[5]. Availability of large hordes of almost free valuables and goods, such as expensive furs, silks, furniture, jewels, and even houses created a condition of economic chaos, unrest, fall in moral standards, lethargy and inefficiency on part of a significant proportion of the population[6]. Markets were brimming over with surplus goods and people eagerly used them to create a life of uncontrolled expenditure, luxury, greed, corruption, and hysteria. Indeed, many who had managed to survive, found themselves vastly richer than before, while those who survived but did not get rich, resorted to unethical means to seek the available fortune.

But, as it happened, these were the only benefits of the Black Death. Although individuals might had profited to certain degrees, Europe was standing on the brink of an economic breakdown. It’s agricultural and textile production had almost ceased during the years of plague, and suffered greatly further with the loss of a great number of working population. The goods and products of people dead from plague were over quite soon and prices started to soar and living become costlier than earlier. There was a shortage of labor in all the spheres of life, and those who could work, they demanded exorbitant wages. Crops were wasted in farmlands as farmers could not afford price of labor, buildings fell to ruin as owners could find workers at reasonable price and textile and food producing units were forced to cut down production or shut  down due to unavailability of willing workforce. In fact the situation reached to such alarming state that both English and French governments were forced to pass laws, fixing the maximum wages and maximum prices of commodities[7].

On the social front, Black Death created a demographic void by eliminating or displacing vast number of people. In the places worst hit with the pestilence, survivors fled to the safest possible destinatoins within their reach. Population displacement led a great intermixing among European people, which in turn led to both great development and intense conflict in coming years.

The society witnessed a structural change due to vacuum created by the plague. The economic and commercial horizon had opened up, prompting many to change their profession, establish new kinds of business and rise quickly up the ladder of success. The plague also gave birth to new nobility, due to the heavy toll taken by the older and aristocratic nobles. Hence Europe saw a sudden decline in aristocratic manners and customs, and brutal uncouthness replaced former delicacy and civility of manners.

Governments across Europe were equally hard hit by plague. Thousands of their most experienced and effective employees had died or left the country, and just from the sheer necessity of running the offices, job postings were filled with anyone who was willing enough to take the offer. Naturally, the total absence of competent officers created a state of unchecked corruption, nepotism and personal aggrandizement, which took precedence for newly instated officers, leading to a buildup of anger against government.

A large part of this anger was also directed towards church. While people did not abandon their belief and faith in the face of vicious onslaught of Black Death, they became extremely critical of the institution of Church. We must remember that Church always claimed itself as representative of divine power and therefore when it could not provide a satisfactory explanation or remedy from Black Death, the short comings of its officials became more apparent to people[8].

It can be seen therefore that the aftermath of Black Death created a trans-European culture of corruption, growth in crime, falling moral standards, money laundering and profiteering, strikes, extravagance, flamboyance and complete disregard for authority on a scale that can be equated only one seen after the First and Second World War. And it is perhaps the best analogy because the extent of damage caused by plague could not be equated with anything else but a great war that raged and destroyed everything for 4 unhindered years, defying reason, faith and policy.


Benedictow, O.J. 2005. The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever. History Today.

Thompson, James Wesfall. Economic and Social History of Europe in the Later Middle Ages (1300-1530) James Westfall Thompson;. 545 pgs.

Homes, George. The Later Middle Ages, 1272-1485; Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962.

[1] Bendictow in The Black Death, 2005
[2] Thompson, in Economic and Social History of Europe.
[3] Thompson, in Economic and Social History of Europe.
[4] Holmes, in The Later Medieval Age.
[5] Thompson, in Economic and Social History of Europe.
[6] Thompson, in Economic and Social History of Europe.
[7] Holmes, The Later Medieval Age.
[8] Thompson, in Economic and Social History of Europe.