Social and Economic Effects of the Black Death
If you lived in Medieval Europe between the years of 1346 to 1352, you witnessed one of the worst natural disasters to hit Europe – the Black Death. The incurable disease swept through towns and villages with frightening speed,killing its victims within a few weeks. Many people thought it was the end of the world. Not surprisingly, social and economic changes resulted from the plague. Whether you were born a king’s son or a peasant slave, life as you knew it, would never be the same.
Short-Term Effects of the Black Death
The major short-term effect of the plague was shock. Losing half your family, seeing your neighbors healthy one day then dead the next morning created an atmosphere of fear, grief and hopelessness. Many people, overcome by depression, isolated themselves in their homes. Others mocked death, choosing to sing, drink and dance in the streets. Apathy followed shock. With so many dead, plague survivors lost interest in their appearance and neglected doing daily chores such as feeding their animals or tilling the land.
The Black Death disrupted the customs of daily life. There were few physicians to treat the ill or clergymen to deliver the dead’s last rites or comfort the sick. And for those who passed away, few lawyers were available to draw up wills. Because many believed the plague was spread by poisonous fumes from the dead, there was also a shortage of gravediggers so bands of beggars and criminals known as the becchini, or "brotherhood of gravediggers", filled this job. The becchini would ride into town ready to drink, carouse and ransack plague victims’ homes, then charge fat fees to cart away the many corpses littering the streets. Other groups of people called flagellants believed the plague was a direct punishment from God. They would travel across Europe whipping themselves with knotted ropes as an act of repentance.
Sadly, another group suffered horrible discrimination as a result of the plague. The predominantly Christian population blamed the Jews – Europe’s largest minority group at the time – for the terrible disease. They believed that the Jews, bent on world domination, were secretly poisoning the wells of Christian towns and cities. Thousands of innocent Jews, who had also suffered from the plague, were slaughtered in dozens of European communities.
Social and Economic Effects of the Black Death
Some social changes caused by the Black Death were positive. Before the plague, peasant serfs were confined to their lord’s estate and received little or no payment for their work . Overpopulation and shortage of resources led to malnutrition and extreme poverty for many peasants. After so many people died, serfs were free to move to other estates that provided better conditions and receive top pay for their work. Landowners, desperate for their labor, often provided free tools, housing, seed and farmland . The worker farmed all he could and paid only the rent.
Serfs improved their standard of living too. Modern day archaeologists have found evidence that prior to the Black Death, most of the peasants relied on clay pots to cook their meals but in years following the plague pandemic, households used more expensive metal cookware.
In 1349, King Edward III of England tried to roll back these gains made by commoners by issuing a law to freeze wages to pre-plague levels. Employers facing a severe labor shortage ignored them.
European’s nobility had other problems. Entire family lines disappeared because the plague had left them with no heir. Their estates, which had taken generations to build, were swallowed up by another distantly related family.
Other attempts were made to maintain division between the social classes. In 1363, England’s legislative arm, Parliament,passed "sumptuary laws", forbidding non-aristocrats from wearing certain types of clothing. For example, well-off commoners were restricted to wearing lambskin and laborers were only allowed to wear cat or rabbit fur. Sable could only be worn by Europe’s noble class. These laws also proved impossible to enforce.
Eventually two popular uprisings, La Jacquerie in France in 1358 and the Peasant’s Revolt in England in1381 followed the Black Death. Although the social and economic effects of the plague were not the primary cause for the downfall of feudalism and the rise of a mercantile class, most historians agree the Black Death contributed to it.
If you want to read more about the Black Death, check out the books below at your local library.
The Black Death, L.C. Slavecek, Infobase Publishing, 2008
The Black Death, Ziegler, P., HarperCollins, 1969