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College Essay on Black Death



The early fourteenth century was an era of emerging commerce for Europe and Asia. Trade routes such the Spice route and the Silk Road connected Europe and Asia. Seamen and merchants the Italian states provided a significant link between Europe and Asia continent. Population of Europe was growing at an extraordinary rate, so fast that the limits of food production were being reached quickly. A strong class of European society had developed with the nobility. A small middle class of mechanics and artisans enjoyed a happy life, but the majority of the population was stuck in serfdom at the bottom of the class structure. Lives of all people were soon to change for the period of the great dying, brought about by the Black Death that was approaching.


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The Black Death serves as a convenient separator between the late middle and the central Ages. The changes between the two periods are huge; they include the introduction of gunpowder, economic and demographic crises, increased importance of cities, powerful new currents in culture and religion, political dislocation and realignment. Overall, the later middle Ages are usually characterized as a period of trouble and crisis. The Black Death plague exacerbated problems and added new ones, and the tone of crisis was graver in the second half than in the first half of the fourteenth century. At the century’s mid-point, the Black Death served as a convenient demarcation (Philip, 1971).

Origins of the Black Death
First case of the Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s. No one really knows the reason. The plague bacillus was active and alive long before that; indeed Europe itself had suffered a plague in the sixth century. Whatever the reason are there, we know that the outbreak of the Black Death began there and spread outward.
While it went west, it spread in all directions, and the European and Asian nations suffered as cruelly as anywhere. In China alone, for example, the population dropped from around 125 million to 90 million in fourteenth century.
The Black Death was one of the worst natural disasters in history. In 1347 A.D., the Black Death swept over Europe, ravaged cities causing widespread death and hysteria causing one third of the population of Europe died due to the Black Death.
"The impact upon the future of England was greater than upon any other European country." (Frederick, 1991)
The primary sources in spreading this disease were oriental rat fleas carried on the back of rats.

Black Death in Europe
The Black Death moved along the caravan routes toward the West. By 1345 it was on the lower Volga River and by 1346 it was in the Crimea and the Caucasus. In 1347 it reached in Constantinople. It also hit Alexandria, Egypt in the autumn of that year, and by spring of 1348, more than thousand people were dying there per day. In Cairo the count of death was seven times that.
1348 was worst year for the Black Death in Europe. It took little bit longer to reach the periphery of Europe. Plague reached Norway in May 1349. The eastern European states were not reached until 1350, and Russia was not hit until 1351.
Because the Black Death tended to follow major trade routes, and to concentrate in big cities, it followed a circuitous route. The progress of the Black Death very neatly describes the exact geography of medieval trade. No one was safe from the Black Death, not in one’s home, not in one’s room and not in the city. The scourge of the plague was everywhere. There weren’t enough clerics alive to have proper funerals (William, Andrew, 2000).

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Cultural Issues and Response
The Black Death had large-scale culture and economic issues and effects. People left their family and friends, fled cities, and cut themselves from the world. Funeral ceremonies became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and all development work was ceased. Some people felt that the wrath of God was descending upon man, and they fought the Black Death with prayers. Some people felt that they should obey the sayings; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may leave this world.
The cultures experienced a disturbance to an extent normally only seen in arranged circumstances such as carnival. Faith in religion was rapidly decreasing after the Black Death, because of the so many deaths the complete failure of prayers to prevent death and sickness.

Before the unknown terror, brave men became frightened and men of responsibility left their charges. Judges fled from stricken cities, doctors refused to attend the sick person, clergymen refused to administer the sacraments, and notaries refused to write the wills. Few people had the courage to expose themselves by burying the dead. The Black Death disease killed off a large portion of Europe's population. The Black Death is more effective when it attacks weakened people at that time Europe was already weakened by exhaustion of the soil because of weak farming, the persistent Scottish invasions and the introduction of more sheep, which greatly reduced the land available for corn. Fleas infected with the Black Death would jump from rats to travelers, killing thousands and infesting the continent with earth shaking fear. Normal people were afraid of the death, causing them to alter their views on their cultures, which include: leisure, art and work. Even children suffered from this plague.

The Black Death disease crept gradually into the spare time time of people of all class, no matter how much the rich attempted to stay way from it or how little time the poor person had for recreation. Death was used for laughter and funeral processions were used as jokes. People were standing at the point where deaths were ignored altogether and deaths were routine of daily life.

The damage caused to art by the Black Death is irreparable. As a result of deaths in the church, written language was nearly lost and whole church and prayers places were abandoned. Coffins had various pictures of corpses on the cover, normally showing a very pleasing likeness of the body and inside wearing their finest clothes. Painting was also affected. There are various types of paintings containing people socializing with skeletons. Artists abandoned old ways and methods of painting things idolized by the Christian religion. All artists were so depressed by the death that surrounded them that they started to paint pictures of dead and sad people.

The change in spirituality was one of the major cultural effects of the plague. The Black Death left survivors depressed, mourning, and fearful of its return. The church's power had weakened during this period. The most common belief was that the Black Death had been sent by God and that it was the punishment for the sins. People were dependant on their religion to get them through the difficulties of life, and when their prayers failed to save them from the Black Death they lost trust in religion and church.


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Soon after the outbreak of the Black Death, the views on children also changed. Although carrying on the family or sir name was still important, the birth rate dropped dramatically. Some parents abandoned their children. Boccaccio is emotional as he describes the breakdown of families: “The fact was that one citizen avoided another, that almost no one cared for his neighbor, and that relatives rarely or hardly ever visited each other - they stayed far apart. This disaster had struck such fear into the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle abandoned nephew, sister left brother; and very often wife abandoned husband, and - even worse, almost unbelievable - fathers and mothers neglected to tend and care for their children, as if they were not their own.” (Boccaccio, 1930)

Children were considered ‘not worth for the Black Death trouble’ It took almost four hundred years before Europe's population equaled the pre-Black Death counts. The demand for farming workers gave remaining people a new bargaining power. Workers who were formerly bound to the land now could easily travel and demand higher wages for their work and services. In addition, people left rural areas and migrated to big and developed cities for higher wages. The cultural structure of land-based wealth shifted. Portable wealth in the form of skills, money and services emerged. Cities and small towns grew while large manors and estates began to collapse. The very social, cultural, and political structure of Europe was changed forever. One small insect, a flea, collapsed whole government system and changed the course of history in Europe. With such a frightening thing as the plague to contend with, people changed their attitudes about cultural values.

"From these and many similar or worse occurrences, there came about such fear and such fantastic notions among those who remained alive that almost all of them took a very cruel attitude in the matter; that is, they completely avoided the sick and their possessions; and in doing so, each one believed that he was protecting his good health." (Boccaccio, 1930)

The Black Death also had its economic effect. The Black Death, which in just few months carried off over half the population of some towns was major reason for economic and cultural problems. If the Black Death greatly reduced the number of consumers and was the main reason of the decline in trade, it also reduced even more significantly the number of producers, since the badly fed workers were more vulnerable to the disease than other people. As a result of this, for over a century there was a great shortage of workers, so employers were forced to pay higher salaries regardless of their resistance.
The economy underwent extreme and unexpected inflations. It was so dangerous and difficult to acquire goods through trade and to produce them due to less demand and low price. Because of frequent deaths and illness workers became exceedingly scarce.
Construction projects were stopped and abandoned, associations lost their all workers, without the ability to replace them, important machinery was out of order, and workers with the ability to repair them were dead. Due to the severe shortage of workers, many city governments began to advertise for specialists at extremely high wages. Living standard rose for those who were still alive, as there was an over-supply of products at low prices.

Since so many people died during the plague, the peasants now had a broad variety of work available to them. They demanded wages in addition to better working environments. If the landlord failed to provide these facilities, the peasants would simply leave to find better work somewhere else. As already mentioned, the prices for many products dropped because of the less demand for them. On the contrary, prices of some products were very high, like specialty items that needed to be made by a qualified craftsman. The government attempted to interfere by making rules that would restrict the employees from changing work too frequently and setting salary limits. Government wanted to return to the central system but unfortunately it was too late, the Black Death had changed the economy irreversibly.

Serfs were no longer tied to single master; if one left the land, another lord would immediately hire them. The lords had to make various changes in order to make the situation more cost-effective for the peasant. In general, wages greatly outpaced prices, so the standard of normal people was subsequently raised. As a result of the beginning of blurring economic distinctions, culture distinctions sharpened. The peasants became somewhat more empower, and revolted when the nobility attempted to oppose the changes brought about by the Black Death. The social and cultural structure of Europe was irretrievably and drastically and changed.

When the Black Death raised the level of leisure, the people kept it up. The population was also a cause of disruption in the economy because less population means less tax, however the economy improved later. If the Black Death had any effect on current economy, it would be that prices of goods are not as high as they would have been because there was a century where the economy made no progress and there was no development at all. As stated above art was also a major victim of the Black Death because paintings are ever lasting record. The plague also benefited art. Death inspired artists to stay away from religious pictorials. The art is still a relatively easy thing to find and as a good reminder of how the people can panic when there is a great fear around them.

Works Cited

Boccaccio, “The Decameron Vol. I”, 1930
Frederick F. Cartwright, “Disease and History, Dorset Press, New York”, 1999
Philip Ziegler, “The Black Death”, 1971
William Naphy, Andrew Spicer, “The Black Death and the History of Plagues 1345-1730”, 2000



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