Thesis: Consequences of the Black Death in the 14th Century

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Consequences of the Black Death in the 14th Century

If a series of nuclear strikes on the United States today killed more than 76,000,000 Americans, everyone would be horrified, of course, but such a catastrophe would be comparable to the impact that the plague had on the nations of Europe during the 14th century when the Black Death ravaged rich and poor alike. Sweeping into Europe from the steppes of Mongolia, the Black Death struck without warning and to many observers of the era, it seemed like the end of the world was at hand and for millions of Europeans, it was. Entire families died as a result of the Black Death, a few families escaped its ravages entirely. Indeed, many people today may not realize the enormity of this event on the people of Europe during the 14th century. Therefore, to help shed some light on this momentous historical event, this paper provides a review of the relevant juried and scholarly literature to determine how and where the Black Death began and its consequences in Europe. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview

The 14th century witnessed a convergence of population densities, events and technologies that contributed to the spread of the Black Death from Asia to Europe. Although its precise origins may never be known, most authorities tend to agree that the Black Death originated in Asia and subsequently spread to the European continent and beyond. For instance, according to Swenson, "The origins of the Black Death were in Mongolia, where an increasingly inhospitable dry climate forced animal herders (whose animals had been infected by plague-ridden marmots) to go south, where they exposed migrating Mongol warriors to the disease" (2007, 59). While its precise origins remain unclear beyond these generalities, the people of the 14th century were unable to make the connection between the unseen world of bacteria and the plague that swept the countryside and devastated the European population. Indeed, it would be several centuries later before the cause of the Black Death was identified with any degree of specificity and even today authorities disagree on what caused the Black Death. Most of the authorities reviewed, though, agree that the Black Death was caused by the bubonic plague. In this regard, Strocchia emphasizes that, "The nature and causes of this devastating contagion, which killed one-third of the European population, remained a scientific mystery for centuries. With the discovery of the modern plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, in 1894, the issue seemed resolved: the Black Death was the disease now known as bubonic plague" (2004, 543).

As noted above, though, not all authorities are of a like mind that the Black Death was in fact bubonic plague. For example, the hardy -- and lucky -- Europeans who were exposed to the plague and survived managed to acquire an immunity to the disease which undoubtedly helped to eventually stem its spread. In this regard, Strocchia notes that, "Unlike modern plague, the Black Death killed in household clusters, with humans exposed to the disease later developing immunity -- a trait not seen in modern plague" (2004, 544). Likewise, Mcneil emphasizes that, "Histories of the Black Death and the epidemics which followed must be revised, for they have been attributed incorrectly to the Yersina pestis bacillus and mislabeled 'bubonic.' Modern researchers -- historians and medical writers alike -- systematically ignored or misconstrued evidence, damaging our understanding of epidemic disease and perhaps even of the Renaissance itself" (312).

There were some other discrepancies between the Black Death and what is known today about bubonic plague that cause some researchers to doubt that the Black Death was caused by the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis. For example, Mcneil adds that, "Epidemics are defined by pathogens, but more especially by how they spread. Plague's 'universal' scope and terrible mortality were its main features, and it was called 'great' (later historians labeled it 'Black') because of its horrendous mortality. It was also distinguished by the speed at which it spread and by its extremely contagious nature" (2004, 312). According to other scholars, the term "Black Death" was sufficiently frightening in its description of the catastrophic event, but was most likely attributable to a mistake in translation. For instance, Benedictow writes, "The disastrous mortal disease known as the Black Death spread across Europe in the years 1346-53. The frightening name, however, only came several centuries after its visitation (and was probably a mistranslation of the Latin word 'atra' meaning both 'terrible' and 'black)'" (2005, 42). In fact, superlatives abound in the literature concerning references to the Black Death with most authorities citing plague as the case. For instance, Marriott emphasizes that, "No disease in recorded history has carried the totemic power of plague. No disease has erupted with such violence and with such brutal efficiency, nor remained so poorly understood for so long. It was plague that destroyed one-third of Europe's population during the Black Death of the Middle" (2002, 42). Although the Black Death was a pandemic by any definition, Mcneil and his like-minded colleagues note that the type of plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century was different in all of these ways from the cases of bubonic plague that have occurred since. In this regard, Mcneil notes that, "None of these are features of modern rat-based bubonic plague, even in its pneumonic form" (2004, 312).

Whatever its exact origins and cause, innovations in transportation and international commerce contributed to the rapid spread of the Black Death throughout the European continent and beyond. While the Silk Road provided one avenue of introduction for the Black Death, there were other, more readily available ways for the disease to reach Europe. In this regard, Swenson adds that, "As the Golden Horde expanded its influence throughout China and India, and eventually to Kaffa in the Black Sea region, the plague followed. Owing to recent developments in improving ship design and speed, the Genoese traders escaping from Kaffa spread it to Southern Europe when they reached Italian ports" (2007, 60). This point is also made by Chapman who reports, "Carried by infected fleas that infested black rats, clothing, bedding, or human body hair, the plague appeared first in Europe and the Middle East in ports. Then it progressed quickly along rivers and roads into towns and cities, progressing more slowly into rural areas inland" (2007, 5).

Even though the spread of the Black Death was slower in rural areas than in the overcrowded urban regions of Europe, its path was inexorable and the disease would ultimately spread everywhere in the Western World over the course of the period from 1346 to 1353. In this regard, following its introduction from Asia, the Black Death quickly spread from Genoa and other port cities to all points throughout Europe, even managing to jump the English Channel and affect the British as well as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Map showing dates and locations of the Black Death

Source: University of Colorado Department of History at http://www.coloradocollege.edu / Dept/HY/Ashley/hy105/Map_-_Spread_of_the_Black_Death.JPG

In fact, Europe was ripe for a pandemic of some sort during this period in history. Increases in population had continued to erode the standard of living for most people, and overcrowded conditions in urban areas contributed to the ability of the plague to spread. According to Prestwich, "The Black Death of 1348-1349 saw a level of mortality unprecedented in the historical record. Population grew in the thirteenth century, reached a plateau in the early fourteenth century, and fell dramatically with the great epidemic that reached England in 1348" (2005, 529). While a reduction in population was the most apparent and immediate consequence of the Black Death, there were some other impacts that resulted as well and these are discussed further below.

Consequences of the Black Death

Any event that kills between one and two-thirds of an entire continent's population will inevitably have some enormous consequences, and this was certainly the case with the Black Death. The social order that had evolved over the course of the preceding millennia was suddenly changed in substantive ways across the board. For instance, Gottlieb reports that, "The Black Death raged for three or four years, killing perhaps a third of the population in a single year in some areas" (1994, 129). Not surprisingly, the impact of this event on European -- and world -- history has been the focus of much research in the years since. For example, according to Strocchia, "The Black Death of 1347-52 has long been recognized as one of the watersheds in European history. Historians have argued for the pandemic's important yet divergent consequences, ranging from despondence and a preoccupation with the macabre to economic restructuring and the birth of Renaissance humanism" (2004, 543). This point is also made by Benedictow who emphasizes that the Black Death was unique in the annals of human experience and its impact would have lasting consequences: "Inevitably it had an enormous impact… [END OF PREVIEW]

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