A historical turning point, as well as a vast human tragedy, the Black Death of 1346-53 is unparalleled in human history" (2005, 43).
The impact of the Black Death on the majority of the social structures of European society was also profound but actually had some beneficial outcomes for the less affluent members of society. For instance, because there were fewer people available, employers were compelled to increase wages and the frequently brutal feudal system that had characterized life for the majority of the European population went the way of the wind just as the Black Death. As one historian emphasizes, "In the aftermath of the social earthquake triggered by the Eurasian epidemic, a revised social landscape was fashioned. The disasters of the Black Death and the awe-inspiring recession of the mid-fourteenth century & #8230; [were] a spectacle of this disintegration, this headlong tumble into darkness -- the greatest drama ever registered in European history. More catastrophic tragedies have indeed occurred in the course of the world's long existence…. But nowhere else did a disaster of such magnitude engender such a recovery" (Levine 2001, 5).
The greatly reduced population in Europe also demanded new ways of accomplishing what had formerly been achieved through human labor alone that fueled innovations in agriculture and industry. In this regard, Swenson reports that, "The decreased population resulted in a smaller workforce that lowered industrial production and required innovations, such as expansion of mining methods and salting fish. It also created a sense of urgency in people's lives such that work patterns changed: There was more emphasis on profits and wages and greater time-consciousness and use of clocks" (2007, 60).
There were some other positive outcomes that resulted from this decimation of the population as well. Prior to its onset, many people throughout Europe were simply becoming poorer and their health and life expectancies were reduced as a result. According to Platt, "The growing shortage of good pasture could do nothing but force up its price, meadowland beginning to fetch premiums in the late thirteenth century that put it, increasingly, beyond the reach of the poor. Without the meat they would normally have got from their animals, the poorer villagers suffered from protein deficiencies; without manure, already low levels of productivity on the land fell, inevitably, still further" (1994, 93).
Because Europe had largely reached a saturation point in terms of the numbers of people the land could support prior to the Black Death, fewer people meant more land was available and the severely diminished labor force that survived the Black Death allowed more people to acquire actual ownership of land, improved their ability to command increased wages with a concomitant improvement in their standard of living. In addition, fewer people and higher wages meant that ordinary people could enjoy some of the finer things in life that had previously been restricted to the affluent members of European society. "As a result," Swenson advises, "production responded to demand by diversifying foods and textiles" (2007, 60). There were also gender-related impacts that resulted from the Black Death. In this regard, Naphy and Spicer (2000) note that the role of women was radically changed by the Black Death. As a direct consequence of the reduced numbers of clergy available during its peak, women were authorized by the Church to conduct sacraments and to deliver healthcare services (Naphy and Spicer 2000). In addition, in sharp contrast to the roles prior to the plague, women in Europe during the 14th century were also allowed to perform jobs that paid higher wages, they assumed the responsibilities of operating family businesses, and many acquired land (Swenson 2007).
This is not to say, though, that the overall condition or status of women changed in a wholesale fashion for the better. Indeed, many of the gender-related laws that were on the books throughout Europe continued to restrict the social mobility and status of women in ways that would endure for several more centuries. According to Gottlieb, "Under the customary law of Paris, the childless widow of an innkeeper who had deserted her years before he died was required to hand over a share of the inn to her husband's relatives although she had been running it by herself for a long time. The claims of kin were considered sacrosanct even in the fluid conditions of the English countryside during the years after the Black Death" (1994, 206). Nevertheless, the Black Death did introduce some significant changes that would have a lasting impact on the social consciousness concerning the role and status of women that would culminate centuries later in the revolutions that rocked Europe and the burgeoning democracy in the United States in the 18th century (Gottlieb 1994).
Yet other impacts of the Black Death involved shifts in institutional arrangements, standards and conditions. For instance, Swenson points to the need to recruit more people into the clergy as a result of the inordinately high death toll exacted by the plague with a corresponding compromise in the standards used to establish who would be eligible for admission. In this regard, Swenson notes that, "More young, poor, and less educated men entered the clergy, and much of the Latin used in conducting Masses was dropped in favor of the vernacular" (2007, 60). Even governmental institutions were affected by the outcome of the Black Death. As Swenson emphasizes, "Government became increasingly secularized, taxes were lowered, and serfdom -- in steep decline by the time of the Plague -- effectively ended since more people now owned land and could command their own wages" (2007, 60). The erosion of the Church's power and sway over the European populace during the 14th and succeeding centuries would therefore contribute to the Renaissance and the interest in scientific inquiry that would fuel the Industrial Revolution.
The research showed that the Black Death is the term applied to the plague that originated in Asia and swept through Europe during the 14th century, resulting in millions of deaths that may have reached as high as 60% of the population according to estimates by some authorities, but most agree that about 25% of the population died as a result. Although most historians attribute the cause of the Black Death to the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, modern researchers are increasingly questioning this attribution and suggest that there were a number of anomalies between the symptoms and course of the Black Death that indicate other disease processes were involved. The research also showed that, no matter what its precise origins or causes, the consequences of the Black Death were significant and far-reaching, affecting the status of the less affluent members of society in general and women in particular in ways that would contribute to the revolutions that took place in the 18th century. By providing women in Europe with new working opportunities and some degree of social mobility, women would no longer be content with the status quo in much the same way that the millions of Rosies who quit riveting following the end of World War II helped drive the women's rights movement of the 20th century. The Black Death also fueled innovations in technology that resulted in the introduction of improved ways of accomplishing things that had previously been performed strictly by human labor simply because there were fewer people available to do these tasks at the low wages that were offered before the Black Death. The plague also enabled poor people to gain acquire land and an improved standard of living. Notwithstanding these positive outcomes, it is reasonable to conclude that there was scarcely a family in Europe who did not experience the loss of life as a result of the Black Death, and in some cases entire families were wiped out because it tended to affect clusters of households. In the final analysis, the Black Death has rightly been described as one of the most important turning points in world history and even perhaps the most significant single event in the Western world to date.
Benedictow, Ole J., "The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever -- Ole J. Benedictow
Describes How He Calculated That the Black Death Killed 50 Million People in the 14th
Century, or 60 per Cent of Europe's Entire Population," History Today 55(3, 2005,
Chapman, Anne, Coping with Catastrophe: The Black Death of the 14th Century (Los Angeles:
National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, 2007).
Gottlieb, Beatrice, the Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Levine, David, at the Dawn of Modernity: Biology, Culture, and Material Life in Europe after the Year 1000 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
Marriott, Edward, "Return of the Black Death," Geographical 74(9, 2002, September): 42-43.
Mcneil, David O. "The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance