An Analysis of the Impact of the Black Death on Western Society
The Western civilization into which the Black Death made itself known in the middle of the 14th century was itself about to come to the brink of a massive shakeup in terms of religion, politics, and economics. To what extent did the Black Death facilitate the change that would deconstruct Christendom, end the Medieval "age of faith," and effect the modern world? Considering that a number of circumstances, political, economical, social, and spiritual, played a part in the redefining of Europe, it is with some hesitation that one gives to the Black Death more importance that it is due. However, one must not marginalize the effects and impact of the disease: after all, it came at a time when the King of France had shown his hand against the See of Peter -- the Bishop of Rome -- the head of the Holy Roman Catholic Church -- the Church of Europe (and moved the papal court to Avignon). The unification of Europe had depended upon the assent of her Kings to Papal Authority -- and at the end of the medieval world that assent was being revoked (Laux, 1989, p. 517). As religious questions began to be raised, as new philosophies began to be pursued, as new wars were waged and new political enmities created, the Black Death crept into Christendom to lay an egg that would hatch into a newly ordered Europe -- one founded on rationalism and "science" -- humanism and relativity. The Black Death was not just a disease, it was a symbol of the death of Christendom -- a foreshadowing of the end of an Age.
Forty years before the plague swept through Europe, Philip the Fair of France had objected to Boniface VIII's pronouncement that salvation depended upon submission to the pontiff "by sending troops to Rome and taking Boniface prisoner" (Shearer, 1992, p. 79). The event would not go unobserved by Italy's greatest poet -- himself exiled by political enemies: Dante's criticism of the King's violence against the Pope is found in Canto XX of the Purgatorio -- a point only mentioned because it illustrates the concept of the relationship between Church and State at the time. Dante -- despite alluding to Boniface's having already his own special place prepared for him in Hell in the Inferno -- could not tolerate the attack on the hierarchical nature of society: in the 14th century, it was no small act to take a pontiff prisoner. It was akin to striking at God Himself.
Thirty years after the Black Death had taken its toll Pope Gregory can be seen condemning the propositions of a Catholic priest named Jean Wycliffe. Wycliffe's works had put into writing what Philip had displayed in action. The massive works of Wycliffe "argued that all human authority (whether in the government or in the church) is derived directly from God and is conditional on God's approval. An official whose life is marked by sin forfeits the grant of authority from God. Wycliffe believed that this principle applied equally to Kings and Popes" (Shearer, p. 80).
The two points in time briefly referenced provide the context for our understanding of the society into which the plague arrived and the society that immediately emerged following the plague's end. To understand the impact the Black Death had upon society, the society itself must first be examined.
This was, in effect, a world that still regarded itself according to the Ptolemaic, geocentric model of the Universe. The heavens revolved around the Earth -- not the Sun. The Savior of Mankind had taken flesh, given his life, and instituted the Church that now governed the affairs of men. In Christendom faith and reason were united, thanks to the scholastic efforts of men like Thomas Aquinas, who incorporated the teachings of the ancient Greeks, like Plato and Aristotle, into the teachings of the Church. This was the "age of faith." It was an age that had been built by the Church and gone to war on its behalf. It had suffered heresies and internal strife, to be sure -- but none like what would follow in the wake of the Black Death. The very foundations of Christendom were to be shaken.
As Zachary Peschke (2007) states, "At the beginning of the 14th century, Europe was in the midst of a revitalization" (p. 111). But Europe had actually been in the midst of revitalization since the time of St. Benedict, the monk who established his own order (and "the most important architect of Western monasticism…the Father of Europe") (Woods, 2005, p. 5). As Thomas E. Woods makes substantially clear, it is to the monks that Europe to a large extent owed its survival following the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Civilization had survived the Dark Age (the invasion of the barbarian tribes) thanks, also, to the work of Gregory, who at the end of the 6th century, "saw that…the church now had a mission to the restless and threatening barbarian world, [and] selected monks as missionaries and sent them to bring Christianity to the barbarian tribes…" (World History, 1995, p. 382). In such a manner, the Western world once more found itself congealed into a (now) Holy Roman Empire under the reign of Charlemagne in 800 AD. His rule would serve as an example for all of Europe, whose kings would take a knee before the Pontifical throne.
Yet the "revitalization" of which Peschke speaks has more to do with what was coming: the Renaissance and the Reformation. True, there were elements of growth that had been in play for some time: "The agricultural revolution had made food more plentiful than before. More land was being cultivated…despite a famine from 1315-1317 and the onset of the Hundred Year's War" (Peschke, p. 111). But these events were not foreign to Christendom. They were, on the contrary, a development of the ideals already being put into practice.
The Black Death would interrupt everything. It would erase the order of society in one fell swoop and introduce an era of corruption that would be chronicled by Chaucer in his tales of pilgrimage and sin. That corruption would play a significant role in the power of the Protestants to gain a following -- as Fr. Favre would state when writing to Ignatius in the 16th century: "All the mischief is done by the scandalous lives of the clergy" (Thompson, 2010, p. 226).
Had it not been for the Black Death, the communities of Europe that had been shattered by plague might not have fallen even further in the wake of the disease through spiritual corruption had they not first been decimated by bodily corruption. The Black Death was a test the likes of which only Job himself had ever seen. The problem that Christendom encountered in the 14th century was that there were two few Jobs in Europe to rise above the ruins.
As Sanders et al. (2005) state, "the Black Death (bubonic plague) struck Europe, killing millions, further weakening economies, and creating a widespread climate of fear and xenophobia" (p. 5). This was the immediate effect of the plague -- the details of which can be expanded or contracted according to taste. Essentially, the plague rolled in from the East, spreading westward from China, as historians now concur, in fleas. The other immediate effect of the Black Death -- as became known -- was religious (not surprising considering the age in which it struck): "For many people, the plague was interpreted as a sign that their god was displeased. Many placed the sign of the cross over their doors, entered seclusion for prayer, or, in the case of the town leaders of Orvieto (Italy), added fifty religious holidays to the calendar. Some individuals became 'flagellants'" (Jones, 2002).
Socially, the plague decimated Europe -- wiping out an estimated quarter of the population. This opened the door, of course, to economic ramifications. Fewer people meant fewer consumers. Fewer consumers meant less demand. Less demand meant a change in prices -- and the change in prices meant a change in labor: "At first, agricultural prices dropped sharply, hurting the landed nobility…At the same time, the peasants who survived could get more for their labor because there was a shortage of laborers…Nobles had to reduce the feudal dues (customary payments) they demanded from their serfs…Ultimately, the plague contributed to the end of serfdom" (Jones). Here was one way in which the plague altered the established social and economic order -- and heightened religious fervor.
The most compelling descriptions of the impact of the Black Death, however, come from the contemporary chroniclers themselves: as Tom James (2011) reports, "Ralph Higden of Chester…thought 'scarcely a tenth of mankind was left alive'…The phrase 'there were hardly enough living to care for the sick and bury the dead' is repeated in various sources…[and] the Malmesbury monk…reckoned that 'over England as…