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Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe

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Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe

Social and Economic Effects of Black Death on Europe

The Black Plague (also known as the Black Death or Bubonic Plague) of the 1300s is considered by many historians to be one of the most influential events and turning point in the transition from medieval to modern-day Europe. Some analysts even compare its devastation to that of World War I, since "25% to 50% of Europe's population were killed during the onslaught" of the plague (Gottfried, 77). While "no one rich, middling, or poor, was safe from the plague" (Platt, 97), those affected the most were those in the lower economic classes. England's peasant population in particular was affected greatly in both positive and negative ways; dramatic changes took place in all spheres of their lives: religiously, economically, and socially. In order to comprehend the tremendous impact the Black plague had on the English peasants' and in turn European history as a whole, one must first examine the events which led up to the onslaught of the plague, followed by how it altered the different aspects of their lives in an interconnected manner. The term "Black Plague" applies to the form of Bubonic Plague which raged relentlessly through Europe from 1347 to 1351 AD.

During the High Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries) the population of Europe grew "steadily and unabated from 25 million in 950 AD to 75 million in 1250 AD" (Gottfried,17), the disease pool had reached something of an equilibrium, and deaths due to plagues and illnesses were at a low. There had been political stability for about two hundred years and there was a surplus of food due to good growing conditions and new agricultural and technological innovations. Since less people had to live off the land, more became merchants and tradesmen, which greatly improve the culture and economy, and also encouraged trade, thus instilling a sense of security among people.

By the mid 13th century, a change for the worse overtook Europe. The "little Ice Age" took place, causing the climate to become colder and damp; crops rotting in their fields meant that the large population growth was outstripping food production. The population of Europe became increasingly poor; 10% died as a result of famine; related diseases (such as typhoid fever and dysentary) began to emerge as did livestock epidemics. With all these problems, combined with dirty, unhygenic living conditions, perhaps it is no surprise that the plague took place at this time.

The origin of the Black Plague (which is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria) is not agreed upon by all historians. Religious and historical documents from the period are not always credible, as no one at the time wanted to claim responsibility and blamed everyone else. All can agree, however, that everyone was affected and that in a matter of a few years, all of Europe had been hit (see appendix I, page 8). Countless theories exist as to where the plague came from, one of the widely accepted among them being that the plague originated from central Asia, the indigenous people themselves were left untouched by the plague. The plague was spread by both the Mongols as they expanded across Asia, and by central Asian rodents that moved westward when ecological changes made their environments inhospitable. The plague was first introduced to Europe in October of 1347 when Genoese merchants brought it back with them from the Black Sea to Sicily on board. The plague rapidly diffused throughout Europe in a characteristic pattern via infected rats on trade ships along commercial trade routes. The plague jumped from to infected port to one still uncontaminated, where it would fall quiescent for a period of months and then come to life again suddenly, thus renewing the death cycle. (Herlihy 24) By 1348, the plague was spreading through France and the Low Countries, including Germany. It was by the end of that year, it had reached England and soon after, Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Eastern Europe and Russia were eventually introduced to the plague in 1351, though it wasn't as severe in the east as it was in the west and central parts of Europe. (Spielvogle 298)

The onslaught of the Black Plague was a shock to everyone in Europe, as no one knew what caused it, how it was transmitted or how to treat it. Countless theories were thought up; many were convinced it was transmitted from infected person to non-infected person by simply looking at them. The plague was in fact transmitted from rat to flea, flea to person and was transmitted by contact and air among people. The standards of living were terrible at this time: streets filled with garbage and human waste, entrails from slaughtered animals and sewage. This setting was the perfect environment for infected fleas and rats to live in and spread the disease to humans.

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