You are on page 1of 10

The point at which Europe lost its morals The Black Death was considered by some to be a result of the

humanitys sins. Entire societies were forced to restructure the foundations of civilisation. The plague killed more millions of people worldwide, but greatly shook the lives of those it did not kill. As The Black Death circulated rapidly and contaminated a majority of the population, it became the catalyst to destroy the Middle Ages moral and religious beliefs. The plague originated in the Asian Steppe, where diseased rats had created a reservoir of the disease. It circulated throughout Central Asia from 1331 to 1332, before travelling to China and India.1 China was a big trading country, so the plague spread in all directions when it reached China. It most likely travelled to Crimea, a small region of Ukraine, by one of the caravans which brought silks and spices from the East to Europe. 2 A terrifying factor of the plague was that some people knew it was going to hit them, but they could nothing about it. Louis Heyligen, for example, warned his colleagues in Bruges a year before the plague spread to their region but his colleagues were still strongly affected by the plague.3 Some people believe that the Black Deaths overall effect on the world may have been good because it ended feudalism and indirectly laid the foundation for Christian denominations such as Anglicanism. Because people lost faith in the Catholic Church during the Black Death and this may have contributed to the English Reformation (which in turn created the basis of Anglicanism). The Black Death paved the way for more effective types of economy, as it slowly destroyed feudalism. Peasants died faster than member of the upper class and when they died the lords had no means of income. At the end of The Black Death, the few peasants who survived demanded pay for their work since their social rank had lost many people.

According to Phillip Zieglers book, The Black Death, several stories were invented in order to explain the origins of the Black Death; however, due to some accurate accounts of the plague, we now know that the Black Death was simply a result of circumstance. Under normal conditions, the plague cannot be transferred easily to humans; however, due to ecological changes in Asia, the infected rats moved closer to human settlements. As the rats moved closer, so did the fleas that fed off the rats 4. The fleas could easily have taken infected blood from the rats before feeding off humans (therefore infecting the humans). The plague was able to spread so quickly because of several environmental changes, such as droughts, and this may have been why some believed that the plague was a punishment from the Earth or from spiritual powers for humanitys numerous sins (as it is thought in the Chronicler of Este). In Phillip Zieglers The Black Death, he mentions that the most accurate account on the spread of the Black Death can be found in that of the chronicler Gabriele De Mussis. De Mussis account states that the plague arrived in the Tartar islands of Asia Minor in 1346.5 The Tartars attacked the Christians who lived around close to them because they believed that some human agency (probably in the form of a disliked minority group) must be the cause of the dreadful plague6. The Tartars planned to continue attacking the Christians once they drove them to Caffa (a trading settlement on the Crimean coast) but were unable to because the plague had killed so much of their army. The Tartars decided that the Christians had to pay for their sufferings, so they catapulted men whose lives had been taken by the plague over the walls of Caffa.7 The Christians in turn fled to towards Genoa, Messinia, and Venice; spreading the plague to every region they travelled to.8 The people in destination cities tried to drive away danger that their visitors were bringing them but they just succeeded in making the disease spread more quickly because they travelled to other ports when they were forced to leave one port9.

The Black Death was difficult for doctors to understand because a new form of the plague would appear just as they were beginning to comprehend the previous form and if the doctors would be infected if they attempted to examine or observe an infected person, as is stated in Rosemary Horroxs The Black Death. Plague is caused by the bacillus (bacteria) Yersinas Pestis and the most effective transmitter of this bacillus is the Xenopsylla Cheopis (the oriental rat flea)10. There were two major forms of the plague: bubonic plague and pneumonic plague. Bubonic plague was characterized by the appearance of large buboes, called gavoccioli11. Some thought that the gavoccioli was the body's attempt to bring the toxic matter to the surface, and that the poison would work inwards (getting into the lungs and the brain) if the buboes did not form.12 Pneumonic plague was caused by the inhalation of the bacilli which caused the plague; the bacilli were most likely inhaled after an infected person coughed or sneezed. Bacilli could also be inhaled from flee faeces13. A person with pneumonic plague would cough up a lot of blood-stained mucus, had difficulty breathing, and died within 2 days from anoxia (shortage of oxygen) and heart failure14. Pneumonic plague is most likely the reason why The Black Death continued to thrive in the winter and spring (when rats and fleas are less active)15. The disease circulated so easily because people did not understand how it worked and could not take precautionary measures to avoid it. Many people did not receive any aide if they had the plague because, as stated by Phillip Ziegler in his book The Black Death, everyone was too scared of contracting the disease; it gradually became rare for church officials to offer any aide to infected people because the disease was so contagious. Almost everything that came out of or was used by an infected person also contained the bacilli which caused the disease, which meant that even the dead could still spread the plague.16 Flea faeces, which are barely visible to the naked eye, could be left on clothing even after the infected person died. Giovanni Boccaccio once wrote that the rags of a poor man who had died from the plague where scattered across the street

when two hogs came over to toss the rags around with their snouts before turning around and dropping dead.17 The plague infected everything as "fire devours things if they are dry or grease when they are brought close to it18 Some people may have even taken the belongings of infected people after they died, but the disease could be found on these peoples belongings so others could be easily infected; before the plague, people may have thought that taking (and perhaps even competing for) late peoples things was wrong, but they did just that during The Black Death because some just accepted they were going to die and wanted to live life to the fullest before it happened. Property was considered the major factor that determined a mans social status during the late middle ages; however during The Black Death, people became so reckless of their lives (perhaps because they believed that the world would end soon) that they did not care about their property anymore.19 Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that almost anyone could walk into another persons house and make themselves at home, yet they would not be punished because people were too overwhelmed with the plague to worry about trivial things like property20. The Black Death destroyed the carefully structured ladder of society in which people who owned houses or land had higher status than those who didnt, because a nonlandowner could now claim someone elses land/house as his own. As is understood from Phillip Zieglers The Black Death, several accurate and scientific theories had been made by some intellectuals by the late middle ages but many laws on the nature of medical conditions and disease were neglected as people tried to understand what the Black Death was and what had caused it. Some people believed that a war between the sea and sun in the Indian Ocean caused waters to become corrupted vapour (corrupted because of rotting fish). The sun could not take in all the vapour and it couldnt come back as healthy rain so it became a contaminated mist, called miasma, that infected everything around it.21 Others held different beliefs; The Chronicler of Este stated that smoke came from

a rain of fire between Cathay and Persia, and whoever interacted with the smoke would die within half a day.22 All these different beliefs made it difficult for people to ascertain the true cause of the Black Death. The Black Death caused people to question the very laws they had created concerning the way the world worked. When doctors could not cure the disease, peasants took into their own hands to find a treatment for the plague, as is stated in Giovanni Boccaccios The Decameron. The Black Death first betrayed itself in the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits"23 because doctors had thought that "blood from the nose was a manifest sign of inevitable death"24 and were figuring out treatments to the plague through that symptom, but now they also had to deal with the gavoccioli and find similarities between both symptoms. Some people tried to find cures, but failed, while some just shunned everyone with the disease. Others walked around with posies of flowers, fragrant herbs, or other spices which they put in their nostrils because they wanted to enrich their brains with the smells flowers and herbs; it is believed that this is where the origins of the childrens song ring around the rosie lay25. Giovanni Boccaccio claims that people did this because the air seemed to be everywhere laden and reeking with the stench emitted by the dead and the dying, and the odours of drugs26. People were so desperate during the Black Death that they would totally ignore the fact that they had no medical understanding of the plague and would strive to find a way to cure all of Europe from the plague. As told by Phillip Ziegler in his book The Black Death, the plague cost the Late Middle Ages Church dearly, because so many people lost faith in the church due to several shortcomings of the church during the plague. People felt that the church had let them down because the church told everyone that the plague had come from God and that they had brought it on themselves with their continuous sins; The church must have seen that they were sinning but they didn't say anything (if they couldn't bring protection from the anger of

God, they could have at least warned that God was getting angry)27. However, it was obvious that Gods anger was also directed towards the priests as well. Priests had been respected as people who had a special relationship with God. Priests became a bit superhuman (although still human) after their ordination; however, all this super-humanness disappeared after the churchs vulnerability was shown during the plague. Priests sometimes died while trying to heal infected people; many chaplains and hired parish priests would not serve without excessive pay" because priests were so scared of getting the disease themselves28. After the Black Death, people grew extremely ungrateful towards the very church they had once loved wholly, because the clergy were so hesitant and timid towards their duties29. Priests suffered more from the plague because they had to keep their loyalty to the church and people in a time when it was dangerous to interact with strangers. Priests actually suffered the most from the disease because they were working with infected people, but the population did not respect them for it because they were doing it so reluctantly. They could not have shied away from their duties and lived isolated lives because they would have then been less likely to contract the disease (we know they died in their numbers from the accounts and statistics we currently have) 30. The feudalistic social system which had been in use for a long time was suddenly destroyed with the arrival of the Black Death and its effects on Europes population. Feudalism ultimately depends on the peasants/serfs who work the land for their lords, who in turn get their incomes from the crops that are harvested by the peasants/serfs. The Black Death killed more than half of Europes population31, but it mostly attacked ordinary peasants because they were more prone to disease than the nobles since they did not eat good or as much food to fortify themselves and build up their immune systems. Serfs/Peasants saw that their social group was nearly at the brink of extinction and as such decided that the few of

them who were remaining needed to be paid for working the lands of their lords. The Black Death destroyed the moral belief that serfs and slaves were not to be paid in any way. The Black Death was the main facilitator in the erosion of the Middle Ages spiritual and moral principles, as it disseminated quickly and infected most of the population. The Black Death was seen as the end of the world for people back then, but it was really just the end of belittling (for peasants) systems such as feudalism and the strong reliance people had on their property and the church. The plague severed the strong ties people had to the church, encouraging people to be independent of strong and influential forces such as the pope. Without the Black Death, some current denominations of Christianity (such as Anglicanism) may not have even existed. The Black Death destroyed the Late Middle Ages for the better and for the worse.

Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 9. Ziegler, The Black Death (New York: John Day Company, 1969), 2.

2Phillip 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death, 10. Ibid, 5. Phillip Ziegler, The Black Death, 3. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid, 4. Ibid. Horrox, The Black Death, 5.

10 Rosemary 11 Giovanni

Boccaccio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (London: JM Dent &

Sons, 1930), 5.
12 Rosemary 13 Ibid, 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid. 16 Giovanni 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid, 19 Ibid, 20 Ibid. 21 Phillip 22 Ibid. 23 Giovanni

Horrox, The Black Death, 4.


Boccaccio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, 6.

5. 7.

Ziegler, The Black Death, 2.

Boccaccio, The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, 5.

24 Ibid. 25 Ibid, 26 Ibid. 27 Phillip 28 Ibid, 29 Ibid. 30 Ibid. 31 Rosemary


Ziegler, The Black Death, 228.


Horrox, The Black Death, 1.

Bibliography **Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. London: JM Dent & Sons, 1930. Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. Scott, Susan, and Christopher J. Duncan. Return of the Black Death: The worlds greatest serial killer. Chichester: Wiley, 2004 Ziegler, Phillip. The Black Death. New York: John Day Company, 1969.