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Brian To

The Black Death

We would not be where we are today if it were not for the millions of people that died

because of the plague, if it were not for this event in history much of human development would

of have been severely stagnated, leaving us with a bleak outlook on not only medical

breakthroughs but also human reasoning. Without a doubt the Black Death was one of mankinds

most arduous trials, one that spanned the course of nearly three years and resulted in an

accelerated growth in human innovation, economic progress, and unexpectable social reforms.

Contrary to popular belief, the Black Death may not have actually been spreaded by rats

and fleas, but instead numerous theories have risen that have substantial claims that the

presences of rats in Europe during the medieval ages were insufficient to have any profound

effect in the spread of the disease. Not to mention that even the northern most part of Europe,

some of the coldest regions such as Norway and Iceland, were affected by the Black Death and

yet those biomes are severely out of the range of tolerance for any rat to inhabit. As stated in

Susan Scotts Some Scratchy Issues Concerning the Black Death, I refer to Gunnar Karlson,

Plague Without Rats: The Case of Fifteenth Century Iceland Karlson looks in vain for rats

in Iceland even though Iceland experienced two fifteenth-century rampages of what was surely

the Black Death. Scott also notes that if the Black Death was a plague then it was, a disease of

rats that men participate then as a result the plague bacillus would without uncertainty spread

from rat to human when a rat dies. If that was the case then there shouldve have been many

references to the numerous build-up in rat corpses.

Instead of the traditional theory of attributing the plague to the spread of Yersinia Pestis

as given by Ole J. Bendictow,The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease

caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in
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The Black Death
great numbers and density. in a History Today excerpt. Scott proposes that we look towards

the effects and vulnerability that malnutrition had on a victims resistance against the plague.

a Parisian contemporary wrote that one who was poorly nourished by unsubstantial food feel

victim to the merest breath of the disease (Scott). Alternatively she advocates that the Black

Death was not a plague but in fact a virus, a hemorrhagic fever to be exact, much like the Ebola

virus. It is important to not only question the legitimacy of the origins of the black death but to

also keep our options open to the possibilities of any explanations that could possibly the

decipher the phenomena that is the Black Death.

One thing is for certain though, and that is that the presences of the Black Death lead to

the social upheaval and reformation of England as well as most of Europe. England was struck

by a maelstrom of catastrophes such as climate change, drought, and famine even before the

plague hit. The end of the fourteenth century the British Isles were a land transformed. At the

beginning of the century the population everywhere had been high and rising. Towns and villages

had been crowded. The countryside had been akin to Langland's 'plain full of people'. A hundred

years later the position was very different. Population had fallen and continued to fall. Whole

villages had vanished from the map. In the towns, rows of tenements stood empty. as stated

from Nigel Sauls in History Today. This was a time characterized by the depictions of death

in church art and paintings and although the 14th century was harsh and grueling the people that

did survive the ordeal benefited from the lack of labor and people. Even after the plague receded

there were, half a dozen more outbreaks before the end of the fourteenth century. as stated

from Linda Altmans Plague and Pestilence This resulted in more plots of land available for

peasants as well as a high demand for labor. Furthermore since there were not as many people,

the price of food fell. Keep in mind that before this time, the status of peasants was most akin to
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The Black Death
that of a slave. After the plague however, with many villages abandoned and deserted, everyone

that survived were given the opportunity to rent land from nobles and clergymen. Black Death

had wiped out between 40 to 50 per cent of the population. Labor had become scarce and

expensive leaving laborers relatively well-off. Those who survived the plagues suddenly found

that they could pick and choose their masters, name their price for services, build up their

landholdings and begin to employ their neighbors. as stated in The Peasants Revolt by Dan


You could say that the depression was the nadir of Englands great rollercoaster of

depression and that afterwards was the struggle to reclaim what was lost and more. With the

massive deaths of the working class and most importantly the artisans of the time, a farm hand

and specific skills were in high demand. The Black Death paved way for the rise in the middle

class as well as the impending conflicts between the commoners and the rich. One such incident

that would eventually lead to the immense blood shed known as the peasant revolt of 1381 was

the implementation of the Statute of Labors in 1351(Jones) and another point to note is that a

few years before this during the year of 1349 The Ordinance of Labourers was published,

limiting the freedom of peasants to move around in search of the most lucrative work. The

Statute of Labors would set the upper-wage limit of every conceivable kind of worker from

masons to mowers. Clearly this act was hastily placed into law because of the growing fear in the

nobility, and their growing concern was not unwarranted. In Marriane Jonkers Mathematical

Population Studies calculations show the life expectancy of a normal 25 year old man and

compares it to one of higher status. Jonker states that The more land a tenant owned and the

more widespread it was the more land he would usually lease to others. As a result logically this

meant the increase loss of land in the form of leasing. An interesting fact to note on the side is
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that because of the scarce amount of farm hand that was available combined with the vast space

of land that was free, there was a shift from labor intensive agricultural based production to less

intensive pasturing farming. This environmental side effect which is sourced from Yeloff, Dan,

and Bas van Geels Journal Of Biogeography provides us with a lens to the ecological imprint

of the Black Death.

Back to the topic at hand, in Muzzarelli, Maria Giuseppinas analysis of sumptuary laws

in the, Journal of Medieval & Early Modern Studies parliament passed a 1363 Sumptuary Law

that decreed not only the quality and colour of cloth that placed people at different levels of

society should use in their attire but also sought to limit the commoners diet to basics. This sort

of legislation would soon be brought to light to researchers in Chaucers Canterbury Tales

which clearly denoted the upsurge in the middle class by the levels of clothing that each

character wore. The establishment of social norms and the strict grip that the upper class in

England tried to cast over their inferiors was evident.

Overall the impact that the Black Death had on the social and political standings of

England was much that of a catalyst. In addition to that it also lead England from a agricultural

based economy to a cattle driven one, while hashing down the supply of the working class and

raising concerns for the future nobility. Much of England was already discontent and unsatisfied

with the miniscule amount of food (Saul), not to mention the chain of disasters that struck

England. A peasant rebellion was already brewing and the Black Death helped accelerate the

process, leaving an everlasting distinct shift of power between the peasants and the upper class.

Last but not least the Black Death left an everlasting foot print on the reformation of the

way we confronted medicinal practices and the status of the church. When the plague swept
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through Europe the predominate source of authority and intelligence was the church as well as

old Greek text such as works from Galen. Medieval Doctors tended to blame a pestilential

atmosphere caused either by planetary conjunction or by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-

lancing Others believed that the air had become stiff and had to be broken up by loud noises,

from The Air of History Medicine in the Middle Ages by Rachel Hajar. People tried ringing

bells, firing guns, and releasing birds to clear a stuffy room. On the other hand, in the absence

of science, people sought to inflict pain upon themselves in the name of religion. It was a sin to

avoid gods will They responded with religious penitential acts aimed at tempering the Lords

wrath, or with passivity and fatalism (18) from Global Epidemics by Christopher, Mari. Prior to

the plague the church at Constantinople established that sickness was punishment by God for

their sins. As a result it was no wonder that people came to the streets to publicly whip

themselves to show their love of God (Hajar). Nonetheless all of these useless attempts at

trying to cure or prevent the plague failed, and with the increasing deaths of priest the influence

of the church was beginning to die down. Many more people were beginning to question the

authority of the church and were also abandoning their faith.

The former prestige and social upstanding that the church had was severely undermined

with the coming of the plague. Many people were seeking answers to why such a ill fate had ever

come down upon them. These all gave way to the increase of the corruption of the church since

they had to lower restrictions to fill in priest openings, and the increase in demand for better

medicinal practices than planetary diagnoses.

In conclusion the Black Death was a catalyst that helped shoot mankind into a

progressive era characterized by the strong shift in status and power between the church, nobility,
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and common folk. It brought about intellectual inquisitiveness and assisted in the eventual

rebellion. It shaped the economy and gave insight to modern day studies on how epidemics

spread. It was an event in history that altered not just only England, but the whole world.


Duncan, C. J., and S. Scott. "What Caused The Black Death?." Postgraduate Medical
Journal 81.955 (2005): 315-320. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.
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The Black Death
Benedictow, Ole J. "The Black Death." History Today 55.3 (2005): 42-49. Academic Search
Complete. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Karlsson, Gunnar. "Plague without Rats: The Case of Fifteenth-century Iceland." Journal of

Medieval History 22.3 (1996): 263-84. Print.

Saul, Nigel. "Britain 1400." History Today 50.7 (2000): 38. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12

Feb. 2014.

Jones, Dan. "The Peasants' Revolt." History Today 59.6 (2009): 33-39. Academic Search

Complete. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

JONKER, MARIANNE A. "Estimation Of The Life Expectancy Of Tenants In The Middle

Ages." Mathematical Population Studies16.2 (2009): 131-152. Academic Search Complete. Web.

13 Feb. 2014.

Muzzarelli, Maria Giuseppina. "Reconciling The Privilege Of A Few With The Common Good:

Sumptuary Laws In Medieval And Early Modern Europe." Journal Of Medieval & Early Modern

Studies 39.3 (2009): 597-617. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Hajar, Rachel. "The Air Of History (Part II) Medicine In The Middle Ages." Heart Views 13.4

(2012): 158-162. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

Mari, Christopher. Global Epidemics. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2007. 14-22. Print.