In the 1300s, Europe entered a
period of turmoil that shook of medieval civilization to its
foundations and paved the way for such aspects of the modern world as
nation states, capitalism, and the Protestant Reformation. Such
periods of transition are rarely easy to endure, and this was no
exception. It was a period which saw recurring famines, outbreaks
of plague, peasant and worker revolts, the rise of religious heresies,
challenges to the Church's authority, and long drawn out wars, in
particular the Hundred Years War between France and England.
Ironically, the problems were largely the result of better farming
The Black Death, also known as Bubonic plague, appears to
have arisen in Central Asia in the early 1300's. The most likely
scenario for its spread points to Mongol rulers in Asia who had settled
down from their rampages to establish stable caravan routes from China
to the Black Sea where Italian merchants would trade for the silks and
spices so highly valued in Europe. Ironically, these trade routes
were also the invasion routes of a very different sort.
Apparently, the Asian black rats, which carry the fleas that carry the
plague, burrowed into the caravan's grain sacks and hitched a free ride
across Asia. Rumors had already filtered westward of a terrible
plague that depopulated whole regions of China and India. Rumor
became reality for Europe in 1347 when a Genoese ship pulled into the
Sicilian port of Messina with half its crew dead or dying from
plague. The Black Death had arrived.
The Plague quickly spread death and terror across Europe, sweeping through Italy in 1347, France in 1348, and the Low Countries, England, and Scandinavia in 1349. Its pattern was to flare up in the summer and taper off in the winter, only to flare up again and sweep onwards the next summer. By 1350, it had pretty well passed on, leaving in its wake a population decimated by its effects.
Cities, with their crowded unsanitary conditions, generally suffered worse than the countryside. Although contemporary accounts generally exaggerated the toll, it was certainly was staggering. Supposedly 800 people died in Paris each day, 500 a day in Pisa, and up to 600 a day in Vienna. Some cities lost anywhere from 50-70% of their populations. Monasteries, also being crowded, suffered similar death rates. In the countryside where people were more spread out, maybe 20-30% of the population perished.
All across Europe black flags flew over towns to warn travelers that the plague was there. Church bells rang constantly to announce the deaths of citizens until town councils voted to silence their demoralizing clangor. The Hundred Years War was interrupted by the plague, and construction on the cathedral in Siena, Italy stopped and never resumed, a grim memorial to the plague's power.
People, having no idea then of the existence of microbes, were completely ignorant of the plague's cause. Some, seeing a correlation between fleas and plague, killed dogs and cats, just giving the black rats more freedom to spread the disease. Most explanations of the Black Death concerned divine retribution. This gave rise to the flagellants, people who would march from town to town whipping themselves to atone for society's sins. However, as they spread penitence, they also spread the plague. Therefore, the authorities outlawed them, as much for the social unrest they seemed to stir up as for the disease they were spreading. The most effective way of avoiding the plague was to avoid people who might carry it, causing those rich enough to flee the towns during the plague's height in the summer months. In fact, a virtual panic seized people as husbands abandoned wives, parents abandoned their children, and even priests and doctors refused to see their patients. It seemed as if the whole fabric of society was coming unraveled.
In the absence of any effective remedies, people looked for scapegoats. Many blamed the Jews whose religion dictated a bit cleaner lifestyle, which in turn meant less incidence of rats, fleas, and plague. In some peoples' minds, however, the Jews had poisoned the wells or made a pact with the devil to cause the Black Death. The resulting disturbances resembled those accompanying the First Crusade, with Jews being massacred or burned in their synagogues. Germany and the Low Countries saw especially bad outbreaks of such violence, and, by 1350, few Jews remained in those areas.
The plague hit Europe six more times by 1450, each time with less severity than before, since more survivors were immune to it. And those without resistance were weeded out by natural selection. Still, some 30-40% of Europe's population was lost. Census figures in England fell from 3.7 million in 1348 to 2.1 million by 1430. Even then, Europe was not free from the Black Death's ravages, suffering recurrent outbreaks until the early 1700's. Why it receded is also a matter of controversy, with such theories as the European brown rat driving out the Asian black rat, tile roofs replacing thatched ones where rats often lived, and the more deadly plague microbe, which more readily killed off its host and left itself no place to go, being replaced by a less deadly version.
The Black Death also created problems for the nobles and clergy in
two main ways. First, the huge population loss in the cities'
caused a virtual collapse of the urban grain markets, a major source of
income for noble and church landlords with surplus grain to sell.
This especially hurt the nobles and clergy, whose incomes were still
based on land and who relied on selling surplus grain in the towns for
badly needed cash. There were two main strategies for making up
for this lost income.
Both nobles and clergy resorted to selling freedom to their serfs. This raised some quick cash, but it also deprived them of future revenues, which contributed to their decline and the corresponding rise of kings and nation states. At the same time, the serfs were now transformed into a free peasantry with more incentive to work harder since they were working more for themselves. This also helped lead to a more even distribution of wealth which contributed to a revival of agriculture, towns, and trade, especially after 1450 when the climate seems to have improved. But with the guilds and nobles weakened by the turmoil of the last 150 years, a new broader consumer market evolved, but one where the average person had less money to spend than the average noble beforehand would have had. Since these people could not afford the guilds' expensive goods and the guilds refused to adapt to this market, rich merchants established cottage industries and sold their goods outside of the guilds' jurisdiction. The profits they made and the absence of the guilds' restrictive regulations helped these merchants establish a new economic system, capitalism, which would replace the guild system and lead the way into the modern world.
The Church had several other fund raising options in addition to selling serfs their freedom: selling church offices (simony), letting one man buy several offices at the same time, charging fees for all sorts of church services, and selling indulgences to buy time out of Purgatory after one died. These practices plus the Church's inability to cope with the crisis of the Black Death led to growing public discontent. As a result, the Church would experience serious challenges to its authority in the Later Middle Ages.