Historical events are directly or indirectly responsible for the prevalent issues in the contemporary world. For instance, the aftermath of the Second World War is directly and indirectly responsible for the business and economic landscape that the world enjoys today.
Similarly, occurrences such as the Black Death, the late medieval demographic crises, and the standard of living controversies that transpired in Europe many centuries ago have continued to influence Europe economically and socio-culturally.
It may not be a simple task to pinpoint such influences in modern Europe, but traces of these ancient occurrences exist even to date. This essay explores these events (the Black Death, the late medieval demographic crises and the standard of living controversies) in a bid to gain a clear concept of their causal factors, incidence, and aftermath.
The Black Death and other Medieval Demographic Crises
The Black Death is a phrase that is commonly used to refer to a mid-fourteenth century pandemic that struck Europe and killed over one third of the population of the continent. Specifically, the adverse effects of the pandemic were severe between 1347 and 1348, which was a considerably high number of deaths to have been recorded out of a disease breakdown (Munro 8).
Most literature on the Black Death tends to show consensus on the view that the pandemic was due to Bubonic Plague caused by Yersinia pestis, which is a bacterium that is associated with rodents (Cohn 719). Thus, according to some historians, rats played a major role in the spread of the plague from one location to another.
The pandemic is at the center of numerous controversies. Some historians assert that it obtained its name the “Black Death” because its victims’ skins turned black apparently due to sub-dermal hemorrhages they suffered under the ravages of the plague (Cohn 722).
Such claims make the name of the pandemic a moot point because another group of historians dispute the idea that the name originated from the discoloration of the victims’ skins, but it is instead a metaphorical expression used to allude to the terrible nature of the pandemic (Cohn 724).
These controversies are also typical of the claims about the events that preceded the Black Death. Many historians have given varying explanations as to what led to the occurrence of such a devastating pandemic. This essay thus proceeds to explore the different perspectives on the same.
Several authors have given their own accounts of what they think might have led to the Black Death. Such explanations vary from erratic climatic patterns to low levels of hygiene among the people of medieval Europe, especially in the village settings.
The aforementioned idea of the pandemic’s origin in China and spreading through trade routes into Europe is one of the explanations, which have been offered by historians about the origin and spread of the plague that caused the Black Death (Zapotoczny 2).
A complete departure from the idea that the pandemic originated from the East is given with an explanation that anchors on the great famine, which was witnessed in Europe between 1314 and 1322 (Haddock and Kiesling 545).
This famine was occasioned by several factors among them the almost biblical flooding of 1314 to 1317, epidemics such as the cattle panzootic that ravaged herds between 1314 and 1321 as well as the acute decline in salt supply, which limited the ability to season meat to compensate for the reduction in cereal production.
In addition, wars were also a common feature of this era, and thus armies consumed much of the scarce resources. This continuum of unfavorable events exacerbated the already wanting food situation in Europe.
Harvests were not only meager but were also in most cases not fit for human consumption mainly because the incessant rains leeched nitrates from the soil thus leaving the crops with nothing to enhance their growth and development. The result was crops infested with diseases such as rusts, smuts, mildews, and molds.
These impurities made the crops poisonous because when ingested, these substances lowered the immunity of the people and caused ill mental health as well.
Considering the events of the fourteenth century, it emerges that it was a century of great agony to the continent of Europe because so much happened within a relatively short time. However, the great famine and the events that accompanied it such as the incessant rains, ravaging wars, animal epidemics, and illnesses that emerged from consuming unhealthy food abated in the 1320s.
This famine came upon Europe at a time when the continent had previously experienced a period of relative calm that had given them a carefree attitude. There was a period of sustained economic expansion and improvement of the standards of living that defied the effects of population growth.
Historians report that between 800 and 1300, the population of Europe had been on a steady rise, which saw it move from below 40 million to over 80 million. This growth was accompanied by an expansion in production, which saw the standards of living rise despite the rise in population.
Even though the population rose steadily, there were enough resources to match and sustain the population escalation. By the beginning of the 14th century, the population of Europe was at a point where no margins were left in the production such that any slight fluctuation in the production was capable of causing a food crisis. This assertion implies that the resources had stretched to their maximum production capabilities.
In addition, at the time, the European society was largely agrarian such that its well-being was anchored on the performance of crops and livestock.
This inclination towards agriculture was dangerous as at the time farmers depended on natural conditions as opposed to the contemporary times where irrigation and farming best practices are a common place. Therefore, any occurrence affecting food production would put the society in a precarious situation.
At this point, it is apparent that the Malthusian crisis was imminent upon the European people. According to Malthus, expansion and growth was only sustainable to the limit of resources; beyond that point, the world would naturally decongest itself to a level the pattern would start over again.
It is true that right at the time when Europe was stretched to its limit, disaster struck causing production to decline several folds not only in crops, but in livestock as well because livestock epidemics such as the cattle panzootic swept across Europe at the time.
This sequence of events tends to espouse the argument that Malthus advanced. However, what is not clear is how the erratic weather patterns such the rains and livestock epidemics came in to trigger one of the greatest famines ever recorded in annals of the world.
It would be easier to claim that the great famine was a Malthusian crisis if production was maintained at pre-famine levels but people perished because the production was not adequate to sustain everyone.
In other terms, the great famine cannot be exhaustively explained from an economics point of view, which has left many in a dilemma because though it would be easier to assume that it was a Malthusian crisis, the origin of floods and livestock epidemics is beyond economics, yet Malthus advanced his argument from an economics point of view.
The Black Death, which descended on the continent in late 1340s, set in after a full decade of no major occurrences. The production levels in both the manufacturing and the agriculture industry had gone back to pre-famine levels (Munro 9). This aspect implies that an attempt to link the great famine and its effects to the Black Death may not strongly hold.
In this sense, the Black Death and the great famine are independent of one another. The relationship between the two rests only in the fact that the two were among the events that added to the agonies of the 14th century Europe. They are both part of the demographic crises of late-medieval Europe.
Statistics show that the decline in population of Europe had started to decline before the advent of the Black Death. The most illustrious example can be seen in the demographic records of Tuscany (Italy) which show a decline of between 30%-40% before the Black Death. Similar records exist for other towns and regions in Europe albeit at varying degrees of severity.
In this sense, the great famine was part of a continuum of unfortunate occurrences of the 14th century that almost depopulated Europe. The Black Death is also part of the continuum as are several other outbreaks that claimed considerable numbers of lives after the Black Death.
Mentioning here that the Black Death was part of a continuum of occurrences that constitute what is generally referred to as the demographic crises of late-medieval Europe, does not mean that it fits into the Malthusian argument. Like in the case of the great famine, there is no clear economics oriented explanation that can adequately account for the Black Death.
Thus the two are not linked to each other and do not fit in with the Malthusian argument. The only part of the late-medieval crises that can be explained adequately from an economics perspective and thus fit in with the argument that was advanced by Malthus are the ravaging wars that were rampant all over Europe.
An important aspect of the Black Death in particular, is the rate at which it spread over the entire Europe and parts of Asia within such a short time. Several explanations are present in the literature to this effect. The disease started in Asia and came aboard merchant ships in rats and fleas as well as the merchants themselves.
Its rapid spread is attributed to the flourishing trade after the great famine. Human movement was rife both within Europe and beyond because European merchants travelled everywhere. On their journeys back to their lands, they brought with them merchandise as well as all sorts of diseases.
In the process of distributing their merchandise to their European markets, the plague spread rapidly across the European continent because it is claimed to have been contagious (Zapotoczny 3). In addition, due to the generally filthy conditions of medieval Europe, rats and fleas had the opportunity to thrive and thus spread the disease unprecedentedly.
Others note that it was believed to be God’s punishment due to the inequities of humanity, and thus flagellants sought to appease God through emulating the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. They were whipped and flogged in order to obtain God’s favor for themselves and the rest (Munro 12). This exposed others to their blood and through contact, the disease spread rapidly.
The Black Death was incident in the entire Europe and some parts of Asia. No accounts of the pandemic spreading to other parts of the world apart from the Eurasian continent exist. There could be several reasons why such accounts do not exist in today’s literature; however, it cannot be assumed that the pandemic was only affected Europe and Asia.
Since the pandemic’s main pathways were trade routes between Asia and Europe, the Northern parts of Africa, especially Egypt, must have been affected.
The pandemic is reported to have affected three continents and since Asia and Europe are the most clearly documented, the third continent must have been Africa due to its proximity to the two. The bottom line is that three out of the world’s six continents were affected by the Black Death.
Effects of the Black Death and other late medieval crises
Many effects followed the Black Death, but to understand them better, it is prudent to consider the economic situation of Europe before, during, and after the Black Death. There had been a protracted inflation, which ended with the onset of the fourteenth century (Munro 14). This inflation was followed by the great famine and other events that accompanied it such as animal epidemics.
After the great famine, the European economy picked a positive pattern and grew to pre-famine levels before the onset of the Black Death; but even then, there was an economic meltdown (Bridbury 394). Wages for laborers were at an all time high just before the Black Death, which is an indicator that the economy was doing well.
This positive trend can be attributed to a departure from over reliance on agriculture because the famine had demonstrated the perils of such a lifestyle. Unfortunately, the flourishing economic activities that followed the great famine only served to worsen the Black Death by aggravating its spread.
After the Black Death, employers’ scrambled for the few remaining laborers (Zapotoczny 3). What followed next was that wealth was at the disposal of a few and peasant laborers could earn several times more than before the Black Death. This pattern was replicated in the middle class with the result of increased wealth per capita.
For the business community and property owners, things were different for they had to pay higher wages hence lower profits (Haddock and Kiesling 549). The economic disruptions caused by the Black Death penetrated government systems occasioning some to come up with measures to stabilize their economies.
For instance, the British Monarchy sought to establish ceilings for the prices of commodities and wages paid to laborers to eliminate any possibilities of their rise beyond the pre-plague levels (Zapotoczny 4). Similar trends were observed in parts of France, Germany, and Italy.
Proprietors attempted to raise their incomes by seeking higher payments from their tenants. This move, coupled with the legislations that were not favorable towards peasants, led to uprisings in England and other parts of Europe in late fourteenth century (Zapotoczny 4).
These unrests are considered as major contributors to the philosophical and scientific advancement in Western Europe and since they were not prevalent in Eastern Europe, it can be understood why it (Eastern Europe) trails its western counterparts (Zapotoczny 5)
In the religious realm, the Black Death radically changed the position of the church in the eyes of the common person. The Black Death lowered the standing of the church leading to the sprouting of other religions and a general departure from church values among Europeans.
The culture of Europe like many other aspects of life also changed after the plague. People became generally pessimistic about life and turned to alcohol and other substances that would help them to escape reality. This trend encouraged a culture of alcohol consumption, indulgence, and departure from social and moral norms of the pre-plague period among Europeans.
The occurrence of the Black Death remains unequaled in the history of the world. Although it affected Europe and significant parts of Asia, its severity transcends even global crises that have been recorded in the annals of world history.
Its effects altered significantly the continent of Europe and traces of the culture that developed in its aftermath can still be pointed out in Europe today. It goes down as the most illustrious of all the pestilence that Europe, and even the entire world, has ever known in its history.
Cohn, Samuel. “The Black Death: End of a Paradigm.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 3, 2002, pp. 703-738.
Bridbury, Anthony. “Before The Black Death.” The Economic History Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1977, pp. 393-410.
Haddock, David, and Lynne Kiesling. “The Black Death and Property Rights.” The Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 31, no. 2, 2002, pp. 545-587.
Munro, John. Before and After the Black Death: Money, Prices, and Wages in Fourteenth-Century England. PDF File. 2004. economics.utoronto.ca/public/workingPapers/UT-ECIPA-MUNRO-04-04.pdf.
Zapotoczny, Walter. The Political and Social Consequences of the Black Death, 1348 – 1351. PDF file. 2006. wzaponline.com/BlackDeath.pdf.