The Black Death, the most severe epidemic in human history, ravaged Europe from 1347-1351. This plague killed entire families at a time and destroyed at least 1,000 villages. Greatly contributing to the Crisis of the Fourteenth Century, the Black Death had many effects beyond its immediate symptoms. Not only did the Black Death take a devastating toll on human life, but it also played a major role in shaping European life in the years following.
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The Black Death consisted mainly of bubonic plague, but pneumonic plague was also present in the epidemic. Symptoms of the bubonic plague included high fever, aching limbs, and blood vomiting. Most characteristic of the disease were swollen lymph nodes, which grew until they finally burst. Death followed soon after. The name "Black Death" not only referred to the sinister nature of the disease, but also to the black coloring of the victims' swollen glands. Pneumonic plague was even more fatal, but it was not as abundant as the Bubonic plague.
The first outbreak of the plague was reported in China in the early 1330's. Trade between Asia and Europe had been growing significantly, and in 1347, rat-infested ships from China arrived in Sicily, bringing the disease with them. Since Italy was the center of European commerce, business, and politics, this provided the perfect opportunity for the disease to spread. The plague existed in the rats and was transferred to humans by fleas living on the rats. It struck cities first and then infected rural areas. The Black Death spread so rapidly that by 1350, one-third of Europe was dead.
European economy and society changed drastically following the Black Death. Because so many people had died, there was a huge labor shortage. This contributed to the end of the feudal system, since serfs could often leave their manors and make a better living in cities. In addition to better work opportunities, survivors of the plague had a surplus of material goods. Many of the dead had left behind entire estates and other belongings. These goods were available through inheritance and looting. At this time, the pawnshop business, made famous by the Medici family, became extremely successful. Through these factors, Europe experienced an overall rise in its standard of living.
The plague also affected religion and art, which became very dark and preoccupied with death. Many people believed that the Black Death came from God's extreme anger at the world. A group of fanatics, called Flagellants, inflicted various punishments on themselves in an attempt to atone for the world's sins--and end the disease. An artistic style known as the danse macabre depicted skeletons and corpses mingling with the living during happy occasions. These actions reminded the people of the overriding sense of doom that shadowed their lives because of the Black Death.
The Black Death changed European history in many significant ways. Its fatal symptoms took many human lives, and its influence carried over into many areas of society. Economically, Europe flourished because depopulation allowed wealth for more people. But people suffered religiously because the disease brought out the darker side of life and made them question God. Europe would not be the same today without these changes, brought on through the devastation of the Black Plague.
The New Encyclopedia Brittanica. Robert McHenry, editor., vol 2. (Chicago; Brittanica Inc, 1992).
Collier's Encyclopedia. Lauren Bahr, Bernard Johnston, editors. (New York; P.F.Collier, Inc., 1993).
Edited by: Sara J. Bussema
Researched by: Turid Tangen
Written by: Erika L. Witowski
December 12, 1996
Copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.