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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Change was Good: Plague and the end of Medieval Europe

This is the last of a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period. Today's topic is the Black Death and end of the Middle Ages.

In First the Fall, Then the Barbarians, we discussed the macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the Early Middle Ages. We painted kings and knights with a broad brush and learned the benefits of political stability in Huzzah! Knights, Kings and Living the High Life. We looked at war and social change in Ideals of Chivalry and Realities of War and discussed the lives of medieval women in Wives, Mothers, and Nuns. We considered the difference between ‘the church’ and ‘The Church’ in The Desire for God, Power, and Learning.

Some scholars put the beginning of the Renaissance—or the end of the Middle Ages—as early as 1215 with the reign of Frederick II, whose personality and intellectual curiosity heralded the Renaissance. Others put it as late as 1469, the year Lorenzo de Medici began ruling Florence and who could arguably be called the patron of the Italian Renaissance.

If I had to pick a date and defend it for a dissertation, I would argue for 1352, the year after the first wave of the plague burned itself out and the shattered survivors began the painful process of rebuilding their world.

The beginning of the End

Numerically, more died in the Spanish Flu epidemic between 1917-18, but total deaths were 3 percent to 5 percent of the global population.
Yersinia pestis, the bacteria associated with the Great Mortality, touched European shores in 1347, and in the course of five years, killed an estimated 50 million people from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. That’s 60 percent of the European population. In other words, every six out of 10 people living in Europe died; in some places, however, mortality was 80 percent. That would be 30 million to 48 million dead in California and 12,000 to 18,000 where I currently live.

Scholars will argue the exact number, but noodle the idea of at least half (if not more) of the people in your town dying of disease within a month. If you live in a town of 25,000, you will have ~15,000 people die in a few weeks. You have to find those people, bury them, divvy up their goods, and fill their place in the town’s social structure.

The Black death, also called Bubonic Plague because many victims suffered from swollen lymph nodes or buboes in the neck, armpit or groin, is often attributed to infected fleas biting humans after their preferred host, the black rat, died. However, based on the speed, virulence, and rapidity of transmission, many Plague scholars believe there were at least three strains of plague circulating Europe, including a pneumonic strain that appears to have been airborne.

Most scholars believe Yersinia pestis originated in central Asia and spread through China along the main east-west trade routes through commerce and war. It came to Europe in the fall of 1347 on Italian merchant ships fleeing Caffa (sometimes spelled Kaffa). In what might well be the most effective instance of germ warfare ever, when Mongol leader Jeni Beg realized he could not take the city because plague had destroyed his army, he lobbed the plague-riddled corpses over the wall, infecting those within the city (although rats came and went unimpeded by either army, so Jeni Beg can’t take all the credit or the blame). Defenders, fleeing plague, brought the disease to Marselles in the second week of September. By November, it was in Genoa, Venice and Pisa. These cities served as bridgeheads from which the plague conquered all of Europe.

Nothing to do but Wait and Pray

Horrifyingly, people knew it was coming. Stories arrived in a town or city weeks or months in advance of the assault. As people fled cities to avoid the plague (often bringing it with them) they told stories of thousands dead in a few weeks, of people dancing  in the morning, feeling ill in the afternoon, and being dead by evening, and of whole families lost and no one realizing it because their neighbors were dead, as well.

Surviving accounts tell us of mass burials and wild pigs and dogs digging up the shallowly buried corpses and of rivers being consecrated to handle the dead because a city ran out of land and people to bury its dead. One Italian man wrote of burying his wife and five sons with his own hands.

Modern epidemiologists may debate the exact cause of the Plague, but the key point from a societal point-of-view is simply this: all efforts to contain or stop the plague failed.
  • Medicine failed.
  • Human sacrifice failed (i.e. the slaughter of thousands of urban Jews accused of poisoning wells to kill Christians).
  • Prayer failed.

As a result of the horror and the failure of social systems to contain the suffering, the plague altered how people saw themselves and each other, weakened their faith in institutions and God, and bestowed unprecedented opportunities for mobility and prosperity on survivors.

Loss of Faith

As we discussed in an earlier post, the church (local parish priests and monks) and The Church (the institution) were the driving force of medieval society, but when society turned to the church in both forms for comfort, for answers, for intercession, the Church failed. It could neither offer answers nor comfort for the dying. Many churchmen fled their posts in an attempt to save their own lives and those that stayed, usually died.

Then—as now—people searched for reason behind the plague and in the absence of answers, many people believed the plague was divine punishment for sins. When prayers, votive churches, and the various fasts days called for by the Church failed to even slow the plague, people began to question the righteousness of the church and its divine role in society. This change in perception weakened people’s faith in the church, which led directly to the Reformation, as well the Enlightenment, separation of Church and State, the idea of upward mobility and concept of to individual liberty.

It also changed individual lives—often for the better.

Moving on Up

To be honest, if you survived plague, your life was almost immediately materially better off than it had been or would have been if the Black Death hadn’t overrun Europe. That’s harsh, especially to the millions who died horrific deaths, but it’s also true.

Prior to 1347, Europe was over-populated and culturally stagnant. The 12th century intellectual blossoming that led to the High Middle Ages had faded. Social mobility had come to a standstill and Europe struggled to feed itself, which means the majority of the population was malnourished and one bad harvest from starvation.

As Plague wiped out the population, many people found themselves the sole heirs to their extended family. When consolidated, this inheritance was often substantial enough to change the life of the survivor. This wealth included food animals as well as tools (looms, hence the word heirloom) and money. Food was no longer scarce or unaffordable, which means diet and overall health improved, as well.

Our survivors had health and wealth, skills that were in demand, and an understandable skepticism of the church. They could afford to educate their children. They were willing to risk their noble lord’s wrath and move to the city or to another estate where that lord offered a relief of heriot and daily wages, and were no longer content with their place in the Great Chain of Being. They were needed enough by society that they could ignore efforts from the nobility and the church to reinstitute “traditional values,” and efforts to put the lower orders back into their place failed.

Many of the social changes brought by the plague would have happened anyway, but probably not for another century or two. What the plague did was concentrate these changes into a few painful decades.

A New Outbreak

The plague resurfaced in Europe every decade or so until 1666, but we are not free of the bubonic plague. An outbreak occurred in the early 19th century in China and southeast Asia. Much of our medical knowledge of the plague comes from this outbreak.

And in 1994, bubonic and pneumonic plague surfaced in Surat India, killing only 56 people thanks to the quick and efficient response of India's government and modern antibiotics. Of note, however, is how people reacted to this outbreak. As with the 14th century outbreak, Doctors and nurses refused to treat the sick. People fled the city of Surat in packed trains going to New Delhi and other cities. The plague traveled with them. Others blamed local Muslim populations for poisoning the city’s water supply. Sigh.

About 20 people in the U.S. are infected with plague every year and a few die, mostly because the medical community doesn’t recognize symptoms in time.

If you’d like to learn more about the plague, let me know and I can most links and suggestions in the comments. Overall, though, the clearest learning from a study of plague, is simply this: individuals are fragile, but humanity is resilient.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog series of medieval Europe. I have only skimmed the surface of long and complex time period, so please ask questions. However, I am on a plane from Hawaii today, so feel free to discuss among yourselves until I land stateside.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.


  1. "Out of tragedy springs opportunity", might be the tagline for the devastation of the Black Plague. Civilization as the people of the time period knew it changed drastically. Jobs that were previously closed to certain classes of people became open for negotiations. Wages rose. Class structure began to crumble. Maybe in a certain perspective, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

    I've enjoyed your series on medieval Europe. Thank you for sharing your interest, knowledge, and enthusiasm on a topic that I love to read about.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The plague was like a dam giving way on a river. The immediate effects were awful, but restored a natural flow to society in the long-term. Oddly enough, this is why I can't suspend disbelief long-enough to enjoy The Walking Dead. If 90 percent of the humanity wants to eat you, the other 10 percent aren't going to be walking around with barbed-wired wrapped baseball bats trying to kill fellow survivors. Most conflict is over competition for resources, but wrapped in ideology to motivate people. But that's me. I'm a closet optimist.

  2. Your research and logic make for some amazing pieces of information. This whole series has been a joy to read and full of facts. I really enjoyed it. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. I'm glad you enjoyed the series. It was challenging, but fun. I worried that the posts would be too basic, but my experience has been that medieval history is skimmed over in most schools and few courses connect the dots between past and present.

  3. Welcome back from paradise! Keena, I've so enjoyed this series. Thank you for putting it together. I often sit back and think it's remarkable any of us are here today. If you are here today you're a survivor, because somehow your line managed to endure at least long enough to procreate. And when I think about the challenges our ancestors faced, the Plague is the first thing that comes to mind. And I fear we'll have more challenges to face in the near future.Again, thanks for connecting all the dots as you say.

    1. Thanks, Patti. It was SO hard to get on that plane and leave Maui.

      The plague burned itself into the minds of survivors and their descendants. If fear can be passed down from one generation to the next, we've definitely inherited the fear of plague.

  4. It's unfathomable how many perished. Thanks for such an eye-opening series, Keena. I've learned much.

    1. Kristy, the closest modern equivalency might be Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where an estimated third of the population died from the atomic bombs. Still...unfathomable is a good word.

  5. How terrifying it must have been in those years to fear a disease that had no cure then...and the horror of so many dying from it.
    Thank you for this most interesting post. The pictures were fascinating, too.
    I wish you all the best, Keena.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. Want to know something terrifying? The plague has developed drug-resistant strains.