The Effects of The Black Death on the Economic and Social Life of Europe

Adrian from Gonzaga HS!!

The Black Death is the name later given to the epidemic of plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351. The disaster affected all aspects of life. Depopulation and shortage of labor hastened changes already inherent in the rural economy; the substitution of wages for labor services was accelerated, and social stratification became less rigid. Psychological morbidity affected the arts; in religion, the lack of educated personnel among the clergy gravely reduced the intellectual vigor of the church.

"In less than four years the disease carved a path of death through Asia, Italy, France, North Africa, Spain and Normandy, made its way over the Alps into Switzerland, and continued eastward into Hungary" (Microsoft Bookshelf, page 1). After a brief respite, the plague resumed, crossing the channel into England, Scotland, and Ireland, and eventually made its way into the northern countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and even as far north as Greenland. In other words, the plague touched almost the entire known world.

So much death could not help but tear economic and social structures apart. Lack of peasants and laborers sent wages soaring, and the value of land plummeted. For the first time in history the scales tipped against wealthy landlords as peasants and serfs gained more bargaining power. Without architects, masons and artisans, great cathedrals and castles remained unfinished for hundreds of years. Governments, lacking officials, floundered in their attempts to create order out of chaos.

The living lost all sense of morality and justice, and a new attitude toward the church emerged. Medieval people could find no Divine reason for the four-year nightmare, and dissatisfaction with the church gave impetus to reform movements that eventually broke apart the unity of the Catholic Church.

The plague itself was disastrous enough, especially in the appearance of more than one form during the same epidemic. But coming when it did was as catastrophic as its form. The middle 14th century was not a good time for Europe. The European economy was already in difficulties. It was approaching the limits of expansion, both on its frontiers and in reclaiming land from forest and swamp. The arrival of the Mongols and the Ottomans had disrupted trade routes, and certain areas of Europe were edging into depression.

"The Church was in poor shape as well. The popes resided at Avignon, not at Rome, to the scandal of many. Heresy could be found in England and Bohemia and southern France, and the Church seemed unable to control it (Encyclopedia Britannica, p.58)."

The Holy Land had been lost in the 1290s and efforts to recover it had been dismal failures. The Black Death exacerbated the difficulties created by war and a constricted economy. There is a relationship here, of course. The effects of the plague were made worse because of these other problems. And the problems themselves were redoubled because of the plague.

Another major problem was the Jewish population. In village after village, the common people laid the blame of the plague at the feet of the Jews. Hundreds of Jews were accused of poisoning wells and put to the question, medieval code for torture, and burned. Despite this, the Jews were also provided- by Casimir the Great of Poland- protection from pogroms and ritual murders at the hands of the Christians. When the Black Death raged through the German lands between 1348 and 1352, over 300 Jewish communities were either destroyed or expelled from their homelands.

The Black Death changed the demography of Europe substantially. Aside from the Plague deaths, there was also a decline in the birth rate. The net result was that by 1400, Europe's population was half what it had been in 1345. This is known with some accuracy from the many Medieval church, census, and tax records that have survived. Europe's population took about six generations to recover.

Cities were hit hard by the plague. Financial business was disrupted as debtors died and their creditors found themselves without recourse. There was simply no one to collect from. Construction projects stopped for a time or were abandoned altogether. Guilds lost their craftsmen and could not replace them.

The labor shortage was very severe, especially in the short term, and consequently, wages rose. Because of the mortality, there was an oversupply of goods, and so prices dropped. Between the two