Even before the Black Death came to Europe, people were dying of ailments that would not have been fatal in good years. The effects were especially devastating for children, since even those who survived were highly susceptible to disease, owing to the severe impairment of their immune systems. Climate change, economic inequality, political instability, and violence paved the way for the medieval pandemic.
Europe before the Black Death
In decades after the Great Famine, as food grew scarcer, prices climbed unpredictably, making even staple goods unobtainable by the poor. Plans for future crops, which kept hope alive, would be dashed when spring arrived, and flooded fields prevented seeds from germinating.
People spent cold summers and autumns foraging for food. Hunting was restricted to the nobility, but even those who risked the death penalty for poaching found little game. Wages did not keep pace with rising costs, and so those who lived in towns and depended on markets had less to spend on scarce provisions. Thus, people were dying even before the Black Death came to Europe.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Anti-Semitic Sentiment and Propaganda
However, in medieval Europe, the pandemic revived old conspiracy theories that implicated Jews in the poisoning of communal water sources. Scores of Jewish communities were attacked and thousands of their inhabitants massacred in parts of the Rhineland, southern France, and the Christian kingdoms of Spain.
An important archeological and forensic study published in 2014 reveals that hundreds of Jews in the small Catalonian town of Tárrega—including children, the elderly, and the disabled—were brutally clubbed and hacked to death by their Christian neighbors, alongside whom they had lived for generations.
Efforts to prevent such pogroms were usually ineffectual and did little to address the root causes of anti-Semitic animus. For example, the town council of the German city of Cologne sent a letter to their counterparts in Strasbourg in January of 1349:
…all sorts of rumors are now flying about against Judaism and the Jews, prompted by this unexpected and unparalleled mortality of Christians. … Throughout our city, as in yours, many-winged Fame clamors that this mortality was initially caused, and is still being spread, by the poisoning of springs and wells, and that the Jews must have dropped poisonous substances into them.
When it came to our knowledge that serious charges had been made against the Jews in several small towns and villages on the basis of this mortality, we began a thorough investigation. … But if a massacre of the Jews were to be allowed … it could lead to the sort of outrages and disturbances which would whip up a popular revolt among the common people—and such revolts have in the past brought cities to misery and desolation. … Accordingly, we intend to forbid any harassment of the Jews in our city because of these flying rumors, but to defend them faithfully and keep them safe.
Although the citizens of Cologne called the plague an ‘act of God’, and not of the Jews, that explanation did not prove as compelling as the one fueled by the centuries of medieval anti-Semitic sentiment and propaganda.
The story of Black Death is also a part of our medieval legacy—one that has just begun to be painstakingly revived and replaced in its global context. If we take an aerial view of the findings, following are some of the common themes that stand out:
First, anthropogenic overreach—whether through activities that intensify climate change, unsustainable practices of farming and extraction, or the encroachment on animal habitats—will stimulate the conditions for the outbreak and spread of zoonotic diseases.
Second, already weakened systems of government and systemically unequal socioeconomic conditions contribute to the spread of pandemic diseases and cause disproportionate suffering to marginalized peoples.
Third, the breakdown of fragile institutions, of community norms and neighborliness, will cause or reignite scapegoating, structural racism, and violence.
Fourth, uneven or uninformed public health responses can worsen the problem, even in times and places where people have access to accurate information.
Finally, pandemics exacerbate long-term social, economic, and political problems which, in the past, have always led to popular rebellions, civil unrest, and even more autocratic crackdowns.
Human Responses to Crises
To recognize these historically established facts is not to succumb to despair. History is a vast laboratory in which we can observe an array of human responses to crises and hardships. If we know and recognize that zoonotic diseases are inevitable and can, under these conditions, cause massive mortality, we can create policies and institutions, locally and globally, to prevent this.
As medical researchers David M. Morens and Jeffery K. Taubenberger wrote in 2018:
Although future pandemics may not be preventable, we have substantial knowledge about pandemic risk management, including standard public health measures to protect individuals, and more effective cooperation between medicine and public health. We also have reason to think that we can successfully implement community prevention measures, slowing pandemic viral spread to buy time for vaccination manufacture and seasonal decreases in transmission. These recommendations, however, were based on a very short-term view of history and on the assumption that ‘the world’s deadliest pandemic’ was that of 1918-19. A deeper view teaches us that human beings will not respond with universal rationality to the terror and trauma of plague. That, too, is a historical fact. Rather than regarding the medieval plague doctor in his beaked hood as a Gothic figure of bygone ignorance and irrationality, we need to put on our own personal protective equipment and confront that image in the mirror.
Common Questions about the Black Death
In medieval Europe, the pandemic revived old conspiracy theories that implicated Jews in the poisoning of communal water sources.
Anthropogenic overreach—whether through activities that intensify climate change, unsustainable practices of farming and extraction, or the encroachment on animal habitats—can stimulate the conditions for the outbreak and spread of zoonotic diseases.
Already weakened systems of government and systemically unequal socioeconomic conditions contribute to the spread of pandemic diseases and cause disproportionate suffering to marginalized peoples.