In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out half of Europe’s population. However, Poland and Milan managed to escape the worst of the pandemic and had death rates much lower than those of the other affected nations. There were various factors that helped these two nations.
For a long time, it was believed that Poland had escaped the Black Death altogether. However, medieval Poland was a small, landlocked kingdom, surrounded by regions that had been affected by the plague.
In fact, there’s simply not very much data available for Poland for that time. According to the great plague historian Ole Benedictow, this was so because under communism, there was an active effort to suppress evidence of the socioeconomic impact of the Black Death.
Although research into medieval Poland and the plague is not as developed as in the cases of many other European countries, research into wages in the Middle Ages suggests that a demographic catastrophe did hit the region.
Learn more about the causes of the Black Death.
Wages and Grain Prices in 14th Century
In Kraków in the 1350s, wages for laborers increased dramatically—just as they did in England, France, and most of Germany at the same time, and all of those countries saw wages rise because there was a desperate need for bodies to work at a variety of jobs and professions.
It’s interesting to note that grain prices also fell at the same time. Benedictow argues that this is because, in the face of massive depopulation, agricultural lands that were poor producers of grain had been abandoned as there were better, more productive fields for the taking.
So, a smaller population and fields that had greater yields meant that grain prices dropped because demand had decreased at exactly the same moment that production had become more efficient. Additionally, because of the increase in wages, people had more disposable income, which meant they could afford a better, more varied diet.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Low Impact of the Epidemic on Poland
Benedictow says that these economic patterns alone point to the fact that Poland was most likely ravaged to the same degree as the rest of the medieval world.
There are scholars, however, who have argued that while medieval Poland was affected, it managed to come out of the first wave of the epidemic with fewer casualties—instead of 50 percent, many think that the death rate was closer to 25 or 30 percent.
This possible lower death rate in Poland may be in part due to Poland’s geography. It was one of the most densely forested portions of the medieval world, and there were long distances between villages, which meant it was difficult for plague to travel here.
There’s also the argument that there were fewer black rats in Poland and the nearby Kingdom of Bohemia, which included much of the modern-day Czech Republic. So the black rat flea, the main host and transmitter of Yersinia pestis, was less likely to be found in these places. And gerbils, shown in many studies that have been conducted in just the last few years to be strong contenders as carriers of plague fleas, were not present in any significant numbers in Europe during this time.
How Milan Escaped the Black Death
One of the most surprising examples of a city that escaped infection is Milan.
In 1348, Milan was one of the great cities among the Italian city-states. It was a center primarily for overland trade. And as we know, the progress of the plague overland was slower than the infection that moved in so rapidly from major port cities.
But this fact alone is not what allowed Milan to make it to 1353 virtually unscathed by plague. The key difference here is in how Milan was governed. The ruler of Milan was an individual—not a counsel or an oligarchy, as with other city-states—and he was an absolute despot.
In 1348, the Visconti ruler was Luchino. When he first learned of the outbreak of plague, he enacted extreme preventive measures. First, he significantly increased the guard presence at the gates of the city, and almost all movement of travelers into the city was halted. Still, despite this, plague did manage to make its way into Milan. When word came that there were three families in the city who had members who appeared to be suffering from plague, Luchino’s successor, Bernabò Visconti, moved with no hesitation to have the houses in question walled up from the outside, entombing not only the infected people but their uninfected family members as well.
Learn more about the medieval theories about the Black Death.
Immunity to the Black Death
In addition, while our scientific and medical understanding of exactly what happened in the mid-14th century is still evolving, it’s possible that certain diseases may have conferred some level of immunity to the Black Death.
One candidate in the list of immunity-conferring diseases is typhus. In early 1348, there was a typhus outbreak in Milan, and some experts theorize that this may have essentially inoculated much of the population against the plague, which appeared soon after.
Whatever the reason, Milan’s death rate was a very modest 15 percent, an unbelievable achievement when compared to the rest of the medieval world.
Common Questions about How Poland and Milan Escaped from the Black Death
According to the great plague historian Ole Benedictow, there’s not much data available for Poland because under communism there was an active effort to suppress evidence of the socioeconomic impact of the Black Death.
A smaller population and fields that had greater yields meant that grain prices dropped in 14th century Europe, as demand had decreased at exactly the same moment that production had become more efficient.
Firstly, Poland was very densely forested area and there were long distances between villages, which meant it was difficult for the plague to travel. Secondly, there were fewer black rats in Poland, so the black rat flea, the main host and transmitter of Yersinia pestis, was less likely to be found there.