By Professor Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
The Black Death caused not just social and economic changes, but also significant political problems. The political scene in several places throughout the medieval world was dramatically changed as both individuals and collective organizations responded to the chaos that the Black Death had unleashed on the medieval world.
The medieval world was initially dealt a stunning blow by the Black Death, with the loss of craftsmen, artisans, tradespeople, and laborers of every type. But, by the 1370s, the economic situation had somewhat stabilized. Livestock prices came up from their record low when the market was flooded with animals whose owners had passed away; grain prices came down from their record high when there was a shortage of laborers to plant crops and bring in the harvest.
For the majority of the inhabitants of the medieval world, if you had managed to survive the plague, you were better off after than you had been before. However, those at the upper levels of society suddenly found themselves under economic pressure, as they needed to pay higher wages to laborers who would work their land.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Similarly, civic and political bodies were affected negatively in terms of economics, as much of their tax base had died, and there were suddenly thousands of widows and orphans who needed charity in order to survive. Regulating and enforcing new legislation that came into being in the post-plague world also strained the resources of these larger civic and political entities.
In many instances, governments tried to maintain the status quo in a world that was nothing like the one out of which earlier social and political ideals—like the Three Estates model—had arisen. In the aftermath of the Great Pestilence, the world changed for the better for most people, and, not surprisingly, when governments tried to force the genie of opportunity and social mobility back in the bottle, it did not go.
Learn more about the final stages of the plague’s first wave.
In the short–term, it was some sort of semi–post–apocalyptic scenario in most places in the medieval world. Most of the people who were supposed to run stuff were dead or had fled, and in the vacuum of order that that created, everyone else pretty much ran wild.
For example, in Barcelona, in 1348, four–fifths of the city councilors died from the plague. Moreover, the city’s ruler, Pere (or Peter) the Ceremonious, was King of Aragon, King of Sardinia and Corsica, King of Valencia, and Count of Barcelona. Pere lost his wife to the epidemic.
The plague may have helped him hold on to Barcelona for a while because it struck his territories of Valencia and Aragon first and undermined rebel activity there which allowed him to regain power he’d been on the verge of losing. But, since plague was an equal opportunity killer, the end result was that he had much less administrative control than he’d had pre-plague because most of his administrators had died.
Similar scenarios were playing out throughout the medieval world. The city of London was overseen by a group of 24 aldermen, but eight of them died in the first outbreak of plague. Once the first wave had passed, they were able to function with a fair degree of authority, but this was the exception.
Florence’s city councilors were diminished in number due to both the high mortality rate and the fact that those who could, were fleeing the city for the countryside, where they planned to ride out the worst of the plague. Those who stayed in the city and remained alive managed to pass a law that would fine city officials for running away and neglecting their duties, but this was difficult to enforce because who was there to do so?
Learn more about the Black Death in Walsham.
Once the first big wave of the epidemic had passed, normalcy was restored in most places, but while the governing structures like councils and guilds were back in place, the composition of those bodies looked very different because of the impact.
So while in some places, like Pistoia, Italy, the governing council didn’t even bother to meet during the height of the epidemic, once that had passed, people tried to get back to business pretty quickly. So that’s the long-term political result—what seems at first to be a negligible change.
But if we consider the extended-term, we find that the world was utterly changed by the plague, and while the long-standing governing structures were able to remain in place, they had to adapt to a new world in which the lower classes had more social and economic power and status than they ever had before, and thus, they had more of a say in how they were affected and governed by the powers that be.
Common Questions about the Political Impact of the Black Death
By the 1370s, the economic situation after the Black Death had somewhat stabilized. Livestock prices came up from their record low when the market was flooded with animals whose owners had passed away; grain prices came down from their record high when there was a shortage of laborers to plant crops and bring in the harvest.
Most of the people who were supposed to run things were dead or had fled due to the Black Death, and in the vacuum of order that that created, everyone else pretty much ran wild.
Florence’s city councilors were diminished in number due to both the high mortality rate and the fact that those who could, were fleeing the city for the countryside, where they planned to ride out the worst of the plague.