Plague’s Global Reach, Effects Shown in “After the Plague”

peasants' revolt, decameron unexpected consequences of black death

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The plague killed much of Earth’s population—then what? After a global pandemic that decimated humanity, people found their world changed forever. Witness the odd birth of Robin Hood and “The Canterbury Tales.”

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
Richard II is depicted meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Painting by Jean Froissart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Most discussions about the Black Death involve doctors with robes and bird masks, plague rats, the approximated death toll, and a devastated Europe. So what was left in its wake? Effects of the plague included everything from the peasants’ revolt of 1381 to the popularity of Robin Hood and creation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. A generation of orphans struggled to find a place in the world while all manner of religions adapted to such a crisis of faith—the seemingly senseless killing of men, women, and children.

The new Wondrium video series After the Plague reveals how the world learned to fight the plague and what its effects were as it abated, only to strike again. Wondrium writer/producer Susan Lutz, who worked as a content developer for the series, spoke in an interview about working on the series and what its impacts were on her.

A World Connected by Trade and Loss

“One of the most exciting things for me was learning about the time period as a whole,” Lutz said. “The series shows that the Middle Ages were not the Dark Ages—it was a rich and interconnected society with global reach—and the series challenges a lot of popular misconceptions about the plague and the period as a whole.”

For example, the Black Death affected the entire planet, not just Europe. It affected Asia and Africa, as well. Lutz cited series presenter Professor Simon Doubleday’s own knowledge of the subject as instrumental in laying out how the world’s interconnectedness contributed to both the spread of the plague and also the recovery from it.

“He discusses research that confirms that the plague started earlier, had a higher mortality rate, and spread further across the world than previously thought,” she said. “He also talks about plagues and pandemics in general creating circumstances for massive social change.

“The Black Death led to Robin Hood, whose legend began as people looked for new kinds of justice; and the peasants’ revolt, [which is] the biggest revolt in medieval history, with thousands of peasants storming London and demanding social change.”

The Lessons That Stand

Lutz said that viewers of After the Plague will find relevance to today’s world with COVID-19, but it also has a broader appeal for the way people respond to trauma, in general. Seeing how people in centuries past used their trauma to begin their healing process, she said, could apply to the 21st century as well.

“I think it’s always in recognition of what happened, but with the idea that when we learn about the traumas that people experienced in the past, it gives us a filter or new lens to see what’s happening to us today and to realize that our experiences are not unique—that we share those feelings with people who lived in medieval times and across history,” she said.

According to Lutz, this time period was also one in which all women, royal or not, were able to exert different kinds of power and agency that we don’t normally consider. Peasant women sold produce and earned their own money, which was almost unheard-of at the time. In After the Plague, Professor Doubleday speaks about women from all walks of life and how they defied normalized gender roles.

“He talks a lot about the varied experience of all kinds of women during this time period,” she said. “Some scholars claim that women were able to get more economic power and independence during this time because things were changing and people everywhere were dying, so it opened up new opportunities for people, and that was something I hadn’t realized before.”

After the Plague is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily