Recurring Waves of the Black Death Devastated Society Every Ten Years


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

Without a doubt, the recurring waves of the Black Death that swept across the medieval world challenged the social, political, religious, and economic structures that had long been in place. Indeed, in some places, the Great Mortality seemed likely to completely overthrow them. Disaffection with organized religion reached an all-time high and arguably helped to usher in the Protestant Reformation.

A recreation of a medieval town.
The plague devastated all societies that it swept through. (Image: Zhitnikov Vadim/Shutterstock)

Critique of the Clergy

During the Black Death outbreak, people watched members of the clergy die in numbers equal to the rest of the population and then saw the fear with which they performed their duties—and the fear that sometimes caused clergymen to forgo performing their duties. “If God is not sparing even his special servants,” the reasoning went, “then he must be really mad, which must mean that the Church is corrupt, and that is why their prayers are to no avail. Clearly, the Church needs to be reformed.”

Golden cross with the crucifixion of Jesus on the chest of a priest in black clothes
People had lost trust in clerics. (Image: ROMSVETNIK/Shutterstock)

In the Uprising of 1381 in England, in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, we see corrupt clergy come in for a scathing critique. Many mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. But that’s not the beginning—that’s actually the culmination of almost two hundred years of frustration directed at the institution of the Church. 

The beginning, one could argue, was the year 1348, which is when it was starting to dawn on most of the medieval world that this epidemic wasn’t going away, and its mortality numbers were going to be huge, and the Church seemed powerless to stop it.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Black Death’s Impact on Social Classes

The impact of the Black Death was felt long-term in other areas as well. The quintessential medieval model of the Three Orders or Three Estates broke down and was replaced by a social order marked more by mobility than rigidity or adherence to class. 

Economically, society moved from a rural, agricultural orientation to an urban, merchant economy, even as it was often cities that were hardest hit during the Black Death, due to the close quarters and the fact that most urban centers—especially port cities—were full of rats.

Man and woman holding hands
The plague led to people from different social classes marrying each other. (Image: ksb/Shutterstock)

Because there was so much land to be had, those at the lowest rung of the social order sought to take advantage of their new opportunity and prosperity, and soon merchants and craftsmen were able to acquire wealth and luxury goods in a way that had only ever been the domain of the nobility. 

In the face of this new economic reality, the Three Estates social order was even further compromised when members of the nobility started to do what had been unthinkable just a decade before—they began to intermarry with the merchant class. This group was suddenly flush with cash and property and eager for social advancement, while the nobles found themselves cash-poor, with plenty of land—but no one to work it unless they could pay wages that had shot up almost overnight.

Learn more about cultural reactions from flagellation to hedonism.

Recurring Waves of the Black Death

While these changes were born in the immediate aftermath of the first wave of the pestilence that hit the medieval world between 1347 and 1353, they might not have matured and continued to exert influence had it not been for the fact that even when the Black Death was over—it still wasn’t over.

In 1353, when the first wave seemed to have burned itself out, we can imagine that people took a deep breath, looked around, and started to hope that life would get back to normal. Since summer was usually the time when plague roared back the fiercest, in the summer of 1354, everyone must have held their breath, waiting. While there were very few cases here and there, there was nothing like an epidemic. The same was true in 1355, in 1356, in 1357, and onward.

Governments and various other institutions started the business of trying to get back to normal in all earnestness. They might have succeeded in restoring the medieval world to some semblance of what it had been in 1340, except that the plague began to recur with some regularity just about every ten years or so.

Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.

Give Them a Break

The next significant outbreak was in 1360–1363. Can you imagine the despair that gripped a large portion of the population who had just started to think that maybe the Great Mortality had been a one-off now to be consigned to the pages of history? And then the plague disappeared—and came back again in 1374. 

And again in 1400, 1438, 1456, 1464. In 1481, the plague came back and stayed for almost five years. Then 1500. In 1518, the plague came back with surprising tenacity and stuck around for almost 15 years—1544, 1563, 1573, 1596. A decade of plague starting in 1602. Almost two decades starting in 1623. Another 10-year outbreak, beginning in 1644. And finally, in the last major outbreak of 1664–1667, the Black Death seemed, at last, to be done with the European West.

Every time one recites that list of dates, you feel the same way. One has an irrational hope that each outbreak will be the last, and each new range of dates listed is a body blow to an already suffering population. Talk about kicking someone when they’re down. If there’s any silver lining to be found here, it’s that human beings are tough and resilient because here we still are, despite all of it.

Common Questions about the Recurring Waves of the Black Death

Q: How did the plague affect people’s perception of the Church?

Throughout the recurring waves of the Plague, the Church lost its good standing. Many clergymen died just like normal folks, which didn’t make sense since they were men of god. So the only explanation could be that the Church was corrupt and God was angry.

Q: How did the plague affect the social classes in Europe?

Because of the recurring waves of the Plague, the merchant class had more money than before, while the nobles were left with no cash since wages had increased overnight. This led to these classes mingling and intermarrying more often, changing the social landscape.

Q: How often did the plague come back to haunt Europe after the initial wave?

The recurring waves of the Plague came about every ten years or so and demolished every attempt for society to rebuild itself.

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Instability and Chaos: Political Impact of the Black Death
The Decline of Serfdom: Impact of The Black Death in England