By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
Many scholars believe that the Black Death is what ushered in the age we tend to call the Renaissance in the 16th century. The late great historian, David Herlihy, has gone so far as to suggest that without the Black Death, the advances and discoveries of the European Renaissance might have been delayed for another couple of centuries at least.
How the Black Death Changed the Social Order
In David Herlihy’s theorization, the medieval world would have kept toddling along, maintaining customs, social classes, and political infrastructure quite easily. It took an outside force to change all that. When the Black Death struck the medieval world in the middle of the 14th century, its effects were immediate, catastrophic, and devastating on multiple levels.
The economic, social, and political worlds needed to reinvent themselves in order to cope with this new normal, and social structures that had been firmly in place for centuries were now only an ideal or a suggestion, but not a reality, as many from the lower classes took advantage of new upward mobility.
The fact that this change was so quick—in some places, the arrival of the plague and the impact of its devastation happened literally overnight—this was also a key factor in this change of the social order.
Whole communities were wiped out. Skilled laborers died, and when they died, many of them took with them knowledge about their particular trades that would then be lost to the world.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Plague’s Impact on the Church
The plague’s impact on the Church and that institution’s reaction to it—sometimes inept, sometimes reluctant, sometimes sincere and dedicated, but always with just as much loss of life as there was in the general population—meant that any dissatisfaction with the Church that had existed pre-plague became amplified.
At the same time, those who might have been devout, unquestioning followers of Church doctrine were forced to confront and reconsider what the Church’s many failures during the Black Death might mean.
This was a line of thinking that arguably leads straight to Martin Luther nailing those 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Were it not for the plague, the Reformation might have taken much longer to materialize if it did at all.
The Black Death would periodically appear and disappear over the span of about three centuries. So, when the last real outbreak of plague ended for example, in London in 1666, there were no celebrations or sighs of relief, there was just more waiting for what might be coming next.
And if plague was largely done with the world, there were plenty more diseases to fill that vacuum. Although cases of smallpox have been recorded as far back as 1000 B.C.—we think—this disease didn’t make a serious incursion into the Western European world until the 16th century.
At this time, the plague still recurred periodically, but its virulence was very much diminished. It was also in the 16th century that another disease, syphilis, appeared on the European scene. And after that, there was cholera to contend with.
Learn more about the environment that exacerbated the epidemic.
At the end of the 19th century, plague reappeared for the first time with any significant impact in India and China. Intense study of this so-called Third Pandemic of plague using the latest medical and scientific techniques is what helped scientists determine that this pandemic was caused by the same agent that was behind the Black Death and the Plague of Justinian.
Then the influenza outbreak of 1918 came on the scene. Truly worldwide, it’s estimated that 3 to 5 percent of the total population of planet Earth was wiped out before the pandemic finally came to an end. While there have been later outbreaks of influenza, many of them serious, none has reached the level of the 1918 pandemic—but such an outbreak could come someday.
Learn more about the plague’s initial path through 14th-century Europe.
Black Death as a Touchstone
For each of these other later outbreaks of disease, the Black Death often functioned as a touchstone, as a comparison or filter or mechanism that would allow people the means to process current epidemics and figure out how to function and respond. In these cases, history could sometimes be instructive. Indeed, the practice and the word quarantine had come into being with the medieval Black Death, and the lessons that were learned there could be put into practice again.
Many think the plague is gone, and that it no longer presents any sort of real threat to the modern world. While that is mostly the case, the plague is far from eradicated or unimportant. In fact, one might argue that understanding the Black Death is more essential than ever in the 21st century.
While it’s certainly important to recognize how the Black Death changed the medieval world, one thing we can learn from that epidemic is how disease in general—and virulent pandemics like the plague in particular—have shaped human societies and individual behavior for all of recorded history and beyond.
Common Questions about the Black Death
The Black Death deeply affected the social order as whole communities were wiped out. Skilled laborers died, and when they died, many of them took with them knowledge about their particular trades that would then be lost to the world.
The plague’s impact on the Church and that institution’s reaction to it meant that any dissatisfaction with the Church that had existed pre-plague became amplified.
During the influenza outbreak of 1918, it’s estimated that 3 to 5 percent of the total population of planet Earth was wiped out before the pandemic finally came to an end.