By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
It’s safe to say that the epidemic that swept through the medieval world between 1347-1353 dramatically affected every aspect of life for every person who lived through the Great Mortality. The plague devastated the workforce, and whether it was hit directly or not, every town, village, city, and nation changed in response to it.
Even those few places that by some measure of luck managed to escape the worst of the epidemic were still transformed by the fact that the communities around them—the ones they traded with, did business with, or had other relationships with—were affected, and thus, the relationships between these communities changed abruptly in one way or another.
Several scholars have argued that the Black Death was the most important turning point in the history of the Middle Ages and that without it, Europe might not have entered the early modern period when it did—sometime in the 16th century.
Scholars like the late, great David Herlihy have suggested that without the social upheaval of the plague, the medieval world might have kept on chugging along for an extra century or so before the ideas and social trends that we think of as key to the Renaissance came into existence.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Impact of the Plague on Population
The impact of what happened during and right after the outbreak of the Black Death was dramatic and far-reaching, and it shook medieval society to its core. But in the long-term, what we see is a gradual adaptation and accommodation with the realities of the plague. This had to happen because, after the first outbreak in the mid–14th century, plague tended to return around once a decade or so over the course of the next 200-plus years.
What this meant in demographic terms is that the population was not able to start recovering until around the year 1500, because every time medieval society would start to get back on its feet, there would be another outbreak, and quite often it would carry off the young children of the people who had survived the last epidemic.
These children were supposed to contribute to the population replacement, but since a big chunk of them got taken out of the picture every decade or so, the population losses of the first wave of plague remained persistent. However, because these later recurrences were nowhere near as virulent as the first outbreak in the 14th century, the population was able to make a modest recovery. But the going was slow.
Learn more about the Black Death’s political outcomes.
The Loss of Skill and Technique
The most obvious and immediate effect of the first wave of the Black Death was the loss of laborers, both skilled and unskilled. In the realm of the arts, generally speaking, output diminished, stylistic traditions got simplified, and much more attention was paid to trends like the danse macabre and the memento mori tradition.
This is, quite simply, because many of the master craftsmen—those who would be responsible for training apprentices—had died, and when they died, they took their knowledge and their skill with them. Much in the way of technique and trade secrets were lost in the aftermath of the first pandemic.
This meant that people suddenly had to forge new economic and trade relationships almost overnight. If there are no blacksmiths in your town because all of them died, that doesn’t change the fact that you still need to have your horse shod. Now, you might have to go to the next town over and use the services of that blacksmith if he’d survived.
The Economic Backbone Was Largely Weakened
Even as most towns were struggling with the fact that the working population that had been the backbone of their economic infrastructure was radically diminished, they also had to confront an additional problem—the coffers of most civic institutions were being drained by necessary expenditures, just as the tax base was shrinking.
For example, in places like Florence and Avignon, the ruling factions attempted to take action against the plague by doing things like setting up a board of health or establishing quarantine rules that needed to be enforced by officials appointed and paid for by the city.
In Florence, people coming from Pisa were forbidden from entering the city, but enforcing this rule required a heavily manned cordon at the various entrances to the Florentine territory. And those people manning the cordon needed to be paid.
Other necessary expenditures included buying up tracts of land and designating them as cemeteries in order to accommodate the huge number of burials that suddenly needed to take place.
Learn more about the plague’s impact across the Mediterranean.
New Expenses to Keep Up With
There were also huge numbers of widows and orphans who needed charitable assistance. While most cities did engage in such charitable acts—and had for some time—no one was prepared for the staggering number of such people who suddenly required assistance all at once.
The economic strain on civic entities wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that the tax base the cities and nations depended on for money to be spent in these areas was suddenly cut in half, and sometimes the losses to the tax base were even greater.
Numerous heads of households were suddenly gone either as victims of the plague or because they had fled the city and headed to the countryside to wait out the worst of the epidemic. This created an additional problem; all these houses were sitting vacant in the cities. In some instances, like in London, the well-to-do fled and left behind their servants to watch over their property.
The plague had indeed changed the pattern of the society.
Common Questions about the Economic Impact of the Plague
The children were supposed to contribute to the population replacement, but since a big chunk of them got taken out of the picture every decade or so, the population losses of the first wave of plague remained persistent.
As a result of the plague, the output diminished in the realm of arts. Also, the stylistic traditions got simplified, and much more attention was paid to trends like the danse macabre and the memento mori tradition.
Many people had perished in the plague, so there was an increase in the numbers of orphans and widows, who required charitable assistance for survival.