The Black Death – we all know the term. And we all know the basic story: if you got the plague you got horrible boil things that were black and puss-filled, and you dropped dead quickly. And I guess that is it in a nutshell. But there was way more to it than that. The social impact of the plague is just as worthy of comment and telling as the physical.
It is acknowledged by most researchers that Europe suffered terrible weather for several years, leading to famine, in the years leading up to the spread of plague. Katie Bell has presented this information quite well and you can read more at Katie Bell – The Black Death Essay. The rest of her site is worth a look too if you are interested in the Black Death and its spread across Europe.
What I am particularly interested in is the impact on society. Families fell apart either through death or abandonment; many people fled where there were outbreaks (leading to further spread of the disease), while others locked themselves away; Jews were persecuted as the people looked for someone to blame; shops and other services stopped operating; the graveyards overflowed so mass graves had to be dug on the outskirts of towns; music became heavier and more sombre; often, societies lost their sense of order. It has also been suggested that many people started to question the Catholic Church that had not managed to save them despite prayers and penances, thus starting the rise of Protestantism.
But, as the plague came to an end, there were actually positives outcomes for some, particularly those of the lower classes. Firstly, labour was in very short supply so workers could demand higher payments for their labour. It also meant that more land was available and, with more money in their pockets than ever before, the labouring classes could become more wealthy. Those who owned land, even modest amounts, often found that they came into possession of more land due to the fact that they were the only surviving family member to inherit. There was also improved sanitation in some regions that were the result of the devastation of plague.
Here are some other great sources of information on The Black Death:
Children during the Black Death (Shona Kelly Wray, “Children during the Black Death,” in Children and Youth in History, Item #167, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/167 (accessed April 21, 2017).
And my favourite work of fiction to date on the plague is: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Loved reading this book and I know of many others who did also.