The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, was a deadly pestilence that raged in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East from 1347-50, with several other occurrences in 1361, 1369, and 1374. The plague caused an incredible total of 75 to 200 million casualties, reducing the world’s population in the 14th century by an estimated 35% or more. In Europe alone, the Black Death is estimated to have killed anywhere from 30 – 60% of the population.
Caused by the bacterium strain Yersinia pestis, the Black Death is thought to have originated in China, triggering outbreaks along the Silk Road before reaching the Russian (Crimean) Peninsula and from there travelling to the Mediterranean and Europe on merchant ships via the carrier fleas on Oriental rats. In Europe, the disease is thought to have originated in Italy in 1347 on trading ships from the Crimea. From Italy, the disease spread northwest into France, Spain, Portugal, and England by 1348. In the Middle East, the Black Death struck Alexandria in Egypt via ports on the Black Sea. From there it travelled east to Gaza and on to Palestine, Jerusalem, and Antioch, to name a few affected cities. Aside from the massive and devastating loss in life, the Black Death had geographical, social, political, economic, and psychological effects, all of which can be separated into two categories: immediate consequences, focusing on the decade after its inception, and long-term consequences of up to a century after the breakout.
Geographically, during the immediate months and years after the Black Death struck, major European cities saw depopulation, not only from death, but from citizens fleeing the confines of the urban, plague-ridden streets. Socially, there was a great deal of religious persecution as well, particularly against Jews, who were often wrongly vilified in one form or another for playing a part in the disease’s spread. In Germany, Jews were sought out and murdered, while in England and France they were simply exiled. Politically, various government functions were limited and in some cases suspended entirely. For example, Britain’s Parliament did not meet from 1349-51 because of the plague’s effects; similarly, the French Parliament did not meet until 1355. Economically, the Black Death actually had a positive effect on wages, since, with so much of the labor force deceased or incapacitated, it became a situation of supply and demand.
With supply shortened because of sickness, demand became greater, and, thus, wages increased, such as shown here regarding food production: “The increase due to the plague is 32 per cent for the threshing of wheat, 38 per cent for barley, 111 per cent for oats in the Eastern countries.” Moreover, the lower class’ per capita income rose overall, with better living conditions and less overcrowding experienced in general by the surviving populace. Rent prices also tended to fall for the same supply and demand paradigm as with the labor force.
For countries affected by the plague, some of these seeming short term benefits turned into disadvantages over the long term. A “long-lasting” depression gripped Europe and the Middle East in the decades after the Black Death struck. In general, these areas experienced sustained lagging economic growth for decades after the pestilence. Some historical scholars have attributed widespread wars as to the cause for this economic stagnation; however, a strong case can be made that the plague was a leading contributor, mainly because the Black Death continued to persist in the years following its most massive outbreak, appearing again in 1361, 1369, and 1374. It is not difficult to imagine why the general populaces of affected nations would fear the return of the Black Death and resist investment and development initiatives that would spur growth. In addition, the early mortality rates (where children were actually more likely to die young as the elderly to die old) wasted efforts in child-rearing, education, and specialized training. The result was a rather untrained, unspecialized, and unsteady workforce. Furthermore, the recurrence of the plague in subsequent decades deeply affected family planning and the ability for families to stabilize and normalize after the initial outbreak: “Not only did the plague directly wipe out substantial fractions of what would have been a recovering population, but it reduced incentives to bear children and raise families.”
Finally, the Black Death also had deep long-term psychological effects on the affected nations, which saw a shift toward religious fervor and the macabre. Clearly, with a populace so deep in mourning, it is easy to see why people would turn to religion for answers. The Black Death brought a renewal of medieval religious values and imagery and a return to mysticism and away from science, as nations struggled to cope with the why’s and how’s of such a widespread and thoroughly devastating epidemic. With 35% or more of the world’s population suddenly decimated, all the nations of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East faced a rebuilding effort rarely seen before in modern civilized times. The Black Death was truly a devastating blight on the world, an epidemic that would be analysed and discussed for many centuries to come.