10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down

Natasha sheldon - June 29, 2018

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
Wolfhampcote, a medieval village straddling the English counties of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire which was deserted because of the Black Death. Picture credit: Andy F. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Deserted Medieval Villages

By the time the plague abated in 1350, a third of Europe had been wiped out. Large, densely populated cities were stricken with massive losses. Before the Black Death, the city of London had a population of 70,000. After 1350, its population reduced with the deaths of 30,000 people. Nor did the countryside, the place of refuge for many people, fare any better. Indeed in some ways, it fared much worse. For while towns and cities, despite their reductions in population survived, many villages saw all of their inhabitants wiped out by the Black Death. Where there were survivors, they were so few that the villages were abandoned altogether.

Archaeology can help shows the scale of this rural devastation. Between 2005-2014, a group of archaeologist began to investigate 55 settlements over six counties in the east of England to identify the effects of the Black Death on the population. Using ordinary, everyday pottery as their benchmark, they discovered on average pottery declined by 45% during and after the plague indicating a corresponding decline in residents. In some areas, the fall was as much as 70% while other places, such as the villages of Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire and Daws Heath in Essex showing no pottery at all.

Many of these villages may have already been declining because of the poor harvests caused by wet summers and the great famine that swept Europe between 1315-17. However, the plague finished them off. Villages like Tilgarsley in Oxfordshire and Anebein in Leicestershire had their occupants wiped out by the Black Death. In other cases, villages were deserted by the survivors because plague had left them so depopulated they could no longer farm the land.

England was not the only country to see a massive loss of its rural settlements. In Germany before 1350, there were about 170,000 rural hamlets and villages. By the time the plague loosened its grip, this number had been reduced by nearly 40,000. In all, eastern and south West Germany lost 20-30% of its villages. The remains of these Wustungen– “lost villages’- can be traced in the landscape today. The story was similar elsewhere with rural Castile suffering a 20% loss of its rural settlements to the Plague.

However, some settlements did recover. In 1350, the manor records for the Hamlet of Quob in Hampshire show that “all and each of the tithing [tenants] died in the pestilence’. However, three years later, the village was resettled- although like Elmesthorpe in Leicestershire, not on the original site. However, the effects of this massive rural depopulation went beyond a decreased in the number of settlements. It changed the way people used the countryside.

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
“”Medieval Farming from “The Decorative Illustration of Books” by Walter Crane c1896. Public Domain

The Black Death Changed Agriculture.

Grain was the foundation of pre-plague agriculture. However, the reduction in the population caused by the Black Death meant there were fewer people to work the land. Crops rotted in the field, and there was no one to plant new ones. In the north of England in the fifteenth century, grain production was less than a third of the level it had been a century earlier. In the region around Cambrai in France, it had dropped 50% by 1370 and continued to fall by a further 25% by the mid-fifteenth century. With grain production no longer viable, it was necessary for agriculture in medieval Europe to make a shift.

One solution was to put the land out to pasture as animal husbandry required less manpower. In some cases, this increased consumption and trade in certain foodstuffs. The Low Countries, Scandinavia and Germany, made the shift increasing the quantities of butter and beef in the European market. In Portugal, there was a shift to fishing. However, the biggest boom came in sheep farming. This type of agriculture required very little labor and its by-product, wool, was much sought after by the burgeoning trade in wool and cloth. Soon, places like England, Central Italy and Castile were booming centers of wool production.

However, crops were still required and so to meet the challenges of the aftermath of the Black Death, agricultural technology adapted. Interestingly, this involved taking a retrograde step. Since the eleventh century, there had been a slow change in the type of draft animals used on the land, with oxen slowly being replaced by horses. After the Black Death, this changed was reverse. Oxen required less fodder than horses and so could work harder with less feed, which was in short supply. What was more, they could be put out to graze on fields that had gone wild. It was not until 1500 in England that the shift back to horses as draft animals began.

As fields lay fallow and returned to the wild, landowners found other uses for them, leading to the creation of many of the features of the typical park of the landed classes. Former fields became deer parks. They constructed rabbit warrens and fishponds. All supplied the manorial table as well as the fields they once occupied.

There was also another reason for landowners to shift to less labor-intensive farming: the rise in wages. Fewer workers meant a more competitive market and so to keep the services of their agricultural workers, landowners had to pay them more. Decreasing the number of hands needed was one way of keeping the pay bill down. However, the wage issue was just one sign that the social status quo began to shift after the Black Death.

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
The Peasants Revolt 1381. Unknown medieval artist illustrating Froissart’s Chronicles c. 1470. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Fall of the Feudal System

The feudal system was already beginning to change before the Black Death, with more peasants becoming freemen, renting land from their lords and being paid in cash for work instead of being tied by the obligations of serfdom. These freemen remained bound to their villages by family ties and their sense of duty. The plague destroyed this. Families were decimated, and duty vanished. There was plenty of work- but not enough workers. So free peasants were free to negotiate better terms with their Lords, demanding higher wages or lower rent. If their current Lord refused, they could simply move on to one who would agree.

Serfs applied the same tactic. They were tied to the land; however, the labor shortage also gave them more bargaining power. More and more of tied laborers began to negotiate better terms of living. They demanded the same rights as freedmen in return for their labor and if their Lords refused, they ran away. Some left for the towns where, if they could survive uncaught for a year, the law would grant them their freedom. However, others just moved onto other manors where in return for their labour, they were accepted as free workers, with no questions asked.

Landlords had little choice but to pay the wage increases and in some areas payments doubled. Across Europe, serfdom began to disappear. In Italy and France, obligations were imposed upon the Lords who were now obliged to supply their peasants with not only land to farm but also the tools and seeds to do so. By the sixteenth century, it was common for peasants to pay their Lords a fixed rent after which the rest of the profits of their farms were their own. Peasants were also now free to dispose of their own property. It was now possible for peasants to become prosperous- even wealthy.

Alarmed by the growth of a socially mobile peasantry, the nobility began to try and reassert some control. In eastern Europe, serfdom reappeared as laws were made to force serfs to remain on their Lord’s land. In England, a series of laws were passed to try and keep the peasants in their place. Prices of goods were fixed to limit peasant’s profits, and in 1351 the Statute of Laborers was imposed, restricting wages to the levels of 1346. However, these measures were not working as in 1363; ruling bodies passed Sumptuary Laws which regulated the kinds of clothes and materials that different classes could wear to stop prosperous peasants from dressing as nobles.

However, the lower classes were not going to relinquish their newfound freedom without a fight. In 1381, what became known as the Peasants Revolt broke out. Under the leadership of a peasant called Wat Tyler, a group of rebels from Kent and Essex marched on London in June 1381. Once there, they demanded the King recognized their rights, beheading the King’s Treasurer and the Archbishop of Canterbury just to prove they were in earnest. Ultimately, the King’s forces quashed the revolt and the leaders executed. However, the Peasant’s Revolt showed that there was no going back to the old social order. The execution of an Archbishop also signaled another worrying change- this time to the position of the church and religion.

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
Nuns tending Plague Victims. Google Images

The Crisis in Religion

After the Black Death, the Church lost some of its hold on people and faith became less unquestioning. The Clergy had not been able to explain as to why God would allow people to be so stricken by such a horrible disease. Nor, despite its indulgences and the penances had it been able to alleviate suffering or the plague itself. In the aftermath of the Black Death, people began to see the Church as self-serving and corrupt. Some questioned the need for the clergy at all. In essence, the Black Death laid the foundations of the Reformation.

During the Black Death, many monks and parish priests had stuck by their parishioners. Monastic hospitals cared for the sick and priests continued to go amongst the infected, administering the sacraments, hearing confessions and offering what consolation they could. However, this close proximity to the sick and dying pushed up mortality rates amongst the clergy. In monasteries, around 50% of the monks died. In towns like Bristol, the mortality rate amongst clergymen was ten deaths amongst every 18 priests. The incumbents of many churches had to be replaced several times. Very soon, the Church had run out of priests.

Some priests, however, did desert their posts to save themselves and once the plague was over, they became representative of the whole priesthood, rather than the exceptions. Jean de Venette writing in rural Beauvais in northern France castigated “the cowardly priests” who abandoned their flocks. However, these priests in themselves were insufficient to make up the depleted clergy. It became necessary to hastily recruit new ones. However, the quality of the recruits was dubious. Half-trained, often illiterate; these new priests lacked the dedication and devotion of their predecessors. Many took advantage of the desperate need of parishes to charge between twice and ten times as much for their services as priests had before.

 

It was apparent that neither priest nor pope had been able to intercede with God to stop the plague. However, other issues had eroded church authority. The desperate shortage of priests to administer the sacraments to the dying had led Pope Clement to take extreme measures. He had issued an edict, which allowed the laity-even women- to hear confession. This led some people to question if they needed the clergy at all. In the aftermath of the Black Death, a number of heresies arose that were motivated by the belief that the un-ordained to commune with God directly: the Fraticelli and Dolcinites in Italy and in England, the Lollards.

The church attempted to counter this dissent with a carrot and stick approach. They clamped down on heretics, at the same time tried to woo their flock with sweeteners. In Italy, it created fifty new religious holidays in the aftermath of the plague. However, it did little good. The Church could not repair the damage done by the Plague to its reputation or the people’s faith. Nor did the fabric of the church recover. As with the population in general, many English monasteries never recovered the sheer numbers they had lost. However, the effects of the Plague on society weren’t all bad.

10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down
Seventeenth century plague doctor. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Development of Quarantine

In 1348, in an attempt was made to understand the plague and its causes, The Paris Medical Faculty published a scientific account of the plague. They attributed the ultimate cause of the plague to “the configuration of the heavens” which led to a “corruption of the air” rather than any earthly causes. Erroneous as this was, the report did note the link between the increased wet weather and the warmer winters which perpetuated the disease and how cold, hard winters tended to destroy similar infections.

With no clear understanding of the origins of the plague, it was impossible for doctors to formulate an effective treatment. Remedies varied between bleeding and purging patients. If these did not finish off the afflicted, physicians attempted cool their humors with herbal treatments and then lance the buboes. For centuries afterwards, people survived plague due to luck or natural resilience rather than any medical advances. However, there was one aspect of plague management that underwent a complete revolution because of the Black Death: the measures which European society took to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

There were several, less prolonged outbreaks of plague in the years immediately following 1351. However, rather than sealing up the sick within towns in their individual houses, the idea of mass isolation began to develop. In 1374, during an outbreak of plague in Reggio, Italy, the town’s ruler Viscount Bernabo ordered that everyone suffering from plague be taken out of the town to the fields to either recover or die. Around the same time, this same idea was suggested by the chief physician of the Croatian port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Jacob of Padua, who established a place outside the city walls for all affected townspeople and outsiders.

In 1377, Ragusa took this method of isolation one stage further. The town council passed a law establishing the Trentino, a thirty-day isolation period during times of plague. The Trentino required all those coming from known areas of plague to spend 30 days in isolation before they were allowed to enter the city. During that time, only designated individuals were allowed to enter the restricted area. Anyone who entered without authorization was forced to join it.

The idea worked and over the next 80 years, spread across Europe with Marseilles, Venice, Pisa and Genoa all adopting the Trentino – butin an amended form. For instead of isolating the sick for thirty days, these cities expanded it to forty days. Whether this was from an observed need to expand the period of isolation or a religious basis based around the 40 days of lent, the Trentinobecame the Quaranta- from which the modern term of quarantine derives.

 

Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources?

“Oh father, Why have you abandoned me?” Samuel Cohn, History Extra, June 2018

Black Death: The Lasting Impact, Professor Tom James, BBC History, February 17, 2011

A History Of Quarantine, From The Black Death To Typhoid Mary, Melissa Block National Public Radio, October 27, 2014

Black Death: The Disease, Dr. Mike Ibeji, BBC History, February 17, 2011

Where the Black Death happened: 9 places connected to the plague, Charlotte Hodgeman, BBC History Magazine, February 2011

The Black Death, edited and translated by Rosemary Horrox, Manchester University Press, October 15, 1994

The Origin of Quarantine, Paul S. Sehdev Arcanum, November 1, 2002

The Black death and the transformation of the west, David Herlihy, Harvard University Press, 1997.

The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans Richard Aldington, Garden City Publishing, 1930

Estimating the destruction caused by the Black Death in Medieval England, Ian Harvey, The Vintage News, August 9, 2016

Daily Life During the Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne, Greenwood publishing group, 2006

Medieval Sexual Behaviour, Gordon Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, 19543

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