Essay: Benefits To A Catastrophe: The Black Death

Imagine it is October 1347 and you are gathering excitedly on Sicily’s port of Messina. Standing in the brisk air, you and your whole family wait anxiously to greet the trading ships. These ships are returning with treasures from the Black Sea, but as the ship approaches you are met with horror. The twelve Genoese sailors that left the dock returned either dead or riddled with black oozing boils. The sickness that consumed these men and may have reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to between 450 and 375 million in 1400 is known as ‘The Black Death of the Middle Ages,’ which refers to the Bubonic Plague. The Bubonic Plague is severely infectious disease that caused one of history’s most devastating epidemics. According to The Center of Disease Control victims ‘developed sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness, as well as one or more swollen, and painful lymph nodes (called buboes).’ These symptoms indicated impending death. The World Health Organization states that the disease is ’caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis, a zoonotic bacteria, usually found in small animals and their fleas.’ Not only was this disease carried by fleas, the disease was also airborne. Although the Bubonic Plague crippled most of the fourteenth century’s European population, the plague brought benefits as well: economic prosperity, decline of the Feudal system, improved sanitation and hygiene, innovations in medicine, and a new approach to life.
Imagine walking down cobblestone roads lined with diseased corpses. The smell of rotting flesh fills the air, as you hastily walk to your home hoping your fate will not be the same. History Today Magazine publisher, Ole J Benedictow’s ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever,’ states ‘the emergence of the Bubonic Plague can be traced back to the Mongol Empire in the 1320s.’ The cause for the instant manifestation of the plague is not completely known. From the desert this disease swept across the continent indiscriminately. Ole states ‘of most significance was its eastward spread to China.’ Not only did China experience the plagues sweeping, countries such as India, Persia, Syria and Egypt all suffered its wrath in the early 1330s. Throughout the expansion of trade during the Middle Ages, trade routes such as the Silk Road in China were strengthened and explored greatly. Ole continues in saying ‘European traders, particularly those from the Italian city states, traveled the Black Sea route regularly.’ This voyage was the first to have sailors return to their native lands carrying a foreign pathogen that would quickly turn into an epidemic.
Imagine the suppressive government you were once subject to abide by was dismantled by the plague, and although many citizens were lost, the survivors were finally free. The Bubonic plague greatly impacted the decline of the Feudal system due to it’s devastation on the population of Serfs. Medieval European government mainly consisted of small communities that were centrally governed by the Vassal and manor. The Vassal or ‘local lord,’ owned the district and virtually everything in it. The Serfs or ‘peasants,’ entered into a mutual commitment to a lord in exchange for military protection, while receiving certain liberties as compensation. In return, the Vassal would provide the king with soldiers or taxes. As the Black Death swept over Europe it eradicated a third of its entire population, it also disassembled Feudalism. Contrast to previous laws, Serfs were finally free to leave the lands that they were tied to seek higher wages with the ample labour shortages. The districts that had previously been the primary source of wealth was now worthless. Entire estates were left desolate as families fell to the fury of the plague and died, or fled in an attempt to escape its vengeance, were there for the taking. As Europe advanced away from relying on land as the primary source of prosperity, an ascending middle-class claimed more affluence and prestige, as the once-noble began to quickly lose both. The demise of Feudalism had begun and progressed each day as the plague claimed more lives.
Imagine losing your entire family, neighbors, and community to a disastrous disease, and although many lives have been taken, your life instantly becomes more valuable. As the death rate rises the amount of laborers decrease. Before the plague, the overabundance of available laborers resulted in extremely low wages. There could be no room for negotiating increased wages when an unemployed citizen is available to replace you for equal or lesser pay. ‘The Economic History Review’s’ author, A. R. Bridbury’s discusses the Bubonic plagues positive consequences on the economy. Bridbury’s states that the plague allowed ‘rents to fall, dragging prices down after them, so wages should have risen.’ With the decline in population the demand for housing decreased making rent significantly less expensive. This would allow peasants to move from the countryside into the inner cities at lower rates. As the demand for skilled laborers accelerated their value increased. This would also lead to prices for domestic goods and food to be reduced. Bridbury continues in saying ‘as food prices became more moderate individuals became more likely to eat more meals throughout the day.’
Imagine a life after the plague ravished your city. It almost seems as if the darkness has passed and life only seems to be improving. With the economy booming and more individuals eating, change in diet would allow the individuals to become more healthy. American Science publisher, Pat Shipman’s ‘The Bright Side of the Black Death,’ discusses Dr. DeWitte’s findings on the improvements of life post Black Death. According to Dr. DeWitte, ‘the longevity boost seen after the plague could have come as a result of the plague weeding out the weak and frail.’ This can be a possible outcome due to the plagues effect on the population. With more than half of the population succumbed to the disease, survivors in the post-plague era had a vast increase in available resources. ‘Historical documentation records an improvement in diet, especially among the poor,’ said DeWitte. These improvements in diet lengthened life expectancy and strengthened immunocompetence.
Imagine solely relying on biblical and old world remedies, only to realize that the treatments proved fruitless against the disease seemed to have no known cure. While the Bubonic plague can be cured today, facing this disease in the 14th century would have been extremely lethal. The lack of advanced medicine combined with having no essential sanitation standards, allowed increased vulnerability to be susceptible to the epidemic. The Post-Bubonic plague era not only improved internal heath, populations are forced to understanding epidemiology, prevention and cures from disease. In his article: ‘The Black Death and the Transformation of the West,’ Harvard University’s David Herlihy discusses the aftermath of the plagues impact on traditional medical knowledge. Herlihy argues that the Bubonic plague ravaged people’s confidence in long-established medical ideologies and physicians’ reliance on ancient medical works. In saying, ‘the Black Death prompted new emphasis on theories involving contagion, strategies such as the quarantining of incoming ships, and inspection shipments and crew became a necessity.’ The concept of quarantining proved to be an effective way of containing the disease while isolating the infected from the general population. This technique is still widely used and can be applied to the present day medicine. Herlihy continues in saying ‘the Black Death led to a slowly evolving reassessment of previously held traditions in medicine.’ This placed medicine on the road to modern development.
It seems impossible to imagine what the modern world would be like without the presence of the Bubonic plague. This disease single handedly eliminated one third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century. The Black Death was an epidemic which spread across almost all of Europe in the years 1346 ‘ 53; the plague killed over a third of the entire population. It has been described as the worst natural disaster in European history.

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