The Black Death: Europe’s Deadliest Pandemic in Human History

The Black Death, which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1353, was the deadliest viral pandemic in recorded human history. Read here about the repercussions of the virus and its effects.

May 15, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
three contemporary figurative paintings
The Triumph of Death fresco in Sicily by an unknown artist; with The Plague in Rome by an unknown artist


The Black Death is estimated to have killed somewhere between 30% and 60% of the European population.  Studies suggest the disease was carried via fleas on rats and returning soldiers from Central Asia into the commercial hub of the Mediterranean via the Genoans.  From there, the disease spread inland and stuck its fingers into every corner of Europe.  Symptoms began with a mild headache and nausea.  Eventually, victims began to sprout painful black boils – or buboes, hence the name the Bubonic Plague – on their armpits and groin.  Within days, the bacteria (Yersinia Pestis) brought on a high fever to which an estimated 80% of cases would succumb to.  What grander repercussions did a disease so terrible play on European society?


European Politics in the Black Death

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The Dance of Death: a common art motif in the late Medieval period inspired by the Black Death, via the University of Virginia website


The Black Death caused more political damage in Europe than in any war.  With much of the political devastation concerning economics, it’s important to note that even those who survived or went uninfected suffered devastating blows.  Though an extremely dark period of human history, the chaos wrought on European society had long-term positive effects.  In the same way that warfare stimulates an economy, the Black Death ultimately (and arguably) resulted in the social rebirth that was the Renaissance – named literally from the French re-naissance: rebirth.


Worst affected were the cities.  With densely packed populations, the economies of once-dominant cities were decimated.  Fields went uncultivated.  Trade halted.  The entire global economy was on a pause.  Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?


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The Plague in Rome by an unknown artist, c. 17th century, via Getty Images


With uncultivated land, feudal landowners lost much of their revenue.  The Catholic Church lost its tight political grip on the society as people turned to other spiritual means for comfort, thinking they had been abandoned by God.  Europe saw an uptick of xenophobia – particularly with Jewish communities, whom they blamed, and sometimes even killed.  In many cases, the ravenous virus claimed the lives of political officials just as much as it did the masses.  The death of political office holders added to the degree of instability in this period.

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It was not uncommon that towns and villages peppered throughout Europe disappeared entirely.  In certain cases, populations of towns faced 90% mortality rates. They were subsequently abandoned by the survivors.


In an era when the global population was estimated to be 500 million, the estimated death toll in Euroasia alone from the Black Death was somewhere between 75 to 200 million.


The Economic Ramifications

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Engraving of Doctor Schnabel (German for “Doctor Beak”) by Paul Furst, c. 1656, via Internet Archive


The Black Death took a massive toll on the grander economy of Europe.  Statistically, anywhere from three to six out of ten people would perish. So, suddenly, three to six times the work fell on the shoulders of the peasantry who survived.  The new workload put these serfs in the position to demand more compensation for their increased labor.


Feudal Europe traditionally paid its peasant working class in kind.  In exchange for harvesting crops within the property of a knight or lord, peasants were permitted to keep some crop surplus to feed their own families.  For other goods and services, the peasantry would trade the crop surplus with which they were paid with other peasants, merchants, and artisans.


Prior to the outbreak, feudal Europe was facing a surplus of labor, allowing the noble landed classes to abuse the working peasantry.  With their increased workload and a new labor shortage, the peasantry began to demand better work conditions.  The economy in kind was slowly replaced with a wage-based economy: there was now liquid capital floating through European society.  From here we see the rise of modern banking, inevitably birthing a larger middle class.


If Ronald Reagan, for example, were a feudal lord, he would place enormous faith in his newly paid class of workers to go out and spend their capital.  Instead, young money families began to hoard their wealth, which led to the rise of a banking system.  Though unideal, this long-term led to the birth of the famous middle class of the Renaissance era.


Society in the Era of the Plague

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The Triumph of Death fresco in Sicily by an unknown artist, c. 1446, via Research Gate


Clerical and medical leaders at the time were at a loss for an explanation for all the death happening.  The almost biblical apocalyptic scenario, coupled with the strength of the Church at the time, led Europeans to conclude it can only be God’s fury.


Doctors became prominent figures in society, though the iconic image of the beak-masked professional was a much later emergence.  The eerily masked doctors arose only in the eighteenth century; their masks stuffed with herbs and posy thought to ward off infection.  It is said that the children’s nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” makes reference to the use of posy and death in this period of history.


Society became fascinated with mortality.  Art from this era of history took a dark, somber turn in terms of motifs.  In many cases, doctors were at a loss as to how to go about treatment for the Black Death as the case was often different from patient to patient.  Abandoned by God and the King, people turned to classical philosophical treatises that reference physics or the human anatomy – predominantly written by Aristotle.  In this era, these works thrived in the Arabic world and disappeared from Europe.  Often, they had to be translated from Arabic into Lingua Franca.


Widespread death affected translators, scribes, and theologians.  As a result, many classical treatises were translated into vernacular tongues rather than Latin.  Socially, this was the beginning of the end of the categorical grip on the dialect of power held by the church.  Previously, the Bible and other religious-academic texts were published in Latin alone to keep the common populace away from academic enlightenment.  With these texts infiltrating vernacular languages, it came with a foreshadowing of a social revolution.


Understanding the Situation 

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One of the earliest drawings to the plague in Tournai by Gilles Ii Muisit, Belgium, c. 1349, via NPR


So, what was it like living during the plague? Imagine for a moment being a pregnant peasant woman in France: one of the hardest-hit countries.  You are considered the property of the seigneur (the medieval French equivalent of a Lord) whose land you work on.  Your lineage is tied to the servitude of the lineage of the seigneur. This work is all you and generations of your family have ever known.  For work, you likely do baking, weaving, or other forms of labor in exchange for food and lodging.


Your marriage was orchestrated by the seigneur: not even your father had a say in the matter.  Though unfair, the hierarchical structure of society was thought to have been mandated by God.  Those in a position of power, such as the seigneur or the local priest, were put there because the Lord deemed it so; they were smarter and better equipped to handle such authority.


bruegel triumph death painting
The Triumph of Death, by Peter Bruegel, c. middle of the 16th century, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


People suddenly begin to fall ill.  Within a matter of days, most die.  Your workload increases anywhere from three to six-fold.  Those in positions of established power, those most beloved by God, fall ill all in the same as your peers.  If God is clearly forsaking those closest to him – even the priest – who are we to continue worship?  Who are we, the lessers, to follow a being who would condemn his closest secular allies so?


The social revolution granted by the Plague bestowed more rights upon the lower classes – including the women.  The socio-economic void left by the amount of dead allowed women to fill it.  A woman stepped up to run businesses previously run by her father, brother, or husband.  The long-term effect on the social role of women and peasants as a whole was not dissimilar to the positive effect women had in the domestic workforce through the Second World War.  Though eventually, the role would be diminished once more with the eventual restoration of the former power of the Church.


Society in the Era of the Black Death

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Chess with Death by Albertus Pictor,  c. 1480, via Taby Church Collection, Sweden


The long-term repercussions the Black Death took on medieval society were ultimately transformative.  In many ways, social culture took a darker term.  Death became a prominent motif in art from this era.  The reduction of production and consumption yielded an economic crash.


From the macro perspective, the effects of the plague revitalized medieval society.  Many scholars claim that it was the tail end of the Plague that marked the tail end of the Dark Ages.  In a less-than-ideal fashion, the Black Death pandemic solved the European land shortage and labor surplus.  The pandemic revolutionized feudal society and economic framework.  Peasants who survived (including women) came out of the era of the Plague with many more rights and benefits than they had entered with.


The new wealth that circulated through society due to the labor shortage throughout Europe directly contributed to the era of the Renaissance in the next century.  While young money tended to hoard their wealth in order to pass it on to their family and heirs, this directly contributed to the development of banking systems.


One of the strongest banking cities that arose out of this new economic revitalization was Florence, Italy.  Florence was a hub of trade and finance in this era: one of the richest in Europe.  Consequently, it would be the birthplace of the Renaissance as well.  Can it be argued, then, that the new financial overhaul caused by the economic decimation by the Black Death was a contributing factor to the Renaissance?

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.