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The Black Death: The Impact

By late 1351, the plague had completed its destruction of Europe. A third of the population had died in only four years. The plague did not judge people’s station in life; it took the poor as well as the nobles, including the Queen of Navarre, two successive Archbishops of Canterbury, and the daughter of the King of England. The horrors that the survivors had lived though changed their psychological views on life and human behavior. “They forgot the past as though it had never been and gave themselves up to a more disordered and shameful life than they had led before,” wrote Italian chronicler Villani. The homicide rate in England between 1349 and 1369 was double that of 1320-1340, despite the enormous decrease in population. Greedy people married the young survivors who had inherited their family’s wealth. Peasants took over the possessions of their dead masters, including moving into their houses and taking over their livestock and tools. There was an abundance of goods, but few people left to buy them. Prices fell, but so many people had died that everyone had extra money. Survivors bought luxury goods which could never have dreamed of owning before the plague.

People began to question their values. The cooperative atmosphere of the early 1300’s was replace by individualism. Hedonism became popular as people realized they didn’t know what the next day would bring. It was better to live life to its fullest. They also began to question God and the church. The clergy had always taught that humans were God’s chosen people, but who was a God who didn’t try to save his children? Traditionally, the clergy were thought to be the intermediaries between God and the people, but people began to believe that they should have a personal relationship with God, rather than needing a priest to lead them. These changing beliefs did not cause the later Reformation, but they certainly hastened its arrival.

The Black Death changed the relationship between the manor lords and the laborers and ultimately, brought about the end of the manorial system. With a reduced labor force, the cost of workers rose. Peasants who freed before the plague required higher wages, and those who were not yet free demanded that they be freed by their manor lords and that they be paid more. The standard of living for the peasants quickly climbed, as landlords’ income fell 20 percent between 1347 and 1353. As the agricultural demand dropped, the landlords were forced to stop farming the land and lease it out to their former serfs. This meant that the peasants were now renters, free to farm their own land with no ties holding them to their former lords. The lords concentrated on cultivating only the most fertile land, resulting in a regrowth of grasslands and ancient forests throughout England.

A significant change in the national language also occurred. Since the Norman Conquest, French had been the official language of the government. When the plague struck and caused the deaths of many government officials who had been fluent in French and the teachers who were qualified to teach it in schools, the official language was changed back to English, the language of the commoners. The use of French died out quickly after that, and by 1385 was gone completely.

The plague affected medicine and science directly. Medieval medicine completely failed in the face of the Black Death, but this made physicians and other scientists examine new ways of fighting disease and new methods of exploring how the human body works. At the time, medical learning was based around the texts of the Ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. The new generation of physicians after the plague realized the shortcomings of these teachings, which were based off other animals besides humans and were over a thousand years old, and sought a new medical belief. One of the most important changes that was brought into place was the dissection of actual human cadavers. Until this point, the mutilation of dead bodies was forbidden by the church, who thought that by cutting open a dead body, the soul was released and would never reach Heaven. Physicians began to explore the human body, and by 1380, the knowledge of anatomy was fairly accurate. These new learnings would be the basis of all medicine to come.

The plague of 1347-1351 had an immediate impact on society, and changed how that society developed into today’s English culture. From the Black Death, England gained its sense of individualism, a strong middle class, and the beginnings of the modern religion. Even though the Black Death caused horrific devastation at the time, its remnants have helped shape the country that England is today.

The Medical Response

History of England