Monday, October 10, 2016

500: Black Death


While the Black Death, or bubonic plague, is often well-known, I don’t think we realize the profound effects it had on every level of European life. Imagine if, in less than a decade, the populated halved. The physical toll of empty houses, abandoned utilities, rotting bodies. The psychological toll of not knowing why it is happening or who is next. The social upheaval as power vacuums are created, labor is differently distributed, and cults grow with the promises of solutions. It's difficult to pinpoint when history pivoted toward the Reformation, because history does not have starts and stops. But I think the social shifts created by the plague laid groundwork for the Protestant Reformation.

The Black Death hit Europe from 1346-1353. The bubonic epidemic began when Mongols attacked an Italian trading station in Kaffa, along the Black Sea in autumn of 1346. In the spring, the Italians were able to flee back home, carrying diseased rats on their ships. At this time, the famed Silk Road trade routes between Europe and Asia were closed. The Mongol khan had converted to Islam and stopped the flow of trade with Christians, hence the attack on the Italian traders. Therefore, as the plague spread out from the Volga steppe, it traveled west but not east.

Rat fleas carried the disease on ships and into homes. Because most people caught the disease from a rat flea (as compared to a flea on a human host), most waves of death took place in the warmer months (unlike airborne disease that spread more in colder months). The Late Middle Ages had seen a population boom; there was an increase of urbanization and trade, meaning more epidemics. But this one was worse than previous ones. As people fled infected cities, they carried the disease with them, infecting more and more. People died so quickly that bodies were put in mass, shallow graves. It is now estimated that around 60% of Europe’s population died in the plague, 50 million people in just seven years.  

This had long-lasting effects on society. With such a reduced population, survivors found themselves with less competition for resources. Prices decreased. Land and food was available, and labor was able to demand higher wages. There was increased social mobility that benefited peasants, including women and younger sons. An individual had more worth. The wealthy tried to curtail measures, particularly rising wages, but the peasantry felt its increased worth and would often rebel, demanding better conditions and higher wages. The population would not reach pre-plague levels for almost 150 years. By that time, the old way of feudalism was being replaced by a modern, working class.

Notably, communities without much trade, isolated for geographical or social reasons, mostly avoided the plague. In several areas, Christians watched masses of their neighbors die while nearby Jewish communities, which also had different hygiene practices, survived. Anti-Semitism was already very real, but this only increased the anger and suspicion. Many accused the Jews of starting the plague, or at least dealing with the devil to survive it. Mobs attacks Jews and destroyed communities across Europe. 

Conversely, some communities were more than open, in regular communication with Italy and welcomed the infirm and refugees. As a result, religious communities suffered the plague in greater numbers because people rushed to monasteries for protection, bringing the plague with them. Also, the priests would go out to infected families to tend to the sick and give last rites. This left Europe with a priest shortage, so the training process for new priests was sped up. Some historians believe that the clergy following the plague were mostly inexperienced and poorly trained.

The Church had no set, theological explanation for the plague. With communities obliterated, faith became more personal—practiced more outside of the organized church and developed by each individual’s need to make sense of the world around him. If there was still a battle between God and death, people reckoned, death was winning, and it may be wise to side with the winning team. The danse macabre, which appeared in paintings, plays, and music of the time, showed the living and the dead all together. The line between alive and dead was blurred. Death was no stranger in the Middle Ages, but now it was even closer and crueler.

Beyond the fallow fields and mass graves, people sought spiritual answers. Why would such a horrible plague ravage their known world? There was a surge of religious fervor. People joined different, sometimes heretical, groups that offered perspectives. There were plenty of cults claiming that it was the end of days. Some fell into hedonism; live for the moment because tomorrow might not come. Others saw the plague as God’s wrath and inflected penitential acts such as flagellation and other self-mutations. Nihilists concluded that there was no reason and that God had abandoned the world. 

In conclusion, I think the Black Death had two profound impacts on Europe that led to Protestantism: 1. The reduced population led to labor demanding higher wages and more resources. The individual had more bargaining power and more sense of self-control over one’s life. 2. Religious communities were weakened, and it took many years to build up new, well-trained clergy. The people lost confidence in the institution of the Church both in providing answers and in providing resources. They found localized groups, some within the Church’s teachings and some heretical, that offered answers to unimaginable suffering.

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