May 21, 2009

The Friday Record - THE BLACK PLAGUE

Once again, for the Friday Record, I will turn to Mike Flanagan's book IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took. For those of you new to my blog, I began The Friday Record using his book, because it was a quick and easy way to find a subject for the posting. Mike's little book lists dozens of historical events with a short description of it and, most important to the title, he tells us how long it took. The shortest time entry is the photographing of the flag raising on Iwo Jima (1/400th of a second). The longest is The Universe (13.7 to 14.5 billion years).

Today I'm going to discuss The Black Death (1347-51), just because it caught me eye. The plague most likely originated in China, where incidents of it are recorded as early as 500 A.D. According IT'S ABOUT TIME, the plague arrived in Spain from Crimea in October 1347 on rat infested merchant ships. From there, it continued to spread across Europe along the trade routes, both over land and by sea. It reached Marseilles, France in January 1348 and Great Britain the following September. By the winter of 1349 it was in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Mike tells us, “This first encounter of the plague ended in Scandinavia in 1351. It returned again in 1365, and many times thereafter.” (109)

Prior to the plague invading Europe, social events helped set the stage for the spread of the disease. It's estimated that the population of Europe doubled between 1000 and 1300 and soon the people out-stripped the food supply. Failed crops and higher demand caused food shortages that left the people in extreme hunger at least once in their lifetime. In addition, overpopulation, bad health and a poor economy weakened the people and left them vulnerable to the plague.

Exact numbers on deaths vary from one-tenth to one-third to half the population. And perhaps all three figures are true. Melissa Snell, on medieval's site tells us that while some heavily populated areas were hit hard, “At the same time, a few areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as was previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures taken to prevent the spread of the illness. The lightly-populated and little-traveled region of southern France near the Pyrenees, between English-controlled Gascony and French-controlled Toulouse, saw very little plague mortality. And strangely enough the port city of Bruges was spared the extremes that other cities on the trade routes suffered, possibly due to a recent drop-off in trade activity resulting from the early stage of the Hundred Years War.” So, it's quite possible that some areas of Europe saw half their population die of the dreaded disease, while others were barely touched.

HISTORY OF ENGLAND, a College Outline Series book by Barnes and Noble, gives a pretty good description of The Black Death, aka bubonic plague: "Black spots appeared on the bodies of the victims: they vomited blood, broke out with boils, developed a high fever, and soon died.” It goes on to say that unsanitary conditions and lack of medical knowledge most certainly contributed to the spread of the disease and the high number of deaths. (53)

The effects of the plague were momentous. Wages increased because there were fewer workers to hire and those still around could demand higher wages. For this same reason, serfs were given more freedom, which resulted in lower land values (fewer serfs meant a decline in assets). Industry and trade were disrupted as well. Wages for skilled artisans soared and many serfs gave up working the land to become skilled craftsmen. In addition, lower demand for food goods lowered the prices of agricultural goods, as the prices of manufactured goods rose.

The noble landholders lost the most economically. Their land was worth less than it once was, they were bringing in less income via agricultural goods and rents, yet paying more for finished products and labor.

The economy was going to hell in a hand basket. England's Parliament tried to prevent wages from rising astronomically with the passage of the Statute of Laborers (1351), which limited wages to pre-plague levels, but it did little good. In order to save themselves, some lords broke up their lands and others “commuted services of their laborers to money payments instead of following the earlier practice of paying in work or produce.” (53) (mmmm, how do you pay a laborer for work by paying in work? Perhaps you have another laborer do something for the first, like replace a roof?) France increased its tax on the peasantry (the poorer you were, the more you had to pay?). Landowners sought legislation that would force the peasants to stay on their farms. These acts helped ignite the peasants' revolts that followed the plague.

According to IT'S ABOUT TIME, the Middle Ages ended in 1453. Even if one takes only the low estimate of 10% of the population of Europe dying in four years, it's not hard to imagine that major economical, political and social changes would have taken place.

Works Cited:

IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took, Mike Flanagan
HISTORY OF ENGLAND:Survey of Events from 55 BC to Resent Times, J. A. Rickard
THE HERITAGE OF WORLD CIVILIZATIONS (my college world history book)
The Spread of the Black Death through Europe by Melissa Snell

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats
Heartwarming, Sensual Westerns


J K Maze said...

With the black death as a background a writer could do a powerful story. It would be quite a challenge to do a love story. I'm intrigued. Maybe even a time travel.

That dessert looks scrumptious I'd make it right now except I don't have lemons, wafers, or condensed milk.

Joan Maze

Kathy Otten said...

I've always been interested in the black death, and like Joan said, to do a love story around it. But I've never given much thought to all the social and economic fallout from so many deaths. Fascinating to think about.

Blythe Gifford said...

As someone whose books are set in the 14th century, I have to consider The Plague (or The Death, as they called it) when I'm plotting. What age were my characters when it came through? And how did it affect their view of life? It's like the American Civil War - a huge event sitting in the middle of the century that you can't ignore. The economic fallout, as you mentioned, was significant and is often overlooked.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks for stopping by. I've read a couple of books set during the plague, one was by Jane Feather anc invovled court intrigue, too.

I honestly hadn't thought of the economical fallout either, but of course there must have been some with so many people dying. One thing I didn't bring up was the slow down of trade along the trade routes, another economical set back.

What I found most interesting was the decline in assets to the landowners, who also owned the serfs. We sometimes forget that serfdom was essentially slavery and when a serf died, the owner lost an asset. So, if 1/3 of your serfs die, you've lost a lot.


Skhye said...

A reference that lends itself to using this topic wisely in a novel is PLAGUES AND PEOPLES. And I'm a big fan of the movie THE ROSE AND THE SWORD. REFORMATION is another good love-story flick. :) And, yes, AK, you must consider the economic aspect!!! (I know, you're saying shut up Skhye!) After all, the trading routes from the Silk Road ended in Italy--where the plague first shook Europe. :) I love this stuff... LOL The plague shaped European history. But that's what happens when you live with your livestock. I kid you know. Boorstein's THE DISCOVERERS is another good read...

If I can find my reference for the listing of documented plagues, I'll zip over and leave it. ;)

Skhye said...

That's I KID YOU NOT. It's really difficult to pay attention to your writing with two 6-week old kittens slicing at your heels and a 3-yr old jumping up and down squealing. LOL

Here's the link to my post on THE DICTIONARY OF PLAGUE AND PESTILENCE. Doesn't that title just get you itching to research???

Lee said...

A love story could be written around the plague, because in some areas it was hit and miss. There were individuals who were infected and lived, or a whole family would be wiped out, leaving one survivor who never was infected. Over all it had huge economic impacts. One could say the beginning of the witch craze came during this time. Since no one had an answer for the plague, so communities often blamed the local midwife or witch for the curse. A lot panic and craziness happened during the period.

Teri Thackston said...

Fascinating column. I agree that a love story written during that time would be difficult, but also powerful.

Thanks for bringing up this topic--it sets the imagination to work.

Katie Hines said...

Very interesting article. I had no idea the plague killed so many.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

WOW all those stats are chilling especially with them talking all the time about the swine flue now. Guess we haven't progressed as much as we though.

Carol L. said...

This is a very interesting read. I saw a show on the Black Death on the History channel and was amazed how many deaths there were. How it affected all the economy. I'd like to read these books. Love history.
Thanks for this post.
Carol L.