European Calamity: The Shaking of Society

Historical Academic Analysis Written By Christian J. Ashliman

Human beings have long been praised as an incredibly resilient and adaptable form of life. Even when we glance at our modern day society, it is vastly evident that no matter what strife finds its way into our lives, we always manage to change, adapt, and find a way to press on. This idea is true of us now, just as it is true of the people who endured through the late middle ages. During the time period of 1300 to 1500, a series of intense calamities swept across Europe, and decimated civilization, theoretically bringing society to its knees. Effectively, everyone came to realize that no one was safe from these ailments. Weather you lived on the countryside, in a larger town, were a peasant, nobility, or clergyman, the plagues discriminated against no one. During a time where fear and uncertainty were rampant, and society was being shook to the core, individuals still managed to find a way through the fog.  Although calamities, such as the Black Plague, created long lasting negative effects, it also forced people to progress in ways that they never could even imagine; the field of science and medicine began to be critically researched, art styles changed and evolved, religious practices were modified, and new parliament laws were put in place. Although no one planned on these calamities, and they ravaged the people of Europe, it is through this struggle that human beings learned how to overcome and progress in the shadow of something as lethal as the Black Plague. The effects of the Plague were numerous and far reaching, creeping into all aspects of society and daily life, and forcing average people to overcome an insurmountable problem. It was ideas such as cultural shift, cleansing of cities, separating of the sick, and the breakdown of society that contributed to the large, immediate backlash these plagues had. These effects would in turn change the class system of nobles, clergyman, and peasants, and forever transform society as a whole.

To truly understand and prove the overarching effects that the different calamities in Europe had during 1300 to 1500, it is important to summarize the cause and nature of the plagues themselves. At the start of the late middle ages, around the year 1300, famine began to sweep cities and countrysides of Europe, resulting in a major loss of food and money[1]. It was reported that sheep began to die from disease, pigs could not eat due to the increasing prices of fodder, and grains, peas, and beans all skyrocketed to the highest prices ever seen[2]. In some dire circumstances, it was even rumored that food was so scarce, some men and women secretly ate their own children[3]. This kind of desperate need for survival contributed to the spread of illness, and the initial loss of life. The origin of the disease was said to be somewhere from the East, where the death toll of Muslims rose for years before it appeared in Europe[4]. When the Bubonic plague first arrived, it was thought by many to be the influence of angels, and by others, to be the punishment and wrath of God in response to the secular, iniquitous lives people lived[5]. The symptoms of the Bubonic Plague were said to essentially be a death mark, meaning that if you began to show egg-like swellings in the groin and armpit, dark blotches and bruises on forearms, legs and other areas, it would be a sign of certain death[6].

The effects that the Plague had are beyond number, however, there were some structural changes that cities and towns implemented to help stem the spread of disease, and in doing so, changed the general flow of society as they knew it. To begin with, removing human waste became an important tactic used to stop the spread of germs and there were even appointed officials whose sole purpose was to oversee this removal[7]. As a more rudimentary style of prevention, it was deemed necessary that all sick persons were forbidden from entering any cities or towns, and those that were still healthy would be safeguarded[8]. This is where we began to see some immediate effects this disease had; with the segregation of the sick, and the removal and creation of a method to cleanse the cities of fecal waste. While both of these countermeasures were obvious and necessary, it proves that the plague was recognized quickly, and that citizens had a reaction to it’s destruction. These two ideas are both things that usher in change and harbor advancement.

One of the most important aspects of groups of people is the culture that they hold dear. Culture is one of those things that makes you who you are, and the customs that are practiced are usually of paramount importance. This leads me to another major effect that the plague had on society, and that is the breakdown of many strong traditions, customs, and cultural norms. One of the first long-established customs that was put in check, was the idea of burying the deceased in their own grave, in consecrated ground[9]. When the plague was in full swing, and the death toll was still rising,  there were multitudes of infected bodies that needed disposed of. These numbers grew so large, in fact, that instead of continuing to bury the dead in their own graves, people began to dig mass graves, and stack these enormous pits full of those who had passed[10]. This was a large departure from the general custom of personal, consecrated burials, and begins to show the way people had to put their own religious beliefs to the side, or alter them, in order to press on. Another cultural phenomenon that was a result of the Black Death, was the black-and-white view that people adopted in regards to their reaction to the disease. One half of society deemed it proactive to stay sober, live in isolation, and live a life of extreme modesty; believing that this method would be the strongest way to keep the illness at bay, and stay healthy and holy[11]. The other half of civilization did just the opposite. They spent their days drinking heavily, traveling around cities, visiting various taverns, singing, dancing, and gratifying all of their potential cravings[12]. Many of these individuals believed that this was the best way to shirk off the evil of the plague, and in some ways, treated it as a joke[13]. The stark difference between these two reactions proves an interesting point to be made about how culture can completely shift in the face of great threat. This culture change had extreme effects on not just the attitudes and practices of people, but also on the family and friend dynamic as well. People began to completely abandon their spouse, their brother, their best friend, even their children[14]. Others that were brave enough, were forced to bury those that were important to them, in ditches, pits, or by other similar means[15]. The complete demoralization and defeat of these people in this way was what truly began to break down society.

The tri-class system that was strongly in place before the plague broke out was affected in numerous ways, from peasants, all the way up the line through nobles and clergymen. One important example of this upset, was found when many people tried to confess their sins as a last-ditch effort to save themselves before falling prey to the sickness. Churches were left barren, and priests were nowhere to be found for confession, as they fled in fear of catching the plague[16]. Many clergymen were so against hearing confession and coming near the ill, that they would stay away, even with the promise of money and responsibility, believing that no confession of sins would be able to save any man’s soul before the plague took them[17]. A second example of how there became distrust among the various classes, was in the rules and regulations a king would set out for his nobles and peasants. During this era of death and decay, it was decreed by the king that workers should not take more than they needed[18]. However, with so many people in need, these orders were often times disregarded, which resulted in hefty fines that no one could rightfully pay[19]. This dissent among the classes themselves, with clergymen abandoning their posts, peasants chomping at the bit for anything they could get in order to survive, and the orders of some nobles and kings being put in check, created a sort of free-for-all system within society that contributed to the destruction of their social order.

The chaos that was rampant during the years 1300 to 1500 created fear, death, and disunity within society. The effects of the Black Plague are beyond number, however, some of the important changes that civilization saw included things like a decision to make cities cleaner and separate the sick from the healthy, a complete shift in their cultural traditions, and a strong breakdown of society. These outcomes would affect every facet of people’s lives, especially in the structure of the three class system. These various events all played a big part with each other, and proved that the calamities of Medieval Europe had incredibly significant consequences for every individual that lived during that time.

Article Sources

[1]  Johannes de Trokelowe, “The Famine of 1315” in Robert J. Mueller, ed., The History 3220 Reader (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2016), 86.

[2] Mueller, 86.

[3] Mueller, 86.

[4] Giovanni Boccaccio, “The Decameron” in Robert J. Mueller, ed., The History 3220 Reader (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2016), 87.

[5] Mueller, 87.

[6] “The Decameron”, Mueller, 88.

[7] Mueller, 87.

[8] Mueller, 87.

[9] “The Decameron”, Mueller, 90.

[10] Mueller, 90.

[11] “The Decameron”, Mueller, 89.

[12] Mueller, 89.

[13] Mueller, 89.

[14] Agnolo di Tura, “The Plague Strikes Siena (1348)” in Robert J. Mueller, ed., The History 3220 Reader (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2016), 91.

[15] Mueller, 91.

[16] “A Shortage of Priests to Hear Confession (1349)” in Robert J. Mueller, ed., The History 3220 Reader (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2016), 98.

[17] Mueller, 98.

[18] “The Chronicle of Henry Knighton (1390s)” in Robert J. Mueller, ed., The History 3220 Reader (Logan, Utah: Utah State University, 2016), 106.

[19] Mueller, 106.

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