Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 22nd November 2017 | Manchester, UK

Black Death as an agent of change

black death

The Black Death is widely known as one of the most deadly diseases in human history, spreading in 1348 from Asia to Europe with recurrences up until 1666. However, it was also a key indicator of the changes occurring in Late Medieval Europe. Three aspects of the Black Death can be used to indicate its place as an agent of change: the role of new trading patterns in its spread; the dramatic population change it incurred; and the resulting events leading up to the 1381 Peasants Revolt.
As a result of the domination of the Mongol empire throughout Asia, the traditional Silk Road linking China to Europe was disrupted, and new routes had to be explored, such as those by sea. This helped to chart new territories, as well as opening up new points of trade and commerce, and these are indicative of the spread of the Black Death into Europe. Bypassing Russia, which had traditionally routed trade between Asia and Europe before Mongolian influence, the Black Death spread into Europe from the Middle East into Turkey, and then worked through the busy ports surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, which held links to the rest of Europe.
It is estimated to have killed 60% of Europe’s population in the 14th century alone, and this had the immediate effect of emptying the over-populous continent. For the surviving few, there was newfound religious gratitude. In Europe Christianity had long been an element of stability, often used particularly by religious authorities as a tool to control the masses and cited as justifying punishment for the sinful. The living population of Europe therefore could feel renewed connection with piety, seeing themselves as protected by God in their survival. Beforehand, the population of Europe had been overflowing, limiting resources and causing overcrowding. In the aftermath of the main outbreaks, those still living in Europe came to view this pandemic as an opportunity to improve.
Consequential of the rapid decrease in population, manpower decreased, food was not harvested, and hence there was inflation. However this can be regarded as less severe than before the Black Death broke out, as individual peasants did not struggle to find work or food to the same extent. The first instance of the organisation of workers for a common cause occurred as they began to demand higher pay from their desperate lords for their increased workload. In England the 1351 Statute of Labourers was implemented in order to curb wage increases, fuelling the resentment of workers, and resulting in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. There is evidence of the peasants in England, France, Belgium and Italy taking part in this major backlash to feudal law. The Black Death was a major factor in the movement of Europe from a High Medieval to an Early-Modern society.

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