The Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, was Europe's deadliest pandemic plague of the Middle Ages. It was extremely fatal and had terrible symptoms of painful swellings; called buboes, appear in the groin or armpit.1 The bacillus was highly contagious and if contracted could kill within hours. This horrible plague touched down in Europe in the fall of 1347 and swept across it throughout the mid-fourteenth century having several negative and few positive effects on Europe's culture, politics, population and economy.
Regions that were hit the hardest by the plague, such as the cities, suffered the greatest loss of cultural institutions like schools and churches. Grade schools and Universities were closed and were quite often abandoned, sometimes because there were not enough students to attend the classes or because there were not enough teachers to teach the classes because they had suffered the Black Death and had died as a result of it. At Cambridge University alone, sixteen of the mere forty professors had passed away. In the church, priests died and people worried there would be no one to hear their confessions and perform masses or give sermons. Bishops, too, died along with their successors. Even the successors of the Bishops' successors quite often died. But although there were terrible problems occurring with the church, the Europeans did not change their feelings or views toward God. Religion and education systems had now been brought to a temporary halt. An aspect of society that was not as greatly affected by the Black Death as culture was politics.
The plague did not permanently affect the course of politics, but it certainly did take its toll. King Alfonso XI of Castile was the only reigning monarch to die of the plague. Many lesser notables died also: the Queen of Aragon, the Queen of France, and the son of the Byzantine emperor.2 Among the people that died from the plague were many required soldiers. The new shortage of soldiers caused wars such as the Hundred Years' War in 1348 to be suspended because there were not enough soldiers to fight since so many had died of the Black Death. The effect at local levels was more severe: city councils were ravaged, whole families of local nobles were wiped out, and courts closed down so wills could not be probated. The political system recovered much faster than the economic system because new courts were quickly convened and the legal mess caused by the numerous deaths was eventually sorted out which showed that the European political systems were strong enough to recover quickly and regain strength to maintain its countries and people. The political system was rapidly strengthened, but the population of Europe was left extremely weakened after the Black Death swept through Europe.
Europe's population was seriously affected by the plague more negatively than positively. Population drastically decreased. The fact that one-third of the European population was dead over the course of only two years is solid proof that the population was severely affected. In Florence, Italy alone, between forty-five and seventy-five percent of its population died in one year; one-third had vanished within the first six months.3 Europe was going to take a long time to recover demographically. Contrary to the many negative effects of the plague on the population was one positive effect: for the small amount of population who miraculously survived the disease, they gained a natural immunity to the plague, disabling them from ever catching it again. This was good since the plague recurred over the following three hundred years. Thus, the bacillus did not cause the population to shrink as fast or as much as it did in the mid-fourteenth century. Rural populations recovered slower from the pandemic because peasants began to leave their farms for the cities, therefore causing agriculture to decline. It was lucky that although the plague wiped out such a large amount of population, urban populations recovered quickly. There was lots of immigration because of increased opportunities in the cities, which caused the population to rebuild faster. The sudden drastic decrease and slow recovery of population was what caused the economy of Europe to rise and fall following the Black Death.
The terribly low population due to the extremely high death rate from the plague caused the European economy to collapse and be prosperous all at the same time. Financial businesses were disrupted because debtors died and their creditors found themselves with no way out. Severe labour shortages caused construction projects to come to a temporary halt, sometimes even permanently. Mills and heavy machinery may have broken down and the one man in the entire city who knew how to repair them would have died of the Black Death.4 Even guilds that lost their most prized craftsmen found it much too difficult to replace them. Most important of all, the volume of trade declined. Obviously, the cities were hit hardest by the plague. There were more deaths in the cities than in rural areas because the densely populated cities allowed for the bacillus to spread more easily to more people. Low population would cause the economy to repair itself slower than normal. Aside from the shortage of labour and workers and the sharp decline of trade, cloth merchants, peasants, and small villages prospered. The cloth merchants prospered because shroud was in high demand. A surplus of land left by the people who died gave the peasants an opportunity for economic security. Even small villages began to become prosperous because of charitable institutions, market places, and the rebuilding of churches. Wages rose because specialists were in high demand and because of high mortality rates there was a large surplus of goods, therefore causing prices to drop on commodities. Positively, the standards of living would rise for the living remainder of the European people.
Even after several recurrences of the plague, Europe continually rebuilt itself gradually becoming stronger every time. Although there were many more negative effects on Medieval Europe than positive in Europe's culture, politics, population, and economy it is said that the plague balanced the European population for the future.5 The Black Death pandemic displayed the might of the European continent and its will to survive through times of crisis.
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