(EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE – continued)

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Plague and Progress in the 1300s

Yersinia Pestis magnified 2000 times

Yersinia Pestis
magnified 2000 times

Between the years 1000 and 1300 the availability of food in Christendom allowed its population to grow 2.5 times. Paris, Milan, Florence and Venice had become cities with more than 80,000 inhabitants. London, Cologne and Barcelona had more than 40,000. Rome, Naples, Vienna, Prague and Lisbon had more than 20,000, and Dublin had more than 10,000. But a decline in Europe's economy was on its way, and it would be followed by the worst of plagues.

By the year 1300 farm expansion in Western Europe had come to an end, and marginally productive lands had been abandoned. Pastures, heaths and meadows had been converted to farming, and cattle raising had declined, reducing the amount of protein in diets and reducing manure for fertilizer, contributing to a decline in crop yields. This coincided with a climate change caused by the advance of polar and alpine glaciers, bringing longer winters, wetter weather and what is called a "Little Ice Age," which was to last for the next 400 years. The growing season shortened, and a major food source, herring, began to disappear.

Viking settlements in Greenland disappeared. Grain production failed in Iceland and diminished in Scandinavia. In the year 1315 rains were incessant and people talked of the return of the flood described in Genesis. Crops were ruined. With food shortages came a rise in food prices. People in cities were dependent on food grown no farther than one day's journey away – less than thirty miles. Between the years 1315 to 1317, famines developed in the poorer areas of Christendom. Hunger produced cannibalism. It is said that  in Poland and Silesia the bodies of hanged criminals were taken down from the gallows as food for the poor.

Technological Progress

Europe was enduring its longest economic depression. But linen production as an alternative to wool had arisen. Metal and glass industries were growing. The use of free labor – in contrast to slave gangs of ancient times – would in the 1300s contribute to inventions such as cogwheels, gears and suction pumps in mining. Power driven bellows were soon to make it possible to fully melt iron. Rare and expensive in ancient times, iron would soon become inexpensive and its use more widespread.

Europe was benefiting from geographical advantages. It had a variety of slow-moving rivers on which goods could be transported, which was easier and cheaper than transporting goods across land by pack animals as was done in some other parts of the world.  Europe had just enough mountains for the slow moving rivers – rather than the higher mountains and faster moving rivers of India – useful in transforming water movement into mechanical power.

Europe also had no caste system to strangle initiative. And in Europe governments were uninterested in taking over or holding a monopoly on any industry. Industry in Europe was freer than in China. Instead of businessmen being dependent on government for favor, monarchs in Europe were dependent on businessmen. If a monarch repudiated his debts he was in effect killing the geese that laid the golden eggs.

Black Death and Sin

The increase in world trade within the last century or two had exposed more people to disease, and the increase in movement of people that came with war exposed more people to disease. In December 1347 the disease was in the Crimea and Constantinople. That same month it spread to Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Marseille. By June, 1348, it was in Spain, Italy and as far north as Paris. By June 1349 it had advanced through London and central Europe. From there in the year and a half that followed it swung as if on a hinge in central Europe, through Ireland and through Scandinavia. It reached people weakened by decades of hard times and malnutrition.

The bubonic form of the disease was a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) spread by fleas from rats. The pneumonic form of the disease spread from one person to other people. This was made worse by crowding in the cities. Some cities lost from half to two-thirds of their population. Some small cities became ghost towns. Common folks were dying as well as the most pious. Perhaps a third of the Catholic clergy died, with priests who attended the afflicted being hit the hardest. The poor were hit harder than aristocrats because they were generally in poorer health and less able to resist the disease and because they were more crowded together. Wolves fared better and appeared in some capital cities.

People did not understand the source of the plague, and panic spread faster than the disease. The belief in witchcraft was revitalized. Believing that the end of the world was at hand, some groups engaged in frenzied bacchanals and orgies. People called the Flagellants believed that the plague was the judgment of God on sinful mankind. They traveled the country, men and women flogging one another. They preached that anyone doing this for thirty-three days would be cleansed of all his sins – one day for every year that Christ lived. The Church was still on guard against innovative religious proclamations, and in 1349 Pope Clement VI condemned the movement.

The wandering mobs focused their wrath upon clergy who opposed them, and they targeted Jews, whom they blamed for inciting God's wrath. In Germany rumors arose that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the water. Pogroms followed. Jews were arrested. Their fortunes were seized by the lords under whose jurisdictions they lived, and Jews were put to death by burning. The attacks on Jews were condemned by Clement VI, and he threatened excommunication for those Christians who harmed Jews.

The success of this greatest of plagues was limited and destined to diminish. The body that the bacterium entered was its environment and source of life. It used up its environment and faded away but not completely.

Depopulation, Rebellion and Social Progress

It has been roughly estimated that a third of England died from the Black Death of 1348-49, and perhaps this figure is not far from the losses suffered in other areas of Europe through which the plague passed.  Much farm land went into disuse, reducing the output of food. Farm animals died, further diminishing the food supply. With all the deaths and drop in demand for food, the price of food dropped. In Western Europe the demand for labor rose, and, with fewer people around willing to work for less, wages rose. And in Western Europe the shortage of labor brought on by the plague increased the demand for slaves, cutting into the demand for free labor. Wealthy merchants vied for servants to staff their households. Craftsmen and shopkeepers felt that they had to keep slaves. Cobblers, carpenters, weavers and woolworkers bought men and women from the slave dealers to help in their industries. And more slaves were put on the market as hungry parents sold their children, preferring their children's enslavement to watching them starve to death.

In Western Europe, common folks were more inclined to rebellion. With labor in short supply they were aware of their added value as producers and eager to improve their situation. In response to rising wages, authorities started to fix wages at a low level – the opposite of a minimum wage. Hostility toward  employers and authorities increased. Peasants and other workers tried to dodge these impositions. Peasants called for a reduction in service obligations. In cities, workers rose against the wealthy merchants who had been running city hall. Peasants and workers revolted in Spain, the Netherlands, southern Germany, Italy, and England.

In England, some asked why there was bondage when all were from one father and mother – Adam and Eve. Rebellion was mixed with religious fervor and a call for holding everything in common and for the abolition of differences between lord and serf. But in most of England were castles with soldiers enough to control local peasants, and the peasantry did not transform their questions into immediate and successful revolution.

While violent revolution was failing, social change by other means was taking place. Land had become cheaper to buy. With fewer people to labor in agriculture, serfdom was diminishing in Western Europe. Landlords in need of people to work their lands had begun renting out their land to peasants for sharecropping, and great estates were being replaced by small farms.

But the opposite was happening in Eastern Europe. There, populations were less dense. Towns were smaller and more distant from one another. In Eastern Europe the availability of land had given peasants freedom and opportunity, and serfdom had all but disappeared. But, following the plague, this changed. The big landowners were unchecked by governmental authority, and they forced peasants to work their land under an added servitude that, except for slavery, was vanishing in the West.


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