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The Impact of the Black Death on European Society Term Paper

Related Topics: Church Disease Europe Feudalism

Pages:5 (1628 words)



Topic:Black Death

Document Type:Term Paper


How Did The “Black Death” Reshape European Society?

As it spread across Europe, the Black Death did more than just wipe out tens of millions of people. Far beyond the impact the Black Death had on individual lives, the disease had a tremendous impact on the evolution of European culture and history. The Black Death flattened the social hierarchy because the disease did not discriminate between rich and poor. As a result, the poor and working classes organized to overthrow the centuries-old exploitative labor systems like feudalism. Because neither church nor state responded credibly to the Black Death, the epidemic weakened the authority of the Catholic Church and fostered populist rebellions. Likewise, the Black Death prompted interest in credible scientific responses to disease, even while superstition and religiosity remained. The disease led to widespread population migrations, the restructuring of society, abandonment of inherited wealth and property, and the renegotiation of labor.

The Black Death represented in some ways the impact that globalization and world trade had on the spread of goods, ideas, and also diseases. Even without an advanced understanding of how infectious diseases spread, the educated sector of Italian society—which was at the time the hub of world trade--at least were aware that the disease had originated in the Levant, and recognized its symptoms from the tales told by traveling merchants (Boccaccio 168). Nevertheless, attitudes and beliefs remained heavily steeped in superstition and pseudoscience. Florentine author Boccaccio speculated that the Black Death was “owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins,” (168). In fact, the Black Death heralded a new age of understanding that presaged the downfall of the Catholic Church.

The Black Death led to the breakdown of social order, social norms, and the social contract in European societies no matter how advanced, no matter how wealthy, and no matter how big or small. Lawlessness and chaos naturally ensued, as people died in droves. As Boccaccio notes, “the laws, human and divine, were not regarded...every one did just as he pleased,” (168). The Anonimalle Chronicle likewise details the mob mentality that ensued, calling for the beheading of lawyers and leading to the actual burning down of buildings throughout London. Therefore, the Black Death led to the breakdown of morals, values, and ethics in the quest for self-preservation and survival. Boccaccio observed the “little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other...a brother even fled from his brother” (169). Writing about another Tuscan town Sienna, Di Tura likewise chronicles that to save themselves, “fathers abandon their sons, wives their husbands, and one brother the other,” (169). Perhaps in some ways, the rise in selfish behaviors foreshadowed the age of individualism and the shift from communalism among the general public towards self-seeking entrepreneurial pursuits.

The Black Death led to the reorganization of European societies on an unprecedented level, and at an unforeseen pace. The Black Death led to a flattening of class hierarchies and the beginnings of socialist ideologies, especially evident in the peasant revolts that took place in England (Anonimalle…

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…of Muslim social, economic, and political institutions: particularly the Moors.

The Black Death shifted not just the role of the Church in political, economic, and social life, but also the importance of religion itself. In other words, the Black Death promoted secular values. Disenchantment with the inability of religion to provide a credible explanation for the Black Death, never mind a meaningless response to it, the people became disillusioned by religion itself. Loss of faith became widespread. Even the members of the clergy seemed to have abandoned their posts and their God, for as Di Tura notes, they “do not even ring the church bells anymore” (170). Chroniclers of the Black Death point out the carelessness with which the dead were disposed of in “mass graves,” ignoring Christian customs and burial rites (170). Cohn laments the even harsher reaction towards the Jews, who were burned dead or alive, scapegoated as they were, believed by some to have caused the Black Death itself given in part to the rise in public panic but also to the fact that the Black Death may very well have originated in the Holy Land (3). The loss of faith coincided with fatalism: “everyone believes it is the end of the world,” Di Tura points out (170). Yet this did not necessarily mean that the common people started to value the importance of science. The inability to provide effective cures meant that contemporary medicine was also regarded with suspicion. The “cures do not work...the more medicine people are given the quicker they die,” (Di Tura 170).…

Sample Source(s) Used

Works Cited

The Anonimalle Chronicle: The English Peasants’ Revolt (1381).

Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron: The Plague Hits Florence. (ca. 1350).

Cohn, Samuel K. “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews.” Past & Present, Volume 196, Issue 1, August 2007, Pages 3–36,

Di Tura, Angelo. Sienese Chronicle (1348-1351).

Petrarca-Meister, The Social Order (ca. 1515).

Sloan AW. The Black Death in England. South African Medical Journal = Suid-afrikaanse Tydskrif vir Geneeskunde. 1981 Apr;59(18):646-650.

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