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Within the years 1346 and 1352, a lethal epidemic swept throughout Europe at an alarming rate. Centuries later, the pandemic was named the Black Death. This title originated from a mistranslation of the Latin expression ‘atra’ meaning both ‘black’ and ‘terrible’. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which originates in areas with vast numbers of wild rodents, the three strains of the plague, bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic, killed approximately 25 million people in Europe alone, around a third of the population at that time. It is speculated that the disease spread from Lake Issyk-Kul in central Asia which was located along the Silk Road trade route which would enable it to become widely spread and progress to Europe, along with traders. The consequences of this vast reduction in the population prompted a change in lifestyle, and dismantled the feudal system, having a myriad of positive and negative effects on everyday life and the feudal economy.
As the class system instigated through the feudal system was unable to be supported throughout the Black Death, afterwards, the social structure was changed greatly having negative repercussions for the government, monarchy and the church. Small scale upward mobility occurred, caused by the shortage of workers, primarily in professions that demanded specific training, enabling labourers to charge increased prices for their services. The government instigated laws that attempted to return fees to pre-plague prices. Due to the surplus of goods following the disease, there was a period of prolificacy, which was speedily succeeded by a time of inflation and shortage of goods. There was also a distinct increase in the crime rate, following this shortage as people became desperate. ‘God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us’, wrote William Langland a 14th-century poet, in his poem “Piers Plowman.” The Church lost countless followers, due to the clergy’s lack of ability to prevent the plague, terminate the plague and heal those who contracted it and triggered resentment to form in the general population. These consequences, anticipated and unforeseen, impacted Europe greatly.
Despite the plethora of negative consequences triggered by the plague pandemic, some beneficial effects are apparent. ‘…the Black Death might have represented a strong force of natural selection and removed the weakest individuals on a very broad scale within Europe,’ claims archaeologist Sharon N. DeWitte. An analysis of skeletal remains in a London cemetery proves that people who existed prior to the Black death had a higher chance of dying at any age than those who existed afterwards. Before the epidemic, only 10 per cent of the population could be anticipated to live beyond 70; post-plague, that figure swelled to 20 per cent, confirming DeWitte’s belief and maintaining the credibility of prior studies that proved; Human populations evolve when faced with large-scale illness, as gene variants assist certain people in fighting particular infections better than those who do not possess those variants. Although the demise of the feudal system had negative effects for the nobility, it greatly benefited peasant workers, ensuring that they secured higher wages as lords grew an increasingly urgent need for workers. Giving the serfdom a source of power against the nobility for the first time. Beneficial effects of the Black Death like those stated above had lasting repercussions in society impacting the way modern-day society operates.
When studying the social and economic effects of the Black Death, both short term and long term, it is clear that the population was still reeling after witnessing mass loss to such a large extent. The shock of losing countless family members, close friends and neighbours fostered an atmosphere of hopelessness and grief. Survivors ‘were like persons distraught and almost without feeling,’ wrote Agnolo, who lost his wife and five children to the epidemic. Others strived to provoke death by singing, dancing or drinking in the streets. This wave of shock was followed by apathy. People neglected routine chores and saw no point in maintaining their appearance. One of the more lasting changes in society, was the creation of the English language, beginning the evolution to modern English. Literacy developed faster than ever before, because, after the deaths of almost all literate monks, Europeans felt the need to create a simpler language than Latin, to be implemented when coping books. Society was not only changed in the short term but also permanently after the Black Death.
The effects of the aftermath of the Black Death impacted society both positively and negatively, a significant reform being the downfall of the feudal system, and then consequently the serfdom’s gain of power. As civilisation tried to recover from the decline in population, some of the ameliorations put in place continue to play a vital role in modern-day lifestyle.
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