Strange Consequences That Prove How Bad the Black Death Really Was
In October of 1347, a fleet of trade ships descended on Sicily, Italy. They came bearing many coveted goods, but they also brought rats, fleas and humans who were unknowingly infected with the extremely contagious and deadly bubonic plague.
The disease that eventually became known as the Black Death — victims’ flesh and skin died and turned black — spread like wildfire across Europe, eventually claiming the lives of a third of the population in just a few short years. This tragedy had a huge impact on life then and now. Take a look at some of the strange consequences that prove how bad the Black Death really was.
England Moved Away from Catholicism
So many Catholic clergymen died as a result of the Black Death (also known as the Black Plague and the Great Plague) that the entire structure of the religion in England was threatened. Historians believe there was an especially large death toll among this group because priests administered last rites to the dying and then lived together in monasteries where germs easily spread from person to person.
People Beat Themselves in City Squares
The Flagellants comprised a pseudo-religious movement that sprang up from the Black Death. Many people believed the plague was God's way of punishing mankind for being sinful. The Flagellants punished themselves mercilessly in hopes of making up for the general community's sins.
Some Employees Became Prisoners
So many people died because of the Black Plague that common workers were in extreme demand. Right before the disease started to spread, more people were moving to towns and villages to pursue new job opportunities that didn't exist when most people simply owned their own farms.
Travel Was Extremely Restricted
The Black Death often spread to new cities by travelers who were unknowingly infected. A new person would arrive in town and then die a few days later. Within a few weeks, the town would be fighting a full-blown epidemic. It took time, but many historians credit the plague with leading humans to implement the concept of quarantine.
Trade Was Banned
Obviously, the Black Death put a serious damper on business. Just before the tragedy, technological advances and urbanization were happening at a rapid rate. Trade was rightly blamed for part of the reason the disease spread so quickly, so towns, governments and the clergy started to restrict trade.
System of Modern Employment Was Born
Before the Black Death, society was divided into the wealthy and the poor. The economy in much of Europe, especially England, was based on a feudal system where landowners were lords and workers were serfs. The serfs lived and worked on the land, they had very few personal rights and they stayed in perpetual debt to the landowners.
Population Growth Was Stunted for Almost 200 Years
The Black Plague only raged at its worst for two or three years, but so many people died in that short time span that it took decades for the European population to get back to pre-plague numbers. Although babies continued to be born, the population was still lower than it was before.
No More Sticking to the Status Quo
The Black Plague is largely seen as a negative event, of course, but the clouds had a bit of a silver lining for those who survived. So many common laborers died that the ones who were left alive had more bargaining power when it came to their wages. People simply refused to work unless they were compensated fairly.
Things Got Pretty Spooky
Death may be a part of life, but it’s still pretty unnatural for people to see dead bodies on a regular basis. During the Black Death, there were mass open graves everywhere. This took a huge mental toll on survivors, and many creative types responded by incorporating death into their writing and artwork. Medieval literature became very morbid.
Anti-Semitism Received a Boost
It’s a sad fact that humans tend to look for someone to blame when tragedy strikes. Many people blamed God for the Black Plague, but others blamed Jewish people. After the plague, Jews became the object of hatred all across Europe. In some areas, they were even persecuted.
Doctors Almost Became Extinct
Doctors died from the Black Death more often than the rest of the population. Doctors were on the front lines of the fight against the deadly disease, so many of them were the first ones to die. Although some doctors practiced based on a limited knowledge of anatomy, many so-called doctors treated patients with remedies that had no medical basis.
The Black Death Struck More Than Once
The Black Death was so horrible that many people don’t realize it wasn't the only bubonic plague epidemic. This time period wasn’t the first time humans had been infected by this painful, deadly disease. In previous years, outbreaks had occurred in China, Mongolia and even parts of Europe.
All Social Classes Took a Hit
Many of the diseases that affected people in the 1300s were far more deadly for the poor than they were for the rich. The reasons were simple. Poor people often lived in overcrowded and dirty urban centers where disease could spread easily, while the rich usually lived on less crowded rural estates.
People Left Their Families to Die
Of all the trauma associated with the Black Plague, the largest toll was taken on the mental health of survivors. The Black Plague was so terrifying and deadly that it caused people to break their moral, social and familial ties in ways they never thought they would.
The Average Lifespan Increased
Although the Black Plague decreased the population, it inadvertently increased the lifespan of survivors. The Medieval time period is known for early deaths and squalid living conditions. Because there were much fewer people left alive after the epidemic, wages increased, and food and housing were plentiful.
Detailed Anatomy Textbooks Were Written
Dissection of deceased humans was very controversial before the plague. Religious beliefs promoted the idea that a person's afterlife could be compromised if their body wasn’t handled properly. Pope Boniface VIII banned cadaver dissections, which made it illegal in most of Europe.
Fewer Saints Were Recognized
The Catholic Church had a huge effect on law, life and religion during the time of the Black Plague. Today, people who have a big social or scientific impact receive Nobel Prizes, but in the Middle Ages, people were given sainthood for incredible achievements.
Unfinished Buildings Still Exist
Society was bustling, growing and starting to look promising (historically speaking) just before the Black Death devastated Europe. Society was still highly focused on agriculture, but new practices and inventions were making life easier. Literature, education, culture and art had all started to expand exponentially.
Music Almost Stopped
Although such intricate details of ancient life are difficult to corroborate from the scant historical documents that are available, there is a supported belief that the overall growth of music was stunted by the Black Plague. Songs during this dark period of human history were extremely dismal.
Launch of a Mini Inquisition
Tragedies often bring out the worst in people. Very little was known about contagious diseases at the time, and people in many towns and villages were eager to blame someone or something for the Black Death. Some people were so determined that Jews were to blame that Inquisition-like conditions began to exist in parts of Europe.
Fragrances Blossomed to Cover the Stench
The Black Plague gave the cologne and perfume industries a big boost. Some doctors even spread the idea that odors could keep the plague away. For this reason, taking a bath — already not a common daily practice — was seen as a way of making yourself susceptible to the plague, which made bathing even less common.
Wool Shortages Lasted for Decades
The Black Plague was even more deadly for animals than it was for humans. Humans of that time period didn’t follow modern standards of cleanliness, so you can just imagine how dirty the conditions were for animals. Bites from fleas and rats were two ways the plague was spread, and the animals were typically riddled with fleas.
The Birth of Reliable Science
Prior to the Black Death, alchemy was thought to be a legitimate science. Many people believed in magic and believed that all bad things happened as a result of God's disfavor. None of those ideas worked to stop the plague from spreading.
Religion Became More Personal
Prior to the Black Plague, religion was very austere. God was thought of as harsh and only interested in crime and punishment. Many plague survivors blamed God and religion for all the suffering they had witnessed, but it spurred some people to ask questions about religion.
More People Starved Than Ever Before
For one of the first times in history, public health initiatives started to happen as a result of the plague. Quarantines, travel bans and restrictions on trade were just a few of the measures that kings, local leaders and clergymen implemented to protect their cities from the Black Death.
Riots Took Place All Over Europe
After the Black Plague, the social hierarchy was turned on its head. Previously poor people could afford land and housing, due to a shortage of workers allowing them to demand higher wages. Rich people often couldn’t afford to keep their many acres of land because they didn’t have enough living workers to cultivate it all.
An Unexpected Boost to the Environment
Prior to the Black Death, European economies and populations were both booming. Trade ships couldn’t be built fast enough, and huge amounts of lumber were needed for new buildings. Deforestation in Germany and some parts of the Mediterranean region had already been happening for hundreds of years.
Women Were Banished in Some African Towns
Christianity wasn’t the only religion that believed the Black Plague was a punishment from God. Due to Africa’s close proximity to Europe, the plague also affected Northern Africa. In Cairo, Egyptian women were blamed and persecuted for the plague, just as Jews were in Europe.
Wars Stopped (Temporarily)
The Black Death happened right in the middle of the Hundred Years War between France and England. Both countries were seriously impacted by the disease, and they were forced to stop the bitter battle for six years. Neither country had enough soldiers, weapons or money to keep up the fight.
People Grew Stronger as a Whole
The Black Death killed most of the people it infected, and it was extremely contagious. People who didn’t contract it, despite the extremely poor infection control measures at the time, had extremely strong immune systems. People who were old, sick, malnourished, very young and had weakened immune systems died from the plague at higher rates than healthier people.