The Black Death was an epidemic which ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1400. It was a disease spread through contact with animals (zoonosis), basically through fleas and other rat parasites (at that time, rats often coexisted with humans, thus allowing the disease to spread so quickly).
In 1347, the arrival of the Black Death to Crimea was already chronicled. The following winter, it was spread by Genovese traders to Constantinople and Italy. By 1348, it had already reached the Western Mediterranean and with the summer heat was spreading to Western Europe; but was halted by the onset of the winter. In 1349 it reached Northern Europe, and, in 1350, Scandinavia and Russia. There continued to be major outbreaks of the plague until 1720, so that the disease was not completely eradicated until much later. However, the outbreaks were never as virulent as that of the Late Middle Ages.
Effects and consequences
The disease had a terrible impact. Generally speaking, a quarter of the population was wiped out, but in local settlements often half of the population was exterminated.
The direct impacts on economy and society were basically a reduction in production and in consumption. The epidemic clearly caused economic effects which brought about the deepest ever recession in history. It is important to note that it is in this era, so clearly marked by the impact of the plague, when the large-scale construction of monasteries, churches and cathedrals peters out. Consequently, it can be said that the black death is the reason the Middle Ages come to an end.
In the short, the most noteworthy economic consequences of the disease were that the fields were not cultivated and the harvests rotted; this in turn sparked an incipient shortage of agricultural products, which were only consumed by those people who could pay for them. With the increase in prices, those with the fewest means endured hardship and suffering.
In the long term, this situation would be aggravated by specific outbreaks of Black Death until the end of the Middle Ages.
Influence of the Black Death on production factors and demographics
Before the rapid spread of the Black Death, Europe was overpopulated and there was a shortage of land to be cultivated. Every last piece of space had been used to grow crops, and even formerly barren land was being cultivated. Land was costly, with people having to pay high rents while earning low wages.
The revolutionary effect (if it can be called thus) of the Black Death was the inversion of the land/work relationship. The reduction in the workforce due to the high mortality rates made labor a scarce asset. Peasants began to have a certain degree of margin for negotiation, as the rentals for their land grew less costly, leading to an increase in their wages. In certain parts of Europe, rulers took measures to control these increases in salary, sparking peasants’ revolts in some cases.
In short, the conclusion that can be drawn is that peasants’ conditions improved due to labor shortages.
At the same time, as the disease progressed, global demand fell; by this means cultivation focused once again on the best and most fertile land. Settlements formerly established in less productive land were abandoned, and those lands were turned over to livestock, allowing peasants to eat animal protein and improving to some degree the living conditions of the time.
This social and demographic evolution gives rise to the Renaissance, a period which is particularly striking in terms of artistic expression, built around patronage, and which can be analyzed from different standpoints. Society had been plunged into depression and sadness, and the general state of unknowing gives rise to many fears. While it may seem incongruous, the reduction in population also stimulated economic growth.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if it is possible that a tragedy on this scale can alone cause so many changes as to bring about the end of the Middle Ages. While there are many different theories and interpretations, it was clearly a decisive factor for change, and one for which the society of the fifteenth century was not prepared.
Francisco José Cano Galán
Risk Analyst, BBVA, Madrid (Spain)