In his what some perceive to be his best known work, The Decameron, Boccaccio writes about his experience as a witness to the infamous 1348 pandemic known as the Black Death. The Decameron is a collection of stories about the Black Death, in one of which he wrote “The healthiest of all humans ate breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestor”(Boccaccio)! This image suggests the rapid and serious nature of the Black Death that killed nearly 25 million people in Europe from 1347-1352(Janis, Rice, Pollard).
As would be expected, a pandemic such as this had immense effects on the people of Europe who witnessed it; people reacted in a variety of ways, some rejected religion and lived a more “sensual life,” others lived in seclusion, or even resorted to self-inflicted punishment. So how exactly did the Black Death effect the people of Europe? What were their responses to the pandemic? How did these responses effect the social, religious, political and economic structures of medieval Europe?
Some, like Zeigler would say that the course of Europe “changed by the coming of the Black Death, which did but accelerate a movement already in being,”(258) suggesting that the Black Death was merely a catalyst for change. Perhaps this is true, but at the same time others argue that the changes that occurred in post-Plague Europe were a direct result of the way the people reacted to the Black Death.
While the focus of this paper is on the aftermath of the Black Death, it is imperative to have a basic understanding of the social and economic condition of Europe during the fourteenth century in order to fully comprehend its impact. Europe spent the majority of the fourteenth century in an economic slump; small villages were becoming overcrowded, famine weakened the lower and middle classes, and the general public was not in a state of well being (Zeigler 32). Famine was a result of poor farming due to erosion, extreme cold weather, and inability to properly take care of the land (33). Death due to starvation skyrocketed with the rapid increase in population and the inability to feed them (34). There small wars being fought from the British Isles to the eastern most parts of Europe where the Black Death was said to originate (Mullet 21, Janis, McNeill 159).
Socially, class systems were distinct, the upper class having control over the land and just about everything else. Cities of the time were also very dirty; sanitation was not given highest priority and in an English bylaw of 1309, it was said that “rubbish could be dumped into the Thames River as long as it wasn’t lying in the street” (Mullet 30). On a religious level, the Catholic Church was fairly powerful; the clergy was exclusive, influential, and rich. The churches were well attended and the tithes of the people maintained a certain standard of living for the men of the clergy even in a time of economic recession (34-35) Basically, the condition of Europe was waiting for disaster. Economic despair, a weakened and overcrowded population, poor sanitation, and a corrupt government in the hands of the Catholic church paved the way for the Black Death to massacre Europe.
Throughout the first part of the essay I’ve referred to the pandemic as the “Black Death”; an inclusive term used to describe several different infections caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, a bacillus bacterium (Stone, CDC, Davis, NEJM). At the time of the Black Death pandemic, there were three different types of infection, each with a mortality rate of around 90-95%: Bubonic plague, Septicemic plague, and Pneuomonic plague (CDC, Gross, “The Black Death”). The name “Black Death” is given to the y.pestis or “Plague” outbreak during the five year period between 1347 and 1352, and is named for the swollen lymph nodes in the arms and groin that turned a dark black or purple (CDC, Janis, Davis).
Boccaccio, a medieval poet and witness to the Plague, described some of the symptoms of the Black Death in his poem “The Decameron” as “swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs…they would spread and in a short while they would cover the body with dark and livid spots…these were certain indications of coming death”(Boccaccio). The rapid spread of the disease, in addition to the highly contagious nature and staggering mortality rates understandably made the Black Death something to be feared.
Fear and hysteria spread as quickly through Europe as the disease itself. The initial outbreaks of the disease were recorded in Italy in 1347(O’Sheim, Zeigler 41) and during 1348 outbreaks were recorded in nearly every country in Europe, affecting England, France, Germany, and Italy most severely (Zeigler 42,67,84 and Mullet 17). In a 1347 journal entry, Michael Platensis wrote, “Men hated each other so much that, if a son was attacked by the disease, his father would not tend to him”(CUNV). Similarly, Boccaccio wrote that “the ordeal so withered the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle abandoned his nephew, the sister her brother and many times, wives abandoned their husbands”(Boccaccio). The fear of sickness and death was enough to cause many people of the time to leave their families and friends when they were needed most.
Many people did not know how to deal with this fear, as a result people began to respond in very different ways to the grave atmosphere around them. A lot of people felt that God was punishing them for their disobedience and sinful nature (Zeigler 36-39, Mullet 14, Rice). Several people reacted to this idea by embracing religion and living in solitude, trying to live as “Christian” and sin-free as possible (Boccaccio, Zeigler 36-37).
Others rejected the idea of religion and decided to take their fun while they had it. Of this Boccaccio writes “others affirmed that drinking beer, enjoying oneself, and going around singing and ruckus-raising and satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine”(Boccaccio). The strangest of all responses though, has to be the “Flagellants” who believed that whipping themselves was the only way to be free from God’s wrath.
These men would travel in groups of 50-500, performing rituals and whipping their backs until they bled profusely and no pain was felt (Rice, Zeigler 84-109)(Fig 1-3). Many people in the villages where the Flagellants visited would collect their blood on rags and use them to “heal” the sick (Zeigler 92). People who feared the sickness and death that came with the Black Death dealt with this fear, and the idea that God was punishing them, in diverse ways, which perhaps led to the changes seen in Europe after the Plague.
The Black Death pandemic carried on until 1352, at which time the outbreaks began to settle down, and Europe began to piece itself together again (Zeigler 245). Over 1/3 of Europe was dead (Pollard, O’Sheim, Janis), there were entire villages left empty and plots of land with no “next of kin”(Zeigler 239, Mullett 26-27). Economically, this left Europe with few people looking for jobs, a lot of open land and a lot of room for new wealth. Out of this economic potential came a rise of the peasant class as there was much opportunity for them to purchase or even claim land that was not previously available to them.
Even those who were not able to secure their own land had a certain amount of power over their landlords; those who were not satisfied with the way they were being treated or the with the wages they received had the ability to go somewhere else and find something better. According to Zeigler, wages of agricultural workers nearly tripled in the years following the Black Death, which had an enormous effect on the economy as a whole (Zeigler 236-238). Lords and landowners enjoyed a brief prosperity through the gaining of leftover property, but the shortage of labor, and plentiful crops had an opposite effect as they began to lose money on their great estates. Following the Black Death there was an undeniable increase in the wealth of the laborers and peasants while the formerly upper-class began to feel the losses associated with the dramatic drop in the demand of the economy.