Bubonic plague


Plague: a terrifying, inexplicable, and deadly disease which killed a third of Europe's population - and led people to question every value they had held dear.


I. Economic change between 1100 and 1350 CE

II. Spread of Bubonic Plague in 14th century

III. Impact of Black Death


·         Cultural

·         Religious

·         Economic

·         Political


I. Economic change between 1100 and 1350 CE


Europe ca. 1100 was still rural

90% of population peasants (serfs)


European towns’ pre 1100 - miniscule compared to Islamic, Byzantine, Chinese towns


Economic revival in 12th and 13th centuries CE

New agricultural methods

   heavy plow

  three-field crop rotation


Population growth

Greater population density in western than eastern Europe


Growth of new towns

Paris: ca. 80,000 people in 1340 CE

Italy had largest cities (city-states)



Importance of towns

New socio-economic class: townspeople (burghers)

These burghers promote revival of manufacturing and commerce in Europe



Increased international trade with Asia

  land-route: Silk Road (Bulliet)

  encouraged by the Mongol empire


But Europe reaching limits of agricultural and demographic expansion by 14th century

  famines in early 14th century


Both increased trade with Asia and demographic stress make Europeans especially susceptible to the plague


II. Spread of Bubonic Plague in 14th century


What was Black Death?


Bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis), usually carried by fleas.


The bacterium infects the flea, the flea gets on rodents (esp. rats), and the rats pass the fleas to humans.


This was most common way to catch bubonic - To be bitten by an infected flea
-But sometimes ordinary bubonic plague turns into pneumonic plague - the bacteria attack the lungs as well as the lymph nodes and can be transmitted by mucus of infected people.



Most visible symptom is swelling of the lymph nodes - glands in the neck, armpits and groin.

The lymph nodes swell to size of apples - and turn black - gives the disease its name: the Black Death.

Other black spots then appear all over the body.


The swellings continue to expand until they eventually burst, with death following soon after.

The whole process, from first symptoms of fever and aches, to final expiration, lasts only three or four days.

Before modern antibiotics, the plague was usually fatal.


Where did Bubonic Plague come from?


In parts of the world, climatic conditions allow a certain portion of the rodent population to carry the bubonic -without it becoming an epidemic (endemic)


Today, for example - California (in mountains of California - when you see warning signs to stay away from squirrels, do so)


In Middle Ages, central Asia was "reservoir" ground for plague".

Just as our modern epidemics - like AIDS - were transmitted when the wider world has increased contact with a previously isolated region, the bubonic spread because the new links between Asia and Europe.

Mongol conquests had linked central Asia with China, Middle East, and Europe


Marco Polo - 13th century Italian merchant - one of the new traders who traveled from Mongol China to Europe.


Spread of plague along trade routes


In the 14th century, the bubonic began to spread swiftly along these trade routes -

from central Asia, to rest of Asia and Europe.


By 1331, the bubonic plague had erupted in the Gobi Desert


By 1346 it had hit China


And spread through Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, and Black Sea region (Crimea)


An unfortunate group of Italian merchants witnessed it there - and fled in their ships back to Europe. They carried infected rats in their ships back to Europe.


These and other merchants carried the plague throughout Europe.


First the port cities: Venice and Genoa in Italy 1348, then Spain, southern France, and northern Europe. By the end of 1349, plague had reached as far as Norway, Scotland, Prussia, Iceland.


In 1351 the infection had spread to Russia.


The spread of this diseased was really a testament to the "globalization" of the medieval economy.


Mortality of the plague in Europe


Bubonic infection was most severe in areas with high population density and good trade contacts - i.e. those parts of Europe which had experienced commercial revolution and revival of towns.

 Italy, France, England, Germany.


Towns were the most dangerous places:

Medieval cities were filthy places without modern sewers or garbage collection and full of rats who lived in intimate contact with humans.


The region with the most towns - Italy lost half of its population - (Venice 3/4 of population; Pisa 7/8; Florence 100,000 people)

Europe as a whole a third of the population: Some 25 million people.


Whole families were wiped out - whole monasteries: (in monastery where Petrarch's brother lived - only his brother survived out of 35 monks)

And after the initial outbreak (1348-1351), plague didn't go away - but kept coming back throughout the rest of the 14th and the 15th centuries.


Western Europe would not recover its 13th century population level until the 16th century.



The demographic effect the Bubonic Plague was dramatic but impact of the plague went way beyond just death toll.


It put Europeans into a state of shock - shock from watching thousands of corpses pile up in their streets, shock at the complete failure of their religion to save them.


Europeans begin to question their old values -  though they didn't yet know what to put in their place.


A. Cultural impact


Much of the artistic and literary expression of 14th century Europe was influenced by the plague


Some of it in a grimly humorous sort of way:

The Italian Boccaccio set his Decameron in the plague year - 1348: this was a collection of bawdy tales which served as model for Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: the immorality of it comes from despair of people who have nothing else to lose


The plague also made its way into popular music:

We still sing some of its songs to children:

"ring around the rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, all fall down"

(from England - "rosie" red rash which is first sign, posies - flower to ward off the disease (and cover up smells), ashes (actually - ashoo - from sneezing - last stage of infection), all fall down.

It's a morbid song


A lot of cultural expression in 14th c seems morbid - obsessed with death; pressed to snatch at short-term pleasure.


B. Impact on religion: scapegoats

The plague also led to search for religious scapegoats.

Remember, medieval doctors had no idea how the disease was transmitted - no knowledge of bacteria, and connection of plague to rats.

Instead, people believed supernatural powers - either God or the devil - were sending the plague.


Many Europeans believed that God was punishing them for their sins:

Flagellation become popular practice: wandering the streets beating yourself with rods as penance for sins.


But it was always easier to point to other peoples' sins rather than your own:

There were two groups who seemed to be particularly asking for divine vengeance in the 14th century -

The Jews - and (ironically enough) the upper echelons of the Catholic Church.


1. Persecution of the Jews

The primary scapegoats were the Jews - who were accused of an international conspiracy to spread the plague.


Status of European Jews before plague

Now, before the 14th century, the Jews of Europe had already begun to be persecuted in parts of Europe.

Everywhere they faced legal restrictions - like inability to own landed estates, forcing many into commercial occupations (like money-lending).


The Fourth Lateran Council (1215): had decreed that Jews must dress distinctively - so that Christians (esp. Christian women) wouldn't mix with them unawares, ordered Jews to stay out of sight during Holy Week (Good Friday) and  some rulers wanted to purge their kingdoms of Jews altogether.

In 1290 - the king of England expelled the Jews from England.

Kings of France tried to expel them, but found Jews useful as to borrow money from


The Bubonic plague would feed these already existing hatred and fear of the Jews.


Rumors that Jews had started the plague:

In 1348, the rumor spread that the Black Death was due to an international conspiracy of Jews to poison Christendom.

It was reported that one of the chief rabbi in Savoy had dispatched his poisoners to France, Switzerland, and Italy.


(Remember Jews were often merchants - and the infected rats were carried by merchants - so there may have been coincidental evidence to support these accusations)


The Count of Savoy authorized the inquisition of Jews under torture to affirm or deny these rumors.

Some Jews confessed - under torture mind you - to spreading the plague.

A Jewish merchant (Agimet) who had been buying silks in Venice - confessed that he had poisoned the wells of Venice with a special powder.


As the result of such confessions - thousands of Jews were tried and burnt in Holy Roman Empire (esp.)

The people who owed Jews money were especially eager to burn them - a good way to wipe out debts.

Not everyone liked what was happening; some Christians tried to protect the Jews:

The pope - protected the Jews in Avignon - where papacy was headquartered

Town councils - often made up of merchants - tried to save Jews in German towns.

But Jewish population in Germany was pretty much destroyed; it would not recover for many centuries (not until 17th c)

Attacks against the Jews would continue through the late Middle Ages - culminating in expulsion of Jews from France in 1394: king of France expelled the Jews (previous attempts had been revoked).

In 1391, Jews in Spain were attacked in popular riots - leading to murder or expulsion of 25,000 Jews.

1492 - king and queen expelled Jews from Spain for good

More was involved in these attacks on Jews than simply fear of their involvement of the plague -

As Europeans began to form ethnic identities for themselves - i.e. get a notion of what it meant to be "French" or English or Spanish - they had less tolerance for groups who had a separate identity.


But plague did promote the persecution of groups thought to be in league with the devil.


2. Witchcraft trials

In early Middle Ages, many clerics had thought that witches didn't exist - it was in fact heresy to believe that they did (attributing divine power to a human).

But by the late Middle Ages (esp. after plague), witchcraft began to be prosecuted.

Witches (usually women) were blamed for natural disasters such as crop failure, infertility; illness; death of animals. (now a lot of illness around)

They were thought to have made a deal with the devil to get power to inflict harm.

The inquisitors - clerics authorized by the Catholic Church - tried witchcraft cases, though actual physical punishment (burning) was inflicted by the secular powers.


3. Spread of Anti-clericalism

The Jews suffered the most for their alleged involvement with the plague - but


The plague did not do good things for Catholic Church either.


Europeans had flocked to their churches, prayed, made donations - and done what their priests told them - and lost their families and friends to the plague any way.

God had even let the disease strike the clergy thousands of priests and monks were dying of plague (many as they ministered to the sick)


Europeans began to think that there was something wrong with the church itself that warranted God's punishment.

And it wasn't hard to find things wrong with the church.

The 14th century was the low point for the papacy.


Avignon Papacy

From 1309-1378 - the Pope wasn't even in Italy -

Violent attacks on popes in Rome had driven them to seek a safer refuge elsewhere.

The new papal seat was Avignon - southern France

Many Europeans were not pleased by this change - and called the Avignon Papacy the "Babylonian Captivity" - the control of the popes by France (Babylon)


Matters got worse after 1378, when the Great Schism started (lasting until 1417)

Then you had one Pope in Rome, another in Avignon


Each Pope excommunicated everyone who supported the rival pope

Making fun of the popes became a popular pastime in Europe:

Troubadours - song-writers of age - made up poems ridiculing the popes.

And that bishop, abbots, monks were also accused of being greedy, corrupt, sex-crazed


Popular anti-clerical religious movements began to spring up throughout Europe in 14th century

Spiritual Franciscans in Italy - accusing church of avarice and encouraging return to apostolic poverty.

Wycliffe/Lollards in England - declaring that congregations of believers make up the church - not the Pope

Hussites in Bohemia (Csechoslovakia) - arguing that the laity should also be able to drink blood of Christ (communion wine) not just the priests - because in fact priests were no closer to God than ordinary Christian.


These critics of the clergy were not yet Protestants - they were still trying to reform the Catholic Church - not break away from it.


But they would lay the foundations.



So far we have been talking about some of the more negative impact of the Black Death.

The increased persecution of the Jews; the disillusionment with the Catholic clergy

The plague also had its economic impact - and this was not so negative.


Wage labor replaces serfdom

Before the plague, most peasants had been serfs.

A serf was required to work the land he or she was born on and pay rent to his lord.

A serf could not leave this land, or try to get better terms from some other landlord.


Now with a third of the population dead, the forces of supply and demand began to enter into things. There were fewer peasants, landlords competed for their services; the wages of laborers actually increased after the Black Death.


The standard of living for the surviving peasants began to go up.


Serfdom was gradually disappearing in Western Europe - being replaced by wage labor.



It is important to realize that most of these changes occurred in western and central Europe - not Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe did not suffer from the plague to the same extent.


Poland had hardly any cases of plague at all - Partly because of its low population density; partly because of its lack of involvement in international trade.


So for Poland the 14th century was a period of growing prosperity and political unity.

Poland had long been Catholic - its rulers had converted in 11th century.


But in 12th and 13th centuries it had not been unified but splintered among different duchies and invaded by the Mongols.


In the mid 14th century, King Casimir III united it into one kingdom - and after his death- Poland joined with Lithuania to form a large kingdom - the most powerful state in Eastern Europe.


Reception of Jews in Poland:

Rather than persecuting marginal groups - Polish rulers were eager to get new emigrants - from whatever source.

These kings welcomed the Jews into Poland - seeing them as a way to increase the kingdom's wealth and revenues.

Thousands of Jews immigrated into Poland and Lithuania from 14th century on.

These immigrants would form the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in Europe -



Poland as a Case Study for significance of the Plague in Western Europe:

Continuation of Serfdom and Medieval order

Poland did not experience the rise in wages created by depopulation in Western Europe.

Its landlords retained control over their serfs.

In the 14th century, this was a fairly benevolent control: landlords were eager for new immigrants that they would offer them good terms.


This survival of serfdom in Eastern Europe will be important for explaining the different patterns of economic development in eastern and Western Europe.