Essay on This Is the End of the World: the Black Death by Barbara Tuchman
1504 WordsMar 29th, 20137 Pages
“This is the End of the World: The Black Death.” by Barbara Tuchman
History reveals the mid-14th century as a very unfortunate time for Europe. It was during this period when the continent became afflicted by a terrible plague. The source of the pathogen is known today as bubonic but was colloquially known as “The Black Death” to Europeans of the day. The plague caused a tremendous number of deaths and was a catalyst of change, severely impacting Europe’s cultural, political and religious institutions.
Not unlike many of today’s flu outbreaks, bubonic is thought to have also originated in China. As early as 1346, rumors surfaced in Europe of a terrible plague which had ravaged Central Asia, India, Asia Minor, the Middle East and…show more content…
With the graveyards filled to capacity, some resorted to throwing their dead into the dark waters of the Rhone. Eventually, mass graves were dug and provided a place to dump the corpses. In London, such burial pits sometimes proved inadequate to receive the dead, with bodies overflowing their layered stacks within the trenches. (684)
Despite the erratic mortality rates, ranging locally from 1/5 to 9/10 of a given population, they were nonetheless very high overall. Bohemia and Russia were untouched by the first round of the plague, but eventually were impacted in 1351. (684)
In rural areas the plague would typically last from four to six months and then subside. In urban areas the plague would sometimes disappear during the winter months, only to re-emerge in spring and continue its rage, unabated, for another 6 months. (684)
Certain classes of people seem to be at increased risk of contracting the disease. Those who were most at risk were in situations that demanded close contact with the infected: prisoners, doctors, clergymen and nurses. It was reported that women were more susceptible, (689) also the young and all persons who were weakened by poverty and a hard life. The malady was said to have “attacked especially the meaner sort and common people—seldom the magnates.” (688) However, it cannot be said that the ruling class escaped the plague unscathed. Among the causalities of this terrible disease was Alfonzo XI of Castile.
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)