Post-classical history



IN a book of this scope it would be over-ambitious to attempt any serious analysis of the economic and social state of Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century. Something however must be said; for the circumstances of the continent and the physical and mental condition of its inhabitants are factors of the utmost importance when considering the impact of the Black Death. ‘The plague of the fourteenth century,’ wrote Michon,1 ‘was no different to those which preceded or which followed it. It killed more people, not because of its nature, but because of the conditions of suffering and servitude in which it surprised its victims.’ No one who has studied the devastating blows which the Black Death struck against rich and poor, young and old, strong and weak, can accept that this was just another epidemic like any other. But Michon’s assertion is not, for this reason, to be dismissed as idle rhetoric.

During the eleventh, and even more the twelfth and first half of the thirteenth centuries Europe had enjoyed a period of massive and almost unbroken economic growth. Some historians have recently questioned whether, in England at least, the Golden Age of the ‘high’ Middle Ages was in fact so spectacularly prosperous as has been generally believed.2 Of course, sectors of the economy can be identified which lagged behind the rest and certain areas fared less well than others. But on the whole what Professor Nabholz described as ‘the astonishing uniformity of medieval conditions throughout the whole region’3 ensured that the boom was general and that no part of Europe was left out altogether.

In the two centuries preceding the middle of the thirteenth century the face of Europe was changed, and changed vastly for the better. The Crusades siphoned off much of the belligerent tendencies of the inhabitants and the period was one of comparative calm. The peasantry throve in unaccustomed security or, at least, survived – unsurprisingly it was the landowners who reaped most of the economic benefit. Land in the valleys of the Rhine and the Moselle was worth seventeen times as much at the end of the thirteenth century as it had been at the start of the tenth, yet the old customary rents remained substantially unchanged.4 Colonization, that is to say the capture of virgin lands from hills, fens and forests, went on apace. By 1300, in Central and Western Europe, the amount of land under cultivation had reached a point not to be matched for another five hundred years.

The primary driving force behind the new colonization was, of course, the pressure of population on existing resources. By the middle of the thirteenth century Europe was becoming uncomfortably over-crowded. The density of population around Pistoia was thirty-eight per square kilometre – crowded by the standards of any rural area though by no means unusual in Medieval Tuscany. The province probably had a population of some 1.18 million, a total which was not to be reached again until well into the nineteenth century. The population had grown rapidly since the middle of the eleventh century; production of food had grown too but at nothing approaching the same rate. Nor did it seem that medieval techniques of agriculture were far enough advanced for the gap between demand and supply to do anything but widen. The Tuscan peasant, who had never lived far above the subsistence level, now found that he was near to falling below it.

Tuscany was in no way unique. In France ‘many districts supported as many, or very nearly as many, inhabitants as at the beginning of the twentieth century’.5 In the region of Oisans, south-east of Grenoble, there were about 13,000 inhabitants in 1339; by 1911 the total had risen only to 13,805. Around Neufbourg in the Eure a population of some 3,000 in 1310 was 3,347 as late as 1954. Around Elloe in the Fenland, settlement was almost as dense in 1260 as in 1951. In certain areas, in particular Artois, Flanders, Champagne and parts of Western Germany, the surplus population sought a solution to its problems in a move towards industrialization. In the whole of Western Europe, villages grew into towns and cities with ten or twenty thousand inhabitants were no longer freakish rarities.6 But the flow to the towns drew off only a small part of the rising population in the countryside.

So long as the growing population had unused land ready to hand which could easily be exploited to produce more food, then no unmanageable problems were posed. In certain areas – Basse-Provence, Catalonia, Sweden and Scotland – this was still the case until well on into the fourteenth century.7 Europe, viewed as a whole, still had a fair amount of under-developed territory even as late as 1350. But in the great population centres, from which the peasantry could not or would not move, the end of the thirteenth century was a period of acute crisis. The forests that remained were jealously conserved, the mountains offered no hope to the would-be farmer. Productivity fell as erosion, lack of manure, failure to let fields lie fallow or to rotate crops on scientific principles, drained the goodness from the tired soil. The population soared, more and more mouths had to be filled, the gap between production and demand grew ever wider.

Taine’s aphorism about the Ancien Régime: ‘The people are like men walking through a pond with water up to their mouths; at the smallest depression of the ground or rise in the level of the water, they will lose their footing, sink and drown’ can be applied as well to the peasant of the later Middle Ages. And in Europe of the fourteenth century depressions of the ground seemed more the rule than the exception. The climate played a major part in the mischief seventy or eighty years before the Black Death. The intense cold led to a striking advance of the glaciers, polar as well as Alpine. High rainfall caused a rise in the level of the Caspian Sea. The cultivation of cereals in Iceland and of the vine in England was crippled and virtually extinguished; wheat growing areas were reduced in Denmark and the uplands of Provence.8

The most grave consequence was a series of disastrous harvests. There were famines in England in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292 and 1311.9 Between 1315 and 1319 came a crescendo of calamity. Almost every country in Europe lost virtually the whole of one harvest, often of two or three. The lack of sun hindered the production of salt by evaporation and thus made still more difficult the conservation of what meat there was. Even if there had been food to store, facilities for storage did not exist. In England wheat more than doubled in price. Cannibalism was a commonplace; the poor ate dogs, wrote one chronicler, cats, the dung of doves, even their own children.10 Ten per cent of the population of Ypres died of starvation.11 Nor was this the end: 1332 was another disastrous year for the crops and the period between 1345 and 1348 would have seemed uniquely unfortunate in any other century.

Before the Black Death, therefore, much of Europe was in recession or, at the very least, had ceased to advance. Colonization stopped even where fresh fields lay open for the conquest. The Drang nach Osten petered out at the frontiers of Lithuania and Latvia. The cloth trade of Flanders and Brabant stagnated. The great fairs of the Champagne, indices of the economic health of a large and flourishing region, significantly declined.12 The prices of agricultural produce were falling: agriculture was no longer the easy road to prosperity which it had been for the past two hundred years. Put in the simplest terms, Europe had outgrown its strength and was now suffering the physical and mental malaise which inevitably follows so intemperate a progress.

To what extent this recession was reflected in a drop in the population can only be guessed at. Famines on the scale which Europe had endured must at least have checked the hectic growth of the previous two centuries. The retreat from marginal lands which had already set in by 1320 or 1330 in Haute Provence, the Massif Central, Germany west of the Vistula and certain areas of England suggests that in these areas at least a decline must have begun long before the impact of the Black Death.13 But there is little or no evidence of serious depopulation and no reason to doubt that the hungry mouths in almost every major population centre of Europe must still have been far too numerous for the exiguous supply of food. This disproportion was aggravated by the turmoil to which wars and civil disorders reduced great areas of France, Spain and Italy. The direct cost in human lives may not have been enormous but the destruction of crops and houses and the disruption of the life of the countryside seriously reduced production at a time when a larger food supply was as necessary as ever.

At the middle of the fourteenth century, therefore, chronic over-population was rendering intolerable the existence of many, if not a majority of Europeans. It is tempting to take a step further and see the Black Death as nature’s answer to the problem of over-population, a Malthusian check to the over-exuberance of the preceding centuries. Reviewing a book by Georges Duby,14 Professor Postan remarked that he had ‘been especially gratified to read the passages in the book wherein the depression of the fourteenth century is represented as the consequence, perhaps even the nemesis, of the inordinate expansion of the preceding epoch’.15 Viewed in this light, the Black Death is the nemesis that met a population which bred too fast for too long without first providing itself with the resources needed for such extravagance. Slicher Van Bath attributed the high death rate of the Black Death largely to the prolonged malnutrition which was the consequence of over-rapid growth.16 If there had been no plague, the argument goes, then the population would, in the course of nature, have had to be reduced by other means.

But this line of reasoning should not be pushed too far. For one thing it is by no means universally accepted that medieval agriculture was incapable of supporting the population of the period. Certain authorities, indeed, claim that it could have fed many more without undue strain.17 If there was no need in nature for the population to be reduced, then the Malthusian argument obviously falls to the ground. And even if it were accepted that Europe’s population had outgrown its food supply by the middle of the fourteenth century it is still difficult to explain why the population should have continued to fall for a further fifty years or more. The check had worked, the hungry mouths were in the grave, even the most fanatic Malthusian would hardly have pleaded that the process should be continued.

Elizabeth Carpentier has summed up the controversy with her accustomed lucidity. ‘Was the Black Death,’ she asks, ‘an evil made necessary by inescapable evolution? Or was it a tragic accident at variance with the normal advance of events?’18 But to define a question satisfactorily is not necessarily to arrive at any answer; indeed, in medieval history, it sometimes seems that the more precisely a question is defined, the more certain it is that no answer will be forthcoming. Certainly in this case no clear-cut solution has been, or ever will be attained. All that can be said with confidence is that, in many parts of Europe, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the population had grown with unusual speed; that this growth was a factor of importance, though by no means the only factor, which led to general malnutrition; that malnutrition was a contributory reason for the high death rate of the plague years; and that, as a result of the plague, the population was reduced to more easily manageable proportions. This humble conclusion leaves open many impassioning problems of what was cause and what effect; what blind chance and what the inexorable march of nature. It should be of comfort to future generations of historians to know that such problems exist and sobering for us to reflect that, even though we may triumphantly close the dossier with a decisive answer, our sons and grandsons will quickly have it open once again.


Whatever one’s thesis about the inevitability of the Black Death it cannot be denied that it found awaiting it in Europe a population singularly ill-equipped to resist. Distracted by wars, weakened by malnutrition, exhausted by his struggle to win a living from his inadequate portion of ever less fertile land, the medieval peasant was ready to succumb even before the blow had fallen. But it was not only physically that he provided an easy prey; intellectually and emotionally he was prepared for disaster and ready to accept if not actually to welcome it.

Though the Europeans of the fourteenth century were painfully aware that they understood little of the disease which was destroying them they were at least confident that they knew the prime cause of their suffering. Few contemporary chroniclers fail to point out that the plague was an affliction laid on them by the Almighty, retribution for the wickedness of the present generation. Konrade of Megenberg, in his refreshingly heretical Buch der Natur,19 was virtually unique in dismissing the theory of divine punishment on the grounds that nothing so promiscuous in its results could possibly have been intended by God.

It would have been astonishing if he had found many others to share his opinions. Even in the materialistic and, at a certain level, sophisticated nineteen-sixties the apocalyptic vision of a world about to incur destruction through its own folly and wickedness is by no means lost. Man-made devices may have been substituted for the pestilential hammer of the Middle Ages but both methods can be and are interpreted as manifestations of God’s inscrutable workings.

How far more certain it was that the credulous and superstitious citizens of fourteenth-century Europe, unable to see any natural explanation of this sudden and horrifying holocaust, believing without question in hell-fire and the direct participation of God in life on earth, well-versed in Old Testament precedents for the destruction of cities or whole races in a sudden access of divine indignation, would take it for granted that they were now the victims of God’s wrath. Like the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah they were to die in expiation of their sins. ‘Tell, O Sicily, and ye, the many islands of the sea, the judgements of God! Confess, O Genoa, what thou hast done, since we of Genoa and Venice are compelled to make God’s chastisement manifest!’20

The Europeans were possessed by a conviction of their guilt. They were not so sure of what, exactly, they were guilty but the range of choice was wide. Lechery, avarice, the decadence of the church, the irreverence of the knightly classes, the greed of kings, the drunkenness of peasants; each vice was condemned according to the prejudices of the preacher and presented as the last straw which had broken the back of God’s patience.

‘In those days,’ wrote the English chronicler, Knighton,

there was much talk and indignation among the people because, when tournaments were held, in almost every place, a band of women would arrive as if they had come to join the sport, dressed in a variety of the most sumptuous male costumes. They used to wear partly-coloured tunics, one colour or pattern on the right side and another on the left, with short hoods and pendants like ropes wound round their necks, and belts thickly studded with gold and silver. They were even known to wear those knives which are called ‘daggers’ in the vulgar tongue in pouches slung across their bodies; and thus they rode on choice war horses or other splendid steeds to the place of tournament. There and thus they spent or, rather, squandered their possessions, and wearied their bodies with fooleries and wanton buffoonery … But God, in this matter, as in all others, brought marvellous remedy …21

Knighton was something of a conservative. Though many others might have condemned the current fashions, only a few would have called the Black Death a ‘marvellous remedy’ or have believed that God was being entirely temperate in his retribution when he obliterated quite so many to punish the extravagance of a few. But his conviction of the immorality of the age was wide-spread. ‘These pestilences were for pure sin’ wrote Langland sadly and more comprehensively.22 None of those who believed that the plague was God’s punishment of men suggested that the punishment did not fit the crime. God’s will had to be done, his vengeance wreaked, and it was for man blindly to accept. To question His justice would have been a fresh and still more heinous sin, inviting yet further chastisement from on high.

Looking back, the victim of the Black Death saw a host of portents which should have warned him of God’s intentions. Simon of Covino noticed heavy mists and clouds, falling stars, blasts of hot wind from the South. A column of fire stood above the papal palace at Avignon and a ball of fire was seen in the skies above Paris. In Venice a violent earth tremor set the bells of St Mark’s pealing without touch of human hand. Anything which seemed in the least out of the way was retrospectively identified as a herald of the plague: a stranded whale, an outstandingly good crop of hazel nuts. Blood fell from bread when taken freshly from the oven. An illustration of the way that a legend could build up came in a later epidemic when mysterious bloodstains were found on men’s clothes. Subsequent examination showed that the stains were in fact caused by the excrement of butterflies.

The skies not only provided a portent of what was coming but, through the movement of the planets, were the instruments by which the will of God was translated into harsh reality. In the fourteenth century astronomy was by far the most advanced branch of systematized scientific knowledge. For students of the stars, totally at a loss to explain what was happening around them, it was only natural to extrapolate desperately from what they understood and seek to compose from the movement of the planets some code of rules which would interpret and give warning of events on earth. ‘The medieval cosmic outlook’, wrote Singer,23 ‘cannot be understood unless it is realized that analogy pushed to extreme lengths unchecked by observation and experiment was the major intellectual weapon of the age.’

Astrology, that arcane compound of astronomical research and semi-magical crystal-gazing, was near the peak of its prestige in the fourteenth century. It was the Arab astronomers who had evolved the theory that the movements of the planets and their relationship to each other in space dictated the future of humanity. Since the Black Death was clearly far out of the normal, some abnormal behaviour on the part of the planets had to be found to explain it.

Various theories were propounded from time to time but the classic exposition was that laid down by the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris in the report prepared on the orders of King Philip VI in 1348.24 On 20 March 1345, at 1 p.m., there occurred a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the house of Aquarius. The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter notoriously caused death and disaster while the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter spread pestilence in the air (Jupiter, being warm and humid, was calculated to draw up evil vapours from the earth and water which Mars, hot and dry, then kindled into infective fire). Obviously the conjunction of all three planets could only mean an epidemic of cataclysmic scale.

The doctrine that the movement of the planets was the force which set the Black Death in motion was never overtly challenged except by Konrade of Megenberg who argued that no planetary conjunction lasted for more than two years and that therefore, since the plague persisted longer, it must necessarily have had some other cause. Besides, he pointed out, all movements of celestial bodies were subject to strict order while the plague was patently haphazard in its action. Among a few other writers, however, a certain scepticism can be detected or, perhaps more correctly, an indifference to remote causes which were not susceptible of proof and were anyhow beyond the power of man to mend. Gentile da Foligno referred to the planets in general terms and then went on25 ‘… It must be believed that, whatever may be the case with regard to the aforesaid causes, the immediate and particular cause is a certain poisonous material which is generated about the heart and lungs.’ The job of the doctor, he concluded, was not to worry about the heavens but to concentrate on the symptoms of the sick and to do what he could to cure them.

Such admirable common sense was the exception. The European, in the face of the Black Death, was in general overwhelmed by a sense of inevitable doom. If the plague was decreed by God and the inexorable movement of the planets, then how could frail man seek to oppose it? The preacher might counsel hope, but only with the proviso that the sins of man must first be washed away by the immensity of his suffering. The doctor might prescribe remedies, but with the tepid enthusiasm of a civil-defence expert advising those threatened by imminent nuclear attack to adopt a crouching posture and clasp their hands behind their necks. The Black Death descended on a people who were drilled by their theological and their scientific training into a reaction of apathy and fatalistic resignation. Nothing could have provided more promising material on which a plague might feed.


1 Documents inédits, op. cit., p.21.

2 See, in particular, A. R. Bridbury, Economic Growth, London 1962. Cf. E. Miller, ‘The English Economy in the 13th Century’, Post and Present, 1964, No. 28, p.21.

3 H. Nabholtz. Camb. Econ. Hist. Eur., Vol. 1,1941, p.493.

4 E. Power, Camb. Med. Hist., Vol. VII, 1932, p.731.

5 L. Genicot, Camb. Econ. Hist., Vol. I, 2nd Edition, 1966, pp.668–9.

6 M. Postan, Camb. Econ. Hist., Vol. II, 1952, p.160.

7 L. Genicot, op. cit., p.666.

8 G. Utterström, ‘Climate Fluctuations and Population Problems in Early Modern History’, Scan. Econ. Hist Rev., III, 1955, PP.3–47.

9 M. Postan, Camb. Econ. Hist., Vol. I, 2nd Edition, 1966, p.565.

10 H. S. Lucas, ‘The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316 and 1317’, Speculum, Vol. 5, 1930, p.355.

11 H. Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Mediaeval Europe, 1936, p.193.

12 L. Genicot, op. cit., p.673.

13 ibid, p.666, M. Postan, ‘Some Economic Evidence of Declining Population in the Later Middle Ages’, Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol II, 1950, p.221.

14 L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval, Paris, 1962.

15 Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., Vol. XVI, 1963, p. 197.

16 B. H. Slicher van Bath, Agrarian History of Western Europe, New York, 1963, p.84.

17 e.g. R. Delatouche, ‘Agriculture médiévale et population’, Études Sociales, 1955, pp.13–23.

18 E. Carpentier, ‘Autour de la Peste Noire’, Annales, E.S.C., Vol. XVII, 1962, p. 1092.

19 ed. Pfeiffer, Berlin, 1870.

20 de Mussis, op. cit., p.50.

21 Chronicon Henrici Knighton, R.S. 92, ii, pp.57–8.

22 Piers Plowman, Version B, v. 13.

23 C. Singer, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med. (Hist. Med.), Vol. X, 1917, p.107.

24 Reprinted by Michon (p.32), but the fullest text is that of H. E. Rebouis, Étude historique et critique sur la peste, Paris, 1888.

25 Sudhoff, Archiv, V, p.83.

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