IN MAY 1349, AS WILL-MAKING REACHED A PEAK IN PESTILENTIAL London, and the Jews of Strassburg sat shivah for the dead, out on the windswept latitudes of the “German Ocean” a frothy spring sea was carrying the plague northward toward Scandinavia, where it would complete its circumnavigation of Europe with a final thrust through Norway and Sweden before vanishing back into the Russian wilderness. Legend has it that Norway was infected by an English merchantman, which left London sometime in late April and was next seen a month later beached on a spit of land near Bergen with all hands dead. But Oslo, Norway’s other major city, may have been infected first. And while an English merchantman did carry the plague to Bergen, the crew was still alive when the ship sailed into port, though they did not have much longer to live. According to theLawman’s Annual, a medieval Scandinavian chronicle, “At that time a ship left England with many people aboard. It put into the bay of Bergen and a little was unloaded. Then all the people on the ship died. As soon as goods from the ship were brought into the town, the townsmen began to die. Thereafter, the pestilence swept all over Norway.”
Scandinavia posed formidable challenges forY. pestis. Thinly populated, in the Middle Ages the region was the back of the beyond; it had little to offer in the way of crowded streets or dense cities. In the desolate north, the plague would have to become a feral scavenger surviving on the occasional farm family, the odd rustic knight and his dog, and the little fishing village perched above a fjord. Even more formidable than the thin population was the hostile climate. In Scandinavia summers are a blink of the eye and winters eternal and bitter. Accordingly, historians have long assumed that pneumonic plague predominated in the region. And, indeed, several medieval Nordic sources describe what sounds like pneumonic plague; says theLawman’s Annual,“People did not live more than a day or two with sharp pangs of pain. After that they began to vomit blood.” However, Professor Benedictow thinks that the seasonality of outbreaks, the pattern of dissemination, and degree of lethality all point to bubonic plague as the dominant form of the disease in Scandinavia. He argues that what sources like theAnnualare describing is pneumonic plaguesecondaryto bubonic plague—that is, cases of the disease where the plague bacilli metastasize from the lymph nodes to the lungs.
The answer to the Scandinavian conundrum may lie in the Russian theory of marmot plague, with its tropism for the lungs. In this regard, it is worth comparing two recent outbreaks ofY. pestis. In 1991, when plague broke out near marmot foci in China, almost half the victims went on to develop pneumonic plague. By contrast, in Vietnam, where the rat predominates, the wartime epidemic of the 1960s was almost exclusively bubonic—a case rate of 98 percent.
Whether pneumonic or bubonic, the pestilence spread across Scandinavia with its customary ferocity. A few months after James de Grundwell, sole survivor of the plague’s visit to Ivychurch priory in England, was elevated to the position of head abbot, his Norwegian counterpart, a priest who was the sole surviving cleric in the diocese of Drontheim, was elevated to the position of archbishop. After taking a monstrous toll in Bergen, the plague all but obliterated the remote mountain village of Tusededal. Months after the pestilence burned itself out, a rescue party reaching the village found only one survivor, a little girl who had been made so wild by her solitary existence, the rescuers named her Rype—wild bird.
From Norway, the plague thrust eastward across the interior of Scandinavia to Sweden, where, in 1350, the blustery King Magnus II issued a thunderous, albeit tardy, warning. “God,” declared Magnus, “for the sins of men, has struck the world with this great punishment of sudden death. By it, most of the people in the land to the west of our country [i.e., Norway] are dead. [The plague] is now . . . approaching our Kingdom of Sweden.” To repel the threat and to appease a wrathful God, Magnus ordered foodless Fridays (except for bread and water) and shoeless Sundays (Swedes were ordered to walk to church barefoot). But just as it killed Italians, Englishmen, and Frenchmen who avoided windows with a southern exposure and inhaled fragrant scents,Y. pestiskilled Swedes with and without shoes, on foodless Fridays and on gluttonous Saturdays. Among the dead were the king’s two brothers, Knut and Hacon.
In its travels across Eurasia, the pestilence had encountered every manner of ecological phenomenon. It had seen mountains collapse into lakes (China), plumes of volcanic ash swallow the noon sun (Italy and China), torrential floods gulp up villages (China, France, Germany), swarms of locusts three German miles long (Poland and China), tidal waves as high as a cathedral spire (Cyprus), and skies that poured rain for six months (England). But approaching the coast of Greenland,Y. pestisencountered a new natural wonder. Rising out of the frigid, white-capped sea, it gazed up at monstrous cliffs of silvery ice shimmering in the brilliant, bitter sunlight of a new Little Ice Age.
From Scandinavia, one prong of the plague crossed the Baltic and reentered Russia. Striking Novgorod,Y. pestistraveled south, clinging to the trade routes like a blind man feeling his way along a narrow corridor, until, at last, the golden onion-shaped domes of Moscow rose above the Russian plain. As the crow flies, the Russian capital, which was devastated by a terrible epidemic in 1352, lies only about seven hundred miles to the north of Caffa, whereY. pestishad set sail for Sicily several years earlier. Having closed the noose, the hangman rested.
On a glorious morning, Christendom awoke to find the plague gone. Life and joy, denied for so long, demanded their due. Survivors drank intoxicatingly, fornicated wildly, spent lavishly, ate gluttonously, dressed extravagantly. In England craftsmen took to wearing silk cloth and belts with silver buckles, and ignored a royal ordinance forbidding the lower orders from eating meat and fish at more than one meal a day. In Orvieto, where almost half the town lay buried in local plague pits, couples copulated on the freshly laid grass above the pits. In France “men became more miserly and grasping.” And everywhere survivors luxuriated in the sudden abundance of a commodity that only a few months earlier had seemed so fragile, so perishable—time: wonderful, glorious, infinite time. Time for family, for work. Time to gaze into an evening sky. Time to eat and drink and make love. “There are three things a man may say properly belong to him,” declares a character in a work by the Florentine humanist Leon Battista Alberti. When a companion asks what they are, Alberti’s character replies: a man’s fortune, his body—“and a very precious thing, indeed.”
“Incredible, what is it?” asks the companion.
“Time, my dear Lionardo,” Alberti’s character replies.
The burst of postplague debauchery disappointed, though did not surprise, moralists like Matteo Villani, the dour brother of the plague-dead Giovanni. It was further proof—as if Matteo would ever need further proof—of the innate wickedness of man. “It was thought,” he wrote after the pestilence, “that people whom God by his grace in life had preserved . . . would become better, humble, virtuous and catholic, avoiding inequities and sins and overflowing with love and charity for one another. But . . . the opposite happened. Men . . . gave themselves over to the most disordered and sordid behavior. . . . As they wallowed in idleness, their dissolution led them into the sin of gluttony, into banquets, taverns, delicate foods and gambling. They rushed headlong into lust.” Agnolo di Tura, who lived in Siena, where they were still counting the dead, offered a more succinct description of Europe’s post–Black Death mood. “No one could restrain himself from doing anything.”
The hysterical gaiety was the very thin veneer of a profound and abiding grief and sense of dislocation. In 1349, as the plague lifted from Italy, a mournful Petrarch wrote to his friend Louis Heyligen: “The life we lead is a sleep; whatever we do, dreams. Only death breaks the sleep and wakes us. I wish I could have woken before this.”
Petrarch would get his wish. Before the mortality was finally over, there would be tens of millions more dead to mourn, but by that time, Europe would be in the shadow of the Enlightenment, and the poet long dead.
The plague of Moscow in 1352 was, to borrow a phrase from Churchill, not “the end [of the plague] or even the beginning of the end but only the end of the beginning.”
One can scarcely imagine with what heavy heart an English chronicler wrote the following words: “In 1361, a grave pestilence* and mortality of men began throughout the whole world.” Barely eleven summers passed between the Black Death and thepestis secunda,as the second outbreak of plague was called. The new epidemic, which began in 1361, marked the beginning of a long wave of plague death that would roll on through more than three centuries. Had it not occurred in the immediate shadow of the Black Death, today the second pestilence would be spoken of as an epic tragedy in its own right. In rural Normandy 20 percent of the population died; in Florence, already shrunken to a remnant by the Black Death, the mortality also reached 20 percent. In England, losses among the landed gentry almost matched those of 1348–49, roughly 25 percent plus. However, to contemporaries, it was less the scope of thepestis secundathan its victims that left the greatest impression.
To the people who lived through it, thepestis secundaseemed to strike down the young in disproportionate numbers. Indeed, many contemporaries referred to the 1361 outbreak not as thepestis secundabut as the “Children’s Plague,” or “les mortalite des enfauntz.” Surgeon Guy de Chauliac, who was still practicing medicine in 1361 and had one of the keenest clinical eyes of the Middle Ages, says that “a multitude of boys and few women were attacked.” Modern scientific opinion holds that no population group has a special vulnerability to plague. But, like the tarabagan born in a surge year, the children born after the Black Death may not have had an opportunity to acquire the temporary immunity that comes to survivors after exposure toY. pestis.
Thepestis secundawas followed by thepestis tertiaof 1369. Thereafter, for the next several centuries, Europe would scarcely know a decade without plague somewhere on the continent. In the Netherlands alone, there were epidemics in 1360–62, 1362–64, 1368–69, 1371–72, 1382–84, 1409, 1420–21, 1438–39, 1450–54, 1456–59, 1466–72, 1481–82, 1487–90 and 1492–94.
However, the Renaissance plague, as the post–Black Death wave of pestilence is sometimes called, differed from its predecessor in several crucial respects. Although there were occasional catastrophic exceptions, like the Great Plague of London in 1665, over the centuriesY. pestissteadily abated in ferocity. Outbreaks became local in nature, while, on average, mortality rates shrank to 10 to 15 percent. The pestilences of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also were different in other respects. If pneumonic symptoms like blood spitting persisted, no one wrote or talked about them anymore; the later plagues appear to have been largely bubonic in character, and, as in the Third Pandemic, seasonal in nature; they struck in summer rather than all year round and moved at a slow Third Pandemic pace. Instead of leaping from city to city, they crept from neighborhood to neighborhood. Contagion remained a prominent feature, but instead of flying randomly from person to person, in its later iterations, the plague struck specific clusters of people—say, householders living in a particular alley or lane, or members of a family who slept in the same bed or wore the same clothes.
Anthropologist Wendy Orent has an interesting theory about the reasons for the change. Dr. Orent shares the Russian view that plague strains become species-specific over time; that is, the lethality, rate of dissemination, and other characteristics of a particular strain of plague are shaped by its interaction with a particular host species—hence, marmot plague is different in certain respects from rat plague, becauseY. pestishas had a different history with the two species. Dr. Orent hypothesizes that sometime in the 1320s and 1330s, after marmot plague jumped into humans,Y. pestisreinvented itself as a human ailment. “The Black Death became, in a limited, short-term sense, a human disease,” she says, “much of it spread lung to lung . . . [although] perhaps sometimes rats and fleas passed on the disease as well.”
However, since the human version of plague represented a biological dead end—it was so lethal, it risked obliterating its host population—Dr. Orent thinks that after the Black Death,Y. pestisreturned to its roots as a rat disease, and as it did many of the plague symptoms that have puzzled historians and scientists for centuries—such as the malodorous smell of plague victims, gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs, and the vomiting and spitting of blood—disappeared with it. “There is no doubt that [the rat and flea] played the principal role in converting the plague into a constant, if somewhat less virulent menace, over the next several centuries,” says Dr. Orent. The nature of Europe’s rodent population offers some support for her thesis. Europe does not have the right kind of wild rodent population to support permanent plague foci;Y. pestisrequires the warmth and humidity of a burrow to survive; and European rodents do not dig the kind of burrows that the pathogen needs to sustain itself. In the post–Black Death era, the burden of sustaining the chain of infection fell to the black rat and its cousin, the Norwegian rat, neither of which is ideally suited to provide plague foci. Indeed, the truly catastrophic outbreaks of Renaissance plague, like the epidemic that struck Marseille in 1720, may not have been the work of European rodents, but rather have come from a form of plague transported to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean or the Middle East.
In the words ofPiers Plowman,one of the most famous English literary works of the Late Middle Ages, the century after the Black Death was a time of
feveres and fluxes
Coughs and caricles, crampes and toothaches
. . . Byles and bocches and brennyng agues
. . . pokes and pestilences
However, the long stream of illness that afflicted post–Black Death Europe was not justY. pestis’s doing. All across the continent, the effects of chronic persistent plague were compounded by recurring waves of smallpox, influenza, dysentery, typhus, and perhaps anthrax. Sometimes several diseases would strike at once. In England, France, and Italy, for example, thepestis secundawas accompanied by a major outbreak of smallpox. Sometimes an illness would appear alone. In the 1440s, a major wave of smallpox—or red plague, as the disease was then called, swept through northern France, claiming even more lives than had a recent outbreak of bubonic plague. Two decades later a smallpox epidemic killed 20 percent of an English town. Influenza, another late medieval killer, produced large mortalities. In 1426–27 a major flu epidemic swept through France, the Low Countries, Spain, and eastern England, where it may have killed as much as 7 percent of the population. Another major disease of the era, the sweating sickness—or the Picardy sweat—appeared six times between 1485 and 1551, mostly in the region around the English Channel; often by the time the “sweat” had burned itself out, 10 percent of the population was dead. Poor sanitation also produced a wave of waterborne enteric fevers, especially intestinal dysentery, or the “bloody flux,” and infantile diarrhea, which historian Robert Gottfried believes may have been an important contributor to the perhaps 50 percent infant mortality rate of the Middle Ages. In 1473 East Anglia, already ravaged by plague and influenza, lost 15 to 20 percent of its adult population to dysentery.
The fifteenth century also saw the emergence of “modern diseases” such as typhus, which originated in India, and syphilis, whose origins remain a source of debate. Gonorrhea, or the “French pox,” long the classic venereal disease, continued to debilitate armies and upset kings. Complained Edward IV of England, after a campaign in France, “Many a man . . . fell to the lust of women and were burned by them, and their penises rotted away and fell off and they died.”
In the century between 1347 (when the plague first arrived in Sicily) and 1450, estimates of Europe’s population loss range from 30 to 40 percent to as high as 60 to 75 percent—a demographic collapse on the scale of the Dark Ages. Florence shrank by two-thirds—from 120,000 in 1330 to 37,000—and England by perhaps as much. Eastern Normandy may have suffered even more grievously; between the last quarter of the thirteenth century and the last quarter of the fourteenth century, the region’s population shrank by 70 to 80 percent.*
As often happens after a major demographic catastrophe, immediately after the Black Death the birth rate surged. Like many of his contemporaries, the French monk Jean de Venette was astonished at the number of pregnant women on the streets. “Everywhere,” he says, “women conceived more readily than usual. None proved barren; on the contrary, there were pregnant women wherever you looked. Several gave birth to twins, and some to living triplets.”† Indeed, historian John Hatcher argues that, had the post–Black Death demographic recovery proceeded unimpeded, by the 1380s Europe would have replaced its twenty-five million to thirty million plague dead.
The reasons for the collapse of the demographic recovery are complex. The most obvious is the torrent of disease; indeed, there was so much infectious illness in the century after the Black Death, the period is sometimes called the “Golden Age of Bacteria.” However, illness in and of itself was not the only demographic depressant. A second may have been the way the various diseases interacted with one another and, even more importantly, the way they interacted with the recurring cycles of pestilence. Professor Ann Carmichael thinks one reason the influenza and smallpox outbreaks claimed so many lives is that the ill, especially the very old and young, were deprived of basic life-saving measures, like the delivery of food and normal sanitary care because the plague had killed their caregivers.
A “birth dearth” may also have contributed to the demographic decline. In the century after the Black Death, reproductive patterns seemed to have changed; women began to marry younger, and, paradoxically, females who marry before twenty tend to be less fertile over a lifetime than women who marry later. The recurring waves of disease also helped to shrink the pool of potential parents.
As the population declined, the character of medieval society began to change. For one thing, an early death became a near certainty. “To the best of our knowledge,” says historian David Herlihy, “in the good years of the thirteenth century, life expectancies were 35 to 40. The ferocious epidemics of the late fourteenth century cut that figure to below 20.” As the population began to stabilize again around the year 1400, Professor Herlihy thinks, people may have begun living to thirty or so. However, since high medieval infant and childhood mortality rates had a distorting effect, real-world life expectancies were not quite as dismal as Professor Herlihy’s numbers make them sound. Around 1370 or 1380, a healthy twelve-year-old peasant boy in Essex, England, still had an additional forty-two years of life left. In other words, the boy could expect to live to fifty-four. But, thanks to the recurring waves of illness, by the early fifteenth century, that figure had fallen to fifty-one, and by the middle of the century, to forty-eight. In less than a hundred years, the boy had lost about 14 percent of his life span. Despite the advantages of better diet and better housing, the English nobility fared little better. In 1400 the average English peer was living eight years less than his great-grandfather had in 1300.
Post–Black Death society was also an old society. One of the paradoxical artifacts of negative demographic growth is that as population shrinks, median age increases. This is happening in modern Europe today. According toThe Economistmagazine, if current demographic trends hold—that is, if the European birth rate remains at or just below replacement rates for the dead—by the year 2050 the median age on the continent will be an astonishing fifty-two. Figures for the late Middle Ages paint a similar picture. In 1427 Florence had the same percentage of sixty-somethings as a modern low-birth-rate Western nation— 15 percent. Even more suggestive are figures from the convent of Longchamp, near Paris. In 1325 the percentage of nuns at the convent who were sixty or older was already high—24 percent. By 1402, after a half century of epidemic disease, the figure had risen to 33 percent. Even more telling, in the almost eighty years between 1325 and 1402, the percentage of nuns at Longchamp between twenty and sixty—that is, the percentage in the most productive, vital years of life—declined from almost 50 percent to 33 percent.
The consequences of the Black Death cannot be properly understood unless set against this backdrop of severe, chronic population decline and lack of a vigorous young workforce. One of the most eye-catching of the consequences was a severe decline in the continent’s physical infrastructure. Circa 1400, Europe was beginning to resemble medieval Rome: there were hulking pockets of survivors surrounded by untended fields, unmended fences, unrepaired bridges, abandoned farms, overgrown orchards, half-empty villages, and crumbling buildings, and hovering over everything was the oppressive sound of silence. Indeed, the continent’s physical deterioration became so pronounced, it entered the cultural vocabulary of the post–Black Death era. One of the everyday sentences fifteenth-century English schoolboys were required to translate into Latin was: “[T]he roof of an old house had almost fallen on me yesterday.”
Another consequence of the chronic worker shortage was that the cost of labor—and the cost of everything labor made—increased dramatically. Matteo Villani, who was a snob as well as a moralist, complained that “serving girls . . . want at least 12 florins per year and the more arrogant among them 18 or 24 florins, and . . . minor artisans working with their hands want three times . . . the usual pay, and laborers on the land all want oxen and . . . seed, and want to work the best lands and abandon all others.” A thousand miles to the north, the cackling English monk Henry Knighton snorted that “all essentials were so expensive that something which had previously cost one quid, was now worth four quid or five quid.” Across the channel in France, prices were so high, Guillaume de Machaut wrote a poem about inflation.
For many have certainly
Heard it commonly said
How in one thousand three hundred and forty nine
Out of one hundred there remained but nine.
Thus, it happened that for the lack of people
Many a splendid farm was left untilled,
No one plowed the fields
Bound the cereals and took in the grapes,
Some gave triple salary
But not for one denier was twenty [enough]
Since so many were dead . . .
Around 1375, food prices began to stabilize again and then to fall, as the demand for foodstuffs declined along with the population. This produced another sentence for fifteenth-century English schoolboys to translate into Latin: “No man now alive . . . can remember that ever he saw wheat or peas or corn or any other foodstuff . . . cheaper than we see now.” However, the price of nearly everything except food either continued to rise or else stabilized at a high level—and this brought about a change in the European social structure so unprecedented, an amazed chronicler described it “as an inversion of the natural order.”
In the fifty years after the Black Death, the medieval world’s traditional economic winners and losers exchanged places. The new losers, the landed gentry, began to see their wealth shredded by the scissors of low food prices and high labor costs; the new winners, the people at the bottom, saw their one marketable asset—labor—increase dramatically in value, and with it their standard of living rise. Here is Matteo Villani looking down his nose again: “The common people, by reason of the abundance and superfluity that they found, would no longer work at their accustomed trades; they wanted the dearest and most delicate foods . . . while children and common women clad themselves in all the fair and costly garments of the illustrious who had died.” Down the road in Siena, Agnolo di Tura, newly remarried and prospering, was also complaining about the greed of the lower orders. Declared the former shoemaker, “the workers of the land and the orchards, because of their great extortions and salaries, totally destroyed the farms of the citizens of Siena.”
Peasants were often the biggest winners among the poor. Serfdom, in decline before the mortality, now began to disappear entirely. In the second half of the fourteenth century, a man could simply up and leave a manor, secure in the knowledge that wherever he settled, someone would hire him; alternately, the peasant could use his new leverage to extract rent reductions or obtain relief from hated feudal obligations such as the heriot—or death tax—from a hard-pressed lord. And since there was now a great deal of excess farmland available, the peasant could often pick and choose his land. In the half century after the Black Death, crop yields rose, not because agriculture improved but because now only the best land was being farmed. One measure of the new peasant prosperity was a change in inheritance patterns. Before the Black Death, peasant holdings were so small, there was not enough land for anyone but the eldest son. By 1450 peasants were often prosperous enough to leave a parcel of land to all their children—including, increasingly, their daughters.
The labor shortage even benefited the itinerant laborers who moved from manor to manor, picking up whatever work was available. Then as now, a migrant worker’s salary and working conditions put him at the bottom of the economic ladder. But by the summer of 1374 a migrant worker named Richard Tailor sensed that a new day was dawning for men like him. Thus, on July 3, when his employer, William Lene, offered what Tailor felt was an inadequate wage for plowman’s work, Tailor in effect told Lene: “Take this job and shove it.” Walking out at the start of harvest season, Tailor made more in the next two months, August and September 1374, than the annual wage Lene had offered him—fifteen shillings versus a mere thirteen shillings, four quid.
Women were also significant economic winners in the new social order. The labor shortage opened up traditionally well-paying male occupations like metalwork and stevedoring, though the women who worked in these occupations were not paid as much as their male counterparts, and the work itself could be dangerous. In 1389, on a road near Oxford, a stevedore named Joan Edwaker was killed when her wagon tumbled over and she was crushed to death. A more typical path to empowerment was professional advancement in a traditional female field. Women cloth workers, for example, often rose from the ranks of low-paying wool combers to higher-paying weavers. By 1450 brewing—a female-dominated profession to begin with—had become virtuallyallfemale. Additionally, many widows took over family shops or businesses—and, not uncommonly, ran them better than their dead husbands.Y. pestisturns out to have been something of a feminist.
The poet who wrote
The world is changed and overthrown
That is well-nigh upside down
Compared with days of long ago.
ably articulated the feelings of the economic losers in the post–Black Death era, the landed magnates. Caught between falling land prices—a by-product of falling food prices—and rising labor costs, a great many lords simply abandoned the land. Renting out their estates, they lived off the proceeds. Magnates more committed to the land attempted to make a go of it by switching to less labor-intensive forms of farming. Abandoning grain, they concentrated on sheep and cattle. However, as a group, the ruling classes were far more interested in stuffing the genie of social change back in the bottle than they were in renting out their property or finding ways around high wage costs. After the mortality, “the ruling groups temporarily closed ranks and used the power of the state to defend the interests of the rich in the most blatant manner,” says historian Christopher Dyer.
In 1349 and again in 1351, Edward III froze wages at preplague levels; new laws also made it illegal to refuse employment or to break a labor contract. In 1363 a new set of sumptuary laws banned the silk, silver buckles, and fur-lined coats the peasants had grown so fond of—as well as any other item of clothing that smacked of putting on airs or getting above oneself. To sop up some of the lower orders’ excess income, in the late 1370s the poll tax was extended to previously exempt groups like unskilled laborers and servants. In 1381 resentment at attempts to reinstate “the days of long ago” helped to ignite the Peasants’ Revolt.
Conflicts between the landed magnates and the newly empowered peasantry and laboring class also led to unrest and rebellion on the continent. In France, there were insurrections in 1358, 1381, and 1382, and in Ghent, in 1379.
Agriculture was not the only industry to be burdened by chronic labor shortages. In 1450 industrial Europe was producing fewer goods than it had in 1300. Particularly hard hit was the principal industry of the Middle Ages, the Flemish-dominated cloth industry, which was built around the production of cheap cloth for a mass market. Post–Black Death, there were often not enough consumers to provide a mass market. In addition, tastes changed. As people grew more prosperous, demand for plain, drab Flemish cloth declined in favor of fancier, more vivid, and sophisticated clothing.
Depopulation also had an important effect on technological innovation. The sharp decline in the workforce was an impetus for the development of labor-saving devices in many fields, including book production. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the demand for books increased steadily, propelled by a growing class of merchants, university-trained professionals, and craftsmen. But making a book in the Middle Ages was a very labor-intensive project; it required several copyists, each of whom would write out a section of the book, called a quire. In the preplague era of low wages, this method could still produce an affordable product, but not in the high-wage postplague era. Enter Johann Gutenberg, an ambitious young engraver from Mainz, Germany. In 1453, at the near-centenary of the mortality, Gutenberg introduced his printing press to the world. Chronic manpower shortages also fostered innovation in mining—new water pumps allowed fewer miners to dig deeper mines—and in the fishing industry, where new methods of salting and storing fish allowed the shrunken fishing fleets of the post–Black Death era to remain at sea longer. In the shipbuilding industry, craftsmen found ways to increase the size of vessels while reducing the size of crews. Labor shortages and high wages also helped to spur changes in the nature of warfare. As the salaries of soldiers increased, war became more expensive. This spurred the development of firearms. Weapons like the musket and cannon meant that the new high-wage soldier would provide more bang for the military buck.
There were also a number of innovations in the medical profession, which like the Church emerged from the plague with its prestige damaged. One was a greater emphasis on practical, clinically oriented medicine, a change reflected in the growing influence of the surgeon and the declining influence of the university-trained physician, who knew a great deal about Aristotle but not much about hernias and hangnails. Anatomy texts also began to become more accurate as autopsies became more common. In the new medical schools, there was a shift in emphasis toward the practical physical sciences.
These changes helped to set the stage for what today is called the scientific method. Increasingly after the Black Death, the physician—rather than deducing a conclusion from pure reason—posited a theory, tested the theory against observable fact, and rigorously analyzed the results to see if they supported the theory.
In the post–Black Death era, the hospital also began to move toward its modern form. The chief purpose of the preplague hospital was to isolate the sick—to remove them from society so that they would neither offend nor infect. “When a sick person entered the hospital he was treated as if he were dead,” says Professor Gottfried. “His property was disposed of and, in many regions, a quasi-requiem mass was said for his soul.” After the plague, hospitals at least attempted to cure the ill, though any patient fortunate enough to emerge from a hospital of the late Middle Ages in sound health probably owed more to good genes and good luck than to his medical treatment. One noteworthy post–Black Death innovation was the ward system: patients with specific maladies began to be housed together. Patients with broken bones were put in one ward, those with degenerative diseases in another.
The Black Death also played a major role in the birth of public health. One early innovation in the field was the municipal health board, such as those Florence and Venice established in 1348 to oversee sanitation and the burial of the dead. Later the boards would grow more sophisticated. In 1377 Venice established the first public quarantine in its Adriatic colony of Ragusa (Dubrovnik). The lazaretto, or plague house, a Florentine creation, was another early public health landmark. These were part hospital, part nursing home, and, not uncommonly, part prison.
Post–Black Death Europe also began to develop new ideas about how illness spread. It probably was not happenstance that the first systematic theory of contagion was developed by Giovanni Fracastoro, a practicing public health physician in Florence.
The plague also changed medieval higher education. Cambridge established four new colleges: Gonville Hall in 1348, Trinity Hall in 1350, Corpus Christi in 1352, and Clare Hall in 1362, while Oxford created two new schools, Canterbury and New College. Post– Black Death Florence, Prague, Vienna, Cracow, and Heidelberg also established new universities. In many cases, the charters of the schools reflected their tortured beginnings. Many mention the decay of learning and the shortage of priest-educators after the plague as the reason for their founding.
The long century of death that followed the medieval plague also had a profound effect on religious sentiment. People began to long for a more intense, personal relationship with God. One expression of the new mood was what Professor Norman Cantor has called the “privatization of Christianity.” Chantries (private chapels), which were always common among the nobility, now became common among well-to-do merchants, professional families, and even artisans, who began to build private chapels through their craft guilds. Another expression of the “privatization” was the growing popularity of mysticism. In an age of “arbitrary, inexplicable tragedy,” many people sought to create their own private pipeline to God.
As religious feeling intensified, the wills of the rich began to resemble celestial corporate reports. Few ventured as far into the field of “heavenly accounting” as Sir Walter Manny, whose good works included the purchase of a London cemetery and the construction of a chapel on one of its acres for monks to pray for the plague dead. (In a later iteration, the chapel became one of London’s most famous landmarks, the Charterhouse.) However, rare was the wealthy man who died without leaving behind enough money to fund several lifetimes’ worth of prayer for the repose of his immortal soul.
The upswing in religious feeling was accompanied by a deepening disillusionment with the Church. In the greatest crisis of the Middle Ages, the Church had proved as ineffective as every other institution in medieval society. In addition, it had lost many of its best priests, and those who survived often behaved in ways that brought shame to religious life. In 1351, as the first wave of plague was lifting, a critic wrote a blistering indictment of the clergy. “About what can you preach to the people?” he asked. “If on humility, you yourselves are the proudest of the world, arrogant and given to pomp. If on poverty, you are the most grasping and covetous, . . . if on chastity—but we will be silent on that.” The critic was the sitting pope, Clement VI, a man whose own worldliness made him hard to shock. In the decades after 1351, the ordination of ill-trained boys—the ordination age was dropped from twenty-five to twenty—and ill-suited widowers further damaged the clergy’s reputation. As William Langland observed inPiers Plowman,the only outstanding characteristic of the new clerical recruits seemed to be cupidity.
Parsons and parish priests complained to the Bishop
That their parishes were poor since the pestilence time
And asked leave and license in London to dwell
And sing requiems for stipends, for silver is sweet . . .
Given the amount of criticism leveled at the Church, it is perhaps unsurprising that several new heretical movements became active in the post–Black Death era, including the anticlerical Lollards, an English sect that attacked the ecclesiastical leadership and even questioned the spiritual benefit of the Mass. However, it would be an oversimplification to claim, as a few scholars have, that the Church’s failures during the Black Death led inexorably to the Reformation. The establishment of Protestantism in northern Europe, like other large, complex historical movements, was multicausal in origin. Everything from Henry VIII’s libido to the political goals of the German princes who supported Martin Luther contributed to the Reformation. The safest conclusion one can make about the plague’s contribution is that, by promoting dissatisfaction with the Church, it created fertile ground for religious change.
There is a surer link between the recurrent plagues and epidemics of 1350 to 1450 and the death-obsessed culture of the late Middle Ages. Some of the motifs of the era, such as the dance of death and thetransi tomb,predate the plague. But it required an era of mass death to transform these exercises in the macabre into major cultural phenomena. As historian Johan Huizinga observed in his classic work,The Waning of the Middle Ages,“no other epoch has laid as much stress . . . on the thought of death.” Huizinga might have added that no other epoch has also done so little to soften the image of death. Late medieval man not only expected to die, he expected to die hard and ugly. A case in point is the sculpture that adorns of thetransi tomb(from the Latin verbtransire,meaning “to pass away”) of Cardinal Jean de Lagrange in Avignon. It depicts the dying cardinal without pity; his mouth is agape, his eyes hollow, his cheeks sunken; his rib cage rises out of his withered lower body like a mountainous coastline. The inscription beneath the sculpture reminds the passerby: “We are a spectacle to the world. Let the great and humble, by our example, see to what state they shall be inexorably reduced, whatever their condition, age, or sex. Why then, miserable person, are you puffed up with pride? Dust you are, unto dust you return, rotten corpse, morsel and meal to worms.”
Life’s impermanence was also the theme ofThe Three Living and the Three Dead,a story that resonates through much late medieval art and literature. The tale, which came in several versions, centers on an encounter between the living and the dead. After the meeting, each of the three living participants comes away drawing a different moral. One man is reminded that the true purpose of this life is to repent and prepare for the next. Another, shaken by the sight and smell of death, loses himself in thoughts of the here and now; while the third man, like the first, chastened by the encounter, delivers a sermon on the transitory nature of earthly glories.
The Dance of Death,another popular cultural motif of the period, offered a different message. It presents death as a great social leveler—a jolly, ghoulish, jitterbugging democrat who insists on dancing with everyone at the party no matter how rich or poor, how highborn or lowborn.The Dance of Death’s dramatic possibilities made it a favorite theme of contemporary painters, poets, and dramatists, who often used the theme to make points about the late medieval social order. Thus, in several renditions, a laborer is depicted as welcoming Death as relief from his toil, while the rich and powerful, wedded to earthly pleasures, recoil in horror from the smiling hooded figure when he extends his hand for a dance. Unliketransi tombsand theThree Living and the Three Dead, The Dance of Deathmay have originated during the mortality. One source, theGrands-Chroniquesof the Abbey of St. Denis, Paris, suggests that the theme arose from a 1348 encounter between two monks from the abbey and a group of dancers. When asked why they danced, one man replied, “We have seen our neighbors die and see them die daily, but since the plague has not entered our town, we hope our merrymaking will keep it away and that is why we dance.”
Another story dates the origins of the dance of death to a recurrence of the plague along the Rhine in 1374. According to a German chronicler, during the outbreak, groups of the afflicted, some five hundred strong, would perform dances that concluded with the dancers falling to the ground and begging onlookers to trample on their bodies. The trampling was supposed to effect a cure. However, since plague victims often had difficulty just standing unassisted, the story has the whiff of the apocryphal about it.
For all the terrible suffering the plague inflicted, it may have saved Europe from an indefinite future of subsistence existence.
In the autumn of 1347, when the Black Death arrived in Europe, the continent was caught in a Malthusian deadlock. After two and a half centuries of rapid demographic growth, the balance between people and resources had become very tight. Nearly everywhere, living standards were either falling or stagnating; poverty, hunger, and malnutrition were widespread; social mobility rare; technological innovation stifled; and new ideas and modes of thinking denounced as dangerous heresies. The autumn morning that the Genoese plague fleet sailed into Messina harbor, a thick layer of congealed gel lay over an immobilized Europe.
The high mortalities of the Black Death and the era of recurrent disease helped to end the paralysis and allow the continent to recapture its momentum. Smaller population meant a larger share of resources for survivors—and, often as well, a wiser use of resources. After the plague, low-yielding farmland was used more productively as pasturage, and mills, once used largely to grind grain, were now put to a wider range of purposes, including fulling cloth and cutting wood. Human ingenuity also flowered, as people sought ways to substitute machine power for manpower. “A more diversified economy, a more intensive use of capital, a more powerful technology and standard of living—these seem the salient characteristics of the late medieval economy,” says historian David Herlihy. “Plague, in sum, broke the Malthusian deadlock . . . , which threatened to hold Europe in its traditional ways for an indefinite future.”
Horrific as a century of unremitting death had been, Europe emerged from the charnel house of pestilence and epidemic cleansed and renewed—like the sun after rain.