Have Historians In The Past Tended To Exaggerate The Negative Economic Impact Of Plague In Late Medieval Society?

2277 words - 9 pages

The victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise."BoccacciThere is no doubt that the plague led to economic hardship in England in the mid-fourteenth century. However the plague appears to be a catalyst rather than the principal instigator of economic decline. The plague was disastrous enough, especially with the appearance of three interrelated forms during the same epidemic but coming at the time it did was just as catastrophic as the nature of the disease itself.1 The effects of the plague were made worse because of other problems inherent at the time and the problems were re-doubled because of the plague. Despite the widespread destruction, those of the lower class who managed to survive achieved a certain economic prosperity in the years to follow. 2, 3The European Black Death originated in the Far East and was carried back to Europe via the major shipping ports.4 Once it had reached England in 1349 it proceeded to spread rapidly and with devastating consequences throughout the whole land. 5 The disease was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that was carried in the stomach of a flea and then transferred to the bloodstream of the black rat (rattus rattus) by the flea's bite. 6 When the host died the fleas looked for an alternative host, including humans.7 Recent estimates suggest that 40-45% of the English population died in 1349. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million.8 Moreover the initial outbreak of pestilence in 1349 was not the only outbreak.9 The plague, once established within the population, became endemic - it reappeared every so often. England suffered periodic outbreaks of the plague until the early eighteenth century.10The arrival of the Black Death was indeed one element leading to economic change in the fourteenth century. The devastating results of the pestilence affected all aspects of English society. There was a massive and sudden drop in population, which led to a decline in trade, commerce, agricultural and industrial production.11, 12, 13 Both workers and customers had fallen to the plague which forced the nature of the economy to change to meet the changing social conditions. Valuable artisan skills disappeared when large numbers of the working class died.14 Most landowners were not getting the rental income they needed, and were forced to lease their land.15 Those who had skills became even more valuable than the rich people.16 Serfs began to leave their land and not engage in the planting of crops while those remaining demanded higher wages and better conditions.17 The suspension of economic progress led to social unrest. The merchants, who had played a dominant role in municipal government, were now forced to use their political power to support their economic position.18 "Their interests frequently clashed with those of the craft guilds, because the latter, faced with declining...

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