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By Kathryn Walton
The Black Death of 1347-51 was one of the worst pandemics in Europe’s history. It decimated the population, killing roughly half of all people living. After the ravages of the plague were finished, however, medieval peasants found their lives and working conditions improved.
One of the most famous pandemics in Europe’s history raged across the continent and around the world from 1347-51. The plague pandemic, coined The Black Death by a nineteenth century scholar, is generally thought to have been caused by a bacterial infection derived from the bacillus Yersinia pestis. The disease was transmitted by fleas who latched onto a human host after biting an infected rat. It swept across a huge portion of the globe. The Palestinian chronicler Abū Hafs Umar Ibn al-Wardī reports that it spread through China, India, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine, as well as Europe. You can see his account of its spread animated in the video below.
The disease was devastating. The physician and poet Abū Ja’far Ahmad Ibn Khātima, who lived on the southern coast of Spain, leaves us a very detailed description of the effects of the plague in his Arabic treatise A Description and Remedy for Escaping the Plague in the Future. It begins, as he says, with a fever that rises over the course of a few days making the patient disoriented and depressed. This is followed by some severe physical reactions:
cramps; coldness in the extremities; frightful, bilious, recurring vomiting; diverse lesions on the skin; or: a tightness in the chest; difficulty in breathing; spitting of blood or stinging pain on the side or just below the breast, accompanied by inflammation and an intense thirst; coughing; blackness of tongue or swelling of the throat with complications of quinsy; and a difficulty or impossibility swallowing; or: headaches; fainting fits; dizziness; nausea and foul-smelling diarrhea.
This passage was translated by Suzanne Gigandet. You can read it is full as well as many of the documents that I refer to here in John Aberth’s The Black Death, The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents.
It was a terrible disease that inspired a great deal of fear across Europe and around the world. The medical professionals of the time did not really know what caused it or how to contain it. It was often attributed to God’s wrath and blamed on such environmental factors as bad smells. There were some attempts made to control its spread. Quarantine and sanitation measures were put in place and travel between cities was restricted. But nothing really worked, and the plague spread rapidly.
Impact on Peasants and Members of the Lower Classes
It affected everyone but was especially devastating for peasants and those in the lower classes. In the face of an outbreak, those who had enough money to finance relocating would simply leave the infected location. Those who did not died in greater numbers. The Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron describes the plight of common people in cities who, not having the resources to leave, were forced to stay close to home. As a result, they “sickened daily by the thousands and because they received little help, they nearly all died with few exceptions.”
Those outside of the cities also died in extremely high numbers. Peasant farmers tended to be more removed from the outbreaks, but as Boccaccio stresses, they had no access to physicians and often little help when they fell ill. As a result, they “died, not like men, but like animals, on the roads, in their fields or in their houses at all hours, by day and night.” These quotations come from the Project Gutenberg edition of Bocaccio’s text. I have modernized the language. You can access the full text here.
It was a devastating event. Millions of people around the world suffered and died. When the plague ended roughly half of the population of Europe was gone. The face of Europe was changed forever.
But for the peasant population, it was changed for the better.
Lives of Peasants Before the Plague
Prior to the plague, medieval peasants were often extremely poor and had few freedoms. Peasants typically farmed a portion of an estate owned by a lord in return for the protection of that lord and the use of the land. But, as a result, peasants were often tied to the land and had to give up certain freedoms to hold on to it. They also had to turn over a portion of their harvest to the lord as payment. This arrangement absolutely benefited the lord over the peasant. The lord was able to amass great wealth from the work of his peasant farmers. The peasants were often barely able to produce enough to get by and had few means of improving their position in the world.
If you want to read more about the working conditions of peasants and the prevalence of serfdom in early medieval England, check out Lucie Laumonier’s column Who were the Peasants in the Middle Ages?
The Resulting Labour Shortage
After the ravages of the Black Death were finished in Europe, however, there were suddenly far fewer people to farm the lands. Egyptian scholar Ahmad Ibn Alī al-Maqrīzī, described what this looked like after the plague had passed through Egypt: “When the harvest time came, there remained only a very small number of ploughmen.” There were some who “attempted to hire workers, promising them half of the crop, but they could not find anyone to help them.” The same was true in Europe, and crops remained unharvested and great revenues were lost for the local landowners because they couldn’t get anyone to do the work.
Labourers and farmers were consequently suddenly in high demand. To maintain their estates and ways of living the lords needed peasants to farm their lands, and so, faced with a labour shortage, the lords were forced to pay peasants more for their work and enter into agreements that were more beneficial to the peasants. Peasants suddenly had more agency and more control over their working lives. They could dictate the terms of their contracts. They could simply leave their position if their lord treated them poorly or was unwilling to pay them more. They were able to acquire more wealth and freedom as the importance of their labour was increasingly recognized in the face of its loss.
Many and various attempts were made by local governments and officials to block this upward movement. An Ordinance from Castile in 1351 condemns those who “wander about idle and do not want to work” as well as those “demand such great prices and salaries and wages.” It orders all able to do so to work for a set, pre-plague price. Another from Sienna condemns those who “extort and receive great sums and salaries for the daily labor that they do every day” and sets a fixed price of six gold florins a year.
Improved Salaries, Freedoms, and Lifestyles
These ordinances show the anxieties of the governing members of society, but they were not always effective. Peasants continued to ask for and receive more money for their work and greater freedoms. Court records show that peasants and labourers frequently demanded more pay for their labour, left before the end of a contract, and abandoned one position if they were offered more money in another. They were charged for these offenses, but they kept doing them.
As working conditions and salaries improved, so did the lifestyles of the peasants. Goods and activities that had only been available to those with money were suddenly being taken up by peasants and other members of the lower classes. They used their newfound wealth to buy fancier clothes, eat nicer food, and take up leisure activities like hunting. The English poet John Gower lamented in his Mirour de l’Omme that labourers who were used to eating bread made of corn now were able to eat that made of wheat and that those who had previously drunk water were now enjoying luxuries like milk and cheese. He also complained about their new, fancier attire, and their choice to dress above their station. His attitude was common among some in the upper and middle classes who lamented the social improvements of the lives of peasants and the loss of the good-old-days before the plague when the world was “well-ordered,” and people knew their place (as Gower says).
What the Black Death Tells Us
Plagues and pandemics are terrible. But they usually end eventually. And the example of the Black Death shows that when they do, society can find itself changed for the better. The Black Death is often credited with catapulting the medieval world into the Renaissance. It is thought to have inspired the cultural, technological, and scientific innovations by which this period is typically defined. While many medieval scholars (myself included) question the extent to which the early modern period was uniquely innovative (there were many innovations taking place before that), there is no question that one of Europe’s greatest pandemics changed the continent and made a positive impact, for a time, on the lives of medieval peasants.
Time will tell what the end of our current pandemic will bring. The Black Death shows that pandemics can bring positive social changes. Hopefully, COVID-19 will bring some too.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 18855 fol. 109v