How could a devastating disease which killed almost 25 million people during the fourteenth century, possibly have saved Europe? The Black Death is the most studied and well-known disease outbreak in history. A bacteria known as Yersinia Pestis, which originated in the Mongolian steppes, spread throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa destroying any person, city, or country in its path. In a state of shock about the plague, Petrarch, a classical scholar, writes to his brother, “How shall I begin? Whither shall I turn? On all sides is sorrow; everywhere is fear” (Petrarch). The people of this time were surrounded by death. This virus is well recognized as one of the most horrific events in history. Though that may be true, the way society and the people as a whole advanced because of the plague’s influence is simply remarkable. The Bubonic Plague, though tragic, strongly impacted Europe’s, economic and medical advancements, along with introducing a new, developed culture, ultimately changing the course of history.
The Black Plague significantly improved the economic situation of medieval Europe and opened new opportunities that brought about needed changes in society.“Wages increased because there were fewer workers—labor had become more scarce”(msh.councilforeconed.org). People of the lower class soon began to demand higher wages, better working conditions and less responsibility from their masters.
As a result, they were better able to feed themselves and their families, had more freedom and a general better standard of living. By having their wages raised, this put an end to the feudal system, a system which relied on an agreement between a lord and a peasant stating that if he worked for the lord, he would receive protection. Europeans were now able to buy better food, more fashionable clothes, jewelry, and other luxurious items. This led to a reduction of the upper class and resulted with what we know today as the middle class.
Anyone who thought they could find a cure to the plague, tried. A common course of treatment entailed a natural approach by utilizing herb potions, pills and concoctions on plague victims. People even used methods dating back to Ancient Greece in hopes of finding an answer. Most of their theories and “findings,” however, were very inaccurate. ”Plague doctors wore a mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from being infected by the disease, which they believed was airborne. In fact, they thought disease was spread by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air.’ To battle this imaginary threat, the long beak was packed with sweet smells, such as dried flowers, herbs and spices”(Historyanswers.co.uk).
In reality, the disease wasn’t airborne, it was transmitted through the fleas on rats. While many doctors were set in their beliefs and refused to think of other ways the plague might have been spreading, there were also a multitude of advancements in the medical field during this time. Preplague hospitals were dirty and often their only purpose was to quarantine the patient. After the initial outbreak occurred, hospitals began cleaning on a regular basis and making sure that their patients were being taken care of. Public health laws were put into place and were so effective that some of the same ideas are still used today. And lastly, a Code of Ethics was put into place as a guide for the medical professions. While doctors were often mistaken about the actual causes of the plague, the overall improvements in medical treatment would change the medical world as a whole.
The Black Plague had a profound impact on art and literature. After 1350, when the plague began to fade out, European culture generally became very curative. The general mood was melancholy, and contemporary art became full with representations of death. La Danse Macabre was a genre of art during this time that united the living and the dead into one.“La Danse Macabre, or the dance of death, was a contemporary allegory, expressed as art, drama, and printed work.” (Lumenlearning.com).
Artist’s themes were the acceptance of death and expressed the common knowledge of the time that the dance of death, whatever the position in life, unites all. It symbolizes death, which led to a series of dance figures from all walks of life to the grave, usually with an emperor, king, pope, boy or girl, all in a skeletal state. These works of art were created under the influence of black death and reminded people how fragile their lives were. By creating these works, people realized the inevitability of death and found a way to cope with these dark times.
After such a devastating time, many wonder how Europe recovered from all the damage. Europeans had lost everything, but they pushed through, survived and came out stronger than before. Those who lived were able to experience a new age of medicine and economics in Europe. They also got to see an explosion of culture develop in the years after the outbreak. The Bubonic Plague was a devastating event and Europe felt the impact of it decades after it was over, but the economy rose again, a new age of medicine and culture rose, and most importantly, the people rose again.