Sunday, April 26, 2020

After the plague

As I have posted before, the Middle Ages certainly had epidemics, most notably the Black Death, usually known now as the bubonic plague (it also had a variant, the pneumonic plague, even more virulent).  I used to have trouble explaining to my students how serious the plague was in the fourteenth century and how much it disrupted what one might think of as normal.  Some would say, Is it like AIDS?  No, because AIDS is not particularly contagious, and people can live with it for years.  In the future it may be easier to explain the plague:  it's more like COVID-19.

Now the plague was far more deadly than our current epidemic.   Estimates are that maybe a third of Europe's population was wiped out within a year or two.  We are nowhere near that figure yet, but there's still time.

Part of Europe's problem in the fourteenth century was that it was impossible to practice "social distancing."  Houses were small and close together, so for most people "self-quarantining" away from everyone else was just not possible.  The same problem, that one cannot put distance between oneself and other people, is why the current disease has spread so rapidly in places like cruise ships, prisons, and Mediterranean countries where houses are still small and close together.  In the case of the plague, the disease could be spread by fleas, so staying 6 (or 12) feet apart was not going to be enough anyway.

Without modern medical treatments and sanitizers, medieval people could try to flee (often taking the disease with them), but the overall response was by necessity something close to what is now described as "ride it out," keep on trying to act normal, and figure that after a while everyone who was going to die is dead, and the rest either are immune or have recovered.

Well, the problem with that approach then (as it would be now) is that an awful lot of people die, and whatever health care facilities you have are overwhelmed, so a lot of those who die might have had a chance to recover in better circumstances.

And what happens then?  Well, in spite of happy hopes one sometimes hears expressed, you can't just restart an economy devastated by a pandemic.  In fourteenth-century Europe, trade routes had been completely disrupted, cities (the centers of economic exchange) decimated, churches and law courts emptied, and any sense of optimism for the future dealt a pretty significant blow.  You can't just put an economy back together when a lot of the people on whom the economy depends are dead.

Europe's cities shrank and did not return to their pre-plague size for at least another century.  Italian merchants who survived stopped putting their money into commerce, which looked decidedly iffy, and started patronizing art instead, kick-starting the Italian Renaissance.  Religious expression became far more morbid, with "dance of death" a common artistic scene:  Death is portrayed dancing across the countryside, bringing everyone with him, rich and poor, young and old, men and women.

Many started creating what might be considered double-decker tombstones, two depictions of the deceased carved in stone, one above the other like bunk beds.  In one the deceased would be seen dressed and peacefully sleeping, as seen in elite tombs for generations.  In the other, the deceased would be depicted as partially decayed, complete with worms carved in stone.

The only ones to come out of the plague better off (besides the Italian artists) were the peasants, if one can put "better off" and "many friends and family members dead" in the same sentence.  Europe had been overpopulated, without enough land (using fourteenth-century techniques and crops) to adequately feed the population.  Losing a third to a half of the population certainly solved that pesky problem!  Peasant families could start farming more land, because a lot of their neighbors were gone.  Landlords who relied on peasant rents and labor had to lower rents or pay more for labor if they didn't want to have to grow their own food themselves, because there was competition for the surviving peasant workers.

In some places landlords fought back.  England for example passed laws trying to keep peasants from demanding higher wages or lower rents.  These were not nearly as successful as hoped.  The peasants in turn fought back, becoming aware, really for the first time, that they had common cause with peasants around the country, resulting in the great Peasants Revolt of 1381.  But that's a story for another time.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on medieval disease and other aspects of medieval history, see my book Positively Medieval, available on Amazon and other ebook  and on-line platforms.

No comments:

Post a Comment