The Black Death in England
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The Black Death in England is considered to be one of the greatest natural disasters in the history that hit England between 1348 and 1350. It first reached England in 1348 through Bristol. Due to poor hygiene and overcrowding caused by the bustling population in London, the living conditions and sanitation standards were low creating breeding and spreading grounds for the disease. Also known as the Black Plague, their effects were felt in Europe, Asia and the adjacent cities in the mid-14th century. The plague was referred to the Black Death because it turned the skin of its victims black due to sub-dermal hemorrhages. Historians attribute the disease to an outbreak of a bubonic plague, which is a bacterium that is easily spread through fleas via agents such as the black rat.
The bacterium that carries the disease is transferred into the lymphatic system through bites from fleas. Once in the lymph nodes, the bacteria often multiply and cause swellings which are known as buboes. The speed at which the bacteria spread is so high that it reaches the lungs and the spleen forcing patients to succumb after a few days. This paper maintains that the Black Death in England caused severe consequences and had far-reaching effects on the socioeconomic, political, cultural, religious and medical structures in England. The paper will thus explore these consequences and effects.
What the Black Death did and its Effects in England
According to the existent records, the Black Death killed approximately 30-40% of the English population. As a result, many people were literary thrown into open communal pits in England. On a general note, it is believed that the plague killed people indiscriminately. For example, the Black Death struck the daughter of King Edward III (1312-1377). Joan contracted the fatal disease and died in Bayonne on 2 September 1348 after receiving her parents’ blessing for a marriage to King Pedro of Castille who was the son of Alfonso XI and Maria Portugal. However, data collected in the aftermath of the plague indicate that it killed the oldest, poorest and the youngest population first. As a result of the Black Death, there were towns and villages in England that remained without people and thus disappeared. According to demographic and historical records, the population did not fully replenish from the sting of the plague until in the late eighteenth century.
The peasants had to flee from their fields out of the anxiety and fear of catching the decease. Livestock in the villages were left un-attended and were to look after themselves while crops were left to rot. Consequently, many villages, homes, towns and houses were left desolated since the occupants either succumbed to the plague or migrated to the cities. People got confused and could not clearly tell the origin of the disease that was threatening to wipe the entire population from existence. Considering that this was a wrath from God, many people resorted to public penitence acts such as processions lasting for three days that were meant to appease God. Unfortunately, these public acts only contributed to the spread of the disease even further. The disease kept on mutating until in the late 17th century when England became generally free of the deadly plague.
The Social and Economic Consequences of the Black Death in England
The Black Death in England led to a sudden shortage of labor for agricultural production. This shortage resulted in the increase in wages as the landowners desperately needed farm labor. This was generally caused by the fact that the population was so low that the need for labor could not be fully satisfied. In 1949, the Ordinances of Laborers was legislated to enhance return to pre-plague wage levels but the efforts were all futile since the shortage for laborers was great. Consequently, wages increased even further. The landowners responded to the crisis by offering food, drink among other additional benefits to try and lure laborers. This implies that the Black Death was a blessing in disguise for the laborers who could survive the deadly plague.
Extensive land that was meant for farming and production of food could not be ploughed due to the high labor costs emanating from the acute shortage of laborers. Hence, this land was used for pasturing and not farming. The clothes and woolen industry got boosted as a result of the Black Death in England. Many landowners were also forced to lease their land since they were unable to get adequate rental income they expected. Besides, most peasants took advantage of the situation to benefit from better labor wages and also gained from additional employment opportunities with better wages. Despite the economic potentials and actual boom in the rural areas, some markets and towns still disappeared.
Most cities were significantly affected by the plague. As a result, financial business was interrupted as debtors succumbed to the disease leaving the creditors without any alternative to resort to. The construction projects that were ongoing either stalled or had to stop altogether even as guilds continued to lose their craftsmen day after another without replacements. The supply of goods in the market shot higher than the demand due to high mortality rates in England caused by the Black Death. Consequently, the price of goods declined heavily while the standard of living for the remnants rose.
The demographic features/aspects of England changed as a result of the Black Death. The plague killed 30-40% of the total population. This had significant effect on the population structure of England. England also registered mass exodus of the rural population to the cities and towns. This is because the landowners/lords continued to encourage the peasants to leave their villages and work for them for better payments. The landowners who remained in the countryside could thus not find enough laborers to work in their farms. Since the menace led to an acute shortage of labor and increase in wages, agricultural production declined. This led to food insecurity in some villages where agricultural activities stopped or stalled due to shortage of labor as people succumbed or migrated in response to the dreaded plague.
In some cases, it was suggested that moral degradation was the cause of the Black Death. On the part of the landowners, the rise of wages was an indicator of social uprisings and insubordination. Thus, they resorted to coercion to suppress the rising wages. However, this was not possible due to the social and economic realities that the entire population was gulping with. England also witnessed a sudden onset of persecutions especially the Jews and lepers. These populations were persecuted out of a false belief that they poisoned the water and air and spread the disease. Some were even exterminated from Europe, massacred, burned and in some cases drowned in marshes. These fatal attacks were executed in the false belief that the victims contributed to the spread of the deadly plague. On a general note, the pestilence transformed the mood of England population setting stage for a morbid mood. As a result, people became very pessimistic and lived for a moment with the future looking very unsecure and un-assured.
Political Consequences of the Black Death in England
As a result of the unfolding realities relating to labor, King Edward II passed the Ordinance of Laborers in 1349 in an attempt to fix wages at pre-plague levels. This had to be reinforced by the legislation of the Statute of Laborers in 1351. However, the legislations were very inefficient enhancing market regulation. As a result of excessive use of force, the government encountered public resentment which later led to the development of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. While trying to restore wages to the pre-plague levels, the government met very stiff opposition. The Peasants’ Revolt led to the killing of both Chancellor and Treasurer as peasants demanded total abolition of serfdom. Consequently, the serfdom was completely extinct in England by 1400 and instead replaced by a tenure system known as copyhold.
One of the greatest impacts of the Black Death in England was felt in the field of war. The government became incapable and could not finance its military strategies effectively due to the great depression that the military personnel were already suffering from as a result of deaths in the home country. Besides, the government lost the financial ability to effectively execute its military plans and strategies. In the long term, the Black Death led to the decline of the Feudal system which was effectively in operation before the onset of the plague. The government tried to contain it but could not, particularly because the landowners/lords promoted the system in a bid to access labor which was not only unavailable but also very expensive for those that could find laborers.
Religious Consequences of the Black Death in England
The Black Death occurred during the Middle Ages and had a great impact on the religious practices in England. The clergy got overwhelmed and could not continue leading the performance of last rites, live alone giving some aid to help the victims of the plague. There was a requirement that before death, people are given opportunity to confess their sins. This was officiated by the priests or the clergy. As a result of the swift rate at which the disease was spreading, the clergy even allowed the victims of the plague to engage in confessions of sin, one for another and in some cases to a woman. The situation was so bad that Pope Clement VI had to grant remission of sins especially to all those who died as a result of the Black Death. In the isolated places such as prisons and monasteries, the death rates were very high. In fact, existing records indicate that even the clergy who were supposed to lead confessions died of the plague. In a single year, it is recorded that two-thirds of the clergy actually succumbed to the fatal plague.
Many people frantically participated in the Dance of Death. This was an allegory that personified death and led to a row of dancing figures from various places and dancing all the way to the grave. The Dance of Death was performed in cemeteries, as others were celebrated privately in the Black Mass. In such instances, the dancers mimicked religion in a mad preoccupation with appeasement of the devil. The Church got alienated as many people resorted to other religious groups such as the Order of the Flagellants. Flagellants were involved in self-flogging which they believed offered atonement for sin. They could travel two by two in the streets, flogging each other with chains, whips and rods. Unfortunately, as they travelled from town to town spreading their new religion, they spread the disease even further. The clergy also organized public repentance meetings that aimed at appeasing God to remove the pestilence from the people after repentance. However, since the disease was contagious, the crowding during the penitence meetings contributed to further spread of the disease. On a general note, the Church was discredited and lost public confidence especially because of its position during the Black Death.
Cultural Consequences of the Black Death in England
Arts and culture in England greatly changed as a result of the Black Death. The European culture witnessed a sudden transformation and became largely morbid. In order to depict the general mood of pessimism caused by the plague, the arts were decorated with dark colors. Sculptors and painters started portraying dead and dying images in their artwork. Additionally, the attitude of people towards music and art changed due to the surrounding depression. During this time, the wealthy were willing to spend money on religious art for churches and even chapels throughout the land. The sculptors and artists therefore had a lot of sales during this menace. Besides, most decorations, paintings and cultural artworks displayed skeletons to depict the general lifeless nature of England after it got struck by the pestilence.
The Consequences of the Black Death and Medical Practices in England
The Black Death had a significant bearing on the medical treatment approaches of the medieval ages. Alchemy was a specialty and a common method of treatment during the breakout of the plague and even after. However, when the doctors realized that this specialty could not treat the disease that causes the Black Death, it started to lose popularity. In many cases where it was used, alchemy could not contain the spread of the epidemic. In fact, there are instances when the use of alchemy as a treatment practice against the Black Death only worsened the condition of the patients admitted for medical attention.
After the use of alchemy to treat patients who contracted the disease failed, the alchemist made liquor-distilled alcohol-to deal with the plague. However, this was also not successful and instead only led to the popularity and spread of alcohol consumption in the entire Europe during and after the period of the Black Death. The manner in which the doctors in the medieval ages responded to the Black Death is proofs that the menace was mysterious even to the medical practitioners. The disease was generally caused by contamination and poor sanitation. Since it was highly contagious, it could spread quickly in the crowded places, a simple understanding that even the doctors and the medical personnel then, could not reveal.
The Black Death was a plague that had significant impact in England. It had memorable but adverse consequences on the social, economic, political, cultural, religious and medical aspects of life in England. It is estimated that the plague swept approximately 30-40% of the total English population. The population structure, economic and political situation of England and the entire Europe got a sudden overhaul as a result of the menace. Although demographic data of England before, during, and after the plague gives estimations of the extent to which the plague affected the society, these may be just simple estimations or approximations and not the real depictions of the menace.
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