The Black Death

Introduction to the Black Death

  • The Black Death refers to the devastating plague that struck England between 1348 and 1350.
  • It originated from Asia and spread across Europe via Italian merchants.
  • The disease was highly contagious, spread through flea-infested rats and person-to-person contact.
  • It is estimated that the Black Death killed between one-third to one-half of the population in England.

Symptoms and Public Response

  • The symptoms included painful swellings (buboes), fever, and vomiting, often leading to death within a week.
  • The public response to the plague was one of fear and confusion. With no understanding of contagion, people turned to religious explanations and superstitions.
  • Some believed it was the punishment from God, leading to penitential processions and the persecution of marginalised groups.
  • Those who could afford to, isolated themselves in an attempt to escape the disease, a primitive form of quarantine.

Impact on Society and Economy

  • With massive population loss, England faced a severe labour shortage in agriculture.
  • As a result, surviving peasants could demand higher wages, upsetting the feudal system.
  • The Statute of Labourers (1351) attempted to freeze wages at pre-plague levels, but it proved largely ineffective.
  • The upheaval contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, as labourers sought better working conditions and rights.

Aftermath and Legacy of the Black Death

  • The reduced population led to land availability and better living conditions for the survivors.
  • The plague returned in waves throughout the late 14th and 15th centuries, although none as deadly as the first.
  • The Black Death brought about a shift in cultural attitudes towards life and death, reflected in art and literature.
  • Overall, the plague went on to redefine England’s social structure, economy, and relationship with the Church.