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Impact of the Black Death on the Medieval Society

Essay Question: Explore the impact of the Black Death on medieval society and evaluate how it changed society.

Thesis Statement:The Black Death was a catastrophic pandemic in the 14th Century that was spread via infested rats; it swept across England, causing impacts so severe that almost a third of the population perished, the rate of social mobility increased, economic systems were shifted as insufficient workers led to high labor demands disrupting the feudal systems by giving workers more power to negotiate terms.

3. Introduction

Among the many disasters that have struck the planet and threatened the existence of humanity is the Black Death. Black Death was a devastating pandemic that struck medieval Europe during the 14th Century, altering the course of European society. It was discovered to be caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted via rats that were infested by fleas (Bailey, 2021). The primary symptoms of this disease were the formation of swollen and painful lymph nodes commonly called “buboes,” which turned necrotic and dark, causing a blackening of the skin and dark discoloration, hence the name “Black Death.” This name was, however, not used during the medieval age, but it was later coined by scholars and Historians to describe the impact of the disease. As one of the historians describes, “It first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg” (Simkin, 2016). As he adds, it spread through air or contact, “merely by speech or association with the sick was the disease communicated to the healthy… any that touched the clothes of the sick… seemed to catch the disease.” The disease is believed to have come from Central Asia and found its way to Europe through trading routes. It got to England in the 14th Century.

The Black Death had a staggering impact on European Medieval society. It led to a massive demographic decline as almost a third of the population succumbed. It was later estimated that it wiped out almost half of the population. Economically, the pandemic resulted in a significant loss of labor as many workers succumbed. This labor scarcity shifted the labor dynamics as workers gained the power to negotiate working terms and conditions. Many fields went unattended, adding to a great loss of farm yields (Bailey, 2021). The pandemic also enormously impacted the political sphere as the feudal systems were disrupted since depopulation destabilized the rural community. Socially, the pandemic increased social mobility as workers moved from one place to another, looking for a better working environment and running from infested areas. This essay aims to comprehensively delve into the demographic, economic, political, and social impact of the Black Death pandemic in England.

4. Demographic Impact

One of the most devastating impacts of the Black Death was the massive loss of lives; it is estimated that this pandemic led to almost the loss of half of the Population. Traditional historians like John Fordun, who authored the Chronicle of the Scottish Nation, claimed that “nearly a third of mankind died (Simkin, 2016). John Hatcher, by studying payment on death duties, estimated that between 50-60% died in seven manors. On the other hand,, Henry Knighton calculated that the Black Death claimed more than 50% of Leicester residents (Simkin, 2016). When the disease arrived first in the Port of Bristol in England, it killed almost 40% of the population. Recent research has revealed that the pandemic claimed almost half of the population (Gottfried, 2010). It was spread when fleas infected the black rats and bite people. The first symptoms included tiredness, high body fever, shivering, and pain. It then advanced to small red boils in the armpit, groin, or on the neck. These lumps were commonly known as buboes; they grew bigger and darker. It is recorded that, in some instances, they reached the size of apples. Finally, small red spots appeared around the stomach and other body parts due to internal bleeding. Death followed afterward. It was estimated that one had a 60% chance of dying 2 to 5 days after infection (Snowden, 2019). The high death rates made villages and towns in England decimated as many succumbed to the deadly disease.

The high death rate was because the Black Death was highly infectious. It spreads through the air or comes in contact with the infected person. People are caught mostly by inhaling the bacilli from an infected person’s cough. Another reason why many people died is because there was not much tthe medical doctors could dotors; this made many vulnerable to the disease (Platt, 2014). The recommended treatment methods, like lancing the buboes, were not so effective as the person treating them could easily be infected. The existing healthcare facilities, medical knowledge, and expertise did not offer much to rescue the situation. The massive death led to a reduction in the number of laborers. In England, many farms went untilled and unharvested. Knighton states, “Many villages and hamlets became deserted… Sheep and cattle went wandering over fields and through crops, and there was no one to go and look after them” (Simkin, 2016). Those who did not die of infection were at risk of dying due to starvation. There were so many food shortages, and the available food became expensive. Knighton adds, “In the following autumn, no one could get a reaper for less than 8d. with his food, a mower for less than 12d. With his food. Therefore, many crops perished in the fields for want of someone to gather them.” As death cases increased, other societal spheres like the economy, politics, and society were disrupted, as will be discussed in the sections that will follow.

Black Death Symptoms

Figure 1:Black Death Symptoms

5. Socio-cultural Impact

The Black Death led to irrevocable changes in social structure, cultural systems, and religious orientations. In England, to be precise, demographic changes led to family and community disintegration and altered the power dynamics. The social fabric was strained as families and communities struggled with the loss of loved ones. Furthermore, Families and communities split as people abandoned their families and friends, fled out of towns and villages, and shut off from the world (Courie, 2010). With a significant reduction of people, the surviving workers found themselves in an elevated position of newfound importance. Traditionally, workers and peasants were at the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. They were subject to oppression and mistreatment without the power to complain. However, the population decline raised their demand, enhancing their authority to negotiate better work terms and conditions. This social upheaval led to the recalibration of the traditional social norms.

There was also a heavy shaking of Religion as most Christians believed that it was a punishment from God. The Priests claimed that it was punishment for what religion considered ungodly, such as drinking and swearing too much. As a result, they imposed self-punishment practices (Platt, 2014). This led to the rise of flagellant processions, which involved whipping each other in public. Robert of Avesbury writes, “ Each wore a cap marked with a red cross in front and behind. Each had in his right hand a scourge with three nails” (Simkin, 2016). However, this did not go so well, as many began to lose their faith in religious systems. England lost almost half of its priests; this weakened the belief of many against the explanations given by the priests. The death of clergy members weakened the ability of the church to provide spiritual support and guidance. There was, therefore, a heavy blow to England’s church and Class systems (Iumen, 2020). As people saw the futility of organized religion in stopping the plague, many resolved to philosophy and thought.

The medieval culture in England was also shaken by the Black Death pandemic, leading to more despair and preoccupation with mortality. The massive decline in population altered cultural practices and norms. The aftermath was a complete shift in cultural practices like marriage norms. As Bailey notes, “Changes in marriage patterns, such as a delay in the age of first marriage and an increase in female celibacy, have been observed in some areas, which has led to a decrease in the natural rate of increase in fertility” (Bailey, 2021). The culture of work shifted as laborers gained more power. There was also a shift in cultural literature and art. Most works of art and literature reflected the themes of decay, fragility of life, and death. The common tone and mood were pessimism, introspectiveness, and darkness (Iumen, 2020). Cultural norms and values drastically changed. Traditional collectivism began to fade away as people embraced individualism, making them separate from their families and move to safer places of work and hiding.

6. Economic Impact

The Black Death pandemic severely impacted England’s economy; it deteriorated the country’s GDP, trade sector, agricultural sector, and commercial sector and lowered the living standards of many. There was a significant contraction in England’s GDP during and after the Back Death pandemic. The massive decline in population reduced the labor force, thus significantly disrupting economic activities. Low production levels plummeted GDP per capita. At the advent of the Pandemic in England in 1348, the wages of both skilled and unskilled workers were reduced by almost 20%, which went on for two years. GDP decreased from 6% between 1348 and 1349 (Jedwab et al., 2020).

The rural community also faced profound challenges due to the pandemic. This was the backbone of the Medieval English economy. The wake of the Black death immediately led to a labor shortage as workers died, and others abandoned fields to look for safety. Agricultural productivity was at stake since most peasants quit working. The remaining ones gained more bargaining power. England witnessed empty fields and unharvested crops (Bailey, 2021). Labor shortage led to increased food prices, leading to hunger and starvation. As the labor demands arose, worker mobility increased as they moved from one place to another, searching for better opportunities. One farmer from Kent, John Gower, wrote, “The shepherd and the cowherd demand more wages now than the master-bailiff… labourers are now such a price that, when we must use them, where we were wont to spend two shillings we must now spend five or six… They work little, dress and feed like their betters, and ruin stares us in the face” (Simkin, 2016). Changes in agricultural dynamics declined economic productivity and shifted agricultural practices and land-use patterns. The pandemic events propelled innovation as farmers shifted to animal husbandry from grain farming since animal husbandry did not require as many workers as grain farming.

The blow in the rural community directly led to major setbacks in the trade and commercial sectors. The extreme and abrupt inflation hindered the procurement of goods. The pandemic hindered trading activities as prices of locally produced and imported goods skyrocketed (Iumen, 2020). The scarcity of workers increased labor demand to the extend that serfs were no longer subject to one master. The lords adjusted their terms to accommodate peasants. The production, transportation, and distribution of goods were disrupted, crippling the entire supply chain. The International trade relations between England and other European countries were also hampered. Beef and Butter exports from countries such as Germany and Scandinavia stopped (Courie, 2010). England’s economy was reshaped as international commerce failed. Labor policies in England failed as King Edward tried to enforce the Statute of Laboureres, which demanded that a peasant could not ask for more wages than before the pandemic (Simkin, 2016). However, this utterly failed despite the parliament’s increasing penalties thereof.

Another economic impact of the Black Death Pandemic was that people’s living standards were affected. Income distribution was disrupted, the supply of goods was limited, and prices rose. The ripple effect was a severe food shortage due to low production (Iumen, 2020). Although to peasants whose wages increased, there was a notable increase in living standards, the middle class and upper class of the society had to live below their normal incomes. The great social divide between the rich and the poor narrowed. This wealth redistribution negatively impacted the English economy since employees were at the mercy of their employers.

7. Political Impact

Many historians have considered the Black Death pandemic as the political catalyst for a shift from the feudal system to primitive capitalism. The rising demand for laborers shifted the traditional feudal hierarchy, which had ruling elites control the market and wages. As workers’ bargaining power rose, new economic dynamics arose as they began to play vital roles in controlling labor and trade. Another component of the feudal system that was suppressed was the traditional agricultural land use. As the worker’s wages increased, most migrated to urban centers, abandoning lands. This shifted the focus from an agrarian economy to a more market-oriented one (Dimmock, 2014). The commercially oriented society overwhelmed the demands of the feudal systems; this was a great signal towards capitalism.

The Black Death pandemic also catalyzed great political instability in England. Firstly, the political instability was caused by the labor shifts which distributed market power to workers. Secondly, there were also instances of violence against the Jewish communities in England. As people tried to find answers, an allegation arose against the Jews as the source of the pandemic (Courie, 2010). Some said the poisoning of the wells by the Jews was the cause of the pandemic. This led to a civil war across Europe, leading to the destruction of Jewish towns and homes. Some reports claimed more than 2000 Jews were killed across Europe (Courie, 2010). Even though King Edward III issued the Statute of Laborers in an attempt to protect the Jews, it was not comprehensive enough, and more Jews continued to die.

Another political impact of the Black Death was the political resistance due to demographic changes. The population changes directly impacted the political orientation of medieval England. As the traditional feudal system was crushed, great political resistance arose, especially from the workers. All the policies that King Edward III tried to enforce to regulate the bargaining power of employees faced strong resistance and opposition. The 1377 Poll Tax is an example of the political responses after the Pandemic to regulate labor by imposing taxes (Cohn, 2013). It encountered strong opposition, which resulted in movements like the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt.

8. Conclusion

In conclusion, the Black Death pandemic left an unerasable memory of medieval history. England bears the indelible marks of this disastrous pandemic. Its impacts were far-reaching, stretching beyond demography to economic, socio-cultural, and political spheres. It reshaped the entire foundations of the English medieval age. Demographically, the pandemic accounted for a loss of almost half of the population. This created new labor dynamics, which shifted the feudal economic, cultural, and political systems. Economically, the pandemic led to a labor shortage, which gave workers more bargaining power. The pandemic also crippled international and local trading activities as production declined due to deserted fields. This raised the cost of living for most middle-class and upper-class individuals. The socio-cultural impact of the pandemic included cultural disintegrations and religious disorientation. Politically, the pandemic shifted power dynamics and evoked violence and strong political resistance.

9. References

Bailey, M., 2021. After the Black Death: Economy, society, and the law in fourteenth-century England. Oxford University Press.

Cohn Jr, S.K., 2013. From the Black Death to 1378. In Popular protest in late-medieval Europe (pp. 87-142). Manchester University Press.

Courie, L. (2010). Decameron Web | Plague. [online] Available at:

Dimmock, S., 2014. The origin of capitalism in England, 1400–1600 (Vol. 74). Brill.

Gottfried, R.S. (2010). Black Death. [online] Google Books. Simon and Schuster. Available at:

Jedwab, R., Johnson, N.D. and Koyama, M. (2020). The Economic Impact of the Black Death. SSRN Electronic Journal, [online] 60(1). doi:

Lumen (2020). The Black Death | Western Civilization. [online] Available at:

Platt, C., 2014. King Death: The Black Death and its aftermath in late-medieval England. Routledge.

Simkin, J. (2016). The Black Death. [online] Spartacus Educational. Available at:

Snowden, F.M., 2019. Epidemics and society: From the black death to the present. Yale University Press.


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