I thought today that I would take the chance to respond to a request made by my sister-in-law a few weeks ago that I write a post about the plague and its profound effects on Europe’s social outlook in the subsequent decades.
Unsurprisingly for such a cataclysmic period in the history of the late Middle Ages, the effects of the plague are well documented. Most evocative is the description written in the introductory section of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which captures the horror and helplessness of the disease’s progress through Florence, Italy.
“These things, and many others of a similar or even worse nature,” he writes, “caused various fears and fantasies to take root in the minds of those who were still alive and well. And almost without exception, they took a single and very inhuman precaution, namely to avoid or run away from the sick and their belongings, by which means they all thought that their own health would be preserved….
…What more remains to be said, except that the cruelty of heaven, (and possibly in some measure, also that of man) was so immense and so devastating that between March and July of the year in question, what with the fury of the pestilence and the fact that so many of the sick were inadequately cared for or abandoned in their hour of need because the healthy were too terrified to approach them, it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence.”
From his descriptions, it’s easy to understand how the psychological impact of the plague altered mediaeval attitudes towards death and ushered in an intense period of literary and artistic focus on the subject. Outside of these widely known repercussions, however, the plague of 1348 and its subsequent incarnations also had a huge impact upon the European economy, creating social tensions and new economic relationships.
These difficulties began before the plague itself, since by the opening of the 14th century, Europe’s population reached an all-time high. The glut of labourers, combined with the shortage of land and the specialisation of agriculture, lead to a series of famines. In 1315-1317, for example, Flanders suffered a famine in which up to 15% of the population died. Despite these disasters, however, Europe’s population remained high.
When the plague decimated the continent, therefore, its death toll, estimated by some to be as high as 60%, had a huge impact upon agriculture and labour relations which reverberated throughout the social structure. For example, an estimated 200,000 villages situated on marginal land across Europe were abandoned as peasants claimed more productive lands from the dead. This increased availability of land, combined with a shortage of labour, meant that real wages for peasants rose and that the price of food began to fall.
As you can imagine, however, the improvement in living standards for peasants resulted in a reduction in the profits of landlords, who by this time owned a substantial part of Europe’s arable land and leased it under onerous conditions to tenants. In England, these land-owning elites attempted to restore their idea of social balance through legislating in the mediaeval parliament. One of their efforts, the Statute of Labourers of 1351, opens like this:
“Whereas late against the malice of servants, which were idle and not willing to serve after the pestilence without taking excessive wages, it was ordained by our lord the king, and by the assent of the prelates, nobles, and others of this council, that such manner of servants, as well men as women, should be bound to serve, receiving salary and wages, accustomed in places where they ought to serve…”
In the Statute, land-owners tried to fix wages at pre-plague levels, confine labourers to localities (to prevent drain to higher-wage areas,) and mandated harsh punishments to those who disobeyed.
Throughout the next few decades, popular revolts would spark throughout Europe. In northern France, it was the Jacquerie of 1358, a violent uprising which protested the wars between England and France and the heavy financial burden they inflicted on the peasantry. England’s turn came in 1381, when defeats on the war-front and oppressive taxes turned into a full-scale revolt in the south. In Florence, the 1370’s saw the Tumult of the Ciompi, during which disenfranchised wool-workers sought to establish an urban government of labourers.
These, and other smaller movements, flared across the continent as a response both to the improved economic expectations of the lower orders and the continued oppression of governing elites. Together, they have earned the late 14th and early 15th centuries the name ‘Age of Revolts’, and they demonstrate how Europe-wide phenomena and local conditions collided to create social upheaval on a scale unprecedented in the Middle Ages.
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, ed. and trans. G.H. McWilliam (Penguin, 1972).
The extract from the Statute of Labourers was taken from Albert Beebe White and Wallace Notestein (eds.) Source Problems in English History, (New York, 1915).
For a general history of the Age of Revolts, see M. Mollat and P.Wolff, The Popular Revolutions of the Later Middle Ages, (1973).