The Black Death was a pandemic of the bubonic (and possibly pneumonic) plague that devastated the population of Europe, and had major effects on western civilization. As much as one-third of Europe’s entire population was wiped out, with the death toll in local areas being much higher. The Black Death caused much social upheaval in Europe, as well as possibly fueling the early stages of the protestant reformation.
The plague was brought to Europe on Italian ships coming from Asia, where resistance had been built up. There was, however, no resistance in the people of Europe. As can be predicted, the mental state of people was severely impacted. People were dying everywhere, husbands, wives, sons, daughters; there was no escape from the death that surrounded everyone. Some believed the plague to be a punishment from God, or even the end of the world. There were people called the flagellants who whipped themselves in the streets to do penance for their sins and to appease God’s wrath. Some flagellants believed that only infant’s blood could appease God. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were people who indulged themselves in every way possible, for they knew that their lives would probably end soon. Very clearly, the mental state of the populace was severely damaged. One can only imagine how easy it would be to go insane with such inescapable grief, despair, and suffering from the death that loomed in everyone’s minds.
When the Black death reached England in 1349, and Scotland and Ireland in 1350, it lead to much social upheaval, culminating in what is known as the Great Revolt. In the confusion of the Black Death, many serfs and peasants simply left their lords’ lands, or died. This meant that lords and landowners were forced to hire workers for their land. Instead of providing feudal services, lords simply paid their workers money. With so little laborers available, anyone able to do work was in high demand, and demanded higher wages. Landowners were upset with the high wages being demanded, so in 1351 the Statute of Laborers was created by Edward III, limiting wages to no higher than in 1346, and establishing price controls for goods. In 1360, it was declared that peasants leaving the land without permission could be returned by force, and even branded. Understandably, the peasants were outraged by these events. The serfs wanted freedom from their feudal obligations, and the medieval towns wanted freedom and self-government. With the creation of the poll tax in 1381 in which everyone over 15 had to pay, the peasants revolted. They were fed up with the government, and annoyed with the defeats that they were suffering in the Hundred Years’ War, which they were funding with their taxes. The revolt was put down by Richard II, who executed over a hundred rebels, and imprisoned hundreds more. The effects of this revolt were great, and severely weakened the feudal system that had dominated Europe.
The Black Death wiped out almost half of the English clergy, and opened up many new offices that were quickly filled. The new clergymen in these offices were largely incompetent due to their hasty investment. Many later abuses were blamed on the unqualified holders of these offices. John Wycliff (1320-1384), a precursor to the protestant reformers, may have been influenced by the conduct of the clergy at this time. The Black Death may have been indirectly responsible for the ideas of John Wycliff, and subsequently those of the later reformers.
The Black Death was a terrible event that killed millions of people and had lasting effects on western civilization. It fueled the Great Revolt of 1381, an event that had major consequences for England; and it may have indirectly incited dislike against the clergy, that culminated, along with other things, in the protestant reformation.