World History 1 258 - 16.3.3 The Black Death in Europe

As the plague began wreaking havoc in the Mamluk Sultanate, it was also making its way to the ports of Europe via Silk Roads trade caravans and merchant ships sailing the Black Sea in 1346–1347. After striking the Mongol-controlled cities of Astrakhan and Sarai (in present-day Russia), when bales of flea-infested marmot fur were unloaded, the plague then traveled down the River Don, where it reached the city of Caffa (present-day Feodosiya, Ukraine), a center of trade on the Crimean Peninsula.

The plague’s entry point into Europe, Caffa was also the site of a Mongol siege targeting Genoese traders who had taken refuge in the city. Gabriele de Mussis, an Italian notary clerk who witnessed the siege, wrote a gruesome account of the Mongols’ efforts to launch plague-ridden corpses into the city. Although its reliability is difficult to establish, the story nevertheless demonstrates that even though the role of microbes was not yet known, dead bodies were believed to be sources of contagion. But the plague was most likely spread to Caffa by flea-infested rats independent of the Mongol siege. Caffa had long served as an important administrative center of Genoese trade, and its port was a major hub of merchant activity.

From Caffa, the plague made its way to Italy in the summer of 1347, when plague-bearing rats boarded ships headed across the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, and onward to the ports of Messina and Genoa. From there, the disease was carried to the port of Marseilles and spread into the European interior along rivers, paths, and roads, leaving perhaps as many as twenty-four million dead, roughly 30 percent of the continent’s population at the time.

The plague’s arrival in Europe occurred after a period of economic contraction following a series of famines and crop failures earlier in the fourteenth century. In the early 1300s, a rising population and a relative decline in agricultural productivity had created an economic crisis and falling standards of living for all but the most privileged elites. For the vast majority of people living at the lower end of the economic spectrum, falling wages led to limited resources, poorer diets, and widespread malnourishment. Well before the plague’s arrival in the 1340s, the European population was reeling from years of economic decline and poor nutrition, which may have weakened immune systems and made some people more vulnerable to attacks of infectious disease.

In addition to the demographic and economic impacts of the Black Death era, modes of artistic and literary expression were significantly transformed in response to the plague’s devastation. In the visual arts, the fears engendered by the omnipresence of death and decay initiated a new emphasis on realism that grappled with themes of salvation and mortality. Macabre representations of deathbed scenes and dancing skeletons became especially prominent reminders of the inevitability of death and fears of hell and damnation (Figure 16.14). Although the visual iconography of death reflected the collective cultural trauma associated with the plague, it also served as a potent reminder to celebrate life in the face of it.

A black drawing is shown on a stark white background. Two skeletons are shown with wispy hair holding hands dancing in the middle on cobbled ground. To their left a skeletal figure stands in a long robe playing an oboe type instrument. At the right, another skeletal faced figure with scraggly long hair stands holding hands with the dancing skeleton on the right. This figure is showing their inside organs and in their left hand they are holding some of their intestines. Along the bottom of the image a skeleton with one arm raised lies on the dark ground covered with a long sheet, part of which hangs off of the skeletal figure at the left playing the instrument.
Figure 16.14 This fifteenth-century woodcut image from the Nuremburg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel depicts Death dancing and celebrating. The personification of death as a dancing skeleton became a common theme in late medieval Europe that reflects the psychological toll of the Black Death. (credit: “The Dance of Death” by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Medieval writers also sought to make sense of the Black Death by documenting the experience of living through the pandemic and exploring themes of transience and mortality. For example, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous collection of novellas, The Decameron, a fictional group of young men and women taking refuge from the plague in a villa outside Florence pass the time by trading stories that reflect upon love, loss, and the vagaries of fortune. The Decameron also calls attention to larger social responses engendered by the plague’s demographic devastation, such as the growing prominence of merchants due to the continued growth of global trade and people’s loss of confidence in the European Christian Church.

Link to Learning

Some of the stories that make up Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron can be read at the Project Gutenberg website.

Although the Christian Church remained a bastion of spiritual solace for many during the Black Death, social responses to the plague in medieval Europe ranged from increased piety to hedonism to resigned acceptance of inevitable death. Those who could afford to do so fled the crowded urban centers, but most did not have this luxury. Medieval European cities remained hotbeds of infection despite the efforts of some Italian cities to impose quarantine and travel restrictions. Some cities even closed markets and prohibited gatherings for funerals; others required the removal of the infected to plague hospitals. Lacking a germ theory of contagion, however, medical practitioners were unable to fully explain or remedy the plague, although centuries of early scientific observations led many to attempt the techniques and approaches that had served in outbreaks of other diseases. Failing to fully grasp how and why the disease was spreading, however, many of the devout turned to the clergy, who were also dying in record numbers, mostly because of their efforts to care for the sick. But they too were unable to prevent the plague’s relentless toll.

Although some blamed the plague on earthquakes, astrological forces, or poisonous fog, most people in Christian Europe agreed it was a sign of God’s displeasure. In some towns, the belief that communities had to be purged of “morally contaminating people” such as prostitutes and beggars also led to the scapegoating of Jewish people, who were falsely accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells. Regardless of the fact that their communities also suffered from the plague, Jewish people faced widespread persecution, escalating in several cities to full-blown massacres (Figure 16.15). Driven by the fire-and-brimstone dogmatism of late medieval Christianity, those who led the persecution of marginalized populations sought to placate God by building churches, developing cults to plague saints like Saint Roche, and hunting heretics and outsiders they believed had provoked divine displeasure.

A black and white image is shown in a decorated frame with leaves at the corners and in the middle. At the left, a tower of a castle is seen with portions of two other towers in the far background. A large group of people stands wearing dark clothes, helmets and hats, and some holding spears. One man in the front with a beard and curly hair holds a stick and hits at a group of six seemingly naked people hidden in a bush. To the right of the bush, a man in a long shirt and black shoes holds four sticks over his head and has an open mouth looking down at the bush. Behind him are seen four obscure people and one man behind him leans over with crossed arms resting on the bush. The ground and background is dark and smudged.
Figure 16.15 This image from a fourteenth-century Belgian manuscript shows Jewish people being burned alive on false accusations of spreading the plague. The anti-Semitism inflamed by the Black Death in many parts of medieval Europe sometimes had deadly consequences, and the scapegoating of Jewish and other marginalized communities led to full-blown massacres at times. (credit: modification of work “Burning of Jews during the Black Death epidemic, 1349” by Bibliothèque royale de Belgique from A History of the Jewish People by H.H. Ben-Sasson/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Strasbourg during the Black Death

This excerpt from The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1349 describe the destruction of the Jewish community in Strasbourg in the time of the Black Death and how city authorities who attempted to defend the city’s Jewish population were overwhelmed by an angry mob.

In the year 1349 there occurred the greatest epidemic that ever happened. Death went from one end of the earth to the other, on that side and this side of the sea, And from what this epidemic came, all wise teachers and physicians could only say that it was God’s will.

In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells—that is what they were accused of—and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there.

Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen [Switzerland] who then admitted that they had put poison into many wells, and they also found the poison in the wells. Thereupon they burnt the Jews in many towns and wrote of this affair to Strasbourg, Freiburg, and Basel in order that they too should burn their Jews. But the leaders in these three cities in whose hands the government lay did not believe that anything ought to be done to the Jews. However in Basel the citizens marched to the city-hall and compelled the council to take an oath that they would burn the Jews, and that they would allow no Jew to enter the city for the next two hundred years. Thereupon the Jews were arrested in all these places and a conference was arranged to meet at Benfeld Alsace, February 8, 1349. The Bishop of Strasbourg [Berthold II], all the feudal lords of Alsace, and representatives of the three above mentioned cities came there. The deputies of the city of Strasbourg were asked what they were going to do with their Jews. They answered and said that they knew no evil of them. Then they asked the Strasbourgers why they had closed the wells and put away the buckets, and there was a great indignation and clamor against the deputies from Strasbourg. So finally the Bishop and the lords and the Imperial Cities agreed to do away with the Jews. The result was that they were burnt in many cities, and wherever they were expelled they were caught by the peasants and stabbed to death or drowned.

The Cremation of Strasbourg Jewry St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1349

  • According to this source, why did the people of Strasbourg seek to destroy the city’s Jewish population in response to the plague?
  • Why might a minority community like Strasbourg’s Jews become a scapegoat? What does this excerpt suggest about Jewish-Christian relations in this period?

The desperation and zealotry that inspired some responses to the plague in medieval Europe are perhaps best seen in the appearance of flagellants, people who believed that by publicly flogging themselves, they could atone for the sins of humanity and mitigate divine retribution. After this idea originated in Eastern Europe and took root in Germany, the flagellants traveled from town to town, reciting penitential verses and lashing themselves with leather whips until they drew blood. They were usually welcomed by townspeople who hoped they could bring an end to the plague epidemic. Occasionally, their rhetoric took an anti-Semitic turn, accusing the Jewish people of causing the plague to annihilate Christendom. The flagellants were active through much of Europe in the early years of the plague pandemic and may have even spread the disease through their contaminated blood. As a result of their increasingly radical orientation, however, by 1349 flagellants had been officially condemned by Pope Clement VI, and they ultimately faded into oblivion in the fifteenth century.

The plague left each region it affected with long-term economic and demographic consequences, including widespread depopulation and cyclic outbreaks of the disease in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Old systems of belief came into question, and ancient social hierarchies shifted to accommodate the significant population losses that followed the plague. Peasants, laborers, and those at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy tended to experience the greatest mortality, but for those who survived, pronounced labor shortages led to the demise of some industries and more favorable working conditions in others. The disadvantaged began to question whether social elites really did enjoy God’s privilege, as the social hierarchy generally preached, since they too succumbed to the plague and failed to care for those to whom they bore responsibility.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax