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Black Death Final

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Black Death Coming out of the East, the Black Death reached the shores of Italy in the spring of 1348 unleashing a rampage of death across Europe unprecedented in recorded history. By the time the epidemic played itself out three years later, anywhere between twenty-five percent and fifty percent of Europe's population had fallen victim to the pestilence. The Black Death will forever go down in history as a great turning point for civilization. Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all luxury would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and other pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people's houses, doing only those things which pleased them. This they could easily do because everyone felt doomed and had abandoned their property, so that most houses became common property and any stranger who went in made use of them as if he had owned them. The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or even explain the plague. In fact, most thought it spread somehow through air, calling it miasma. This increased doubt in the clergy's abilities. Extreme alienation of the church culminated in either support for different religious groups, such as the flagellants, which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death, or to an increase in interest for more secular alternatives to problems facing European society and an increase of secular politicians. The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their close quarters and their kindness in helping the sick, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of new clergy members, most of whom did not share the life-long convictions and experiences of the veterans they replaced. This resulted in abuses by the clergy in years afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people. Historians often divide European history into periods before and after the plague. There are several persuasive reasons for doing so. First, the population declined sharply—and then rebounded. Both the loss and the replenishment of the population had significant effects on all aspects of society, from agriculture to family structure to military adventuring. Second, influential writers, such as the English clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), would propose that overpopulation produces its own remedy through epidemic, famine, and other means. Some areas of Europe might have been considered ripe for mass death because agricultural production had not kept up with population growth. The overpopulation theory has been criticized as inadequate to explain the catastrophic effects of the Black Death. Nevertheless, concerns about overpopulation in more recent times were foreshadowed by analysis of the plague years. Third, feudalism—the political and social structure then prevalent in Europe—may have been the underlying cause of the mass mortality. A few people had everything; most people had very little. Those born into the lower classes had little opportunity for advancement. This situation perpetuated a large underclass of mostly illiterate people with limited skills, thereby also limiting technological and cultural progress. Furthermore, the feudal system was showing signs of collapsing from within in the years preceding the Black Death. In his 1995 book The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy explained: The basic unit of production was the small peasant farm, worked with an essentially stagnant technique. The only growth the system allowed was . . . the multiplication of farm units . . . subject to the law of diminishing returns. As cultivation extended onto poorer soils, so the returns to the average family farm necessarily diminished. . . . As peasant income diminished, they paid lower and lower rents. . . . The lords took to robbery and pillage . . . and also hired themselves out as mercenaries . . . and pressured their overlords, notably the king, to wage wars against their neighbors. (Herlihy 1995, p. 36) The almost continuous wars of the Middle Ages were attempts by hard-pressed nobles to snatch wealth from each other as well as grab whatever the peasants had left. The decline and crisis of the feudal system, then, probably did much to make people especially vulnerable to the plague, while the aftereffects of the plague would make feudal society even more of a losing proposition. Finally, the devastating and immediate impact of the Black Death prepared the way for a reconstruction of society. Deserted towns and vacant church and governmental positions had to be filled with new people. At first the demand was specific: more physicians, more clergy, and—of special urgency—more gravediggers were needed. The demand for new people to move into key positions throughout society opened the door for many who had been trapped in the ancient feudal system. It was also a rare opportunity for women to be accepted in positions of responsibility outside of the home (e.g., as witnesses in court proceedings). People who lacked "social connections" now could find more attractive employment; merit had started to challenge social class membership. These developments fell far short of equality and human rights as understood today, but they did result in significant and enduring social change.

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