In the middle decades of the 14th century much of the earth’s populations were visited by one of those events of such magnitude that it would change forever the course of human history. The lives taken would be so great in number that only a century later would there be a numerical “recovery”. Even then virtually every aspect of life on earth, including the institutions and very character of human existence from religion, commerce and government to a sense of man’s relationship to the powers of “nature” would have been largely changed. It is known to history as The Black Death, a term which is both miss-applied and incorrect; it wasn’t used until a century had passed and even then had nothing to do with the color of its victims but was descriptive of the terrible nature of the event. During the siege itself it was most often spoken of as the Great Mortality. With only small differences from one country to another, it is known to have taken the lives of 40-50% of the inhabitants of Medieval Europe which stood at about 150 million in 1346. By 1353 that number was down to 70 or 75 million, and in some places it wouldn’t recover until the 1700s!
Today it is most often spoken of as the Bubonic Plague in recognition of a physical symptom often present in victims; the swellings which appeared at the site of lymph nodes, under the arms and in the groin area were known as buboes. The medical world today would classify the event as a Pandemic because of its highly contagious nature and the way in which it spread so widely and so rapidly. We also know that the bacterium (Yersinia pestis,) the likely culprit, is also zoonotic in that it travels on animals before making the leap to humans.
This is a BIG story, and not easily told in a weekly-column format. It seems important therefore that we take some time to consider the time and geography as well as the demographics of what we call the Medieval world. Historians like to point to three over-arching similarities to define the lands and people of the Medieval “world”: Christian, Agrarian and Feudal. Allowing for some degrees of variation these categories of life held sway. After centuries of the reign of the Holy Roman Empire (not so much political as ecclesiastical,) Christianity was fairly wide-spread and agriculture was the dominant day-to-day activity of the people. Although the people would not have thought of themselves as peasants or pawns, the system which employed them was “feudal” inasmuch as most of the land they farmed was owned by others. As was so intrinsically true in England, there existed three divisions of class into which people were born and lived their lives, and from which there was virtually no escape short of a “miracle marriage”. (Or as we shall see a plague.) As a division of society it could be said there were those who fight, those who pray and those who work, with the nobles owning, managing and defending the designated section of land, infrastructure, and inhabitants; the priests, monks and nuns praying for the common good, safety and success, and the workers (90%) farming and producing for all.
You got to be of the noble class by the right of primogeniture (fortunate birth.) If you were a younger son of a noble, you joined the clergy and became educated and powerful. The Church was wealthier and owned more property than any other segment of society. If you were a fortunate daughter you married a worthy cousin or became a nun. The largest demographic group was those who worked the land for the gentry, in return for the security of a place to live and a portion of ground on which to raise your own food and small livestock. You and your offspring were responsible for the care and keeping of that allotment, and sometimes you might be able to earn a piece of it through an indenture.
But change was happening. A “new” class was rising and threatening to change the age-old balance: the merchant/business class including those who were able to provide a needed product or service in a world which was already becoming more technologically-inclined and transportation -hungry. In time they might well challenge the upper class in pursuit of wealth and prominence.
NEXT WEEK: FROM OUT OF NOWHERE- THE GREAT PLAGUE