Black Death Essay

Submitted By npoore84
Words: 2285
Pages: 10

Nichole Poore
Hist 4440
Mid-Term Essay
October 7th, 2006

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ introduction to his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, describes the lives of the peasantry in Europe between 1300 to 1650. For many peasants, their lives could be depicted as overwhelming, depressing, discouraging, and hopeless; yet, many events during these 350 years opened up opportunities for the peasantry to improve their lives. Events ranging from the Hundred Years War to the Black Death, and up until the beginning years of the Renaissance, changed the lives of the peasantry dramatically, all for the better. Before the Black Death reached Europe, peasants’ lives were very difficult. They usually never left the manor on which they served without the master’s permission. It was illegal for them to even move to another city or manor, if they so desired. They were forced to pay rent to their landlords for the land they cultivated themselves. In addition to the rent that was required of them, “they were also required to provide free labor on the lands used by the lord, known as a demesne.”[1] Although there were rewards to living on a manor, the peasantry had more advantages when the manorial system began to break down at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Even though the nobility still dominated rural Europe, peasants were beginning to move out of their status as servants. The Black Death, striking Italy in 1347, was one of the events that began to shape the lives of the peasantry. It is seen throughout history as one of the worst epidemics to ever hit the European nations. Later it became known as “the greatest natural catastrophe ever to strike Europe and one of the greatest catastrophes in world history.”[2] The population is estimated to have declined between thirty to forty percent during the fifteenth century or in other words, one-third of the population became deceased. Survival became the central issue for peasantry. The Black Death first arrived in Italy in 1347 when a fleet of Genoese merchant ships sailed into port. Although harbormasters attempted to turn the ships away from port, they were docked long enough to allow rats carrying the infected fleas ashore. Within days, many died, others fleeing the city carrying the disease with them. By 1348 the plague reached northern Europe. The peasants of France were already in a demoralized state due to the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Their possessions were being taken daily, along with the pillaging of their villages. The French and English had already destroyed many of their crops and fields; and when the plague struck, they began to believe that the plague was the final act of God to utterly destroy them. “France suffered a fifty percent death rate and in some cities, as high as seventy percent.”[3] The death of such a high number of people in such a short time left a shortage in labor and not enough people to purchase the goods produced. The plague manifested itself in three different forms: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic. The first form, pneumonic, was the most common type to infect all classes. The pneumonic plague struck the respiratory system and was usually “spread by coughing.”[4] The lungs fill with inflammation causing the person to become pale and then turn blue as they gasp for air. “The victim’s cough is full of bloody sputum, including air-borne bacteria. 95% of those infected directly might die.”[5] The second type, bubonic, was the least common type. This particular form “attacks the lymph system”[6] making itself known as lymph nodes swell, most commonly in the groin area and armpits. “Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing purplish patches on the skin to appear.”[7] The third form, septicemic, affects the circulatory system. When a flea, or even a rat infected with bacteria causing the plague, bit a human, some bacteria could enter directly into the bloodstream. So many perished that