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The black deaths influence on medieval society


The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague, or the Bubonic

Plague killed one third of the population of Europe during its reign in the

13th and 14th centuries. The arrival of this plague set the scene for years

of strife and heroism. Leaving the social and economic aspect in a

standstill. The phantom of death became a subject of art, music and

folklore and it influenced the consciousness of the people. The impact of

this mass killer caused enormous chaos and havoc to the Medieval

society because of its unknown origin, the unknown causes and

preventions, its deathly symptoms and its breakdown of orderly life,

therefore religion was greatly affected and changed.

In 1347, a Tartar army under Kipchak khan Janibeg had been

besieging the Genoese cathedral city and trading ports of Caffa on the

Black Sea for a year. A deadly, ruthless plague hit the besieging army

and was killing off soldiers at an unstoppable rate. It was plain to Janibeg

Khan that he must call off the siege. But before he decided to retreat, he

wanted to give the defenders a taste of what his army was suffering. So

Janibeg used giant catapults to hurl the rotting corpses of the plagued

victims over the walls of the town. By this means the infection spread

among the Genoese defenders. Before long the Genoese were dying

from the plague as fast as the Tartars on the outside. A few who thought

themselves free of plague took to their ships and headed for the

Mediterranean. The deathly disease was unleashed at every port the ship

and its crew set foot on. The trading routes contributed to the spread of

the disease throughout the continent. In October of 1347, several Italian

merchant ships returned from a trip to the Black Sea. These ships carried

a cargo of flea infested rats, which had guts full of the bacillus Yersinia

pestis (the bacteria which causes the plague). Inspectors attempted to

quarantine the fleet, but it was too late. Realizing what a deadly disaster

had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from their city.

But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers

abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills

for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and

monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken,

too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give

them a Christian burial. The terror of this seemingly unstoppable march of

death was the unknown nature of its origin. The absence of an identifiable

earthly cause gave the plague supernatural and sinister quality.

The plague had stunned Europe and everywhere people were

desperate for explanations and answers to their many questions. Most

explanations were based on folklore, superstition, and rumor. Blame was

frequently placed on travelers and other suspicious outsiders. Some

blamed invisible particles carried in the wind, others talked of poisoned

wells. An earthquake, which had a carved a path of wreckage from

Naples to Venice in the summer of 1347, was blamed for releasing gases

into the air which poisoned all on whom they fell. The scholars of the

University of Paris stated that the Black Death resulted from a triple

conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius,

occurring on the 20th of March 1345' but added they didn't know how.

Others blamed Jews for poisoning wells which inspired more than 350

massacres across Germany and Switzerland. Many Jews who escaped

fled to Poland.

Also, hysterical charges of sorcery and witchcraft were brought against

eccentric or unpopular people. The violence against outsiders

demonstrated, in a tragically negative manner, the nature and the limits of

citizenship in Europe. This was a society which defined itself as Christians

and recurrent plague changed religious practice, if no belief. Ordinary

folk had their own theory about the plague: It was plainly God's

punishment for man's wickedness. Bands of hooded men, wearing robes

marked front and back with a red cross also believed in this theory and

that by scourging themselves they can show mankind's repentance. They

traveled in parties of 50 to 500, led by a layman. Moving from town to

town, singing hymns and sobbing, the men beat themselves with scourges

studded with iron spikes. The ritual was performed twice a day in public.

The masses worshiped the flagellants, as they were known, as living

martyrs. Religious donations soared, pilgrimages swelled. A million

Christians trudged to Rome in 1350, a holy year by decree of Clement

VI. The pope himself remained at Avignon, sitting between two fires in

his private chamber, even in the summer, and rubbing an emerald ring,

practices recommended to him to ward off the plague. Many peasants

and uneducated folk believed the cause of the plague was a beautiful but

an evil witch called the "plague maiden." It was said that when she

passed by a house she could infect those inside simply by waving a red

scarf through an open window. People seeking tips on avoiding infection

were counseled to eat lots of figs and filberts before breakfast or not to

sleep on their backs, and less pestilential air ran down their nostrils into

the lungs.

The plague occurred from the bite of an infected flea or by a scratch

or bite while handling animals. Also it could be contracted from breathing

in airborne droplets from people who already had the infection in their

lungs. The first symptoms of the bubonic plague often appear within

several days: headache and a general feeling of weakness, followed by

aches and chills in the upper leg and groin, a white coating on the tongue,

rapid pulse, slurred speech, confusion, fatigue, apathy and staggering

gait. A blackish pustule usually would form at the point of the fleabite.

By the third day, the lymph node begins to swell. Because the bite is

commonly in the leg, the lymph nodes in the leg swell, which is how the

disease got its name. The Greek word for "groin' is bubon, thus the

name. The swelling then becomes tender, and perhaps as large as an

egg. The heart begins to flutter rapidly as it tries to pump blood through

swollen, suffocating tissues. Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing

purplish blotches on the skin. The victim's nervous system began to

collapse, causing dreadful pain and bizarre neurological disorders. By the

fourth day, wild anxiety and terror overtake the sufferer and then the

sense of resignation, as the skin blackens and the rictus of death settles on

the body.

During all this confusion the church's leadership in the lives of people

weakened. Before the arrival of the Black Death the church was seen as

one of the wealthiest and most powerful landlords in all of Europe.

Unsurprisingly, monasteries, converts, prisons, and other closed

communities were doomed when plague was introduced to them. The

Convents of Carcassonne and Marseille lost everyone. At Montpelier

133 Dominican Friars died out of 140. When the plague subsided, many

towns were left without a priest. Those priests who had not fled but

ministered to the dying during the plague were constantly exposed to the

disease; many died. Consequently, new priests were often ordained

without adequate training, and frequently the selection of priestly

candidates was hasty and ill-advised, thus reducing the esteem people

had for the church. Everywhere the Church was forced to resort to

extraordinary ends to assure at least the semblance of the sacraments for

the dying. Bishops in England, faced with a loss of priests to minister the

sacraments gave permission to laymen to make confession t each other.

Without the guidance and support which the church was recognized saints

as models of the godly life and as mediators before God. A whole new

series of "plague saints" came into existence along with new religious

brotherhoods and shrines dedicated to protecting the population from the


With the start of the plague Europeans looked desperately for help

to answer their many questions, on why God would allow such a thing to

occur. People throughout Christendom had prayed devoutly for

deliverance form the plague and when their prayers weren't answered

they began to change their methods of administering the traditions which

were attached to the church. They were left alone to live life without the

powerful God which left awe and fear in all, during a very difficult era.

Religion affected every aspect of everyday life and without it a new

period of philosophical questioning lay ahead.

Word Count: 1426

Source: Essay UK -

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