Black Death and its Impact: The Catastrophe that Ravaged Europe

From the Lecture Series : The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Black Death was a pandemic that ravaged Europe in the early 14th century and altered the social order in the medieval world. With nearly half the population dead, the plague blew the rigid boundaries of the social order to absolute smithereens. What were the horrors that people experienced and how did their life change forever?

An illustration depicting people dying from the plague.
The bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the early 14th century killing nearly half the population. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Black Death, a bubonic plague, reached Europe around the year 1348 and killed nearly half the population in some European cities. The plague also known as Great Mortality or the Great Pestilence is said to have taken a greater toll on life than any other known pandemic or war during its time.

Onset of the Plague in Florence

Florence, in Italy, was a wealthy city and a well-connected trading hub in the mid-14th century. It was a stable society governed by a representative body of leaders who ensured the safety and welfare of its citizens. With a complex social and political make-up, the city was known for some of the finest artistic minds of the world.

In January 1348, a mysterious illness seemed to create havoc in Florence. News of some horrific and mysterious illness slowly started creeping in from Sicily and by mid-February, the number of plague-ridden people was swelling.

With more and more people dying, the pandemic was nothing like what had been experienced over centuries. The devastating impact of the pandemic was such that alluring public spaces for conversations and friendly meetings in mid-January transformed to stinking mass graves by March.

Learn more about plague’s effects on the medieval church.

Mass Plague Graves

The first person accounts and letters of the horrors of the plague are overwhelming. These uncomfortable depressing lessons of the past should be considered as means to prepare ourselves for the present and future.

Picture showing people burying the victims of Black Death.
Burial grounds were unable to cope with the mass deaths, and corpses were
collected on funeral biers. (Image: Pierart dou Tielt/Public domain)

The eyewitness account of Giovanni Boccaccio, writer of the Decameron describes that every morning the dead corpses would be placed out on the streets and collected on funeral biers. Sometimes these funeral biers were mere rough boards and it was common sight to watch more than one body being carried on the boards at a time.

There were mass deaths and the burial grounds were unable to cope with the multitude of corpses. Soon, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards for mass burials where bodies were piled up on top of each other. Each layer of corpses was covered with a thin layer of soil and the trenches were filled to the top.

People were terrified and at the same time desperate to be alive. They thought the end of the world was nearer and one chronicler left a blank space mentioning that anyone alive should make a record of the events that had transpired.

Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.

Misconceptions about Black Death

It was common knowledge that the bubonic plague caused large lumps around the lymph nodes, groin, or armpit. The misconceptions about Black Death or the bubonic plague were that the body of the infected person turned black.

A photo showing  the spread of the bubonic plague on a person's body.
The bubonic plague caused large lumps around the lymph nodes, groin, or armpit. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL)/Public domain)

It was misunderstood that the color of the large lumps or buboes was black. Black Death actually referred to the dark, black, horror of the epidemic and not the color of the buboes.

No one in the middle-ages called the plague the Black Death. It was called the Great Mortality or the Great Pestilence or even, in some cases in England, Blue Sickness. It was called Black Death only centuries later when historians tried to document it. 

A New Social Order—The Merchant Class

The population of Europe doubled from 75 million to about 150 million over the three centuries from 1000 A.D. to 1300 A.D. This was because of the advancements in farming practices and a period of global warming.

The sudden surge in population led to a steep decline in the land available for agriculture. As a result of this land crunch, people started moving to the cities to explore news ways of making a livelihood.

As a result, for first time after the fall of the Roman Empire, urbanization took shape in the cities of London, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Milan. Urbanization led to increase in commercial activities, which created a new merchant class. Hence, it can be inferred that the population boom was the primary reason for the formation of a new social order called the merchant class.

Learn more about the first wave sweeps across Europe.

Misfit in the Three Estates Model

The medieval society was primarily Christian, agrarian, and feudal. It was also firmly committed to the social order of the Three Estates— those who fight, those who pray, and those who work.

The medieval society believed that if everyone in the social order functioned properly, there was no reason for worry. However, with the emergence of a new class, called the merchant class, this perspective of the medieval society came under pressure.

The new social order of business class technically belonged to the working class but began to look and behave like the nobles and clergy of the social order. The shrewd businessmen of the merchant class were able to afford the finest clothes of highest quality and sent their children to school for the practical purpose of facilitating the child’s participation in the family business.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Crumbling of the Social Order

The emergence of the new merchant class did not create any noticeable crisis in the social order. Historians like David Herlihy were of the opinion that only an external factor could bring about a change to the social order.

It was only in the aftermath of the plague that the rigid boundaries of the Three Estates began to crumble and the social order that existed until then seemed to disintegrate. With more than half the population dead, there was shortage of labor and peasants could offer their services to the nobleman who paid them higher.

Emergence of a Brave New World

The nobles who were rich in titles and higher up in the social hierarchy started marrying into the wealthy merchant class. The merchant classes, in turn, were happy to see their future generations work up their way in the social hierarchy.

Alice de la Pole, granddaughter of English poet Geoffrey Chaucer and born into a wealthy business family of vintners, became the Duchess of Suffolk. Thus, the first wave of the plague gave way to a brave new world and in a short span of two decades, between 1340 and 1360, the medieval world seemed like two different places.

Common Questions about the Medieval European Society in the Early 14th century

Q: Why were the symptoms of the bubonic plague?

The plague produced large lumps or buboes around the lymph nodes, groin, or armpit.

Q: What were the different names by which the plague was known?

The plague was known as the Great Mortality, the Great Pestilence, or in some cases, Blue Sickness. It came to be known as Black Death only centuries after it initially spread through England.

Q: How was the social order different before and after the plague?

Before the plague, the society was structured in the Three Estates Model. With the emergence of the merchant class, this order crumbled. The rich nobles, who were higher up in the social hierarchy, started marrying into the wealthy merchant class.

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