The earliest large-scale plague recorded occurred in the 6th century, when it was called the Plague of Justinian, after the ruling Roman emperor of the time. The second great plague affected 14th century Europe, wiping out large numbers in its spread. But what was the impact of the plague on the society of the time?
The Impact of Plague in the 6th Century
The first recorded plague appeared around 541 and was called the Plague of Justinian because the emperor Justinian himself contracted the plague, but was lucky enough to survive.
The historian Evagrius Scholasticus wrote an account of how he also contracted the plague, describing it in textbook fashion, right down to the buboes in the armpit and the groin. He survived, but when the plague subsequently returned in new waves, most of his family and servants died.
Especially hard hit during this outbreak was the city of Constantinople, capital of what had been the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and which, at this point, was well into its transformation into the Byzantine Empire. The historian and scholar Procopius wrote that in that city, up to 10,000 people a day were dying, and the bodies were stacked up in the streets because there was no place to put them.
It’s hard to gauge the accuracy of these accounts, but scholars guess that the plague may have claimed up to 40 percent of the population of Constantinople.
Learn more about how the plague changed the world.
The Plague and the Fall of the Roman Empire
The impact of the plague was certainly wide-ranging and resonated throughout the medieval world. Justinian’s attempts to reunite the Roman Empire crumbled in the wake of the plague’s devastation, as there were not enough able-bodied men to serve in the military, and not enough active farmland to be taxed to pay those military forces.
For the next two centuries, the plague would make periodic reappearances, landing body blow after body blow to the social infrastructure at precisely the moments it seemed to be recovering.
Indeed, some scholars believe that the Plague of Justinian hastened the transformation of the Roman Empire into the fledgling nations and communities that would eventually become France, Germany, England, etc.
With no central military or bureaucracy in place, smaller entities—like the Goths in Byzantium, the Lombards in Italy, and the Anglo-Saxons in England—were able to claim lands and powers that they could not have otherwise.
By the time of the last occurrence of this wave of plague, which happened in about 750, the European world looked much different than it had in 540.
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.
The Appearance of the Black Death
The Black Death of the 14th century seems, in most ways, to be the same disease that Justinian and his empire had suffered through. For about a decade in the middle of the 14th century in Europe, it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end. The plague made its way westward, killing a third to a half of the population of the medieval world.
Eyewitness accounts describe bodies lying in the streets and mass graves in churchyards. These were so full and so foul that people who needed to walk past them held cloths dipped in something strong smelling—like a concoction of herbs or sweet-smelling flowers—in front of their noses.
The disease was a mystery, seeming to exist in a confusing variety of permutations. Some people developed excruciatingly painful swollen lymph nodes—buboes—at the groin and armpits. Most of these people died, but some, about 15% to 18%, recovered.
Others developed fevers, rashes, and blisters, and died in agony, but usually very shortly after those symptoms appeared. Still others seemed to suffer from something in the lungs, tubercular in nature, and they died after a sometimes lengthy and always miserable illness.
In some cases, the disease moved so quickly that it was reported that some people could be dancing in the morning and dead by noon.
The Sweeping Devastation of the Plague
The plague swept through entire families, and neighbors, relatives, and friends reportedly shunned those who showed any symptoms. Some priests even refused to minister last rites to those who were taken ill.
Others—some clergy, some doctors, and some average people—bravely and heroically attempted to offer physical and spiritual comfort to those who were sick, often paying with their own lives for their kindness.
As one might expect, in the face of such a catastrophe, various people reacted in dramatically different ways. Some people turned earnestly to religion and prayer, even punishing their flesh with self-flagellation in an attempt to atone for whatever sins of the body had caused God to visit such a punishment upon humanity.
Others gave themselves up to hedonism and licentiousness, figuring that if they were going to die, they might as well enjoy themselves up to the last minute.
Learn more about the Black Death in Europe.
The Traumatic Memory of the Plague
Most scholars now believe that as awful as all the surviving evidence suggests the Black Death was, in reality, it was probably even worse. While overall the death toll was about half the population, in some places it was probably a whole village or an entire community.
The thing is that most of those who witnessed the horrors of the plague either died or had no means to record their observations—remember, only 10 percent to 15 percent of the population were literate in the Middle Ages.
Most of the actions of those who lived through the plague—the kindnesses and cruelties neighbors and families showed to each other—the majority of those stories are lost to time and memory.
The Black Death of the 14th century was such a traumatic event, and was such a watershed in history, it’s difficult to imagine that there could ever have been anything like it before, or that there ever would be anything like it again.
Common Questions about the Impact of Plague
The Plague of Justinian of the 6th century is named after the Roman Emperor of the time, who also contracted the plague but survived.
In the wake of the plague’s devastation, there were not enough able-bodied men to serve in the military, and not enough people to be taxed to pay those military forces. Without a central Roman military or bureaucracy, the task of reestablishing the Empire in Europe failed.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed a third to a half of the population of the medieval world. While that was the overall death toll, in some places it was probably a whole village or an entire community.