How did the Black Death affect European civilization? It affected Europe’s population and also its economy. Changes in the size of civilization led to changes in trade, in the church, in music and art, and in many other things.
The Black Death killed off a massive portion of Europe’s population. Plagues spread farther when they affect weakened people, and Europe at the time was already weakened by persistent Scottish invasions, exhaustion of the soil due to poor farming, and the introduction of more sheep, which reduced the land available for corn.
Fleas infected with the Bubonic Plague would jump from rats to travelers, killing millions and infesting the continent with earth-shaking fear. Normal people were tormented by the threat of death, causing them to change their views on leisure, work, and art. Even children suffered.
No matter how little time the poor had for recreation, or how many resources the wealthy had to distance themselves from the horrors of the plague, the Black Death worked its way into leisure time. Massive deaths and funeral processions became the subject of jokes. Eventually, death was ignored altogether. Citizens looking for scapegoats often targeted deformed, insane, and developmentally delayed, individuals. Stoning someone perceived as a witch alleviated boredom and became an outlet for their emotions.
The pandemic’s damage to art was irreparable. With the plague decimating monasteries and churches, written language was almost lost and entire churches were abandoned. Carving styles changed. Coffin lids depicted pictures of corpses, usually showing a very flattering likeness of the deceased inside wearing his or her best clothes. Some coffins dated circa 1400 bore images of bodies with shredded garments and about half of their flesh. A few sculptures depicted worms and snails munching on the corpse.
Painting was also affected by the plague. A number of paintings containing people socializing with skeletons. Known as “dance macabre,” they were commissioned by powerful patrons. Artists abandoned former customs of painting Church motifs. Deeply depressed by the death that surrounded them, they began to paint pictures of sad and dead people.
Partially due to the lack of skills to provide for themselves, the children suffered. A common nursery rhyme that is still known today dates back from this period:
Ring a-round the rosy
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down!
Ring around the rosy: rosary beads give you God’s help. A pocket full of posies: used to stop the odor of rotting bodies which was at one point thought to cause the plague, it was also used widely by doctors to protect them from the infected plague patients. Ashes, ashes: the church burned the dead when burying them became to laborious. We all fall down: dead.
Children were affected both physically and mentally. They were exposed to public nudity, belligerent adult behavior, and (obviously) abundant death before their time. Losing family members meant facing death and pain at an early age. Parents even abandoned their children, leaving them to the streets rather than catching the dreaded “pestilence” from infants. Daughters were especially unlucky: with parents prioritizing sons who could carry on the family name, baby girls would be left to die.
Effect Over Time
It has been suggested that Europe is just now recovering from the devastation. The population was also a source of economic disruption because few citizens mean few taxes. However, Europe’s economy did recover. If the Black Death had an effect on today’s economy, it would be that prices aren’t as high as they would otherwise be due to an entire century where the economy made no progress. With paintings as a lasting and locatable record, art is a good reminder of how the most creative people can panic when panic surrounds them. In a way, the plague benefited art: it inspired artists to branch out from the standard religious pictorials.
Soon after the last eruption of the Black Death, views on children and parenting changed. Although carrying on the family name was still considered important , the birth rate dropped. Children were considered “not worth the trouble” to raise.
With fewer citizens, the demand for agricultural workers gave survivors a new bargaining power. Workers formerly bound to the land could now travel and command higher wages for their services. In addition, people left rural areas and migrated to cities for higher wages. The economic structure of land-based wealth shifted. Portable wealth in the form of money, skills and services emerged. Small towns and cities grew, while large estates and manors began to collapse.
It took 400 years before Europe’s population equaled the pre-plague figures. The very social, economic, and political structure of Europe was forever altered by the Black Death. One tiny insect, a flea, toppled feudalism and changed the course of history in Europe.