A 14th century depiction of the burial of plague victims at Tournai in present-day Belgium. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

As Covid-19 Pandemic ravaged the world economy with over 4 million casualties, pandemic history literature has proliferated, helping to understand pandemic and social structure correlation. Pandemics have played a major role in historical change and development. They are as important to understand societal development, as are wars and revolutions. Black Death was one such pandemic that not only took countless lives, more than any other single known event, but also possibly catalysed European renaissance, and culminated in fundamentally changing the European social structure and history.

As Covid-19 sweeps across the world, lessons from Black Death can inform discussions on a possible post-pandemic social restructuring.

Black Death

2nd Bubonic plague was a multi century pandemic (14th-18th century) that by some estimates killed 100-150 million people (approx. 30-35% of global population) within the first 50 years of its reign (Huremović, 2019). Black Death was the first wave of 2nd Bubonic plague and mainly affected Europe from 1347 to 1353 (Snowden, 2019). As a result, around 50 million people died in Europe which was more than 50% of its population (Benedictow, 2005).

Black Death apparently started in China in 1334 and China’s Silk Route trade played a crucial role in its spread. The pandemic spread along the burgeoning trade routes in Central Asia and reached Europe via Crimea and Sicilian ports on merchant ships in the late 1340s (Howard, 2020).

Black Death & Renaissance

At the time Black Death arrived in 1347, Europe was under a lengthy period of social and economic hardship (Snowden, 2019). The high mortality rate of the Black Death resulted in a drastic decline in urban and rural labor force. Wages rose due to the shortage of labor. With mostly the wealthy surviving and the common people largely dying, acute labor shortage was a new reality. This led to destruction of feudalism in Europe, as serfs could increasingly purchase their freedom. This structurally increased social mobility leading to the emergence of a new middle class which patronized art, academia, and reason.

As priests and parish equally died due to their excessive involvement with the sick, the church had to employ relatively less qualified men as substitutes. The power of church gradually receded, corruption increased, leading to demand and orientation for greater secularization of the society. Old, dogmatized values were questioned.

This change manifested in the numerous political revolts of the time. The demise of the traditional elite and the rise of the new elite led to questioning the authority of the king, placing merit over birth, leading to the rise of individualism (Daily History, n.d.).  

The effects of Black Death on the Renaissance were most pronounced in Italy, which was the epicenter of the European Renaissance. Though devastating, the lives of Europeans drastically improved.

Conclusion

In terms of death toll, Black death is not comparable to Covid-19. However, there is emerging evidence about a Coronavirus pandemic that swept East Asia 2000 years ago, devastating enough to leave an evolutionary impact (TOI, 2021). Such evidence opens us possibilities of Covid-19 pandemic snowballing into bigger proportions in subsequent waves. Lessons from Black Death tells how such a scenario could lead to collapse of the labour market, dilution of class consciousness and possible social restructuring.

This article was written by Sonal Kuruvilla and Mohammed S. under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Works Cited

Snowden, F. M. (2019). Epidemics and Society. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Benedictow, O. (2005, March). History Today. Retrieved August 2021, from The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever

Howard, J. (2020, July). Plague was one of history’s deadliest disease. Retrieved August 2021, from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/the-plague

Daily History. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2021, from How did the Bubonic Plague make the Italian Renaissance possible: https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_the_Bubonic_Plague_make_the_Italian_Renaissance_possible#cite_note-1

TOI. (2021, June). Retrieved August 2021, from A coronavirus epidemic hit East Asia 20,000 years ago: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/science/a-coronavirus-epidemic-hit-east-asia-20000-years-ago/articleshow/83908396.cms

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