The economic shift that followed the Black Death had many social implications as well. With the increase in the wealth of the peasant class came a bridge in the gap between the upper-class and the laborers of medieval Europe. Prior to the Black Death the division between the landowners and those that worked the land was immense, and the power over the peasants was more like that of a slave-owner than an employer (Zeigler 237, Mullet 24).
One of the most important upheavals in the social system of post-Plague Europe was the surge of the peasant revolts that followed (Mullet 25). These revolts forced many of the landowners out of the countryside and into the cities along with many of the laborers who found that even with the land they had acquired, life was not very easy (Mullet 26). Regardless, the years following the Black Death left both the upper-class and lower-class of the Pre-Plague times substantially closer to the “middle” of the socio-economic ladder. With a leveling of the social structure and an influx of much of the laborers and landowners into the cities came the elements needed for the urban industrial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth century (Zeigler 248).
In addition to the socio-economic changes that ensued following the Black Death, there came many changes in the Christian Church as well. A huge power during Europe’s medieval period, the church lost much of its livelihood following the catastrophic effects of the Plague. The people of the time felt as though the church had somehow let them down; not only did the church fail to protect the people from “God’s wrath”, the church also abandoned them in their time of need (Zeigler 259 Mullet 34).
As a result of this disappointment in the Church came a widespread discrediting of the clergy and the organization of the Church itself as people withdrew their involvement, both fiscally and socially (Zeigler 268). The Church, feeling the movement away from them, responded by rebuilding many churches throughout Europe and trying to bring people back in by making them feel like they owe something to God because they were spared (Zeigler 272). Although the power of the Church had decreased tremendously, the efforts of the remaining clergy to bring people back in left the Church much less influential than before the Black Death, but not completely out of the scene.
Political systems were also greatly improved as a result of the Black Death; peasant revolts throughout Europe brought the government much closer to the working class than it ever had been and issues such as sanitation became important. In England, regulations dealing with how rubbish and waste should be managed were put into action and the streets became a much cleaner place( Mullet 31). One of the most important pieces of legislation that came out of the Black Death was England’s “Statute of Laborers,” an ordinance that put regulations of the way in which people could use laborers.
This document outlined the legalities surrounding the number of people allowed to work in service of a Lord, how to fix the wages for craftsman and how to set prices on agricultural goods (Mullet 23). In addition to such legislation as the “Statute of Laborers,” governments throughout Europe began to deal with the many legal issues surrounding the ownership of property, wages for workers, and regulation of the buy/sell market. Where in the past a more feudal system kept issues such as these at rest, the freer social system lead to a need for revision of legal systems that would eventually lead to many of the laws that are still in effect today(Mullet 25, Zeigler 248).
With all of this evidence presented, the argument comes out of the implications of these changes. While most parties agree that there were immense changes that occurred following the Black Death, there is a main division between the people that believe that these changes were a direct result of the Plague and those who believe that these changes were going to happen whether or not the Black Death had swept through Europe at all. As mentioned before, Philip Zeigler, a renowned scholar on medieval history and the Plague, believes that the Black Death “did not initiate any major social or economic trend but it accelerated and modified those which already existed”(Zeigler 250).
This argument encompasses the idea that a feudal system like that of medieval Europe could not continue forever with the world around changing as it was. Zeigler argues that while the Black Death spurred the change by creating a temporary state of instability that allowed for an influx of new ideas. He also argues that the changes that came after the Black Death swept through Europe were not revolutionary in nature, they were inevitable changes that were on the verge of happening, they just needed a spark to start (Zeigler, 249-250). Although most scholars do not debate the fact that there were changes that followed the pandemic of the Black Death, there is a definite controversy as to the nature of these changes and Philip Zeigler produces the argument that the changes were going to happen at some point, the Black Death just allowed for the changes to come forward.
While Zeigler supports one argument in regards to the changes that came after the Black Death, Mullet and Campbell, other scholars who specialize in the history of the Black Death, support the idea that the changes were a direct result of the mind-frame of the people and their personal experiences with the Plague (Campbell 4, Mullet 24). Mullet writes that “the Black Death did in fact begin a new epoch in medieval life. Nothing could ever be the same again”(Mullet 26-27). Throughout the book, Mullet writes about how the experience of the people lead to a change in the way that they thought about religion, medicine, money, and each other. Mullet also argues that because of experiences such as those described earlier in this essay, people’s perception of the world changed in a way that could only be a result of being witness to the Black Death (Mullet 22).
Campbell makes a similar argument in his book when he acknowledges that there is a “the historical importance of such a catastrophe” and that the Black Death is “one of the most important events which have prepared the way for the present state of Europe”(4). Though Campbell’s book focuses mainly on the scientific effects of the Black Death, his feelings that the changes that ensued from the Plague are rooted in the experiences of the people are clear, especially when he shares that “it is through his experience….which may cast a further helpful ray of light on the effect of the Black Death” (Campbell 77). In opposition to Zeigler’s beliefs about the role of the Black Death on the changes that followed the pandemic, both Campbell and Mullet agree that the changes were not inevitable, but a result of the experiences of the people that survived.
While the argument between these two ideas continues, there is no way to tell for sure what “could have been.” To best form an opinion on this discrepancy is important first recognize the effect of the Black Death on the people so that their motivations and reasons for pursuing change can be best understood. At the same time, it is important to take an independent view of the changes themselves, outside of the context of the Plague, so that they may be seen for what they are.
With an understanding of the changes that took place following the devastation caused by the Black Death, in addition to the experiences of those who lived through it, both arguments can be presented. There is a significance to each argument, and it is the decision of the reader to form an opinion as to which argument they believe is more fitting to their own beliefs on the issue of human experience. If one answer was clearly correct, then the controversy would not remain as it has in the time since the Plague itself.
So, then, with no clear answer, what is the point of presenting these arguments? In a world that is constantly being affected by diseases such as AIDS, mass-casualty war, and natural disasters, it is important to have a critical standpoint on the effects that these incidents have on an individual. Understanding the effects of such experiences and how they lead to change can provide clues to the future of areas that will undergo extensive change. Being able to predict trends for the future, and not repeating mistakes made in the past can help aid the rebuilding of countries and areas who are rebuilding much in the way that Europe had to rebuild itself following the Plague. Whether it is for the betterment of the future when disaster will inevitably strike again or just for awareness, understanding the effect of the extreme devastation caused by the Black Death on the social, economic, and political aspects of Europe is key.
“The Black Death.” Online. September 28, 2000. < http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/fleas/bdeath/bdeath.html> “Boccaccio: The Decameron Introduction.” Online. October 8, 2000. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/decameronintro.html> Campbell, Anna. The Black Death and Men of Learning. New York: AMS Press, Inc, 1966. Center for Disease Control. “Plague.” Online. October 8,2000. <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/plagfact.html> Davis, Nicole. “Historical Snapshot.” Online. September 28, 2000. < http://pestilence.uchicago.edu/plaguehistory.html> Dennis, David T., and Hughes, James M. “Multidrug Resistance in Plague.” The New England Journal of Medicine.337(September, 1997).