How did the Black Death affect Europe?

That God turn the great death around

Around a third of the total European population fell victim to the Black Death in the 14th century. This population loss had a massive economic impact. In addition, the mass extinction led to an increased turn to religion, as was expressed, for example, in the widespread Geißler procession.

The mass deaths caused by the Black Death exceeded anything previously seen and were so outrageous that the surviving numbers reflect the horrors of the Black Death more than provide information about the actual extent of the death. A count by the Pope is said to have resulted in 42,836,486 deaths from the plague. That would have been around 70 percent of the entire European population at the time. But this number belongs to the realm of the imagination as does a figure of 6,966 deaths allegedly determined for Bremen in 1350, whereby the nameless poor, beggars and vagabonds were not taken into account. Such counts could not be organized at the time, nor do they fit into their imagination. Numerous local chronicles contain information such as the one from the Burgundian Nuits, where only eight of 100 inhabitants are said to have survived. Such reports are also unsuitable for calculating plague mortality.

A demographic stroke of luck, on the other hand, is a parish register from the Burgundian Givry, in which 649 deaths were recorded up to the day on which the writer probably ended up with the plague. From this an approximate value of 30 percent plague mortality can be calculated. For England, where the sources most reliably allow a calculation of the total population, the total population loss caused by the plague was calculated to be 30 to 35 percent, with values ​​between 25 and 55 percent being considered possible depending on the source and interpretation. The losses in relation to the total population of Europe are likely to have been a third, although there were certainly large regional differences. An average of 60 percent calculated a few years ago is likely to be too high, even if there were such and further population slumps in individual cases, which then caused the survivors to give up their settlements entirely.

It is not possible to determine gender-specific mortality figures. It is hardly plausible that, as is sometimes claimed, fewer women than men died of the plague. The impression is more understandable from contemporary reporting, which described the severe epidemics following the Black Death of 1361/62 as child plague, because children were mainly affected. Closely living communities, for example in monasteries, suffered particular losses. After all, some even thought of the flood and the total annihilation of humanity. In the Irish monastery of Kilkenny, a dying monk finished his notes with the words: “I leave my writing for continuation in case a person or anyone of the family of Adam survives this plague [he used the word pestilencia which, like pestis, is unspecific Disease / epidemic and after the Black Death narrowed down to the plague] can escape and continue the work that has been started ”.

It is obvious that the Black Death seriously disrupted the economy. The enormous human losses could not remain without consequences. At a time when both agriculture and commercial production were very labor-intensive, a significant shortage of labor soon became noticeable. On the one hand, there were objectively too few to meet the high demand; on the other hand, the survivors were apparently either no longer willing to work under the old conditions, or they practiced refusal to work and gave themselves up if one wanted to believe the legal texts to idleness. An Italian chronicler describes the dramatic consequences for the supply: "The harvest stayed in the fields because nobody could be found to bring it in". Another complained: “Many wanted excessive wages for their work, and so in many areas the vineyards and fields remained undeveloped because of the lack of labor.” Economic historians characterized this situation as the “golden age of wage labor”. The tendency to take advantage of this situation, however, was not confined to the workers. It was just as difficult to replace deceased tenants or to keep the old tenants with unchanged leases. The English bishops in their dioceses were confronted with the fact that even priests were only willing to administer the sacraments for significantly higher pay.

To counter this situation, labor laws have been enacted almost everywhere in Europe. The overriding goal was a fair distribution of the available workforce, adapted to the different needs, which also implied compulsion to work. At the same time, a standardization and setting of maximum wages should prevent financially strong employers from recruiting more workers than they were entitled to through high wage payments. The fixing of prices was also the subject of such laws.

Most of the time, these legislative measures took place a few months after the first appearance of the plague. The most detailed was that of the English King Edward III. Labor law enacted in 1349, which was renewed a year and a half later for greater legitimacy by parliament. The law included an obligation to work for all men and women under the age of 60 who were fit for work, who neither practiced a craft nor were active in trade, who did not own land that they had to cultivate, or who could not live on their property. The lower age limit was set at 14, in Castile at twelve years. The ban on idleness was complemented by a ban on roaming the country. This was to prevent workers from migrating in search of better working conditions.

Only a few exceptions were permitted. For example, the less populated areas in the north of the country and on the Welsh border were allowed to move to the richer south to work in agriculture because of fewer opportunities to find work there. These economically much better off areas, such as the counties of Essex and Sussex, had suffered much greater population losses due to the plague and were therefore increasingly dependent on foreign labor. Something similar can be found in France, where legislation allowed moving into the wine-growing regions in order to meet the increased demand for labor in an economically prosperous and important area. The provisions to prevent competition for available labor within the scope of the respective laws stood in a certain contradiction to the various efforts to attract labor from outside. This contradiction can be found, for example, in the Tyrolean provincial law of 1352. While strict coercive measures were provided for farmers to prevent their emigration, and wage driving was prevented and made a punishable offense by setting maximum wages, additional wage incentives were created for carpenters and bricklayers, who were lacking in Tyrol. The severity of the penalties threatened in Tyrol for violating the law may have been linked to the policy that was being taken in Venice at the same time ...

Literature: Klaus Bergdolt (ed.), Die Pest 1348 in Italien. Fifty contemporary sources. Heidelberg 1989.

Prof. Dr. Neithard Bulst

June 28, 2011