The Black Death: Economic and Cultural Impacts

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Summary

The Black Death is one of the most significant events that took place in medieval Europe. Not only did it lead to a lot of death, but it also led to numerous changes in a considerable part of society.  The objective of this paper is to analyze the economic, and cultural impacts of the Black Death in Europe in a bid to assess how the events that followed had an influence on the population. Among the findings shown in this paper is that institutions that had tied peasants onto the land, essentially living in serfdom, were greatly weakened. Furthermore, the discussion shows that the high demand for labor meant that over the next century, employers and landowners were willing to pay higher wages in order to ensure that they gained the services of laborers. Moreover, the considerable number of deaths that took place during this plague created a situation where there were constant representations of death in the works of art. For decades later, the artwork from that period was quite bleak, showing an attitude towards life that was negative and without the optimism that had been prevalent before the Black Death. Following the attitudes of the period, architecture ended up taking on two new directions, with one heading towards the Gothic, and the other towards the Greco-Roman. The events following the Black Death changed medieval attitudes towards life, and may have been responsible for the demise of feudalism in Western Europe, and the strengthening serfdom in Eastern Europe.

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Introduction

The Black Death is one of the most devastating plagues to have affected Europe during the medieval period. It led to a situation where between a quarter and a third of the population ended up dying. Despite the considerable number of deaths that took place because of the Black Death, the consequences that came about in its aftermath were quite benign. This plague changed the landscape of Europe, especially Western Europe, for many decades to come. Not only did it bring about cultural and economic changes, but it also led to the development of political, social, and religious changes that were fundamental for the rise of Europe over the next two centuries. In this paper, there will be an analysis of the economic, and cultural impacts of the Black Death in Europe in a bid to assess how the events that followed had an influence on the population.

Economic Impacts

In Western Europe, the great population loss ended up being favorable for the remaining population because it ensured that there was less competition for resources. This is especially considering that the deaths that occurred among peasants ensured that there were so few of them left that their labor became more competitive. A result of the Black Death was that the institutions that had tied peasants onto the land, essentially living in serfdom, were greatly weakened. Those peasants, who could, ended up being able to move from one place to another seeking to provide labor to the highest bidder or ended up owning land (Haddock & Kiesling, 2002). The lack of institutions as well as the will to force peasants to remain in their traditional holdings proved to be a resounding blow to feudalism, which never recovered. A consequence was that peasants were able to improve their lot in life to such an extent that some of them achieved a higher social status. With considerable amounts of land left empty because of the plague, peasants had an opportunity to become landowners (J. Cohn, Samuel K, 2002). In addition, serfdom had all but disappeared following the Black Death meaning that individuals who had formerly been tied to peasantry had opportunities to move to urban areas where they were able to engage in various trades. However, as the population recovered over the next decades, peasants once again ended up facing famine and deprivation.

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One of the most significant economic impacts that took place following the plague was that wages shot up. This was in response to the shortage of labor that had come to affect Europe following the drastic reduction of population. The high demand for labor meant that over the next 100 years, employers and landowners were willing to pay higher wages in order to ensure that they gained the services of laborers. While these increases were quite significant, royal and local authorities sought to limit them because of the fear that the lower classes would end up getting too much power in society (S. Cohn, 2007). Attempts were made, through law, to ensure that peasants were tied to the land, but despite these regulations being in place, they were poorly enforced by local authorities. The result was that peasants continued to have considerable freedom especially when compared to their status prior to the plague. The relative freedom enjoyed by western European peasants was not shared by their eastern European counterparts. The population reduction in Eastern Europe led to a situation where laws concerning serfdom, which essentially tied peasants to the land for their entire lives, were enforced. Thus, while peasants in Western Europe were able to attain considerable freedoms, those in Eastern Europe were reduced to serfdom in order to cater for the labor needs of landowners.

Cultural Impacts

The Black Death also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, especially when it came to the arts. This is because the general mood in the arts since the end of the plague was one of extreme pessimism, where individuals seemed not to have any hope about their lives and instead believed that death was constantly near (Hollister & Bennett, 2001, p. 372). The large number of deaths that had taken place during this plague created a situation where there were constant representations of death in the works of art from that period. The images of death seem to have been a reaction to the large numbers of deaths witnessed within the population, because it was not only unprecedented, but it was looked upon by some as the end of the world. The pessimism that followed the plague was represented through not only the artworks, but also the literature from the period.

There were also considerable changes in architecture and sculpture following the Black Death. This was especially considering that architecture ended up taking on two new directions, with one heading towards the Gothic, and the other towards Greco-Roman. Gothic architecture, especially in churches, was inspired by the increase in religious observance that was seen following the plague. Italians, on the other hand, sought to create a connection with their glorious past by adopting the architectural styles of their Roman ancestors (Hollister & Bennett, 2001, p. 374). The religiosity of the population could be seen through sculptures that sought to reflect on the differences between individuals in society. There were attempts to depict the righteous as being separate from sinners; a sign that the sculptors were inspired by the devastating deaths that they had witnessed while the plague raged. Furthermore, there were attempts to reproduce the natural world as accurately as possible in the works of art that emerged following the plague; creating a sense of realism that was almost as accurate as photography.

Conclusion

The Black Death was instrumental in bringing about economic and cultural changes that would have an impact on Europe in later centuries. These changes also reflect on the different ways through which the societies, cultures, and economies of Western and Eastern Europe developed and how they ended up becoming so different. Thus, while the population reduction gave peasants in Western Europe more freedom, the same situation in Eastern Europe led to the peasants being tied more securely to their traditional holdings, and being reduced to serfdom.

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  1. Cohn, J., Samuel K. (2002). The Black Death: end of a paradigm. The American Historical Review, 107(3), 703-738.
  2. Cohn, S. (2007). After the Black Death: labour legislation and attitudes towards labour in late‐medieval western Europe. The Economic History Review, 60(3), 457-485.
  3. Haddock, D. D., & Kiesling, L. (2002). The Black death and property rights. The Journal of Legal Studies, 31(S2), S545-S587.
  4. Hollister, C. W., & Bennett, J. M. (2001). Medieval Europe: a short history: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
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