• History

14 Ways The Black Death Directly Shaped The Way We Live Now

The so-called "Black Death" arrived in southern Europe in 1347 from the Near and Far East and spread through England, Germany, and Russia over the next three years, killing about one-third of the population, or more. The source of the bubonic plague was - and still is - Yersinia pestis, a bacterium found in certain fleas and spread by black rats. You might think such a devastating and oh-so-medieval pestilence has little to do with our 21st-century world, but you'd be wrong: the modern impact of the Black Death is evident all around us, from our hospitals to our Halloween costumes.

Exploring how the Black Death changed the world reveals that there's very little that wasn't impacted by death and disease at such a massive level. Among the effects the Black Death had on Europe was a change to the genetics of modern Europeans. The plague literally changed who modern Europeans are, all the way down to their DNA.

Others ways the black plague changed the world are less profound but still fascinating (who knew that such devastation gave rise to English pub culture?). Not to mention, the plague isn't entirely eradicated. In 2020, a suspected case of the plague in Mongolia caused authorities to issue a citywide Level 3 warning. 

  • It Gave Us The Basis Of Our Current Property Laws

    The Black Death killed millions of people and tore families apart, which made it extremely difficult for survivors to figure out inheritances and who exactly owned pieces of property (especially when all the male heirs were wiped out). Family squabbles over such issues lead to litigation on a level unheard of prior to the plague, which lead to further litigation that set precedents in property law that still stand today.

    One historian notes that barristers from the time would function just fine in today's courts. Here's Norman Cantor on the matter“A barrister of 1350 deep frozen and thawed out today would need only a six-month refresher course at a first-rate American law school to practice property or real estate law.”

  • It Inspired The First Instance Of Biological Warfare

    Photo: American official photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Black Death allowed one Mongol warrior to use disease as a weapon on the battlefield. Janibeg was a Mongol military commander who inherited the empire left behind by Genghis Khan. In 1346, Janibeg wanted to take over the city of Caffa, a trade port on the Black Sea in Crimea. The Black Death, however, was depleting his ranks and making the prospect of conquering Caffa less and less likely.

    Janibeg came up with a thoroughly revolting plan to overcome this setback: he started catapulting his dead soldiers over Caffa's city walls. It worked: the people of Caffa fled to Italy, victims of the first known instance of biological warfare.

  • It Helped Create A Culture Of Anti-Semitic Intolerance In Europe

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jewish people were blamed by many for the Black Death, especially in Germany. People were desperate for answers, so they created stories about Jewish people poisoning wells to satisfy their need for a scapegoat.

    Germans killed Jewish communities in riots called "pogroms" to eliminate the non-existent threat, nurturing a culture of anti-Semitism that ultimately lead to the Holocaust in the 20th century. A study in 2011 showed that villages where Black Death-era pogroms took place were more likely to demonstrate a violent hatred of Jews more than 600 years later.

  • It Paved The Way For The Theory Of Contagion

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Black Death helped the public at large to realize that "humors" weren't the cause of disease. Because so many people were getting violently ill and dying, the Greek concept of humors - four bodily fluids that controlled an individual's health - started to seem wildly unlikely (how are so many people experiencing this "imbalance" of fluids?).

    Instead, the theory of contagion began to be widely accepted, slowly but surely: it wasn't until 1546 that the medical establishment in Europe embraced the theory of contagion. The theory prevailed until Robert Koch's germ theory of the late 1800s.