The Black Death devastated Europe, claiming 25 million lives and up to 80% of the population in some cities. Survivors of the plague, which lasted from approximately 1347-1353, struggled with skyrocketing food prices, psychological torment, and survivor guilt. Even Renaissance scholar Petrarch wished he was never born.
Europeans searched for causes of the plague, wondering if comets and earthquakes were to blame. Christians took out their rage by burning thousands of Jewish people at the stake, while others whipped themselves to appease God. Cities ran out of coffins and shrouds and began to pile cadavers into mass graves. A chronicler in Florence reported that gravediggers layered human remains and earth "just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese."
In spite of the many tragedies it caused, the Black Death also had ripple effects that improved conditions in Europe in its aftermath. The immediate economic crisis eventually led to higher wages, and peasant lifespans increased after the plague, as they could afford a better diet. The awful time period didn't only galvanize pub culture, it transformed Europe's feudal society, spurring the 14th-century Renaissance in Italy and shifting wealth from the aristocracy to workers and peasants.
The plague also led to significant public health measures, like the quarantine, named for the 40-day isolation procedure pioneered by Venice, Italy. In addition, the pestilence assisted in legalizing sex work across Europe, which some cities believe would help raise the birth rate. Though the plague ravaged society, Europe might be a completely different place if the Black Death had not occurred.
It Caused An Economic Crisis
When the Black Death struck Europe in the 1340s, it wiped out 60% of the population. However, that was only the first devastating effect of the plague. Food prices skyrocketed, with one Florentine chronicler writing, "The foodstuffs suitable for the sick, cakes and sugar, reached outrageous prices... Chickens and other poultry were unbelievably expensive."
Burial shrouds shot up to 10 times their earlier price. Farmers abandoned their crops, which withered in the fields. People locked up workshops until the plague passed. The economic crisis, marked by rising prices and scarcity, abruptly shifted when the deaths stopped occurring - Europe was facing a labor shortage, and wages skyrocketed.
- Photo: Edmund Evans/National Library of Medicine - History of Medicine / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions
Europeans Wished They Were Never Born
Survivors felt guilt while witnessing the ends of family, friends, and neighbors. Italian poet Petrarch lamented in a letter to his brother, a monk who was the lone survivor out of 35 people at his monastery: "I would, my brother, that I had never been born, or, at least, had died before these times."
He went on to doubt that anyone in the future could understand their suffering:
When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead, and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?... Oh, happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries.
People Acquired Much More Wealth
If Europeans managed to survive, they benefited from rising wages due to the shortage of labor. In Florence, one chronicler recalled, "Once the plague had finished, anybody who could get hold of whatsoever kind of cloth, or found the raw materials to make it, became rich." Similarly, survivors inherited goods and wealth from their deceased family members:
Someone who had previously had nothing suddenly found himself rich, and couldn't believe it was all his, and even felt himself it wasn't quite right. And both men and women began to show off with clothes and horses.
For peasants, in particular, the plague shifted their relationship with landowners. Peasants began to demand higher wages and less restrictive conditions. With wages rising, peasants could afford better food, and their life expectancy increased.
Europeans Continued Using Fragrant Remedies To Stop The Disease, Even Though Most Didn't Work
Europeans knew the plague was contagious. Italian writer Boccaccio reported that the disease not only spread between people, but a plague victim's clothes could also spread the pestilence. Believing that the disease had spread through bad airs, some remedies relied on sweet smells. Florentines carried bottles of perfume on their belts and doused their hands in vinegar.
For centuries after, Europe continued experiencing plague outbreaks. Some Europeans swore by fragrant remedies as a way to ward off the plague - even though they had, historically, not been effective. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, some 250 years after the Black Death, Antonio de Medici recommended carrying a satin bag of sulfur and arsenic or wearing a medal made of mercury to ward off disease. While some remedies, like vinegar, may have worked, most proved ineffective.