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Pests & History: How the plague impacted Europe Q & A

Last week we posted part one of a Q & A that we did with Mark Smith, Professor of History at the College of Idaho.  Here is part one if you missed it.  We spoke about how plague was transferred to humans in Europe (fleas and rats), and what happened to the people in it’s immediate aftermath.  

Despite all of the time that has passed since the plague pandemics of the Dark Ages, the Plague, and the fears that it engenders, are still alive and kicking.  Earlier this year, I noticed in the news that 2 cats were found dead due to plague in Elmore County, Idaho.  This news, and my conversation with Mark has underscored the fact that pests & their diseases are still a real part of life, a part of history.

So here we go.  Part 2 begins….now!

Kirk:  How did Europe change because of The Black Death?

Mark Smith:  The most obvious effect was in the realm of economics.  With the massive loss of lower classes, much of the labor force of Europe was wiped out.  At the time, in countries such as France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire, manorialism and serfdom were dominant.  This agrarian system was based on an exchange whereby the serf exchanges labor and mobility for support and protection.  Serfs were tied to the land of their lords for generations.  The labor shortage after the Black Death gave lower classes a leverage they had never known before.  Survivors now found themselves in a position of high demand, which permitted them to demand higher wages and, if they didn’t get them, to find jobs elsewhere.  In the long run, the Black Death spelled the beginning of the end of serfdom. 

Kirk:  How did society change?

Mark:  Socially, the Black Death exacerbated class tensions, leading to peasant revolts and conflicts between urban and rural interests, not to mention the expansion of a merchant elite in many areas. 

Kirk:  How was religion changed?

Mark:  The religious effects of the Black Death cut in opposing directions.  Some found it difficult to believe in a God who would permit such an epidemic.  Others looked inward, blaming the epidemic on their own sinfulness, and thus turned to deeper forms of religious devotion.  Others yet blamed the epidemic on the corruption of the clergy, and thus developed anti-clerical attitudes that became widespread as the Protestant Reformation drew nigh.  These tensions were celebrated in such artistic traditions as Passion Plays (best known from Oberammergau) and the widespread artistic motif of the Dance of Death (best known from Lucerne, Switzerland).  The Roman Catholic church engaged in the indignity of the Great Papal Schism, which dramatically reduce the prestige of the Popes, while the Italian and Northern Renaissances drew attention back to classical Greece and Rome,  to the detailed textual and contextual study of the Bible, and to early Christianity. 

Kirk:  Politics had to have been impacted also.  In what ways?

Mark:  Politically, the balance of power changed radically over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, though it’s difficult to determine just how much of that change was a direct result of the Black Death.  Feudalism declined, merchant capitalism flourished, France and Italy emerged as powerful players, while England and the Holy Roman Empire saw their influence wane, at least for a while.

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