Impact of the Black Death

Junior (College 3rd year) ・History ・MLA ・3 Sources

The Black Death was a tragic and upsetting event in medieval history that had profound historical repercussions that affected every aspect of European civilization. In 1347, the Black Sea was used by traders to transport the Black Death to Europe. The plague spread across Europe as ""12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina."" (Aberth 11). People who resided close to the docking locations experienced the horrifying moments, and the plague started to spread alarmingly quickly. The people affected by this disease suffered from fever and became covered with terrifying black boils which oozed and penetrated blood, thus coining the name of the epidemic - the “Black Death.” The impact was devastating, and in a span of five years, over 20 million people succumbed to the sickness. The death toll was almost one-third of the European population. Additionally, the massive deaths that resulted from the epidemic exposed the drawbacks of the medieval medicine, which led to changes in medical treatment. The tremendous human loss caused by the Black Death, as noted by Boccaccio in his stories, also led to changes in the medieval social hierarchy and rigidity. 

Impact of the Black Death

Boccaccio indicates that the Black Death resulted in the disruption of the old feudalism values. The high death toll weakened the feudalism system leading to shifts in power away from the owners of the land. The enormous casualties also facilitated the social flows between the stages of the previous rigid social hierarchies in the feudal pyramid. In the England, around 1000 villages were abandoned, and massive changes occurred in the entire Europe. Aberth states that the Manor System completely collapsed as the population that was left behind was not enough to work on the large farms (Aberth 23). The peasants that had survived the plague realized that their skills were in high demand and as a result, they demanded higher wages for the labour they provided. The universities lost their students, and over a half of the clerics in Europe died. The people thought that the church was powerless as the Black Death was considered to have been a punishment from God for the sins that people had committed. Furthermore, The Jews were persecuted as they were believed to have poisoned the wells. Thus, the depressing destructions occurred across the land. Also, the Black Death happened at the end of the Feudalism Nobles, and the remaining kings took their lands and power leading to the establishment of the centralized government. The spread of the Black Death along the trading routes also led to the decrease in merchant activities.

The plague took away the lives of one-third of the European population which was a primary consequence behind the changes in social hierarchy and rigidity. Boccaccio mentions that the poor and the rich were equally affected despite the social niche held by each in the society. The poor dropped dead on the streets, and the rich also suffered high mortality rates. Boccaccio indicates that the castles and the luxurious houses that were occupied by many noble people were abandoned. The status quo of the world changed as the rich and the poor people suffered rom the similar hardships. He argues that “it was perhaps inevitable that among the citizens who survived there arose certain customs that were quite contrary to established tradition” (Boccaccio 9). Boccaccio asserts that the overwhelming number of corps on the street, graveyards and the churches meant that nobody cared about the respect that the society initially manifested towards the dead people (Boccaccio 11). His horrific account of the impact of Black Death makes the reader sympathize with the situation. He shows pity and indicates that financial welfare had no value in saving one from the predicament falling upon the society. People were tormented by distress, and Boccaccio set a tone putting the aristocracy in a position that undermines social values.

Surprisingly, the plague had some positive social implications. As noted by Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, & Smith, those who managed to survive then benefited from the diversified agriculture and new education opportunities (394). As the population became smaller, less land was controlled by landlords and was given to farmers instead, who implemented new methods of cultivating crops and cattle breeding. The surplus of products led to healthier diets and better standards of living in general. Given this, couples were likely to marry earlier, thus leading to an increase in birth-rate. As for education, new universities and schools were built in order to meet the needs of the young post-plague generation.

Boccaccio also depicts that the pledge resulted in social shifts which lowered the role of one social class and increased the importance of another. Merchants became the fundamental part of the society. They replaced the aristocrats many of whom passed away during the plague and helped the ones who appealed to them for financial help. The commercial and practical mindset of the merchants developed new social norms, such as individualism and self-sufficiency, which then became increasingly vital to the community. Boccaccio notes that it was hard for one to distinguish a merchant from a prince. Aberth states that “much of the reduction in inequality…was due to deaths from plague and the consequent sharing of wealth among its inheritors” (Aberth 70). The rising in social ranks of the tradesmen and the merchants helped to redefine the various stigmas that were at first associated with traders. Boccaccio indicates the shift in social norms and social values transformation to be the consequence of the property distribution among people due to the extreme mortality rates.


The Black Death undermined the medieval social hierarchy and rigidity in an enormous way. The adverse effects of the disease on the medieval European society devastated the communities and brought a massive death toll with corresponding social transformation. The detrimental consequences of the plague are evident in Decameron and explained by Boccaccio. The stories narrated by Boccaccio also portrayed a rise in the merchants’ importance in the society who occupied the position left by the elite. As a result of the plague, the social environment was renewed, thus leading to better standards of life and more qualitative education. Therefore, the Black Death caused changes that reshaped the course of European history.

Works Cited

Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005. Print.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Ten Tales from the Decameron. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West. 4th ed. Vol. 1. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010. Print.

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