Monday, June 22, 2009

The Black Plague

The Black Plague, which decimated medieval Europe, is by far the worst epidemic in recorded history, and quite possibly ever. One in every four or five people in Europe died, not to mention those in Asia, wiping out quite swiftly a huge portion of the world’s population. That fact alone would obviously have a huge impact on customs in any town, and the communicable nature of the disease added to the effect of changing customs. Being too scared to come in contact with anyone that might be carrying the disease, and with obvious good reason to be, people abandoned relatives that may be sick and disposed of bodies and handled the dead in a most disrespectful and unsanitary manner.

Piling bodies up in front of houses, and making mass graves are just a couple of examples of this unsanitary and disrespectful behavior, but honestly, who could blame them? The alarming rate at which the bodies would pile up would be overwhelming to a society that lacked the technology, and not to mention the man power seeing as how the population was so decimated, to dispose of the dead properly. If that were to happen in our society who knows what might need to be done to take care of the problem, with one out of every four or five people dead, I don’t think it would be too absurd to assume that we might just, as gross and horrible as it sounds, send garbage trucks around to collect bodies. Besides the uncustomary methods of dealing with the sick and the dead many other aspects of life changed. Boccaccio points out that many people lived life with reckless abandon, thinking, quite correctly sometimes, that each day might be one of their last. People therefore regarded themselves and their belongings with little or no respect, thinking that in a short time they wouldn’t be able to enjoy them anyway so they might as well let everyone else enjoy. Indeed it seems as though town life was in a state of anarchy. Others however behaved opposite to that, secluding themselves and moderating everything.

These changes in customs and society probably lasted no longer then the plague itself did and things most likely gradually returned to normal with the decline in deaths and recession of the plague. However it is not possible for such a disaster, especially one which wipes out such a large portion of the population, to just fade away without any long term effects being visited upon the survivors and the generation which were fortunate enough to live in post-plague times. For instance, as Boccaccio points out, many noble families were left without proper heirs. What then would be done with their fortunes and estates? Certainly not every member of every family was wiped out, so in those cases I’m sure they went through a series of lineages and the eventually came to a “rightful” heir. In this case it seems that those who survived may have found themselves in a very favorable and actionable position to better their own family names and their careers. Another question that remains is who, considering the fact that most eligible people were dead, would be the ones to fill positions in government, or in other areas that were usually reserved for those outside of the peasantry? Of course there were fewer people to govern and therefore fewer affairs to be seen to, but it seems to me that the answer to this question is that there was probably a slight shift in social classes. It seems as though the precariousness of the situation would lead nobles and officials not choice but to accept the help of peasants in areas where peasants were normally forbidden to occupy. I said earlier that it is most likely that not every member of every family died, but I’d be willing to bet that every member of some families did die, in which case someone else, probably another noble family, distantly related or maybe with not other claim than enough sway of his own to make a claim would then take over the deserted estate. If this were the case it seems to me that this would mean a consolidation of power for certain families and could possibly be a step towards unifying certain areas, considering the chief reason for unification of a geographical area at the time was fealty to a lord.

I’m sure that no major event in history, ancient or modern, had such an adverse effect on things such as population, customs, and social classes. But some major events probably had similar effects. The first one that comes to mind would be the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings wiped out in a matter of minutes, a huge part of the population of both of these places, the like of which hasn’t been seen prior to or since then, prompting immediate, although short lived in the grand scheme of things, changes in lifestyles for everyone affected. As far as that goes however, war in general has much the same effect; both world wars decimated the population and the cities themselves in much of Europe. And on the heels of one war America too saw much of its population wiped out by a terrible epidemic, that being the flu, which followed World War I.

Although it was not the first nor the last time the world saw a significant portion of its population wiped out, The Black Plague was probably the most severe and detrimental of all that caused so many deaths. Not through lifestyle changes, medicine or piousness could the plague be avoided. Only luck or an exceptionally strong immune system would save those surrounded by the horrors of the plague. Whether for better of for worse, the plague caused many changes both short lived and long standing to society in Europe. We should all hope to never see such dark times as those.

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