Response to Pandemic Death: The Black Death in Europe

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Response to Pandemic Death: The Black Death in Europe

In his what some perceive to be his best known work, The Decameron, Boccaccio writes about his experience as a witness to the infamous 1348 pandemic known as the Black Death. The Decameron is a collection of stories about the Black Death, in one of which he wrote "The healthiest of all humans ate breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestor"(Boccaccio)! This image suggests the rapid and serious nature of the Black Death that killed nearly 25 million people in Europe from 1347-1352(Janis, Rice, Pollard). As would be expected, a pandemic such as this had immense effects on the people of Europe who witnessed it; people reacted in a variety of ways, some rejected religion and lived a more "sensual life," others lived in seclusion, or even resorted to self-inflicted punishment. So how exactly did the Black Death effect the people of Europe? What were their responses to the pandemic? How did these responses effect the social, religious, political and economic structures of medieval Europe? Some, like Zeigler would say that the course of Europe "changed by the coming of the Black Death, which did but accelerate a movement already in being,"(258) suggesting that the Black Death was merely a catalyst for change. Perhaps this is true, but at the same time others argue that the changes that occurred in post-Plague Europe were a direct result of the way the people reacted to the Black Death.

While the focus of this paper is on the aftermath of the Black Death, it is imperative to have a basic understanding of the social and economic condition of Europe during the fourteenth century in order to fully comprehend its impact. Europe spent the majority of the fourteenth century in an economic slump; small villages were becoming overcrowded, famine weakened the lower and middle classes, and the general public was not in a state of well being (Zeigler 32). Famine was a result of poor farming due to erosion, extreme cold weather, and inability to properly take care of the land (33). Death due to starvation skyrocketed with the rapid increase in population and the inability to feed them (34). There small wars being fought from the British Isles to the eastern most parts of Europe where the Black Death was said to originate (Mullet 21, Janis, McNeill 159). Socially, class systems were distinct, the upper class having control over the land and just about everything else. Cities of the time were also very dirty; sanitation was not given highest priority and in an English bylaw of 1309, it was said that "rubbish could be dumped into the Thames River as long as it wasn't lying in the street" (Mullet 30). On a religious level, the Catholic Church was fairly powerful; the clergy was exclusive, influential, and rich. The churches were well attended and the tithes of the people maintained a certain standard of living for the men of the clergy even in a time of economic recession (34-35) Basically, the condition of Europe was waiting for disaster. Economic despair, a weakened and overcrowded population, poor sanitation, and a corrupt government in the hands of the Catholic church paved the way for the Black Death to massacre Europe.

Throughout the first part of the essay I've referred to the pandemic as the "Black Death"; an inclusive term used to describe several different infections caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, a bacillus bacterium (Stone, CDC, Davis, NEJM). At the time of the Black Death pandemic, there were three different types of infection, each with a mortality rate of around 90-95%: Bubonic plague, Septicemic plague, and Pneuomonic plague (CDC, Gross, "The Black Death"). The name "Black Death" is given to the y.pestis or "Plague" outbreak during the five year period between 1347 and 1352, and is named for the swollen lymph nodes in the arms and groin that turned a dark black or purple (CDC, Janis, Davis). Boccaccio, a medieval poet and witness to the Plague, described some of the symptoms of the Black Death in his poem "The Decameron" as "swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs...they would spread and in a short while they would cover the body with dark and livid spots...these were certain indications of coming death"(Boccaccio). The rapid spread of the disease, in addition to the highly contagious nature and staggering mortality rates understandably made the Black Death something to be feared.
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Fear and hysteria spread as quickly through Europe as the disease itself. The initial outbreaks of the disease were recorded in Italy in 1347(O'Sheim, Zeigler 41) and during 1348 outbreaks were recorded in nearly every country in Europe, affecting England, France, Germany, and Italy most severely (Zeigler 42,67,84 and Mullet 17). In a 1347 journal entry, Michael Platensis wrote, "Men hated each other so much that, if a son was attacked by the disease, his father would not tend to him"(CUNV). Similarly, Boccaccio wrote that "the ordeal so withered the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned ...

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This essay is well written and has a good structure. It successfully uses a range of sources to illustrate the points made. It could be improved by applying greater critical analysis to the historical sources used. Four stars.