Pestering Society: The Black Death and the Changes in Late Medieval Culture

Today’s post is partly inspired by the 2010 movie starring Sean Bean called Black Death, where Bean plays the part of a medieval crusader in his quest of purging this damned community whose members do not seem to have been contaminated by the plague. I re-watch the film the other day and I remembered this kind of obsession I used to have some years ago- before I started my undergraduate degree and during my first year- about this gruesome topic. Truth is I found the Black Death fascinating. All the changes that Europe and possibly the rest of the world underwent due to the epidemic, how life style and mentalities turned around…The cultural and psychological impact is really what attracted me to the subject, and not the obscenity. So this is what I am going to briefly cover in the next lines (…should be glad I have a word limit, I could go on about this forever…).

One of the first things that shocked me the argument that the Black Death may have had an impact on social change. According to Gottfried, it seems likely that the plague triggered some of the late medieval revolts, such as the ‘Jacquerie’ (France, 1358) or the ‘Ciompi’ in Florence, 1378. Some even go as far as stating that it could have been one of the key factors in the build up towards the Peasant’s Revolt in England. However, one has to remember that the manorial system was already falling in decay. So perhaps, all what the plague did was just speeding up the process.

But the most striking impact, at least from my point of view, affected the subjects of literature, education, philosophy and art. Thus in Northern European literature the Dance Macabre, or Dance of Death became a major lay motif. A similar scenario is presented by some of the Italian renaissance authors: after all Boccaccio’s Deccameron is a story about some people who hide themselves in a house to avoid getting the illness and start telling morbid stories for the sake of entertainment…

The Black Death also contributed to the growth of local universities, due to the general fear of voyages and travelers. Foreigners and outsiders were not welcomed as they could be sources of contagion, so staying at home to pursue further studies was the safest bet. Furthermore, some philosophical movement were fueled by the epidemic, but the most prominent was the Millenarianism, which originated in Germany. Its Apocalyptic message contributed to the social agitation and anxiety, which was  reinforce by the fanaticism of some religious groups, such as the flagellants, which paraded the streets harming themselves in public. Finally, it is worth considering that the plague could be seen as the trigger of many of the late medieval religious heresies. Benedictow argues that the Lollards in England were instigated by the disease to spread their ideas, although this may no be particular to the Lollards but to any reformist religious group. After all, the chaos produced by the illness had a great impact within the church. People started questioning the idea of salvation, they got worried about the after life and wondered if this was a payment for their sins. Meantime, the priests, who were as much victims of the plague as any other social group, showed no “holy protection” as they died like everyone else, and many even refused to offer their services so they would not be exposed. It is perhaps understanding that many, all things considered, became skeptical of the theological cosmos around them and began questioning things. Thus, the Reformation could be seen as the culmination of this heretical and unorthodox movements that sprang because of the Black Death.

In what concerns the field of art, it is unfortunate to say that architectural standards became lower. Due to the loss of population, many specialists, artists and masons died, and the newcomers to the craft were not properly trained as there were fewer skilled people to pass on their knowledge. It is know that in Northern Europe, the Black Death influenced artists to produce works more focus on the narrative element, and that stopped being so influenced by religion and the Christian message. But the idea of decay and disease reached the imaginations of the public and the artists, and so funerals became big festivities and tombs were designed in ways that still chill the visitors of some of the greatest cathedrals in England and the Continent. There are some good examples of this on the effigies found in Wells cathedral, although perhaps the best known example is the tomb of Cardinal La Grange in Avignon.

So, after my brief exploration of some of these issues instigated by the Black Death, I think it is a good point to finish this general overview on the social and cultural changes that took place in the Late Middle Ages. However, I would like to pose a question before I leave. I am not the first one to have asked this, and in fact it was a recurrent theme used by many of the secondary sources I have come across on my research about the Black Death…What would happen if something as violent and drastic as the plague would re-appear modern times, in our world? Would we all overreact and start acting just like our medieval ancestors? Yes, many different diseases have hit and hardened human kind since the beginning of time, and yet we have survived. But change is inevitable. I do also wonder if the late obsession with zombies and zombie-like infections is our modern version of the Dance Macabre…Think about it…half of the population dead, the others left to survive…

4 thoughts on “Pestering Society: The Black Death and the Changes in Late Medieval Culture

    1. Lillian C.G

      That’s quite true! Ties in with the whole issue of workers writing these sort of right-statements, and that’s the trigger for the Ciompi and other revolts of the time


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