Note : this post first appeared on my own blog on May 21, 2009. But I found it an interesting enough subject to post it here as well.
I have found a great littl book by Mike Flanangan, IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took. Mike's little book lists dozens of historical events with a short description of it and, most important to the title, he tells us how long it took. The shortest time entry is the photographing of the flag raising on Iwo Jima (1/400th of a second). The longest is The Universe (13.7 to 14.5 billion years).
Today I'm going to discuss The Black Death (1347-51), just because it caught me eye. Reasearch shows that the plague most likely originated in China, where incidents of it are recorded as early as 500 A.D. According IT'S ABOUT TIME, the plague arrived in Spain from Crimea in October 1347 on rat infested merchant ships. From there, it continued to spread across Europe along the trade routes, both over land and by sea. It reached Marseilles, France in January 1348 and Great Britain the following September. By the winter of 1349 it was in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Mike tells us, “This first encounter of the plague ended in Scandinavia in 1351. It returned again in 1365, and many times thereafter,” (109)
Exact numbers on deaths vary from one-tenth to one-third to half the population. And perhaps all three figures are true. Melissa Snell, on About.com medieval's site tells us that while some heavily populated areas were hit hard, “At the same time, a few areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as was previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures taken to prevent the spread of the illness. The lightly-populated and little-traveled region of southern France near the Pyrenees, between English-controlled Gascony and French-controlled Toulouse, saw very little plague mortality. And strangely enough the port city of Bruges was spared the extremes that other cities on the trade routes suffered, possibly due to a recent drop-off in trade activity resulting from the early stage of the Hundred Years War.” So, it's quite possible that some areas of Europe saw half their population die of the dreaded disease, while others were barely touched.
HISTORY OF ENGLAND, a College Outline Series book by Barnes and Noble, gives a pretty good description of The Black Death, aka bubonic plague: Black spots appeared on the bodies of the victims: they vomited blood, broke out with boils, developed a high fever, and soon died.” It goes on to say that unsanitary conditions and lack of medical knowledge most certainly contributed to the spread of the disease and the high number of deaths. (53)
The effects of the plague, at least in England were momentous. Wages increased because there were fewer workers to hire and those still around could demand higher wages. For this same reason, serfs were given more freedom, which resulted in lower land values. Industry and trade were disrupted as well. The economy was going to hell in a hand basket. Parliament tried to prevent wages from rising astronomically with the passage of the Statute of Laborers (1351), but it did little good. In order to save themselves, some lords broke up their lands and others “commuted services of their laborers to money payments instead of following the earlier practice of paying in work or produce.” (53) (mmmm, how do you pay a laborer for work by paying in work? Perhaps you have another laborer do something for the first, like replace a roof?)
According to Mike, the Middle Ages ended in 1453. Even if one takes only the low estimate of 10% of the population of Europe dying in four years, it's not hard to imagine that major economical, political and social changes would have taken place, even without the other events happening in Europe at the time.
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IT'S ABOUT TIME: How Long History Took, Mike Flanagan
HISTORY OF ENGLAND: Survey of Events from 55 BC to Resent Times, J. A. Rickard