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How did the Black Death change Europe?

How did the Black Death change Europe?

Period somewhat imprecise, historians tend to frame the Late Middle Ages between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries to speak of a transition stage between the medieval and modern world. The Late Middle Ages still belong to the Middle Ages, but in their evolution, medieval social and cultural features are losing ancestry , while a series of structural changes that contain the requirements for the development of a qualitatively new social system: the Modern Age .

These profound changes are generated by the accumulation of small variations in all areas of the Late Middle Ages. In the social and economic scene, transit meant the appearance of a class of entrepreneurs (associated in unions) and another of urban wage-earners who worked, saved and consumed in an economy that, with many limitations, evokes the capitalist. The investment of funds in different fields (manufacturing, commercial and agricultural) led to the search of increasingly specialized personnel, which raised the general level of instruction. Education became more secular, and a new interest arose in science and technology.

The progressive implantation of these mutations used a series of factors that we can not consider triggers, but determinants, since they acted as regulators and even as accelerators of change: the social, economic and agricultural crisis, hunger, war and, above all of them, the black plague.

The crisis of the Middle Ages

The crisis of the Middle Ages

If the European High Middle Ages was a stage of scarcity, structural rigidity and survival against external enemies, in the late Middle Ages the man raises his head for the first time and looks at a horizon that finally launches to explore. The old society of monks, warriors and peasants is now joined by the bourgeois, an inhabitant of the villages, or cities, which will complicate the old feudal order with its demands. The development of agriculture leads to an unusual economic prosperity, which will allow the flourishing of Romanesque and Gothic art, as well as the birth of universities, and whose impulse to trade relations will open new communication routes between peoples.

Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, these characteristics dominated the journey of European society. However, with the XIV, the formula began to show signs of exhaustion . The volume of agricultural production, based on the rotation and the three-year rotation, lost balance with respect to the much greater growth of the population. The three-year alternation did not allow the land to rest enough, and many of the broken soils were not fertile enough . A succession of torrential rains and bad harvests gave rise, between 1315 and 1318, to famines in a large part of Europe . “This is the tempest with which the tragic 14th century opens,” the French historian Jacques Le Goff would say.

The Buonsignori of Siena, the Scali, the Bardi or the Peruzzi of Florence

The Buonsignori of Siena, the Scali, the Bardi or the Peruzzi of Florence

The world of finance, which had developed since the end of the twelfth century in parallel with trade, suffered a severe setback at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The mass of circulating currency began to remain small for the needs of the economy, to which were added loans to the kings, who made their bureaucracy grow and embarked on strenuous wars. The Buonsignori of Siena, the Scali, the Bardi or the Peruzzi of Florence, all of them great families of medieval bankers, will break upon entering this century . On the level of construction, the technical limitations became evident, and at the end of the 13th century the cathedral of Beauvais collapsed under its own weight. The cathedrals of Cologne, Narbonne and Siena, clear exponents of Gothic gigantism, will be unfinished due to lack of funds.

The XIV, in addition, was a century of wars . The territorial struggle between France and England known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) was devastating, but not the only one. Italy spent the century engaged in civil clashes, as did Castile, who lived the fight between brothers of Pedro I the Cruel and Enrique de Trastamara, while Germany suffered a period of great political anarchy. To these pulses by power we should add the numerous social revolts that took place, both peasant and bourgeois. France lived that of the Jacquerie (1357), a burst of hatred of the humble classes towards the lords. England also saw a peasant uprising in 1381, although the most bloodthirsty was unleashed in Flanders between 1323 and 1328. For the French historian Henri Pirenne, “it was an attempt at social rebellion directed against the nobility in order to snatch judicial and financial authority ” The atrocity of the struggle was refined to the point that the nobles and the rich were forced to kill their own parents before a crowd. “Men felt disgust to live,” expressed a chronicler of the time.

However, the peasant revolts were no more than isolated, local and discontinuous explosions, without any consequence in the medium or long term. It can be said that, in general terms, their insurrections were shorter, bloodless and sterile than those carried out by the bourgeoisie against the urban oligarchies in the large industrial towns of the Netherlands, in the German cities on the Rhine or in Italy.

Amid social tensions, crises and wars, appeared in 1347 the most lethal epidemic known to the Middle Ages, the Black Death , which would leave an unprecedented trail of death and misery. “With so much horror this affliction had entered the bosom of men and women, that one brother abandoned the other and the uncle the nephew and the sister the brother, and often the woman her husband, and what greater thing it is and almost incredible, the fathers and mothers avoided visiting and attending to the children as if they were not theirs, “Boccaccio describes in the Decameron . For the anonymous author of Journeys of Juan de Mandeville , a classic of literature also written in that century, “it seemed as if there had been a battle between two kings, and the most powerful and with the largest army would have been defeated and most of their murdered people. ” Around 48 million people would have died directly or indirectly , either through contagion, abandonment -in the case of the elderly and children- or lack of basic resources.

Around 48 million people would have died directly or indirectly from the Black Death

Around 48 million people would have died directly or indirectly from the Black Death

The first impact of the plague was, therefore, demographic. The lives it took in just seven years would take two centuries to recover, while the survivors would reorganize in a different way. During the epidemic years, the rural population had moved to the cities in search of food and companionship, and given the large number of vacancies left by the plague, it would not have to return. The countryside was depopulated, while life in the cities was revitalized , driven by the concentration of fortunes that followed the high mortality. The old rural aristocracy, accustomed to living comfortably off rents, found two possibilities: to rent their land at lower prices or to exploit it directly, hiring farmers and paying them ever higher wages. The seignorial power lost, therefore, part of its purchasing power, while day laborers, suddenly valuable due to their scarcity, saw their welfare increase.

The growth of urban fortunes leads many wealthy bourgeois to invest large sums in the countryside. The passivity of the nobility during the feudal period had greatly reduced the productivity of the land, and the emergence of these agents will mean a revitalization of agriculture, introducing new methods and pursuing profitability objectives . The day laborers will soon understand that the bourgeois – some with newly acquired titles – will not be more kind or less demanding than the old gentlemen. However, the criteria of rationality will make agricultural work increasingly intelligent and systematic, and will generate an upward cycle that will affect all sectors.

While the field grows, a similar phenomenon occurs in the cities.

While the field grows, a similar phenomenon occurs in the cities.

Social struggles allow the bourgeoisie to capture higher levels of power , and the accumulation of capital opens a new stage for entrepreneurship, although this time with a more logical approach, almost scientific, to avoid the mistakes of the past. “That before there were great businessmen can not be doubted, but it is now when – probably as a consequence of the difficulties, the complications, the weakening of commercial life – some normative ideas begin to be introduced into the business technique. : secular sense of time, sense of precision and foresight, sense of security “, explain specialists Alberto Tenenti and Ruggiero Romano.

The shortage of arms and the rise of the bourgeoisie were decisive for the development of technology , one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance, closely linked to the parallel advance of science. The machines reduce the amount of force and work necessary, and appear to serve a certain class, the bourgeoisie, which finds in them a concrete response to their needs. In the technical ascent an essential change of mentality prevails, since manual labor – the mechanical arts – was despised during the Middle Ages. Leonardo da Vinci claims it when he says: “In my opinion, the sciences that are not born of experience, the mother of all certainty, and that do not end in a defined experience, are vain and full of errors”. Science and technology go hand in hand, and good proof of this are the calculations of the architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi, prior to the construction of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence.

In the technical ascent, an essential change of mentality prevails

The case of Santa María del Fiore is a paradigm of the transformation that took place. Its construction had been delaying since the late thirteenth century. The lack of money and manpower was postponing the project until, finally, it was retaken in 1417. For its spectacular dome, of a scale never seen before, superior to that of the Pantheon in Rome, Brunelleschi had to invent enormous mechanisms with pulleys to raise the construction materials as the works took height.

The irruption of the machines reduced the need for a motive force, but also significantly cut the construction time . The machine not only replaced the person, but also improved it, at least in terms of their work rate. A concept, that of time, totally new, associated in the Renaissance mentality with the shortness of life that medieval man experienced throughout the hectic 14th century.

The technique reverberated in the industrial activity, which re-emerged in the years after the plague. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries left us in the West inventions as significant as paper, the mechanical clock, the application of gunpowder to firearms, blast furnaces, the printing press or crank-crank system, which would have so many uses , in addition to innumerable innovations in navigation and cartography.

The great epidemics of the fourteenth century , mainly the plague, but also others of malaria, cholera, typhus or leprosy, contributed to the development of health prevention . The Health Boards established in Florence and Venice in 1348 to alleviate the innumerable problems generated by the plague were an antecedent of the permanent magistracies that would appear in the fifteenth century in Milan, Florence and Venice, and which are characteristic of the administrative bureaucracy of the Modern age. In addition, in the passage from the 14th to the 15th century the reverence professed towards the human body diminished, which began to be investigated from a medical point of view. The Renaissance plastic representation of man as a beautiful and proportioned being aroused interest in anatomy, and, from this science, curiosity also extended to physiology.

The neutrality of death

The neutrality of death

In the course of the medieval man to the Renaissance the experience of death had a determining weight. The arrival of the plague in Europe generated such a commotion that the art of dying took on a decisive importance . Little by little, the bulk of the community of the faithful ended up displacing their religiosity to the moments before death and neglected every purpose of a Christian life, a corruption of religiosity that the clergy did not know how to stop. By centering the meaning of existence in the transit to the beyond, there was an agony before the uncertainty of salvation that had little to do with the accidental-and even happy-trance toward the eternal life proposed by Christian doctrine. It was an interpretation of death other than the religious one. In the fear of the Judgment of God, the sense of the macabre arose, a reaction of repulsion at the ugliness of death and the sight of the putrefying body.

Along these lines, a personification of death emerges in iconography as a being that acts on its own initiative and whose power seems irresistible. “A woman in black cloak wrapped / with such fury that I do not know if never / in Flegra would show the giants”, sings the poet Petrarca in the triumph of death , in the fourteenth century. The frequent experience of death as an entity neither benign nor malignant, but terrifyingly neutral, gradually transforms the collective perception of it . Thus, it goes from generating a psychic horror or a physical repulsion to represent a universal force that is projected onto all men. “Death is impartial and does not perform any ethical function, it is the symbol of a law that applies to all men without exception and without moral motivations,” Romano and Tenenti explain.

It will be in the neutrality of death when man becomes aware of himself

It will be in the neutrality of death when man becomes aware of himself

as a man, and not as a Christian. An individual dimension of existence appears through death , which is at the same time the destiny of all and the fate of each one. And, from that individualism, one feels love for his life, even knowing that it is brief. And it harbors a deep melancholy before the abandonment of earthly joys. The dance of death , one of the first choral manifestations of the new secular culture, is presented as a sarcastic metaphor of the impartiality of death, which dances with all social classes, from the bishop to the emperor or the peasant. But, at the same time, there appears in her the insurmountable bitterness of physical annihilation, which gives a meaning to earthly life and which seems to forget the promises of paradise. There arises a longing for glory, for wanting to endure in earthly life, very characteristic of the Renaissance. The tombs are adorned to raise some dead over others in memory, and, for the first time, the portrait acquires iconographic genre dyes. The great men of the Renaissance will want to perpetuate their greatness in a vain desire for human survival, for bodily immortality .

The vitalist sense of Renaissance man and his individualism owe much to the experience of death, which flies over the entire fourteenth century, but which is revealed with all its exterminating power, hand in hand with the plague, in the second half. The development of commercial routes made the period suitable for the rapid transmission of a large part of the population. But if the century evolved in a way that seemed to favor the transmission of the plague, it caused such a demographic, economic and psychological upheaval that precipitated the transformation processes that, in a surreptitious way, had been taking place, and that would culminate with the passage of a medieval society to another Renaissance one.

The plague contributed to the weakening of feudalism

The plague contributed to the weakening of feudalism

led to the accumulation of capital in the hands of the bourgeoisie and projected on the collective sensibility a secular sense of death that weakened the Christian myth of paradise, inclining men toward earthly prosperity and prosperity. The new man who emerged from the plague exhibited, in addition, an observation capacity and a scientific inclination that led him to be more careful with the prevention of epidemics, setting in motion the first rudiments of modern epidemiology. The circle of causes and effects caused by the plague then closed definitively.

This article was published in number 568 of the magazine Historia y Vida. If you have something to contribute, write to redaccionhyv@historiayvida.com.