Despite the modern definition of pandemic only becoming established around the 1900s, pandemics and epidemics have troubled humanity for as long as we have written records of humanity itself. Pandemics have been feared by the public as global disasters while epidemics, though less severe, have equally triggered terror in the minds of the people. But, because the essay will be assessing the impacts on human society created by the mere fear of disease outbreaks, irrelevant to the severity of the spread of diseases, the terms pandemics and epidemics will be used interchangeably hereafter under the umbrella term of disease outbreaks. However, scholars such as Yale Professor Frank Snowden would allude to the unstudied aftermath of disease outbreaks on a societal level: the other side of disease history, an unsuspected positive outcomes of pandemic tragedies Yet, still the benefits derived from these outbreaks are often overlooked while efforts to explain the positive outcomes of disease outbreaks through a greater central mechanism have been neglected. A closer examination of history’s notable pandemics and epidemics provides a more complete picture of the impact these disease outbreaks have had on society. Although this essay recognizes that there is no one definitive answer as to how pandemics and epidemics shape the world, in the broadest sense, epidemics and pandemics seem to bring to the surface a pre-existing problem or fragility in society’s infrastructure through the alarming nature of the crisis itself. Such a large-scale problem effectively seizes the attention of society and forces both the public and the government to address structural issues, therefore catalyzing improvements. Throughout history, various epidemics and pandemics may have helped societies to address issues that have long been swept under the carpet including those of societal inequality, public infrastructural problems, and other things. Although it may not be possible to predict that these impacts will hold true for all severe outbreaks, it is at least clear that disease outbreaks do far more than simply cause high levels of casualties. Ultimately, some of the benefits garnered over a long period of time through these outbreaks may compensate, or even outweigh, some of the casualties epidemics causes as disease outbreaks provide human societies with the opportunities to confront frequently overlooked problems. 

Challenging Social Inequalities through Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague, often referred to as the Black Plague or Black Death, devastated global society, caused mass panic and fear, and at some point in history struck nearly every part of the world; for many, the Black Plague is the epitome of a pandemic and remains firmly rooted in history as one of the worst diseases to have ever existed. The plague’s most notable outbreaks occurred in three waves, beginning in 541, 1347, and 1855, but the mass outbreaks of 1347-50 in Europe was by far the most destructive and is the most well-known—in fact, the term Black Death is most frequently used now to refer only to this period. This outbreak is famous for its elimination of much of the European population: from 1348 through 1350 alone, Europe lost, even in the most conservative estimate, one-fourth of its people to the plague. Yet because of these disastrous consequences, the epidemic led peasants to challenge the structurally embedded socio-economic inequality within the feudal European society and help correct the failing feudal system. 

Prior to the outbreak in 1347, peasants were oftentimes subjected to dismal conditions, suppressed under a European society that fostered economic inequalities. During the time, the European continent was organized into fiefdoms where many peasants as serfs were tied to a land owned by the nobility, and the lives of these peasants were in many instances entirely dominated by their overlords. The division between different social classes was immense: in 1300, around 60% of the wealth in Europe was owned by the richest 10%, and that share of wealth by the privileged noble classes consistently increased from 60% to around 65% just before the outbreak of the plague. In addition, while the catholic church utilized its status as the moral standard of the medieval ages to accumulate wealth, the church has also been engaging in trading peasants for economic gains far before black death. This is exemplified by a 13th century manuscript that shows the land and its constituent property — peasants— being considered for donation. This economic disparity between the landed upper classes of society and peasants presented a stark contrast in their lifestyle. For example, before the outbreak in 1347 many members of the nobility were able to afford lavish lives,  regularly consuming large amounts of meat and fish — often such servings accounting to at least half of the noble’s daily food consumption. In contrast peasants barely had any access to such a luxury diet, and the poorest of peasants often found themselves starving. Thus, the societal architecture of the medieval era largely stripped the peasants of any real economic power, effectively diminishing their role to a merely expandable tool for agricultural production. Because many peasants were bound to their landlords as serfs, social injustices were prevalent throughout medieval society, as bound peasants could not negotiate the conditions of their labor and saw few material improvements over time. 

 The black death was by large just the right upheaval to fundamentally transform the medieval society. In that sense, the black death had two main  impacts that helped the medieval society challenge the existing social inequality: the immediate economic uplifting of the peasantry class and the weakening of the local authority of the Catholic Church. 

Following the bubonic outbreak in 1347 the European peasant population significantly benefited from the new economic status. Such economic status came from the immediate effect of the plague,which depleted the labour force — at least one fourth of the population — in Europe through 1347 to 1350.One English chronicle written at the Cathedral priory of Rochester in 1348 to record the plague accounts “there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers.” As the supply of labourers decreased drastically, many lords and members of nobility were left “without service and attendance.” Thus, many nobles were willing to pay more or provide more favourable terms for the peasants.  As a result of these shortages, the value of the workers themselves increased, leading to rapidly rising wages in some parts of Europe: for example, wages in Paris quadrupled in just four years, from 1351 to 1355.   At least at the most superficial level, the conditions caused by the black death uplifted many peasants in poverty, closing some of the wealth gap between the peasants and the noble classes. 

Yet, the claims that the Black Death brought riches for the few  fortunate survivors is not new. Historians like William L. Langer in his published work of 1964 also addresses that “[following the plague] for a short time the towns and cities experienced a flush of apparent prosperity.” Thus, the argument that the plague had a net benefit for the medieval society is still far fetched as the transient period of economic flushing following the Black death is insufficient to compensate for the mass death toll created by the outbreak of 1347-50. However, the long-lasting impact of the plague posed upon the European population through this depletion of resources is often disregarded: a lasting challenge to the traditional rule of the lords and the church. 

Thus, at a deeper level, the plague incited movements to fundamentally transform the unequal medieval society as there were significant resistance to this change in Europe, and many ruling classes at the time desperately attempted to lower the increasing wages of low-class workers through various approaches. One notable example of such resistance portrayed by the ruling classes was the intorduction of a new policy in Castile that threatened peasents and merchants who did not comply with trading goods at lower, pre-plague prices with corporal punishment of up to sixty lashes. Such harsh punishments not only give evidence to the magnitude of the wage increase in several parts of Europe but also testifies to the many societal privileges that the nobility benefited — and was willing to hold on to —  at the expense of the peasants’ low wages and socio economic disenfranchisement. However, these attempts by the privileged classes to combat the climb of wages largely failed. One legislation demonstrates some of the oppressive push back from the noble classes that encouraged the peasants to push for lasting transformative changes; England’s 1351 Statute of Labourers, which set out legislation to fix the post-plague high wages to the wages paid before the Bubonic plague outbreak in 1346, outraged many peasants who set out to rebel against the authorities of the nobles. As insecurities and tensions between the noble classes and the peasants accumulated, a huge crowd of peasants mobilized against the nobles and the church in England. The demands made by the peaseant’s  revolt of 1381 are listed in one recording of the encounter between the King of England Richard II and the leader of the revolt Wat Tyler. The peasant’s revolt made ambitious claims, demanding that “no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen.” Although this rebellion eventually failed, Tyler’s revolt still shows the population willing to rebel against the ruling classes.

This widespread decline of the ruling classes and the embedment of a growing discontent within the peasant population was also notable in the city of Florence where estimated 60,000 have died from the black death. The city’s municipality noted the following statement “ Il Comune constata subito uno sbilancio economico molti cittadini sono rimasti poveri e molti poveri sono diventati ricchi.” In other words, “while many [ruling classes] had suddenly become the poor, the poor suddenly became rich.” Because a sizable portion of the peasants who held up the medieval economy had every incentive to claim more of the economical benefits as peasants became increasingly valuable, the nobles lost the ability to control the peasant population that were now able to simply migrate to find a different lord who would be more willing to pay better wages for the worker’s labour. But more importantly, similar to Tyler’s revolt in England, movements in Florence ciompi to undo the inequalities forced upon the peasant appeared  as well. In a recording of an unnamed leader of the ciompi revolt of 1378, the leader demands the “freedom” of the labours, and he further goes on to claim that the ruling classes were deliberately exploiting the workers, saying that “all those who [with riches and] great power have obtained them either by fraud or by force. [They have] usurped [from the labourers] by deceit or by violence.” It is no coincidence that there were large scale peasants rebellions across Europe as exemplified in both England and Europe, following the outbreaks of 1347-50. The balck death gave the working population of Florence — more generally in many parts of Europe — the capacity and the motivations to rebel against the traditional structures of social inequality.

This feeling of discontent spread past the noble classes and on to the Catholic Church as well.  Because the mechanism for the disease’s spread was not well understood, the plague led many members of society to feel somewhat abandoned by God, forcing them to have doubts on the authority of the Church. Prior to the Black Death, there was a widespread belief that God would spare innocent children from such a horrendous plague. Such belief was relentlessly shattered as the Bubonic Plague did not discriminate against age, and for many, it became increasingly difficult to view the Catholic Church as the legitimate institution in which this disaster was to be solved. The Decameron, a book written during this period to record the plague, even goes as far as to narrate that the “deadly pestilence [was] sent upon us mortals by God in his just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities.” Following was a growing skepticism towards the authority of the Catholic Church and its rules. In fact, though historians like Ziegler acknowledge that some at the time may have doubted God or at least doubted God’s benevolence for humankind, it is important to note that the Black Death also sparked even more devout religious fervor among others, such as the Flagellants. These individuals travelled throughout Europe and publicly beat themselves in the hopes that it would appease God and end societal suffering. Such activities testify to the fact that the century old powers held by the lords and the church were for the first time challenged by the newly rising demands for social justice. 

Regardless, the mass outbreaks of 1347 to 1350 in Europe served to bring trans formative change in the feudal society. In addition to the economic relief, the black death sparked a series of revolts which demonstrated attempts made by the peasant population to consistently challenge the societal inequality prevalent during the middle ages. Black death provided the medieval society to critically reflect upon its vulnerabilities, stimulating certain changes in that process. 

Sang Yoon (Fred) Lee
Sang Yoon (Fred) Lee

He is a Student of NLCS Jeju

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