Good Research Paper About The Black Death
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During the fourteenth century, a devastating plague quickly diffused across Europe and decimated over half of the populations in major cities. Those who survived nonetheless suffered from long-term consequences. The transition from the late Middle Ages to early modern Europe has been touted as the “Age of Uncertainty” during which regular people were far more concerned about religion in their everyday lives rather than on salvation in the future. Thus, they cared about food, war, famine, and widowhood. Disease, famine, and warfare, however, coalesced and laid the foundation for how unhinged European society became when the Black Plague, or the Black Death as it is more commonly known. By 1348, the Black Plague was already present in England and had spread to the Low Countries and France with thirty percent of the population in Europe was decimated. Mortality rates for the Black Death were extremely high, and it hit Italy the hardest because of how many ports it had in operation for trading purposes (Spielvogel 298).The Plague recurred many times throughout the early modern period, as outbreaks of plagues popped up intermittently until the 1700s. The Black Death cultivated a preoccupation with death as a consequence of sin due to the horrific nature of the debilitating physical effects it wrought. A sense of urgency came about living life to the fullest and in the more morally upright right in the present life because people did not know if they might be alive another day. Thus, the Black Death fostered a certain sensibility to live a good life to the fullest due to its virulence and the perception that God struck Europe with it as punishment for sins committed by those living on the continent.
As the most devastating natural calamity to occur in the early modern era, the Black Death caused an upheaval in the political, social, economic and cultural arenas as Europe was transitioning to modernity. The Great Famine had wracked Europe decades prior to the onset and spread of the Black Death beginning around 1314. Indeed, the horrors of the Great Famine as the worst natural calamity in European history were still fresh on people’s minds in northern Europe, as survivor told stories about epidemic diseases, unspeakable crimes, high mortality rates, class warfare, and diffuse hunger and starvation (Jordan 1). This crisis devastated the everyday lives of ordinary Europeans (de Trokelowe). In the decades that followed, observers lamented that the Black Plague superseded the adverse consequences spawned by the Great Famine decades prior. It was so horrific that parents began to abandon their progeny out of their own desperation. One chronicler reproduced the words of a young boy: “Oh father, why have you abandoned me?mother, where have you gone?” (Herlihy 9). Denizens were wracked by an overriding fear that a nefarious force was punishing them for reasons beyond their comprehension, which resulted in human relations being torn asunder. The Black Death indeed was the first horrific epidemic to sweep across Europe since the early Middle Ages (Spielvogel 298). Experts located the etiology of the Black Death in central Asia, and it quickly spread vis-à-vis rodents that moved westward with the conquering Mongols when their natural habitats were fragmented by anthropogenic activities or when their living conditions no longer remained hospitable. Garbiel de Musis, a chronicler who lived through the Black Death and worked as a notary in Italy, explained that during a confrontation between Genoese merchants and Tartar soldiers, after the Genoese retreated behind the safety of their walls, the Tartars besieged them. The Tartars quickly developed an inexplicable yet debilitating disease that forced them to abandon their position and cease the siege. However, prior to retreated, they catapulted corpses over the walls located on the Black Sea, which resulted in the diffusion of the disease in the littoral community there amongst their foes. By 1347, the Genoese fled that littoral community, which further spread the plague to oher parts of Italy (de Musis).Experts refer to the most common form of the Black Death as the bubonic plague that diffused across Europe vis-à-vis black, flea-infested rodents that acted as hosts to Yersinia pestis, an extremely deadly bacteria. The diffusion of this epidemic occurred via commercial trade routes, which explains why littoral communities suffered from disproportionately higher mortality rates than
Europeans whom contracted the plague in one of its various forms suffered from immense physical and psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms of the Black Death were horrific in nature and clearly caused immense suffering in those unfortunate enough to contract it. These symptoms include aching joints, high fever, dark blotches spawned by subcutaneous bleeding, and swelling of the lymph nodes (Spielvogel 298). Boccaccio more vividly described the swelling in the arms, thighs and groins of both men and women, which very few people recovered from (Boccaccio xxvi). Bubonic plague, along with pneumonic plague—which could be identified if the bacterial infection spread to the victim’s lungs, causing the individual to suffer from severe coughing and bloody sputum—were the primary manifestations of the plague that killed Europeans in a swift manner. The septicemic plague did not occur frequently during the Black Death, although it was the most lethal as those infected by it usually died in less than twenty fours after contracting it. This plague was extremely contagious and could easily be passed through human-to-human contact.
Despite the dangers, a handful of nuns and priests tried to help those suffering until they too eventually perished at the behest of the plague. Many other clergymen fled Europe to save their own lives. The masses viewed the plague as a sign that the end of the world was near, so they engaged in illicit sexual behaviors and enjoyed alcohol orgies. A renowned humanist whose writing career reached its apex during the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni Boccaccio was one of the few who survived the initial outbreak of the Black Death. He used the Black Death in his introduction to identify the features that bind an urban community as well as point out the latent tensions within medieval cities. One of the major themes in his most famous work the Decameron is the need and desire to preserve the unity of the city and recognize various sources of disruption within the urban community. Boccaccio thus proffers a description and critique of the church, sacraments, nuns, and friars while also contextualizing them with the Black Death. The Decameron begins with a vivid description of the plague, as Boccaccio discerns how people reacted to the Black Death, the general perception of what initiated it, and how/why it disseminated so quickly. In his preface, Boccaccio describes how the Black Death corrupted the human spirit of Europeans: One citizen avoided another, that almost no one cared for his neighborthis disaster had struck such fear into the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle abandoned nephew, sister left brother, and very often wife abandoned husbandfor the countless multitudes of men and women who fell sick, there remained no support except the charity of their friendsor the avarice of servants, who worked for inflated salaries and indecent periods of time and who, in spite o this, were very few and far between” (Boccaccio 6-7). The fragility of life emerged as one of the primary transformations that occurred in European society as a result of the onset of the plague. Painter Francesco Traini painted Triumph of Death circa 1350, which depicts the image of a nefarious skeleton who is going on a rampage on horseback, stampeding a crowd of helpless and pious-looking Europeans (King 61).
Boccaccio further opines that many individuals engaged in “plenty of drinking and enjoyment, singing and free living and the gratification of the appetite in every possible way, letting the devil take the hindmost was the best preventative of such a malady; and as far as they could they suited the action to the word. Day and night they went from one tavern to another drinking and carousing unrestrainedly” (Boccaccio xxv). Clearly, many Europeans viewed the Black Death either as divine punishment for the sins that Europeans committed time and again or something sent by Satan to torture them. As a result, many Europeans drastically changed their lifestyles and lived as ascetics in order to cleanse themselves of their sins and begged for the forgiveness of God. This explanation illuminates why the flagellants emerged as a popular movement during the middle of the fourteenth century, as both men and women inflicted physical wounds using whips on themselves as a way of asking God for forgiveness (Spielvogel 299).
Reactions to the Black Death were varied and seemingly irrational from a modern perspective due to the importance placed on religion during that epoch. Wealthy elites and powerful officials abandoned their country estates and insulated themselves from vectors of the deadly disease. Boccaccio observed that the elites “maintained that no remedy against plagues were better than to leave them miles behind. Men and women without numbercaring for nobody but themselves, abandoned the city, their houses and estates, their own flesh and blood evenin search of a country place” (Boccaccio xxvi). Attempts to curtail the harshness of the Black Death proved futile, and observers struggled with merely explaining it beyond the perspective of divine punishment. Another explanation that gained credence amidst the Black Death was the notion that Jews—whom have historically been a scapegoat for the evils that occurred in western civilizations—caused it by purposely poisoning the water supplies for various European towns. Jews had hitherto been persecuted in Spain and Germany, but by 1351, major Jewish communities across Europe were torn asunder and exterminated within a short time period (Spielvogel 301). Regardless, it is unequivocal that the ubiquity of death as a result of the plague and its litany of recurrences profoundly affected people. The few survivors seemingly treated life as fleeting, thereby cheapening their very own existence as something that too shall pass. Violence deaths became far more common during the aftermath of the plague. Clergymen delivered sermons in which they articulated their own preoccupation with death and disease, reminder their congregations that every night they should treat as if it were their last one on earth. Tombstones were constructed and decorated in a macabre fashion, as scenes of snakes intertwined with naked corpses emerged as a salient image in the corpus of European art that proliferated in the aftermath of the plague (301). Observers cast artwork created during the fourteenth century as morbid and far more realistic than previous art forms (320). Ultimately, the sharp decline in Europe’s population during the fourteenth century destabilized the social and economic make-up of European countries due to the shortages (Tracy 224). The inefficacy of government efforts to thwart the Black Death epidemic stemmed from the fact that city governments such as those in Italy did not know possess a theoretical understanding of the contagious disease and the course it took (King 59). Various city governments deployed various control mechanisms such as quarantining the infected and burying the dead in mass graves prevent them from becoming vessels of the disease.
Barbara Hannawalt proffers a different yet cogent interpretation on the effects of natural disasters on European society and contends that during times of crises such as the Black Death in agrarian societies, it is natural for various types of economic, community, and/or family bonds to form that tie people together. She posits that the family was the fundamental and primary source of stability during periods of natural crises and “cataclysmic changes” (Hannawalt 3). Hannawalt argues that the nuclear family bonds forged between parents and their children remained stable despite the impact of environmental crises. Medieval families mirror modern families because they are predicated on biological factors rather than socio-cultural factors. Thus, Hannawalt criticizes historians for historical construction and contends that there is biological continuity in the relationship between wives and husbands throughout time. While culture plays a role in shaping ideas about gender, there is the idea of male-female symbiosis and partnership even during times of crises (154). Manorial courts reveal “mutual responsibility and decision making” between husband and wife, because while gender may have determined the types of labor done by each partner in marriage the ultimate goal for both husband and wife was for the household unity to survive and prosper (155). The title of the monograph itself alludes to the notion that family bonds endured even after the catastrophic environmental event of the Black Plague even though the community bonds broke down. Family bonds, Hannawalt reiterates, endured the economic disruption that characterized sixteenth century Europe, as the nuclear family unit remained the key and foundational unit to peasant lives. Everyone within the family was valued equally for what they could contribute to the family unit. Thus, Hannawalt argues against the notion that community bonds were stronger and more essential than the family bond. She relies on the reader’s commonsense to accept that her portrayal of peasant families represents a trans-historical reality because biology was the basis and underlying factor in constructing culture, and agricultural societies functioned upon this biological model of the family unit.
Hannawalt’s monograph underscores the Black Death as a seminal moment in European history, and she sought to illuminate the lives of the ordinary masses through a unique methodology that called for her to look at untraditional sources in a novel manner. She analyzes court records that proved to be very fertile and allowed her to gain new insights and new interpretations in order to advance the field of social history. Because peasant letters and diaries do not exist, social historians in pre-modern societies must be creative and look to criminal and judicial records as a source of evidence. Hannawalt reconstructed the lives of peasants by looking at the way they died, inverting the documents about death and very violent and tragic events to understand their lives. She thus presented an innovative approach to social history by comparing herself against other scholars and asserting that her method of approaching social history is how social history should be done and thus how medieval peasants must be understood; other scholars, she posited, used anthropological models incorrectly and argues against the notion that medieval peasants are pre-modern. This anti-Marxist reading of the European peasantry was fallacious, which she proved through her core argument that despite socio-cultural shifts, human biological needs sustained the institution of the family as a sturdy and flexible one. Thus, Hannawalt’s work represents a sharp deviation from the prior historiography on peasant life during the medieval period but leaves room for more scholarship to be done, as she elided a discussion of the peasantry in urban spaces.
Many chroniclers rendered the Black Death as the single most terrifying natural disaster that people living in European society during the Middle Ages had to endure. When natural calamities hamper food production the result is economic inflation, social discontent, privation, and sometimes painful death. Barbara Hannawalt looks at material realities rather than viewing humans as social or cultural constructs in her reconstruction of the lives of peasants in medieval Europe. She views nature in terms of biology to justify her emphasis on the peasant family as a foundational institution not unlike the modern-day family. A flexible institution, the family has adapted to various shifts in economic systems yet has endured and can be recognized as a significant institution that structures people’s lives in the modern-day. Nature and its various nuances form bonds that tie people together during times of crises. Through these works, it is evident that nature has historically defined what it meant to be human, as humans and human experiences are shaped by forces of nature as well as how nature is used.
Boccaccio, Giovanni, and Richard Aldington. The Decameron. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Pub., 1949. Print
de Trokelowe, Johannes Annates, H. T. Riley, ed., Rolls Series, 28 (London, 1866). 92-95. Translated by Brian Tierney. Web. http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/famin1315a.asp
Hanawalt, Barbara. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.
Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, ed. Samuel K. Cohn Jr. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1997. Print.
Jordan, William C. The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.
King, Margaret L. The Renaissance in Europe. China: Laurence King Publishing, 2005. Print.
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization since 1300. 5th ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2003. Print.
Tracy, James D. Europe's Reformations, 1450-1650. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.
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