Monday, February 1, 2016

The Black Death, not so bad, if it didn’t kill you.

I should explain the title of this post before I get angry comments about it.

The plague, or the Black Death, which swept around the world was without a doubt the most devastating pandemic in the history of the world.  When it peaked in 1353, it had killed an estimated 75-200 million people.

The name Black Death, originates from the appearance of people once they were infected.  This was caused by the skin becoming gangrene, one of the symptoms of this plague. This gangrenous skin would turn black, particularly around fingers and hands. People who had been infected at this time would most likely die within 2 – 7 days after being exposed to the plague.

Although we are familiar with the phrase, Black Death, this was not used until the mid-1400’s; during its peak, it was referred to as “The Great Plague” or “The Great Mortality”.

When the plague struck Europe, it was still in the dark ages, rumors and superstitions made most of the medical and scientific decisions.  Many people in infected countries blamed the Jewish residents, believing they had poisoned the water wells. Whole Jewish communities such as those in Mainz and Cologne in Germany were totally exterminated. In Strasbourg, France over 2,000 Jews were murdered.

Without any knowledge of how the plague was spreading, blame then went to witchcraft. The witch-hunts became more rampant as thousands of innocent people were tried, imprisoned and killed. For more information, please refer to one of my recent posts.

If this plague was so devastating, how could it be beneficial? 

One of the major benefits of the plague was it produced stronger people. This is a basic concept of survival of the fittest.  Before I begin, this is not a concept created by Charles Darwin, as many believe. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and that of Herbert Spencer, both of whom had developed the concept before Darwin came out with “On the Origin of Species”.

Basically, those who had not died during the plague did so because their immune system was stronger than those who did. Recently, it has been discovered that decedents of Europeans who had survived the plague, had their genes altered by the disease, triggering genetic coding enabling them to withstand bacterial infections better than those whose ancestors did not.

 In some recent posts, I discussed the serfs and free tenants. It is this class that probably suffered the worse, and benefited the most from the onslaught of the Black Death.

The most dramatic influence the Black Death was the fact it did kill so many people.  Before the plague hit, there were communities of people working the same land. After the plague hit, there were less serfs, so more land per individual. This by itself would not have had a big impact, but other factors were occurring at the same time.

History is not one event occurring one after another, but, a blending of numerous events which shape the people it touches. This is true with the plague, and the fewer serfs left to work the land.

Before 1100, A.D. farming was primitive compared to later times. There were two ways to work the land, by hand using hoes, or by using oxen. Working the land by hand was tedious and exhausting, and only a small piece could be worked per day. Oxen are very strong, but very slow, and it could take hours to tile the land.

The reasoning why oxen was used and not horses was the technology used as the collar.  The common device used at that time was the yoke, which sits across the massive shoulders of the ox. If you place this device on the horse, the animal must use its front shoulders to pull the plough behind it, removing its power from its rear legs. The yoke also cuts across the windpipe of the horse, causing it to breathe hard and tire more easily.

A fully functioning horse collar was invented in China between the 2nd to 5th centuries.  It eventually made it to Europe and was in full use around 1100 A.D. I cannot emphasize how important the horse collar had on agriculture in European countries. With this collar, the horse could apply over 50% more power than an ox, who although is stronger tires easier and is slower.

Now, with a horse pulling the plough, and more land (since his neighbors had died), a serf found himself in a unique position; he now had potential for more wealth. Since there were fewer serfs to take his place, he also had more leverage to deal with the manor lords and royalty; negotiating terms of his land contract.

These factors mentioned above, contributed to something new, which had not been seen in the world before: the creation of a middle class. The serfs found more opportunities, and ability to move up in the order of society. Although, he was not royalty, he could find himself higher than those around him. The more wealth he could acquire, the higher in society he became, this was the birth of capitalism.

This is where we will leave off, and next week, we will continue with our discussion about the benefits of the plague on society.


W.A. Rusho is an amateur historian, professional wrestler and author of “Legend of the Mystic Knights”.


  1. Wllliam -- what a fascinating post. I was particularly struck by your comment about the immune system of some Europeans being so strong and this has carried through the gene pool to the current day. I'm of European descent and very healthy. I have friends my age who have had many ailments. It proves the adage that life is unfair.

  2. Those really were dark times. I had no idea that millions were killed. It must have been absolutely terrifying wondering whether you were going to catch it and seeing loved ones dying. Interesting that those who were not killed were deemed to have a strong immune system.

    Thank you for my history lesson!

  3. William, I really enjoy the historical research you do. I love history and I love research so this touches on both my interests. I don't imagine people in those days thought anything good could come from the plaque but it's not hard to imagine how the 'lack' of serfs would give those left greater bargaining power.

  4. I must admit the title of your post immediately intrigued me William but I do get your point. I'm definitely a big picture kind of person so I've always been fascinated by ancient history and how various events unfold to contribute to the evolution of society. Like Jeannette I'm also of European descent, and have been blessed with exceptionally good health, unfortunately that trait must have skipped a generation because not so much for my parents.

  5. Had no idea the plague wiped out those numbers of people! What an eye-opener. I'm reminded of Scrooge and his "...deplete the surplus population," comment. I'm intrigued to read what other benefits came out of such a tragedy. What caused it?

  6. Very interesting take on how the plague was a precursor to capitalism. Fascinating about how the development of the horse collar made such a big difference in farming the land. Thank you for your thought provoking post.

  7. Disease is so fascinating. This post brings to mind in a roundabout way what's said about the increase in asthma and allergies. Kids are washed so often that they don't build up the same defenses that they used to. A little dirt doesn't hurt... well unless it's in the form of the Plague and you have weak genes.

  8. This look at positive impacts resulting from the Black Death was fascinating, I'd not read this before. I also like your comment about history being a blending of numerous events So true. I really enjoy the historical research you do.

  9. It's kind of funny that in our Linked In blogger group your headline about the plague being "not so bd" appeared right below another person's post about postiive thinking. This is an interesting and informative story. I had never heard about the German extermination of Jews in the 15th century. Look forward to next week's continuation.

  10. You'd think that you'd avoid the Black Death by
    (1) keeping your socializing to a minimum - it was contagious, right? the fewer people you hang out with, the less likely you are to get it - and
    (2) doing whatever it takes to keep rats out of your home.
    If it was actually an immune system thing, however, then that suggests you'd avoid it by doing things your doctor would tell you to do today: eat your fruits and veggies, get enough sleep, drink moderately or not at all, etc. - does that sound about right?

    1. Most of the plague was spread by fleas on rats, so in Europe most of people had rats in their homes, even in castles.
      You must remember during this time, most people worked all day long, and also had barely enough food to eat. So their immune system was almost shot anyways.

  11. The Black Death, yes it wiped out a multitude of people in Europe and spread by rats. What's scary is that there are countries in the world that have developed plague and could, if they decide it would benefit them, use it for biological warfare.