In the 1200s, Mongol armies conquered much of Asia, probably setting off the new epidemic, or outbreak of rapid-spreading disease. In the early 1300s, rats spread the plague in crowded Chinese cities, killing about 35 million people there. Fleas jumped from those rats to infest the clothes and packs of traders traveling west. As a result, the disease spread from Asia to the Middle East and then to Europe.
In Europe, the plague brought terror and bewilderment, as people had no way to stop the disease. Some people turned to magic and witchcraft for cures. Others plunged into wild pleasures, believing they would soon die anyway. Still others saw the plague as God's punishment. They beat themselves with whips to show that they repented their sins. Normal life broke down as people fled cities or hid in their homes to avoid contracting the plague from neighbors and relatives.
Some Christians blamed Jews for the plague, charging unjustly that they had poisoned the wells to cause the disease. In the resulting hysteria, thousands of Jews were murdered.
As the plague kept recurring in the late 1300s, the European economy plunged to a low ebb. When workers and employers died, production declined. Survivors demanded higher wages, but as the cost of labor soared, prices rose, too.
Landowners and merchants pushed for laws to limit wages. To limit rising costs, landowners converted croplands to land for sheep raising, which required less labor. Villagers forced off the land looked for work in towns. There, guilds limited opportunities for advancement.
Coupled with the fear of the plague, these restrictions sparked explosive revolts. Angry peasants rampaged in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. In the cities, artisans fought for more power, usually without success. Revolts erupted on and off through the 1300s and 1400s. The plague had spread death and social unrest. It would take Western Europe more than 100 years to fully recover from its effects.
The plague returned repeatedly during the later Middle Ages and into early modern times. Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year vividly chronicled the impact of mass deaths in England in the 1600s.
The Black Death contributed to the end of medieval Europe by transforming Europe's economy and society. Although rulers were able to put down peasant revolts, in the long run, they did not succeed in limiting wages. With a shortage of labor after the Black Death, market forces gave peasants in western Europe more bargaining power. They were able to demand higher wages. In addition, peasants were able to substitute the payment of cash rents for the legal obligations of serfdom that had been the basis of manorialism. The shift to a market economy in western Europe brought the end of the medieval order and ushered in the Renaissance and the modern age.
At the same time, landed nobles suffered from the loss of bargaining power to peasants. Because their incomes were reduced, they were less able to support knights and other fighting men. At the same time, the growth of a market economy supported a growing middle class of artisans and merchants in Europe's towns and cities. In kingdoms such as England, France, and Castile, kings were able to raise taxes from the middle classes in thriving cities to protect them and their trade from bandits and extortionate nobles. In this way, the Black Death led indirectly to a growth in the power of kings and centralized states and the gradual breakdown of the feudalism that was the key feature of medieval Europe.
How did the Black Death affect Europe?
This image is of an angry mob storming a nobleman's fortress. Because of the plague, crops often rotted in the field. Peasants often blamed the lord of the manor for leaving fields fallow.