In Depth

How the black death changed the world

The plague brought about the rise of the middle class - and pubs

The Black Death is the world’s most infamous plague, killing an estimated 75m people and profoundly changing the way survivors lived their lives.

In Europe, the disease killed half the population, and completely wiped out some towns when it struck in Britain in 1348-49.

But the Black Death returned regularly, first in 1361 and continuing - increasingly as an urban disease - until the Great Plague of 1665 in London.

Here is how it changed the world.

Social effects

We know now that deaths caused by the plague’s first outbreak came to an end in around 1350, but those living through “the pestilence” at the time would have thought everybody would die.

As a result, “moral and sexual codes were broken, while the marriage market was revitalised by those who had lost partners in the plague”, says BBC History.

More importantly, it has been argued that the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism, the system in which peasants worked for lords in exchange for goods and land.

Within a year of the onset of the plague, in 1349, a law was introduced barring labourers from getting higher wages due to the shortage of workers. In 1363, another law was introduced banning lower classes from wearing high-quality cloth and attempting to limit their diet to basic foods.

These measures, aimed at suppressing the social aspirations of the lower classes, led in part to the Great Revolt of 1381.

While the uprising failed to bring about revolution, it “succeeded, however, as a protest against the taxation of poorer classes insofar as it prevented further levying of the poll tax” which had been introduced that year, says Britannica.

Cardinal Gasquet, a 19th-century English Benedictine monk and historical scholar, noted the rise of the middle class thanks to their accumulation of the wealth of those who had died.

Religion

Clergymen were no more immune to the disease than their less pious contemporaries. Many of the clergy fell sick and died, while others deserted their posts and left their churches.

“Distrust in God and the church, already in poor standing due to recent Papal scandals, grew as people realised that religion could do nothing to stop the spread of the disease and their family’s suffering,” says Live Science.

Clergy killed by the disease were often replaced by far less literate and far more corrupt men. This contributed to the decline in the church, and was partly what led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Class

Some historians believe that the wealthy were able to avoid the plague because they had the means to do the only thing known to avoid catching it: run away from it.

But the nobility did not avoid the disease entirely. The Duke of Lancaster fell victim, as did one of King Edward III’s daughters, as well as nobles, archbishops and abbots.

The young and healthy – including children – were said by some to be particularly at risk. Geoffrey le Baker, a chronicler at the time, noted this, writing “the weak and elderly it generally spared”.

But modern studies examining Black Death skeletons have found that the link between frailty and death, suggesting – as we see with modern diseases like coronavirus – that people who were unwell before they caught the disease were more at risk.

“It makes sense that the Black Death would kill people who are already weak,” Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University at Albany, who made the discovery, told LiveScience. “It killed selectively. Even with diseases as horribly devastating as the Black Death, even then there are differences in individuals’ risk.”

Genetic shift

The Black Death caused so many deaths that, even today, genetic diversity is lower in the UK than it was in the 11th century, says New Scientist.

The plague also “left a mark on the human genome, favouring those who carried certain immune system genes”, says Science magazine. “Those changes may help explain why Europeans respond differently from other people to some diseases and have different susceptibilities to autoimmune disorders.”

Study leader Mihai Netea, a researcher in experimental internal medicine at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands, said modern-day analysis shows variation in genes between plague-hit areas, and places that largely avoided it.

“We show that there are some immune receptors that are clearly influenced by evolution in Europe and not in northwest India,” said Netea. “India did not have the medieval plague, as Europe had.”

British pub culture

The Black Death was a devastating disease, but from the darkness emerged one bright light. The rise in wages following the plague meant that people had more disposable income, and they decided the best thing to buy with their new wages was ale.

“That’s the origin of the pub – it’s a particular place, it’s not just that Mrs So-and-So brews beer occasionally and you can nip round and buy a farthing’s worth of beer,” said professor Robert Tombs of the University of Cambridge in the Daily Mail. “Mrs So-and-So has now become a full-time brewer and her house is a public house and anyone can go in any time and drink and maybe eat and certainly socialise.

“There have been endless changes in pubs, but that seems to be when it really started as an institution,” said Tombs.

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