International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 05 December 2017  
Unit 2 - Lesson 3 - The Black Death
The growth of towns and the influence of Islam, gradually undermined the feudal system in Europe in the later Middle Ages. The third factor in the decline of feudalism was anything but gradual. The shock of the Black Death was unprecedented in human history and the most significant event of the medieval period. It changed everything. In this lesson we are going to focus on the consequences of the Black Death, but before we do that we need to look at the nature of the Black Death itself.

Activity 1 - The nature of the Black Death. Follow this link for activity 1.

The short-term consequences of the Black Death


The immediate impact of the Black Death was general paralysis, trade ceased and the survivors were in a state of shock. The result was that by 1400, Europe's population was half what it had been in 1345.

‘The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45–50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75–80% of the population’  Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages

Half of Paris's population of 100,000 people died. In Italy, the population of Florence was reduced from 110,000–120,000 inhabitants in 1338 down to 50,000 in 1351.


Activity 2 - The value of statistics to historians.

Watch the video above. How has statistical data been generated and used by historians to help our understanding of the Black Death? On the value of statistics in general to historians, see this section of my website.

The Peasants' Revolt

The most immediate effect of the Black Death was a shortage of labour. It became difficult to force peasants to do labour service. Free tenants were taking advantage of the labour shortage to demand better terms from their landlords and the nobles were reluctant to see their incomes reduced. Governments tried to fix wages, but the labour shortage was irresistible. If their feudal lords would not relent, serfs simply fled to areas where wages were higher or land rental terms lower. 

It was not only men whose lives changed during the Black Death. Prior to 1349 women were paid far less and could not get the better jobs within a village or town. The labour shortage meant that working opportunities increased for women, as did their wages.  

The shock of the Black Death caused many peasants to demand a restructuring of politics and society.  Some peasants demanded democracy and with it the limiting of aristocratic rights and privileges. When these hopes for a better life were dismissed, or savagely repressed by the nobility, many peasants rose in rebellion. The French Jacquerie of 1358 and the English Peasant's Rebellion in 1381 were two important examples. The English peasant leader John Ball famously

Days of labour service, Cuxham in England

asked: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?... From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men… And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty’.  


None of the rebellions were successful. But in the end the disintegration of the feudal system of managing agriculture began with the freedom of the peasants recognized. 


It was not only landowners and workers who were affected by the Black Death - the Church was also hit. A higher percentage of priests were affected then other members of the public. Why would God be punishing so many churchmen?  Parishes often lost their priest and eventual replacements were often less qualified. In Suffolk, in England, two-thirds of the Church offices became vacant after 1349. Communities that grew up around churches were sometimes lost. The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or accurately explain the reasons for the plague outbreaks. Many people were angry and bitter, and blamed the Church – some historians think this helped the growth of the new 'Lollard' religion in the 15th century and ultimately, the Reformation. (see later) 

Image result for peasant revolt 1381

 In Eastern Europe, by contrast, strict laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. Sparsely populated Eastern Europe was less affected by the Black Death and so peasant revolts were less common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not occurring in the east until the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Since it is believed to have in part caused the social upheavals of 14th and 15th century, some see the Black Death as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation in Western Europe. The Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe's considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances, as well as in the move to liberalize government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. A common example is that England is seen to have effectively ended serfdom by 1550 while moving towards more representative government; meanwhile, Russia did not abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed so in 1861. 




Activity 3 - The short and long-term consequences of the Black Death


Using the text in this section and the above video, explain carefully how the Black Death led to the decline of the feudal system.




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