The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe by Robert S.
DESCRIPTION: Hardcover with dustjacket: 203 pages. Publisher: Collier
Macmillan/Free Press; (1983). Dimensions: 9½ x 6¼ x 1 inch; 1¼ pounds.A
fascinating work of detective history, "The Black Death" traces the causes and
far-reaching consequences of this infamous outbreak of plague that spread
across the continent of Europe from AD 1347 to 1351. Drawing on sources as
diverse as monastic manuscripts and dendro-chronological studies (which measure
growth rings in trees), historian Robert S. Gottfried demonstrates how a
bacillus transmitted by rat fleas brought on an ecological reign of terror -
killing one European in three, wiping out entire villages and towns, and
rocking the foundation of medieval society and civilization.
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PLEASE SEE PUBLISHER, PROFESSIONAL, AND READER REVIEWS BELOW.
REVIEW: Depicts the spread of the epidemic of the "black death" (bubonic
plague) throughout Europe, and examines the disease's impact on the society of
the Middle Ages. Robert S. Gottfried is Professor of History and Director of
Medieval Studies at Rutgers University. Among his other books is "Epidemic
Disease in Fifteenth Century England".
REVIEW: An engrossing study. The epidemiology of plague and its introduction
into Europe, the details of its devastation of various regions, and the
economic consequences of the pandemic, all representing the scholarly consensus
and well told. Gottfried leaves us with a better understanding of how humans
turned out to be at the mercy of changes in insect and rodent ecology.
REVIEW: Intriguing description of the social and economic effects of the
plague, particularly its impact on the medical profession. Professor Gottfried
describes the process in brisk and stimulating style. Marks a distinct
intellectual advance, a powerful reminder of how drastically ecological
balances can be upset.
REVIEW: Gottfried's own historical expertise serves him well in describing the
broad tears, temporary patches, and eventual retailoring of the fabric of
medieval life. Gottfried's examination of the Black Death can help us to
understand ourselves as well as our darkest past.
REVIEW: There is no other subject other than "The Black Death" that has
aroused so many chilling stories around it. From Bocaccio's "Decameron" to
Stephen King's "The Stand" thru Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and
Stewart's "Earth Abides", innumerable literary works had grown from these
memories. It has left an inextinguishable fear of sudden death and extinction
by the appearance of a deadly pestilence. Professor Gottfried has written a
very comprehensive study, examining different aspects as climate, sanitary
status, and medical knowledge at those times, in order to establish a solid
background to his investigation.
In a comparatively short text, he is able to give the reader, a very complete
picture of the dreadful events occurred in Europe between 1347 and 1351 A.D.
The book starts with a study of the different plagues occurred in the Ancient
World comparing their evolution and effects on the Mediterranean populations.
It follows with a description of Europe between years 1050 and 1347 taking into
account: population, political system, agriculture, religion and commerce.
Finally it describes what happens from the initial appearance of the pestilence
at the port of Messina and its vertiginous spread all over Europe.
Mortality is estimated in 25% of the total population, with peaks of 50% in
certain cities. Chaos and under population affected the region for at least two
centuries. Professor Gottfried extracts lots of information from contemporary
texts, giving a very attractive rhythm to the narration, without omitting
references to more complex sources. At the end of the book a very detailed
bibliography is given, so the reader interested in the subject may expand the
research for himself.
REVIEW: In this book, Professor Gottfried gives us an in-depth, and yet easy
to read analysis of the Black Death of the late 14th century, as well as
earlier and later epidemics of various diseases. The first chapter is an
examination of the three varieties of plague; bubonic (with a 50%-60%
mortality), pneumonic (with a 95%-100% mortality), and septicaemic (mortality
unknown as of the writing of this book). The following chapters examine the
history of plagues, and the effects these had on Western and Middle-Eastern
I particularly appreciated the author's use of first-hand accounts in this
book, which really served to keep the dialogue from ever becoming too dry and
academic. This book is easy to read, with the issues made quite apparent. For
example, the author was careful to delineate what epidemics included the
pneumonic strain that produced such horrific mortality in many locations. I was
also impressed with the author's examination the plague's affects on the
Islamic world, not just confining his examination to Europe. This book is easy
to read and understand, and a great reference for anyone (academic or not, such
as myself) interested in the Black Death. I recommend this book absolutely and
REVIEW: This book is a long time favorite: history as it ought to be taught
and presented. Gottfried has a lucid style that is easy to read, understand and
remember. The book reads more interestingly than much fiction, and presents
everything from a history of disease and epidemics to examples of historical
detective work: what was the mortality rate in an area? Well, how many people
paid taxes one year, and how many paid the next year? This is a book that I
pick up and re-read when I can't think what else I'm in the mood for. It's
still fascinating after three or four readings and at least as many browsings
and scannings. Highly recommended.
REVIEW: In this work, Gottfried presents the reader with a fairly graphic and
well-researched accounting of the Black Death. It was interesting to see not
only how devastating the Black Death was, but also how resilient human
populations are, even when faced with multiple population-depleting disasters.
It was also quite interesting to see exactly how the Black Death changed
society, and how it actually made life better for most of those who survived
it. Probably my favorite chapter was the one that dealt with how it changed the
entire medical profession. Whereas pre-plague, the citizenry relied on 1,000
year old texts, the failure of medicine to prevent or stop the plague brought
about radical changes in how medicine was studied and practiced.
BLACK DEATH (BUBONIC PLAGUE): The Black Death was a plague pandemic which
devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 A.D., killing an estimated 25-30 million
people. The disease was caused by a bacillus bacteria and carried by fleas on
rodents. The plague originated in central Asia and was taken from there to the
Crimea by Mongol warriors and traders. The plague entered Europe via Italy,
carried by rats on Genoese trading ships sailing from the Black Sea. It was
known as the Black Death because it could turn the skin and sores black.
Other symptoms included fever and joint pains. With up to two-thirds of
sufferers dying from the disease, it is estimated that between 30% and 50% of
the population of those regions, towns, cities infected died from the Black
Death. The death toll was so high that it had significant consequences on
European medieval society as a whole. A shortage of farmers resulted in demands
for an end to serfdom. There ensued a general questioning of authority,
rebellions, and even the entire abandonment of many towns and villages. It
would take 200 years for the population of Europe to recover to the level seen
prior to the Black Death.
The plague was carried and spread by parasitic fleas on rodents, notably the
brown rat. There are three types of plague, and all three were likely present
in the Black Death pandemic. Bubonic plague was the most common during the
14th-century outbreak. Bubonic Plague causes severe swelling in the groin and
armpits (the lymph nodes) which take on a sickening black color, hence the name
the Black Death. The black sores which can cover the body in general, caused by
internal hemorrhages, were known as buboes, from which bubonic plague takes its
Other symptoms include raging fever and joint pains. If untreated, bubonic
plague is fatal in between 30% and 75% of infections, often within 72 hours.
The other two types of plague - pneumonic (or pulmonary) and septicemic - are
usually fatal in all cases. The terrible symptoms of the disease were described
by writers of the time, notably by the Italian writer Boccaccio in the preface
to his 1358 “Decameron”. One writer, the Welsh poet Ieuan Gethin made perhaps
the best attempt at describing the black sores which he saw first-hand in 1349:
We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off
the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy for fair countenance. Woe is
me of the shilling of the armpit…It is of the form of an apple, like the head
of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a
burning cinder, a grievous thing of ashy color…They are similar to the seeds of
the black peas, broken fragments of brittle sea-coal…cinders of the peelings of
the cockle weed, a mixed multitude, a black plague like half pence, like
The 14th century in Europe had already proven to be something of a disaster
even before the Black Death arrived. An earlier plague had hit livestock, and
there had been crop failures from over-exploitation of the land. These had led
to two major Europe-wide famines in 1316 and 1317. In addition there was the
turbulence of wars, especially the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between
England and France. Even the weather was getting worse as the unusually
temperate cycle of 1000-1300 gave way to the beginnings of a “little ice age”.
During this period winters were steadily colder and longer, reducing the
growing season and, consequently, the harvest.
A devastating plague affecting humans was not a new phenomenon. A serious
outbreak occurred in the mid-5th century A.D. It ravaged the Mediterranean area
and Constantinople in particular. The Black Death of 1347 entered Europe
probably via Sicily. It seems to have been carried there by four Genoese
rat-infested grain ships sailing from Caffa, on the Black Sea. The port city
had been under siege by Tartar-Mongols who had catapulted infected corpses into
the city. It was there the Italians had picked up the plague.
Another origin was Mongol traders using the Silk Road who had brought the
disease from its source in central Asia. Genetic studies in 2011 specifically
identified China as the source. However actual historical evidence of an
epidemic caused by plague in China during the 14th century weak, Historians
have proposed South East Asia as an alternative source. Regardless of the
ultimate source, from Sicilian ports it was but a short step to the Italian
mainland. Aiding the spread of the plague beyond Sicily was the fact that one
of the ships from Caffa upon reaching Genoa, had been refused entry. It
subsequently docked in Marseilles (France), and then Valencia Spain),
Thus by the end of 1349 A.D. the disease had been carried along trade routes
into France, Spain, Britain, and Ireland, which all witnessed its awful
effects. Spreading like wildfire, it hit Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltic
States, and Russia through 1350-1352. Medieval doctors had no idea about such
microscopic organisms as bacteria. So they were helpless in terms of treatment.
Doctors best chance of helping people would have been by preventing the spread
of the disease. However any such efforts were hampered by the typically
unsanitary living conditions which were appalling compared to modern standards.
Another helpful strategy would have been to quarantine areas. However people
oftentimes fled in panic whenever a case of plague broke out. They unknowingly
carried the disease with them and spread it even further. The rats did the
rest. There were so many deaths and so many bodies that the authorities did not
know what to do with them,. Carts piled high with corpses became a common sight
across Europe. It seemed the only course of action was to stay put, avoid
people, and pray. The disease finally ran its course by 1352. However it would
recur again, in less severe outbreaks, throughout the rest of the medieval
Although it spread unchecked, the Black Death hit some areas much more
severely than others. This fact and the often exaggerated death tolls of
medieval [and some modern] writers means that is extremely difficult to
accurately assess the total death toll. Sometimes entire cities, for example,
Milan, managed to avoid significant effects, while others, such as the Italian
city of Florence, were devastated. Florence lost 50,000 of its 85,000
population, a 60% death rate. Paris was said to have buried 800 dead each day
at its peak.
However other localities somehow missed the carnage. On average the consensus
estimate is that 30% of the population of affected areas was killed. However
some historians still argue for a figure closer to 50%. Indeed this was
probably the case in the worst affected cities. Figures for the death toll thus
range from 25 to 30 million in Europe between 1347 and 1352. The population of
Europe would not return to pre-1347 levels until around 1550.
The consequences of such a large number of deaths were severe, and in many
places, the social structure of society broke down. Many smaller urban areas
hit by the plague were abandoned by their residents who sought safety in the
countryside. Traditional authority both governmental and religious was
questioned. How could such disasters befall a people? Were not governors and
God in some way responsible? Where did this disaster come from and why was it
so indiscriminate? At the same time, personal piety increased and charitable
organizations flourished. There were also economic consequence of enormous
magnitude as well. For instance agricultural workers were in a position to
demand wages rather than being bond to the land as serfs.
The Black Death was personified by the Medieval populace. In art the
depiction was of the Grim Reaper, a skeleton on horseback whose scythe
indiscriminately cut down people in their prime. Many people were simply
bewildered by the disaster. Some thought it a supernatural phenomenon, perhaps
connected to the comet sighting of 1345. Others blamed sinners. The most
notably of those believers blaming sinners were the “Flagellants of the
The “Flagellants” paraded through the streets whipping themselves and calling
for sinners to repent so that God might lift this terrible punishment. Many
thought it an unexplainable trick of the Devil. Still others blamed traditional
enemies. Age-old prejudices were fed leading to attacks on, and even massacres
of, specific groups who were to “blame” for the plague. This included most
notably the Jews, thousands of whom fled to Poland.
Even when the crisis had passed, there were now practical problems to be
faced. With not enough workers to meet needs, salaries and prices soared. The
necessity of farming to feed people would prove a serious challenge. Equally
serious was the huge fall in demand for manufactured goods. There were simply
far fewer people to buy them. In agriculture specifically the institution of
serfdom where a laborer paid rent and homage to a landlord and was bound to the
land as a chattel was doomed. Those who could work were in a position to ask
Social unrest followed. Often outright rebellions broke out when the
aristocracy tried to resist these new demands. Notable riots were those in
Paris in 1358, Florence in 1378, and London in 1381. The peasants did not get
all they wanted. A call for lower taxes for instance was a significant fail.
However the old system of feudalism was gone. A more flexible, more mobile, and
more independent workforce was born.
After the major famines in 1358 and 1359. There also followed occasional
resurgences of the plague, albeit less severe. Those occurred in 1362-3, 1369,
1374 and 1390. Notwithstanding these events however, daily life for most people
did gradually improve by the end of the 1300s. The general welfare and
prosperity of the peasantry also progressed as a reduced population reduced the
competition for land and resources. Land-owning aristocrats, too, were not slow
to pick up the unclaimed lands of those who had perished. Even upwardly mobile
peasants could consider increasing their landholdings.
Women, in particular, gained some rights of property ownership they had not
had before the plague. Laws varied depending on the region. In some parts of
England those women who had lost husbands were permitted to keep his land for a
certain period, or until they remarried. In other, more generous jurisdictions,
even if they did remarry, they did not lose their late husband's property, as
had been the case prior (and in other locales).
None of these social changes can be directly linked to the Black Death
itself. Indeed some were already underway even before the plague had arrived.
Nonetheless the shock wave the Black Death dealt to European society was
certainly a contributing and accelerating factor in the changes that occurred
in society as the Middle Ages came to a close [Ancient History Encyclopedia].
BLACK DEATH IN EUROPE: Known as the “Black Death”, the outbreak of plague in
Europe between 1347-1352 A.D. completely changed the world of medieval Europe.
Severe depopulation upset the socio-economic feudal system of the time. But the
experience of the plague itself affected every aspect of people’s lives.
Disease on an epidemic scale was simply part of life in the Middle Ages. But a
pandemic of the severity of the Black Death had never been experienced before.
By the time the plague had run its course, there was no way for the people to
resume life as they had previously known it. The Black Death altered the
fundamental paradigm of European life.
Before the plague, the feudal system rigidly divided the population in a
caste system of the king at the top, followed by nobles and wealthy merchants,
with the peasants (serfs) at the bottom. Medical knowledge was received without
question from doctors who relied on physicians of the past. The Catholic Church
was the ultimate authority on spiritual matters, morality, and social norms.
Women were largely regarded as second-class citizens. The art and architecture
of the time reflected the people’s belief in a benevolent God who responded to
prayer and supplication.
Life at this time was by no means easy, or even sometimes pleasant. However
people knew – or thought they knew – how the world worked and how to live in
it. The plague would change all that. It would usher in a new understanding
which found expression in movements such as the Protestant Reformation and the
Renaissance. The plague came to Europe from the East. It is likely that in part
it was brought overland via the trade routes known as the Silk Road. It is
certain that it was also brought overseas by merchant ship.
The “Black Death” was a combination of bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic
plague (and also possibly a strain of murrain). It had been gaining momentum in
Central Asia and the Far East since at least 1322 A.D. By 1343 the plague had
infected the troops of the Mongol Golden Horde. The Mongols were besieging the
Italian-held city of Caffa (modern-day Feodosia in Crimea) on the Black Sea. As
Mongol troops died of the plague, their comrades had their corpses catapulted
over the city’s walls, Of course this infected the people of Caffa through
their contact with the decomposing corpses.
Eventually, a number of the city’s inhabitants fled the city by ship. They
first arrived at Sicilian ports and then French and Spanish ports. Fro there
the plague spread inland. Those infected usually died within three days of
showing symptoms. The death toll rose so quickly that the people of Europe had
no time to grasp what was happening, why, or what they should do about the
situation. Scholar and historian Norman F. Cantor comments:
The plague was much more severe in the cities than in the countryside. But
its psychological impact penetrated all areas of society. Neither peasant or
aristocrat was safe from the disease. Once it was contracted, a horrible and
painful death was almost a certainty. The dead and dying lay in the streets,
abandoned by frightened friends and relatives…”
As the plague raged on all efforts to stop its spread or cure those infected
failed. People began to lose faith in the institutions they had relied on
previously. The social system of feudalism began to crumble due to the
widespread death of the serfs. Serfs were those who were most susceptible as
their living conditions placed them in closer contact with each other on a
daily basis than those of the upper classes.
The plague ran rampant among the lower class who sought shelter and
assistance from friaries, churches, and monasteries. They thus spread the
plague to the clergy, and from the clergy it spread to the nobility. By the
time the disease had run its course in 1352 A.D., millions were dead. The
social structure of Europe was as unrecognizable. The urban landscape itself
was unrecognizable since, as Cantor notes, “…many flourishing cities became
virtual ghost towns for a time…” In rural agricultural areas crops lay rotting
in the fields with no one to harvest them.
Before the plague the king owned all the land which he allocated to his
nobles. The nobles had serfs work the land which turned a profit for the lord.
The lord in turn paid a percentage of the profit to the king. The serfs
themselves earned nothing for their labor except lodging and food they grew
themselves. Since all land belonged to the king he felt free to give it as
gifts to friends, relatives, and other nobility who had been of service to him.
By the time of the plague every available piece of land was being cultivated by
serfs under one of these lords.
On a scale relative to agricultural productions Europe was severely
overpopulated. There was no shortage of serfs to work the land and these
peasants had no choice but to continue this labor as they were considered
chattels appurtenant to the land. This “feudal” system was in essence a form of
slavery. Serfs were bound to this system, bound to the land they were
appurtenant to, from the time they could walk until their death. There was no
upward mobility in the feudal system and a serf was tied to the land he and his
family worked from generation to generation.
However as the plague wore on depopulation greatly reduced the workforce. The
serf’s labor suddenly became an important and increasingly rare asset. The lord
of an estate could not feed himself, his family, or pay tithes to the king or
the Church without the labor of his peasants/ The loss of so many serfs meant
that the surviving peasants could now negotiate for monetary pay and better
treatment. In short order the lives of the members of the lowest class vastly
improved. They were able to afford better living conditions and clothing as
well as luxury items.
Once the plague had passed, the improved lot of the serf was challenged by
the upper class/ The nobility was concerned that the lower classes were
forgetting their place. Fashion changed dramatically as the elite demanded more
extravagant clothing and accessories. This was an effort to distinguish and set
themselves apart from those formerly peasants and serfs who themselves now
could now afford finer clothing.
Efforts of the wealthy to return the serf to his previous condition resulted
in uprisings. These included the peasant revolt in France in 1358, the guild
revolts of 1378, and the famous Peasants' Revolt of London in 1381. However
there was no turning back. The efforts of the elite were futile. Class struggle
would continue but the authority of the feudal system was broken.
The challenge to authority also affected medical knowledge and practice.
Doctors based their medical knowledge primarily on the work of the Roman
physician Galen (who lived from 130-210 A.D.), Hippocrates (who lived from
about 460 - 370 B.C.) and Aristotle (who lived from 384-322 B.C.). Even then
many of these ancient and antiquated works were only available in often poor
and inaccurate translations from Arabic copies. Even so medical practitioners
put to good use whatever limited knowledge they had of medicinal therapeutics
and disease. As the scholar Jeffrey Singman comments: “…Medieval science was
far from primitive. In fact it was a highly sophisticated system based on the
accumulated writings of theorists since the first millennium B.C. The weakness
of medieval science was its theoretical and bookish orientation, which
emphasized the authority of accepted authors. The duty of the scholar [and
doctor] was to interpret and reconcile these ancient authorities, rather than
to test their theories against observed realities…” Doctors and other
caregivers were seen dying at an alarming rate as they tried to cure plague
victims using their traditional understanding of medicine. Despite their
self-sacrifice, nothing they prescribed led to a cure for their patients. It
became clear by as early as 1349 that people recovered from the plague or died
from it for seemingly no reason at all. A remedy that had restored one patient
to health would fail to work on the next.
After the plague, doctors began to question their former practice of
accepting the knowledge of the past without adapting it to present
circumstances. Scholar Joseph A. Legan writes: “…Medicine slowly began changing
during the generation after the initial outbreak of Plague. Many leading
medical theoreticians perished in the Plague, which opened the discipline to
new ideas. A second cause for change was while university-based medicine
failed, people began turning to the more practical surgeons…With the rise of
surgery, more attention was given to the direct study of the human body, both
in sickness and in health. Anatomical investigations and dissections, seldom
performed in pre-plague Europe, were pursued more urgently with more support
from public authorities…” The death of so many scribes and theoreticians, who
formerly wrote or translated medical treatises in Latin, resulted in new works
being written in the vernacular languages. This allowed common people to read
medical texts which broadened the base of medical knowledge. Further, hospitals
developed into institutions more closely resembling those in the modern-day.
Previously, hospitals were used only to isolate sick people. After the plague
Hospitals became centers for treatment. Hospitals also maintained a much higher
degree of cleanliness and attention to patient care.
Doctors and theoreticians were not the only ones whose authority was
challenged by the plague. The clergy also came under the same kind of scrutiny.
Circumstances inspired people were inspired to doubt the abilities of those who
served the Church to perform the services they claimed to be able to. Friars,
monks, priests, and nuns died just as easily as anyone else. In some towns
religious services simply stopped because there were no authorities to lead
them. Further nothing helped to stop the spread of the plague.
The charms and amulets people purchased for protection did not help. The
religious services they did attend, the religious processions they took part
in, the prayer and the fasting, all did nothing. In fact these activities
actually encouraged the spread of the plague. The Flagellant Movement began in
Austria and gained momentum in Germany and France. Groups of penitents would
travel town to town whipping themselves to atone for their sins,. These groups
were led by a self-proclaimed Master with little or no religious training.
Penitent processions not only helped spread the plague but also disrupted
communities by their insistence on attacking marginalized groups such as the
Since no one knew the cause of the plague, it was attributed to the
supernatural origins. These included alleged conspiratorial Jewish sorcery,
and/or God’s fury over human sin. Those who died of the plague were suspected
of some personal failing of faith. Yet it shortly became clear that the same
clergy who condemned those who died due to their religious failings, also died
of the same disease in the same way. Scandals within the Church, the
extravagant lifestyle of many of the clergy, and the mounting death toll from
the plague all combined to create a “perfect storm” of widespread distrust of
the Church’s vision and authority.
The frustration people felt at their helplessness in the face of the plague
gave rise to violent outbursts of persecution across Europe. The Flagellant
Movement was not the only source of persecution. Otherwise peaceful citizens
could be whipped into a frenzy to attack communities of Jews, Romani (gypsies),
lepers, or others. Women were also abused in the belief that they encouraged
sin because of their association with the biblical Eve and the fall of man. The
most common targets, however, were the Jews.
The Jews had long been singled out for Christian hostility. The Christian
concept of the Jew as “the killers of Christ” encouraged a large body of
superstitions. These included the claim that Jews killed Christian children and
used their blood in unholy rituals. That this blood was often spread by Jews on
the fields around a town to spread the plague. And finally, that the Jews
regularly poisoned wells in the hopes of killing as many Christians as possible.
Jewish communities were completely destroyed in Germany, Austria, and France.
This was despite a bull issued by Pope Clement VI exonerating the Jews and
condemning Christian attacks on them. Large migrations of Jewish communities
fled the scenes of these massacres, many of them finally settling in Poland and
Eastern Europe. Women, on the other hand, gained higher status following the
plague. Prior to the outbreak, women had few rights. Scholar Eileen Power
In considering the characteristic medieval ideas about women, it is
important to know not only what the ideas themselves were but also what were
the sources from which they spring…In the early Middle Ages, what passed for
contemporary opinion [on women] came from two sources – the Church and the
Neither the medieval Church nor the aristocracy held women in very high
regard. Women of the lower classes most often worked as laborers with their
family on the estate of the lord. They could also as bakers, milkmaids,
barmaids, and weavers. However they had no say in directing their own fate. The
lord would decide who a girl would marry, not her father. A woman would go from
being under the direct control of her father, who was subject to the lord, to
the control of her husband who was equally subordinate.
Women’s status had improved somewhat through the popularity of the Cult of
the Virgin Mary. The cult associated women with the mother of Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless the Church continually emphasized women’s inherent sinfulness as
daughters of Eve. They bore responsibility for introducing sin into the world.
After the plague, with so many men dead, women’s status improved to a degree.
Women were allowed to own their own land, cultivate the businesses formerly
run by their husband or son, and had greater liberty in choosing a husband.
Women joined guilds, ran shipping and textile businesses, and could own taverns
and farmlands. In the years following the ebb of the plague, many of these
rights would be diminished later as the aristocracy and the Church tried to
assert their former control. Notwithstanding, women would still be better off
after the plague than they were beforehand.
The plague also dramatically affected medieval art and architecture. Artistic
pieces (paintings, wood-block prints, sculptures, and others) tended to be more
realistic than before. And they were almost uniformly, focused on death.
Scholar Anna Louise DesOrmeaux comments: “…Some plague art contains gruesome
imagery that was directly influenced by the mortality of the plague. Or by the
medieval fascination with the macabre and awareness of death that were
augmented by the plague. Some plague art documents psychosocial responses to
the fear that plague aroused in its victims. Other plague art is of a subject
that directly responds to people’s reliance on religion to give them hope…” The
most famous motif was the Dance of Death (also known as “Danse Macabre). The
Dance of Death is an allegorical representation of death claiming people from
all walks of life. As DesOrmeaux notes, post-plague art did not reference the
plague directly but anyone viewing a piece would understand the symbolism. This
is not to say there were no allusions to death before the plague. Only that
allusions to death became far more pronounced afterwards.
In England, there was a parallel increased austerity in architectural style
which can be attributed to the Black Death. There occurred a distinct shift
away from the Decorated version of French Gothic. This had featured elaborate
sculptures and glass. After the plague a more sparse style called Perpendicular
came to predominate. This style featured with sharper profiles of buildings and
corners. The Perpendicular style was less opulent, rounded, and effete than had
been Decorated French Gothic. In part however the cause may have been economic.
There was less capital to spend on decoration after the plague than before.
There was heavy war taxation and reduction of estate incomes due to the labor
shortage and higher peasants’ wages. Since peasants could now demand a higher
wage, the kinds of elaborate building projects which were commissioned before
the plague were no longer as easily affordable. This resulted in more austere
and cost-effective structures. Scholars have noted, however, that post-plague
architecture also clearly resonated with the pervasive pessimism of the time
and a preoccupation with sin and death.
It was not only the higher wages demanded by the peasant class, nor a
preoccupation with death that affected post-plague architecture. The vast
reduction in agricultural production and demand due to depopulation led to a
profound economic recession. Fields were left uncultivated and crops were
allowed to rot. At the same time, nations severely limited imports in an effort
to control the spread of the plague. This had a deleterious effect not only on
their own economy, but on those of their former trading partners as well.
The widespread fear of death stunned the population of Europe at the time/
Particularly in that it was death one had not earned, could not see coming,
could not escape. Once the populace had somewhat recovered from that shock,
they were inspired to rethink the way they were living previously and the kinds
of values they had held. Although little changed initially, by the middle of
the 15th century radical changes were taking place throughout Europe.
These changes were unimaginable only one hundred years before. In particular
these included the Protestant Reformation. The agricultural shift from
large-scale grain-farming to animal husbandry. The wage increase for urban and
rural laborers. And the many other advances associated with the Renaissance.
Plague outbreaks would continue long after the Black Death pandemic of the 14th
However but none would have the same psychological impact resulting in a
complete reevaluation of the existing paradigm of received knowledge. Europe as
well as other regions affected in the world based their reactions to the Black
Death on traditional conventions, both whether religious and/or secular. When
these religious and secular paradigms failed, new models for understanding the
world had to be created [Ancient History Encyclopedia].
MEDIEVAL TRADES (OCCUPATIONS): Many trades in medieval times were essential to
the daily welfare of the community. Those who had learned a skill through
apprenticeship could expect to make a higher and more regular income than
farmers or even soldiers. Such professionals as millers, blacksmiths, masons,
bakers and weavers grouped together by trade to form guilds. The guilds sought
to protect the rights of their members, guarantee fair prices, maintain
industry standards and keep out the unlicensed competition.
As towns grew into cities from the 11th century onward trades diversified and
medieval shopping streets began to boast all manner of skilled workers and
their goods on sale, from saddlers to silversmiths and tanners to tailors.
Naturally, trades and trading practices varied over time and place throughout
the Middle Ages. So the examples cited hereinafter is limited to a general
overview of some of the common features of trades in medieval Europe.
Many children learnt the trade of their parents by informal observation and
helping out with small tasks. However there were also full apprenticeships,
paid for by parents, where young people lived with a skilled worker or master
and learned their craft. Very often a master who took on an apprentice also
took on the role of parent, providing all their needs and moral guidance. In
turn the apprentice was expected to be obedient to their master in all matters.
An apprentice was not usually paid but did receive their food, lodgings and
Boys and girls typically became apprentices in their early teens. However
sometimes they were as young as seven years old when they started out on the
long road to learn a specific trade. There were many cases of apprentices
running away. Rules were established that the master and the apprentice's
father had to spend one day each looking for the missing youth. There were time
limits of one year, after which a master need not take the escapee back under
The length of the apprenticeship depended on the trade and the master. Of
course the benefit to the master of free labor from the apprentice was a
temptation to extend the training for as long as possible. However around seven
years of apprenticeship seems to have been typical. A cook’s apprentice might
only need two years training. At the other end of the spectrum a metalworker
like a goldsmith might have to learn their trade for ten years before they
could set themselves up with their own business.
An apprentice usually qualified to be a master in his own right by producing
a ‘masterpiece’ which showed off his acquired skills. Earning the title of
master required more than skill however, it cost money. A qualified apprentice
who could not afford their own place of business was known as a journeyman. The
journey” referred to the fact that a journeyman usually traveled around and
found work wherever they could. Ideally that work was with a settled master
possessed of domestic and commercial premises.
From the 12th century onward, once their own business was up and running,
master tradesmen became members of guilds. These organizations were managed by
a core group of seasoned professionals known as guildmasters. Guilds sought to
protect the working conditions of their members, ensure their products were to
a high standard and outside competition was minimized. Many trades were grouped
together in parts of a city so that guilds could better regulate their members.
Regular inspections ensured (at least to some degree) that: 1) goods were
exactly what they were advertised as; 2) regulation measurements and weights
were adhered to; 3) prices were correct and that members did not utilize unfair
tactics in the competition between themselves for clients. By imposing
regulations on apprenticeship, guilds could also regulate the labor supply and
ensure there were not too many masters at any one time. This ensured that the
prices of both labor and goods did not crash.
There were very few guilds specifically for or managed by women. Most
apprentices were male as were their masters. However there was a significant
minority of women involved in some trades. Widows were especially prominent in
the trades if they were able to run their deceased husband’s business. There
were caveats. If the widow was to run her deceased husband’s business it had to
be in the absence of a close male relative, and they had to remain single. Even
then there were some restrictions. For example they were not permitted to train
Some trades such as the poulterers (poultry and game dealers) of Paris did
permit any woman with means to own businesses. In addition many trades such as
silk production and veil makers were dominated by women workers. Tax
assessments of the time record many different types of enterprises from
lacemakers to butchers being managed by women.
Each castle or manor had its own mill to serve the needs of its surrounding
estate. The mill processed grain not only from the lord’s lands, but also that
of the serfs who were usually obliged to grind their grain (for a fee) at the
lord’s mill. Mills could be powered by wind, water, horses or people. One
essential item to set up business was a good quality millstone that did not
wear smooth quickly but, unfortunately, this was a pricey commodity.
The Rhineland gained a great reputation for producing the best millstones.
Such a millstone could cost 40 shillings, the equivalent of ten horses in
England. A castle or manor did not need to use its mill very often (even if
ground grains did not keep very long), With such a heavy investment for a
millstone only used sporadically the mill was often rented out to a miller. The
miller was then free to make whatever profit he could from the operation of the
The miller enjoyed a high social status in the community because he was
essential, had a steady income, and it was a pleasant vocation. Nonetheless the
miller had to make money in order to pay for the mill’s rent. Consequently they
were sometimes viewed with suspicion by other villagers who worried that they
never quite got back the quantity of flour their grain had produced. As one
medieval riddle went: “What is the boldest thing in the world? A miller’s
shirt, for it clasps a thief by the throat daily.”
In the Middle Ages, the cheapest materials were wood and clay. However the
fabrication of some items required metal, usually iron, which was much more
expensive. Thus the blacksmith was as essential as the miller to any medieval
community. Many agricultural tools needed iron parts, if only for their cutting
edges. So blacksmiths were kept busy producing new tools and repairing old ones.
Cooking pots and horseshoes were other sought-after products produced (almost
magically it seemed to many) by the blacksmith’s forge, hammer and anvil.
However in contrast to our disposable-goods society, in the medieval world it
was a necessity that manufactured good possessed a long life span. Thus a
competent village blacksmith producing quality implements might not be kept
busy enough to earn a living. And a blacksmith had high overheads in
conjunction with the impressive but costly range of tools and equipment
required to pursue his trade.
Consequently blacksmiths usually inherited the business and capital equipment
from their fathers. Many also farmed in order to make ends meet. A blacksmith
at a manor or castle was better off as he might receive charcoal made from the
trees of the lord’s forest for free. He typically also benefited by the
assignment of a couple of the lord's serfs. They worked his small strip of
farmland while he was busy with his hammer and tongs.
Bread forming an important part of the medieval diet, especially for the
lower classes. Bakers were thus another ever-present, essential merchant. But
for the same reason bakers were one of the most regulated trades. At least in
towns frequent regulatory ensured bakers were selling bread loaves of
acceptable quality and of accurate size and weight. Bread loaves were typically
stamped with an identification mark identifying the baker who had produced it.
of just who had baked it.
Despite these precautions it was not uncommon for bakers to supplement the
flour content of bread with something a little cheaper, like sand. Those bakers
who tried to swindle their customers and were caught often found themselves
with the offending bread loaf tied around their neck and chained to a pillory
a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which an offender was
imprisoned and exposed to public abuse). In order for fresh bread to be
available in the mornings, bakers were one of the few tradesmen permitted to
work at night.
The medieval butcher prepared choice cuts of pork, mutton, and beef as well
as poultry and game. The butcher sold what was in the Middle Ages an expensive
commodity. Butchers typically occupied the dirtiest and smelliest part of the
town. Butchers were right down there with the fish mongers in the low
popularity contest amongst urban shoppers.
In addition, as with the bakers, many people were suspicious of just what a
butcher put in his sausages to save money. As one joke went: “A man asked the
sausage butcher for a discount because he had been a faithful customer for
seven years. ‘Seven years!’ exclaimed the butcher, ‘And you’re still alive!’”
To keep consumer confidence high, there were additional rules imposed by the
butchers' guild. These included a prohibition against the sale of meat from
such animals as cats, dogs, and horses. The mixing of tallow (rendered beef or
mutton fat) with lard (pork fat) was also prohibited.
Many peasant women spun thread in the home and then sold it on to a weaver,
who was usually male. Some women continued beyond spinning thread and wove
cloth on an upright loom. However by the High Middle Ages weaving was typically
done on a larger scale by a skilled weaver using a horizontal loom. Such a loom
was financially beyond the means of a peasant. England and Wales enjoyed a high
reputation for their wool in medieval times while Flanders became a major
centre of wool cloth production.
Wool was washed to remove grease, then dried, beaten, combed and carded. The
wool was then spun and worked on the loom to make a rough cloth which was next
fulled (soaked, shrunk and then usually dyed). This was accomplished sometimes
using a water-powered mill, but more often imply trampled underfoot. The cloth
was then sheared and brushed, perhaps many times, in order to produce a very
fine, smooth cloth.
One thing everyone needed was a roof over their heads. As societies became
more prosperous and towns grew in size, construction techniques improved from
the 13th century onward. Many medieval inhabitants sought better and more
substantial homes to live in. Prosperous peasants looked to improve on their
traditional mud and timber cottages. Lords were looking to impress with manor
houses that might look like the castle most of them could not afford.
Consequently there developed many specialized trades for each facet of any
building’s construction. This included craftsmen such as masons, tilers,
carpenters, thatchers, glassmakers and plasterers. Carpenters in particular
were also utilized in the upkeep of houses and other structures such as barns,
granaries, churches and bridges. At the top of the building profession were the
master builder and master stone mason. Both of these craftsmen required skill
in mathematics and geometry to produce their scale models and parchment plans.
These plans and models would insure that the elements of a building produced
by subordinate workers would fit together properly. The master masons and
builders rarely lifted a finger themselves. They value lay as good managers of
a large team of skilled workers. Their managerial skills were especially
critical for large projects like building a castle or church. Larger towns and
cities had especially numerous and diverse tradespeople. There were tailors,
drapers, dyers, saddlers, furriers, chandlers, tanners, armourers, sword
makers, parchment makers, basket-weavers, goldsmiths, silversmiths.
By far the biggest industry sector encompassed all manner of food sellers.
Many of these trades were often grouped together in parts of a city so that
guilds could better regulate their members. The grouping of particular trade
merchants in particular geographical areas of the city such as by the city
gates also helped attract traffic. And of course in time particular area of a
city developed a tradition for a specific trade (like Notre-Dame in Paris had
for books, which it still has today).
By the later Middle Ages Medieval doctors gained their expertise at a
university and enjoyed a high status. However their practical role in society
was limited to diagnosis and prescription. A patient was actually treated by a
surgeon and given medicine which was prepared by an apothecary. Both surgeons
and apothecaries (pharmacists) were considered tradesmen because they had
acquired their skills via apprenticeship. As a surgeon could be expensive, many
of the poorer class took their minor physical problems to a much cheaper
option; the local barber.
When not cutting hair and trimming moustaches, a barber performed minor
surgeries and also pulled teeth. The poor might also seek the skills of a
peddler of folk medicine who dispensed advise and lotions based on traditional
and natural remedies. Despite their dubious origins, many of these traditional
and natural remedies must have worked to some degree in order for them to
continuously utilized throughout the Middle Ages [Ancient History Encyclopedia].
SHIPPING & RETURNS/REFUNDS: We always ship books domestically (within the
USA) via USPSINSURED media mail (“book rate”). Most international orders cost
an additional $13.49 to $41.99 for aninsured shipment in a heavily padded
mailer. There is also a discount program which can cut postage costs by 50% to
75% if you’re buying about half-a-dozen books or more (5 kilos+). Our postage
charges are as reasonable as USPS rates allow.ADDITIONAL PURCHASES do receive a
VERY LARGE discount, typically about $5 per book (for each additional book
after the first) so as to reward you for the economies of combined
Your purchase will ordinarily be shipped within 48 hours of payment. We
package as well as anyone in the business, with lots of protective padding and
containers. All of our shipments are fully insured against loss, and our
shipping rates include the cost of this coverage (through stamps.com,
Shipsaver.com, the USPS, UPS, or Fed-Ex). International tracking is provided
free by the USPS for certain countries, other countries are at additional cost.
We do offer U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail, Registered Mail, and Express
Mail for both international and domestic shipments, as well United Parcel
Service (UPS) and Federal Express (Fed-Ex). Please ask for a rate quotation. We
will accept whatever payment method you are most comfortable with.
If upon receipt of the item you are disappointed for any reason whatever, I
offer a no questions asked 30-day return policy. Send it back, I will give you
a complete refund of the purchase price; 1) less our original
shipping/insurance costs, 2) less non-refundable PayPal/eBay payment processing
fees. Please note that PayPal does NOT refund fees. Even if you “accidentally”
purchase something and then cancel the purchase before it is shipped, PayPal
will not refund their fees. So all refunds for any reason, without exception,
do not include PayPal/eBay payment processing fees (typically between 3% and
5%) and shipping/insurance costs (if any). If you’re unhappy with PayPal and
eBay’s “no fee refund” policy, and we are EXTREMELY unhappy, please voice your
displeasure by contacting PayPal and/or eBay. We have no ability to influence,
modify or waive PayPal or eBay policies.
ABOUT US: Prior to our retirement we used to travel to Europe and Central
Asia several times a year. Most of the items we offer came from acquisitions we
made in Eastern Europe, India, and from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean/Near
East) during these years from various institutions and dealers. Much of what we
generate on Etsy, Amazon and Ebay goes to support The Hermitage Museum in St.
Petersburg, as well as some other worthy institutions in Europe and Asia
connected with Anthropology and Archaeology. Though we have a collection of
ancient coins numbering in the tens of thousands, our primary interests are
ancient jewelry and gemstones. Prior to our retirement we traveled to Russia
every year seeking antique gemstones and jewelry from one of the globe’s most
prolific gemstone producing and cutting centers, the area between Chelyabinsk
and Yekaterinburg, Russia. From all corners of Siberia, as well as from India,
Ceylon, Burma and Siam, gemstones have for centuries gone to Yekaterinburg
where they have been cut and incorporated into the fabulous jewelry for which
the Czars and the royal families of Europe were famous for.
My wife grew up and received a university education in the Southern Urals of
Russia, just a few hours away from the mountains of Siberia, where alexandrite,
diamond, emerald, sapphire, chrysoberyl, topaz, demantoid garnet, and many
other rare and precious gemstones are produced. Though perhaps difficult to
find in the USA, antique gemstones are commonly unmounted from old, broken
settings – the gold reused – the gemstones recut and reset. Before these
gorgeous antique gemstones are recut, we try to acquire the best of them in
their original, antique, hand-finished state – most of them centuries old. We
believe that the work created by these long-gone master artisans is worth
protecting and preserving rather than destroying this heritage of antique
gemstones by recutting the original work out of existence. That by preserving
their work, in a sense, we are preserving their lives and the legacy they left
for modern times. Far better to appreciate their craft than to destroy it with
Not everyone agrees – fully 95% or more of the antique gemstones which come
into these marketplaces are recut, and the heritage of the past lost. But if
you agree with us that the past is worth protecting, and that past lives and
the produce of those lives still matters today, consider buying an antique,
hand cut, natural gemstone rather than one of the mass-produced machine cut
often synthetic or “lab produced”) gemstones which dominate the market today.
We can set most any antique gemstone you purchase from us in your choice of
styles and metals ranging from rings to pendants to earrings and bracelets; in
sterling silver, 14kt solid gold, and 14kt gold fill. When you purchase from
us, you can count on quick shipping and careful, secure packaging. We would be
happy to provide you with a certificate/guarantee of authenticity for any item
you purchase from us. There is a $3 fee for mailing under separate cover. I
will always respond to every inquiry whether via email or eBay message, so
please feel free to write.