Effects of the Black Death

The Black Death reared its head sporadically in Europe over the next few centuries. But by 1352, it had essentially loosened its grip. Europe's population had been hard hit, which had an economic impact. The workforce had been destroyed -- farms were abandoned and buildings crumbled. The price of labor skyrocketed in the face of worker shortage, and the cost of goods rose. The price of food, though, didn't go up, perhaps because the population had declined so much.

The Black Death did set the stage for more modern medicine and spurred changes in public health and hospital management. Frustrated with Black Death diagnoses that revolved around astrology and superstition, educators began placing greater emphasis on clinical medicine, based on physical science. While schools initially had to close for lack of educators, the plague eventually drove growth in higher education. New schools were established, sometimes specifically mentioning in their charters that they were trying to address the decay in learning and gaps in education left by the Black Death.

People who survived the Black Death era generally suffered a communal crisis of faith. Rather than becoming more religious in thanksgiving to God for their survival, people harbored doubts. They had turned to the church for an answer to the plague, and the church had been able to offer no help. Additionally, priests, who, along with doctors, had the highest rate of contact with the diseased, also had one of the highest rates of fatalities. Several new heretical movements sprang up. Those who still clung to their faith were more likely to do so in a very personal manner. Many began to build private chapels.

Townspeople flee the Black Death under the watchful gaze of skeletons
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Danse macabre art: Townspeople flee under the watchful gaze of skeletons

Feeling, essentially, that God had turned his back on them, the people reacted to the end of the Black Death by turning their backs on him. They engaged in wild debauchery to celebrate being alive. They held gluttonous banquets, drank, wore extravagant clothing and gambled. It was clear through the art of the time, though, that people still had death on their minds. The danse macabre, or dance of death, is an allegorical concept that was expressed in drama, poetry, music and visual art. The danse macabre usually shows a procession or dance between the living and the dead. The range of figures shown is meant to show that death will come for everyone, and the various activities depicted are a reminder that death could always be right around the corner.

Geneticists are continuing to document the effects of the Black Death on Europe's population today. Analysis has shown that genetic diversity in England is much lower than it was in the eleventh century, perhaps because so many people died in the 1300s. While the rest of Europe does not show a lowered amount of genetic variation, that may be due to increased migration patterns in other places.

The work of nineteenth century scientists finally provided some answers about the causes of the Black Death. Read on to learn what they found.