Between 1346 and 1353, the Black Death was an epidemic that killed up to one-third of Europe’s population. A widespread misunderstanding is that black refers to the disease’s skin discolorations. The color ‘black’ connotes horror in a figurative way. In reality, it wasn’t until the middle of the sixteenth century that the phrase “Black Death” was coined. It was termed “pestilence” by its contemporaries. From a modern viewpoint, life in the fourteenth century was very short, yet even the greatest mortality events of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, up to 1346, failed to live up to the Black Death.

Besides the second plague (1361), the Great Plague of 1665, which killed fifteen to twenty percent of the population in some areas, was the closest thing to a recurrence of the Black Death. The influenza epidemic of 1918–19, which killed more people than the Black Death because it was truly global and the twentieth century had considerably bigger population denominators than the fourteenth century, comes to mind as well.

Although the Black Death’s historical relevance is undeniable, its historical significance is still a source of heated controversy. According to tradition, the Black Death’s demographic aftermath reduced population pressure and ushered in the end of the Middle Ages. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (1997), a posthumous book by David Herlihy, clearly and concisely defend this viewpoint. Peasant servants would transform into the yeoman farmers of the fifteenth century as the labor equation shifted in their favor.

The fourteenth century commenced brilliantly for industrial England, but the epidemic, the Black Death, soon overtook it (1348-49). As a result, the majority of the workers fled the nation. The Church’s authority was beginning to diminish, and then came the establishment of Parliament.

Five great poets characterized the literary spirit of the age, with Langland voicing societal dissatisfaction and preaching the justice of men and the integrity of labor. Wycliffe preached the Gospel in the people’s own language; Gower criticized the vigorous life and was clearly afraid of its consequences; Mandeville fantasized about the miracles to be seen abroad, and Chaucer shared in all the stirring life of the times and mirrored it in literature like no other than Shakespeare. 

Although historians often recognize contemporary chronicles as the most realistic depictions of the Black Death, the consequences of such a large-scale shared experience on Europe’s population induced poetry, prose, stage works, music, and artwork all through the period, as evidenced by writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, as well as artists like Holbein. Many depictions of the Black Death have become part of popular culture as great literature. The main works of Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’, Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and William Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’, all of which deal with the Black Death to some extent, are often considered to be among the best of their time.

‘The Dance of Death’, or La Danse Macabre, was a contemporary allegorical work that took the form of art, play, and published text. Its subject was the universality of death, embodying the popular wisdom of the time: that the dance of death unites everybody, regardless of one’s position in life. It often has an emperor, monarch, pope, monk, child, and lovely lady, all in skeleton-state, leading a procession of dancing individuals from all walks of civilization to the tomb. They were created in the aftermath of the Black Death, reminding people of the fragility of life and the futility of worldly glory.

The arcaded cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocent lives (1424) in Paris is the first artistic example. There are other works such as Woodcuts by Hans Holbein, the Younger in Basel (1440), Bernt Notke in Lübeck (1463), and Konrad Witz in Basel (1538). According to Israil Bercovici, the Danse Macabre began among Sephardic Jews in fourteenth-century Spain.

Many features of the poem “The Rattle Bag” by Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym show that it was composed as a reflection of his experiences during the Black Death. It also reflects his personal opinion that the Black Death was the Apocalypse, as evidenced by his numerous religious references, especially the events depicted in the Book of Revelation. In his play ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’, Thomas Nashe penned a sonnet about the plague with the title of “A Litany in Time of Plague” (1592). He went to the countryside to get away from London because he was afraid of the plague.

It is nearly hard for us to comprehend the plague’s widespread consequences in altering the course of history today. We also don’t have a clear understanding of the magnitude of the loss of life. Well over two hundred thousand towns and villages were entirely depopulated during the Black Death’s five-year timeframe between 1345 and 1350. Many cities’ populations were drastically decreased, and dwellings appeared to have been devoid of human occupancy for many years. When the plague passed and the survivors returned to the mostly empty towns, they discovered wild animal lairs in many of their dwellings.

Works Cited:

Ole Benedictow’s The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History

“Plague.” Britannica LaunchPacks: The Middle Ages: The Black Death, Encyclopædia Britannica

Judith M. Bennett and C. Warren Hollister (2006). Medieval Europe: A Short History. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 370, 372.

Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.

Cantor, Norman F. 2001. In the wake of the plague: The black death and the world it made. The Free Press, New York.

Arthur, P. “The Black Death and Mortality: A Reassessment.” In Fourteenth Century England VI, ed. C. Given-Wilson and N. Saul, 49–72. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010.

Raymond A. Cook (1964) The Influence of the Black Death on Medieval Literature and Language, Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, 11:1, 5-13

Posted by:Tanvi Punia

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