From 1348 to 1350 Europe was devastated by an epidemic that left between a third and one half of the population dead. This book traces, through contemporary writings, the calamitous impact of the Black Death in Europe, with a particular emphasis on its spread across England from 1348 to 1349. It charts the social and psychological impact of the plague, and its effect on the late-medieval economy. Focusing on England, an exceptionally well documented region, the book then offers a wide range of evidence for the plague's variegated repercussions on the economy and, no less complex, on social and religious conduct. It is concerned with the British experience of plague in the fourteenth century. Students of intellectual history will find a wealth of pseudo-scientific explanations of the plague ranging from astrological conjunctions, through earthquakes releasing toxic vapours, to well poisoning by Jews. From narrative accounts, often of heartrending immediacy, the book further proceeds to a variety of contemporary responses, drawn from many parts of Christian Europe. It then explains contemporary claims that the plague had been caused by human agency. The book attempts to explain the plague, which was universally regarded as an expression of divine vengeance for the sins of humankind.
This section introduction presents an overview of contempory explainations for and responses to the plague. All contemporary commentators were agreed that the plague was an act of God, sent to punish mankind for its sinfulness and to frighten it into repentance and future good behaviour. Medical treatises, like public health regulations, at least gave the illusion that the plague could be controlled; but the overwhelming reaction of most people to the plague must have been one of helplessness. Perhaps that helps to explain contemporary claims that the plague had been caused by human agency. The plague seemed to many contemporaries to be the first act of an apocalyptic drama which would see the rule of Antichrist on earth, and finally the coming of Christ to judge the world. The Jews had a central role in that drama, as the enemies of Christ who must be converted, or murdered, before Christ would come in glory.
This section introduction presents an overview of the historiography and provides background to the following translations that chart the social and psychological impact of the plague, and its effects on the late-medieval economy. In the course of the twentieth century historians generally became much less willing to ascribe sweeping cultural or psychological changes to the plague. The re-assessment of the plague's impact went on a revision of the accepted levels of plague mortality. J. Huizinga's famous evocation of the late middle ages stands in the same tradition as J. J. Jusserand's description of the religious scepticism which followed the plague. Cardinal Gasquet had been convinced that the first outbreak of plague had carried off half the English population. For contemporary chroniclers, the behaviour of the lower classes after the plague was a clear sign of the world plunging further into sin. The belief that the loss of one third of the population could be absorbed without immediate economic distress rested on the assumption that the population of pre-plague England had become too large for the available resources.