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The Black Death

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The plague of the thirteen hundreds was unlike any affliction historians or those in the medical field had ever seen before and they had no way to stop it. It took its toll across the land and then through the social system of the day. None were untouched. The way people did business, the way people worshiped, and the ways in which they viewed each other all changed. These interruptions in civilization did not all have a destructive impact; many carried with them the negative along with the positive. While some had a renewed faith, others lost theirs; while many prospered from the need for skilled workers, others could not afford their inflated costs. One can only be sure of the fact that this double-sided coin called The Black Death changed the life of all it came across in some form or fashion.

The Black Death was a disease that traveled across the eastern continents by way of rats. It is now believed to be, though there are several other theories, a strain of bacteria named Yesinia Pestis. This bacterium was carried in the fleas on rats that, when their host would die, would look to others, usually people as a source of sustenance (Brummett 398). The first cases are noted to be in eastern China. The disease then followed the trade routes across to India and eventually to the European Continent moving in a counter-clockwise circular motion across the region, again moving with the trade (Abu-Lughod). The effects on the human body were tremendous. According to a first hand account of the disease by Giovanni Boccaccio in his book The Decameron, large boil-like protrusions would erupt in the areas of the lymph glands then spread around the body and blacken. He states that "not merely were those that recovered few, but almost all died within three days of the appearance of the said symptoms (5)."

In Europe alone one third of the population was eradicated (Brummett 398). This must have had a drastic effect on every day life immediately: lessened availability of goods, an over-abundance of physical dead bodies that needed to be disposed of, and an overall increase in "social skepticism" as more and more began contracting this horrible affliction. "Many looked for spiritual explanations for the plaguages devastation: that God was punishing a sinful humanity, or perhaps there was no God at all (Brummett 398)." Others, namely Christians, wanted to place blame and what easier way to do so than to choose a group for which they already carried animosity. In Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, she discusses the "charges" brought against the Jews based on their supposed "intent to kill and destroy the whole of Christendom and have lordship over all the world (Nardo 82)." Many were hanged, others pushed out of cities, some areas even created restrictions against intermarrying, holding certain occupations, the selling of goods and services, etc. (Nardo 82-86).

Though the Jews might have been economically excluded, others found a situation to take advantage of. Since many skilled workers had perished, those left in urban areas could set their own prices and hours (Gottfried 81). While these people found a more competitive labor market, the feudal system of the past finally disintegrated due to a lack of rural laborers and a wage system started to take over from a previous system of payment. Women also began to enter the workforce more and more, usually in very low-paying positions, "marking the end of the relatively favorable situation women had enjoyed in the Middle Ages (Brummett 398)." This seemingly favorable position did not last forever. In the sixteenth century unemployment began to rise again along with inflation. The guilds and skilled workers that once had a hold on industry began to lose work to those people in the small communities around them - the beginning of the aptly-named "cottage industry" (Brummett 398).

Although, as previously mentioned, there were those who lost faith in a higher power, many became filled with even more religious zeal in the belief that they were being punished and needed to redeem themselves in the eyes of God. Some began simply to pray more for forgiveness while others

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