THE BLACK DEATH (part 2): History and how it affected Feudalism



     The Black Death was a predominant disease that spread throughout Europe during the 1300’s.  It killed an estimated 1.5 million of the 4 million people living in Europe at that time. Before the Black Death infected anyone, people had already created the perfect environment for the disease to flourish. Due to the large population, people began to live in cities. Architects tried to cram in as much people as possible, so they built apartments that slowly increased in size as the next level was added. By the time the top most level had been built, occupants could reach out and touch their next door neighbors!

There was no space for rubbish dumps –people didn’t know anything about hygiene in those days. Because there was no space, people used to dispose their chamber pot’s contents out the window and onto the street by throwing their waste out the window. Rubbish, litter and human filth lined the streets – nobody bothered to clean them out, except nature. Only if there was a particularly hard rain would the reads and alleys be washed out. It was the perfect condition for rodents to breed in. The plague didn’t reach Europe until 1350. When it finally did, it was because of the infected rats being transported via ships and trade routes. Fleas were the prime carriers of the pandemic, and originally rats served as their hosts. There on the waste lined streets, they began to thrive and multiplied by the hundreds, possibly even thousands. But rats were just as vulnerable to the disease as humans or any other animal , so they began to die from the plague. This created a problem, as there were was no more blood to feed on –except humans. Eventually, fleas found these new hosts who were, in turn, infected by the plague.


     Meanwhile, the pandemic plague was moving along the caravan routes toward the West. By 1346 it was in the Caucasus and the Crimea, and by 1347 it was in Constantinople – it hit Alexandria in autumn in that same year, and by spring 1348, a thousand people a day were dying. In Egypt, Cairo, the count was seven times that. The disease travelled by ship as readily as by land, and it was no sooner in the eastern Mediterranean than it was in the western end as well – already, in 1347, the plague had hit Sicily- it had also reached Cyprus late in summer 1347. In October, still in 1347, a Genoese fleet landed at Messina, Sicily, and by winter it was in Italy. January 1348; – the plague was in Marseilles, had reached Paris in the spring 1348, and England in September 1348. Moving along the Rhine trade routes, the plague reached Germany in 1348 and the Low Countries the same year – 1348 was the worst of the plague years. Although it took longer to reach the periphery of Europe, Norway was hit in May 1349, and Russia was free of the plague until 1351. Because the disease inclined to follow trade routes, and to focus in cities, it followed a winding route; – the Near East, the western Mediterranean, then into northern Europe and finally back into Russia. Europe wasn’t hit until 1350. The progress of the plague very neatly defines the layout of the medieval trading routes.


     The pyramid of power, which was the Feudal system, ran to a strict ‘pecking’ order – during the medieval period of the Middle-Ages, everyone knew their place.To understand why the Black Death played a major part in breaking down Feudalism, here’s a brief overview of how the different social classes worked. Feudalism basically revolved around a simple concept; – an exchange of land for loyalty. Here’s how the feudal system worked:


     The King was in complete control under the Feudal System – he owned all the land in the country, and decided who he would lease land to. However, before they were leased land, they had to swear an oath of loyalty, because after the king had rented the land, they would be in complete control of it. The people who rented the King’s land were called Barons/Baronesses.


     The leased land was called a manor, and the Barons were often called the ‘Lord of the Manor.’ They were allowed to establish their own system of justice, mint their own money and set their own taxes. The Barons had to serve on the royal council, pay rent and provide the King with Knights for military service when he demanded it in return for the land they had been given. When the King and his court travelled around the country, the Barons also had to provide lodging and food. The Barons kept as much of their land as they desired, then divided the rest among their Knights.


     Knights were given land by the Baron in return for military service when demanded, and to protect the manor. The Knights kept as much of the land as they wished for their own personal use, and distributed the rest of it to serfs – although they weren’t as rich as the Barons, Knights were quite wealthy.


     Serfs were given land by Knights in exchange for free labour, food and services whenever it was desired. They had no rights and weren’t allowed to leave the Manor. They had to ask their Lord’s permission before they could marry, and were often mistreated and poor.



     Because serfs made up the bulk of society, their class was hit the hardest. Because they catered to everyone (they provided for the knights, who provided for the Barons, who provided for the King), Barons were now willing to pay higher wages and offer extra benefits. All their life they had lived off the serfs’ hard work, and were willing to pay them to stay on the manor to continue slaving for them. When the serfs died, the foundation on which feudalism relied upon was broken. The pyramid of power broke, and everything was thrown into chaos.

When the Black Death swept over Europe and wiped out a third of its population, it also dismantled Feudalism. Serfs were free to leave the lands of the lords to seek higher wages with the vast labour shortages. The  land that had usually been the primary source of wealth was now worthless. Entire estates were deserted as families fell to the plague and died, or fled in a vain attempt to escape its fury, were there for the taking. As Europe evolved away from relying on land as the main source of prosperity, a rising middle-class claimed more and more wealth and prestige, as the once-noble began to quickly lose both.

The demise of Feudalism had begun and progressed each day as the plague claimed more lives. A large group of people, desperate to point their fingers at someone, alleged and accused many different ‘groups’ which included ‘witches,’ lepers and Jews. In central Europe, the flagellants convincingly charged the Jews. On a tragic day in Strasbourg alone, over 8,000 Jews were killed for being the target of vain suspicions.


      The immediate economic effect of the plague was that the huge death toll created a serious labor shortages. If the plague struck a manor in summer, there wouldn’t be enough serfs to harvest the crops in autumn. If it struck in the winter, there were not enough serfs to plant in the spring – there was no one left to farm the land.  The few stragglers who had managed to survived moved else-where.

As the plague spread throughout Europe, building projects were left incomplete –a would-be beautiful cathedral remains standing there, its exposed skeleton eerily standing amongst empty buildings. Church parishes had no priests to conduct services, Barons did not have enough serfs and knights to meet their needs, and many other manors were abandoned.  No one was left to bury the dead. Widespread labour shortages led to a rise in labour prices, and was especially apparent in the agricultural region.  Serfs, who, for centuries had worked the land for little or no pay, had suddenly begun to demand higher wages and, increasingly, revolted against a nobility that sought to work them for lower wages of the past.


     The plague’s remarkable impact on the arts is evident in paintings, sculpture and architecture – the medieval artistic world began to focus on death. Kings and wealthy nobility commissioned monuments, sculptures and cathedrals in response to the plague, and while many were built to thank god for passing over a city or region, others were built as a reminder of the plague’s devastation. Both sculptors and painters began to portray the dead and dying, as well as images of death and the grim reaper.  The style ‘Danse Macabre,’ or dance of death, is commonly portrayed as scenes from everyday life with images of the dead and/or skeletons – they were often depicted dancing, leading the living to their deaths or participating in a scene as though still alive.

Caer Galen's 'Dance with Death.'

With the Black Death came the fall of Feudalism.


By: Christina Vu-Nguyen 8C


6 Comments on “THE BLACK DEATH (part 2): History and how it affected Feudalism”

  1. swoonie says:

    Christine, what an amazing post!!! I am speechless but filled with pride for both your post and sensational diorama. =)))

  2. Claudia says:

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  3. jarrett says:

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  4. Keely Heck says:


  5. Keely Heck says:

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