The End of Europe's Middle Ages

Black Death

Spread of Black Death Map.

Having entered Europe from the East along trade routes, the Black Death had profound consequences on the European economy and the collective psyche of the population. A deadly combination of exceptionally virulent forms of bubonic plague, spread chiefly by rats infected by fleas, and pneumonic plague, spread by contact with infected people, the Black Death swept through Europe from 1347-1350. Outbreaks of the Plague continued into the 1600's and leaving a legacy within the European mind to this day. Comments such as "avoid it like the Plague" or even the children's nursery song, Ring Around the Rosies (referring to the swellings on the neck that chracterized the disease), stem from this period. That the Black Death had no respect for class divisions is demonstrated in the English tale of the "Beasley Boy."

According to this story, as a young girl Elizabeth I was sent to the southern town of Beasley to avoid an outbreak of the Plague. Despite the precaution, the princess contracted the disease and died. The nobility who had been entrusted with the care of Elizabeth were horrified and, to prevent the discovery of her death and royal reprisals, searched for a replacement. Unfortunately, they were not able to find a young girl with the same general appearance and characteristically red hair. The only suitable candidate was a young boy, so the boy was sent back to London in the guise of Elizabeth and eventually acceded to the throne as Elizabeth I, thus explaining the "Virgin Queen's" boldness, military acumen and lifelong refusal to marry. While only an amusing tale, the story does illustrate the pervasiveness of the Plague and its impact on all levels of society.

Traumatized by the pervasiveness of death, uncertainty for future and deep pessimism, people became profoundly aware of the brevity of life. The pessimism of the period is well illustrated in the saying that was popular at the time: media vita in mortua sumus - in the middle of life, we are in death. The response to this pessimism and fear created two extremes of behaviour that can is expressed in the art and literature of the time. Extreme outpourings of religious piety and charity were balanced against a preoccupation with leisure and pleasure. Boccacio's famous work "The Decameron" gives us a glimpse of the pleasure-seekers while others urged a deepening of spirituality in preparation for heaven.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
Copyright © 1997, The Applied History Research Group