The Plague Essay, Research Paper
The impact of the plague on European culture
To properly understand the impact of the plague and the historical marks it left it is necessary to consider all aspects of society. The Bubonic Plague otherwise known as the Black Death was responsible for the deaths of over 25 million people reducing the population of Europe by one third. Originating in Asia the plague swept through Europe between 1347 and 1350 spread by the Black Rat carrying the oriental flea in its coat. The term Black Death finds its origins from the characteristic black swellings in armpits and groins of the afflicted persons. The plague is now considered one of the most devastating events in western European history. It was easily spread through the seaports and fast affected millions of people throughout Europe. The plague undoubtedly affected, directly or indirectly, all the people whom witnessed its horrifying consequences. This tragedy resulted in the reconstruction of many social ideologies. It guided European society and its inherent culture in a new direction, influencing many of cultural icons of the diverse and impressionistic Renaissance movement. Virtually no aspect of European society was unaffected by the Black Plague for it changed the cultural elements and eschatological mentalities which were the foundations of society, in particular the Plague shaped the artistic outlooks and mediums of the Renaissance movement resulting in some of the famous cultural expressions which are considered hallmarks of European popular culture even today.
The church, one of the more dominant social institutions in 12th century Europe, saw a shift in their power and influence on society as a result of the Black Plague. In order to rationalize the immense death and suffering of all society the people looked towards a revival of mysticism centring on the figure of the Virgin Mary. The justification for the deaths given by the Catholic Church were rejected by society and in the shadow of their suffering and loss many began to experiment with other spiritual expressions. The high occurrence of death led understandably to an obsession with the transcendal elements of death and the afterlife. This shift in the nature of societies religious thoughts and practices is shown through many artefacts of the time. The relinquishing of power by the church saw a change in the basis of most people s lives and consequently their social culture. It sent them looking beyond this powerful institution for answers to the many great questions of life.
However not all people were satisfied with these often whimsical mystic justifications and many looked for a tangible explanation. Some, in an attempt to fill the void of inexplicability, blamed and persecuted the Jews for the desperate situation facing their previously thriving and prosperous society. Other people banded the flagellants, wandered Europe doing penance in public, punishing themselves to atone for the evils of the world. Similarly a series of Plague saints emerged along with new religious brotherhoods and shrines dedicated to protecting the populace from the evils of the plague. These religious changes within the society where inevitable. Many societies have undergone similar changes in the aftermath of horrific historical events. For a society to have such experiences with out searching for justifiable explanations would defy the nature of all humanity.
The severe changes caused by the Plague in religious outlook were reflected in the contemporary and renaissance art of the period which also experienced the revival of mysticism. In undergoing these changes art lost much of its previous unity with other cultural mediums. It took on a far more contemplative and confrontational role within society reflecting the general psyche of the people. The effects of the Plague had a major impact on the style and iconography of visual art. It was dominated by themes of rulership, judgement, and morbidity, icons which represented the views of society on their current situation. It was also often presented in conventional hieratic form with hieratic figures repeatedly used in illustrations for legal treaties, for example ( god situated between the king and pope ). These figures represented the hope of the nation and their indoctrinated dependence on the leaders of Europe in times of crisis. For the duration of the plague and in its aftermath these images replaced many of the formidable stylistic innovations that were characteristic of art earlier that century.
The changes that occurred in many of the artistic cultural establishments did not effect the everyday lives of the people as severely as the drastic halt in the economic growth of the affected nations. The magnitude of death resulted in a massively reduced labour force slowing economic development to a stand still. This shortage of labour and enterprise led to the waste of much of the nation land and capital. Without sufficient resources landowners were unable to efficiently farm their land and many were unable to sustain their livelihoods. At the same time the demand for labour outstripped the supply by far, consequently this led to an end of serfdom within the oppressing feudal system. This previously inconceivable flexibility within the rigid social structures provided fresh opportunity for new groups of manufacturers and tradesman to challenge the economical dominance of the aristocracy and inevitably aided the breakdown of rigid class structures within European society. However these inexperienced entrepreneurs faced the same problems with shortages of human resources. This need resulted in the development of new technologies based on wind and water power which were to replace human resources thus aiding industry in its time of crisis, in some ways foreshadowing the industrial revolution. These economic changes led to the partial deconstruction of the rigid social structures which formed the fabric of the patriarchal society.
This dislocation of the social structures led to revolutionary change in the general attitudes and of the society and its institutions. The values upon which people based their existence were questioned along with those who promoted and often enforced these values. The plague saw a change in the nature of day to day life which determined peoples attitudes. The vernacular language tended to replace the previously formal Latin. Far more social emphasis was placed upon the importance of death and the afterlife. A major change which is still regarded as very important to the sustainment of human life and development was the development of public health institutions which came into place to try combat the black plague. These, along with new initiatives to raise public sanitation, saved many lives during and even more after the duration of the plague. The confrontational mortality rates saw most people renounce their materialistic values. An eyewitness described, People behaved as though their days were numbered and treated their belongings and their own person with equal abandon. Hence most houses had become common property and any passing stranger could make himself at home as though he were the rightful owner. This quote adequately portrays the chaos and hopelessness of the situation.
The impacts which the Plague had on culture and society over six hundred years ago have been likened to the effects that AIDS has on modern society. One comparison made by Dr Subhash Hira when AIDS broke out in Zambia anticipated that it would have similar mortality patterns as the Plague. You are looking at the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, and ten years down the line you will see the same kind of mass deaths. Art pieces contemplating both diseases focus on the cause of the disease. Today art pieces associated with aids and images in general, have more erotic content, evidence of the impact the virus, and the method of its transmission have had on society there also seems to be an increased sense of awareness about drug
use in society and the art world. Similarly, the plague being thought of as a manifestation of divine anger, gave rise to a revival of mysticism in artwork and a renewed interest in death, afterlife and spirituality in general, these things being considered associated with the cause. Both diseases came with various misconceptions about the causes and spreading. A common AIDS myth is that it was started and spread by Homosexuals; A common Plague myth was that it was started and spread by the Jews. Although societies reactions to aids is less desperate than to the Plague, due to the preventative measures which can be taken in relation to AIDS, they both share the frightening concept of incurability. This notion has drawn many of the same reactions from modern society as it did from society in the 12th century.
The Plague affected society in countless irreparable ways. The devastating effects provided a creative stimulus for the art and culture of the time leaving a deep historical impression on the Renaissance movement. The changes within society caused by the plague redefined social opinions of that time thus influencing the historical heritage of modern day Europe. These effects had both positive and negative outcomes on society but ultimately tested the strength of humanity. Unlike AIDS the Plague threatened all levels of society undeterred by, sexuality, social habits or social status. Clearly it can be seen that the plague effected not only those that experienced it at the time but has indirectly touched many people throughout history including present day society. To this day, people still find it mind shattering to believe the consequences the disease had upon an entire continent and the number of deaths it had caused. In contrast to other historical catastrophes the plague has taken more lives in three years than both of the world wars. Modern humanity now has to live with the fear that such endemic diseases are still possible with modern medicine and we may be yet to experience a disease which carries with it the horrifying and uncontrollable occurrences of the bubonic plague.