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Renaissance and Reformation Plague and its Consequences
by
Samuel Kline Cohn

Introduction

Although the character of the disease has recently stirred much controversy, the consequences of the Black Death and plagues—demographic, economic, social, and cultural—have embroiled historians in debate for a century or more. Some historians have seen the Black Death as a sharp turning point, accounting for many subsequent events and trends in Western civilization, even those that occurred many years afterward, such as the Reformation. Others have downplayed the Black Death’s effects, seeing them at best as only accelerating trends already well in train, originating with developments such as urbanization that reach back to the 13th century. Nonetheless, the question of the Black Death’s impact on history has concerned historians across a broad range of disciplines—demography, economics, religious studies, and psychology—employing different methods and sources.

Collections of Papers

These collections illustrate the multidisciplinary character of plague studies. They bring together specialists across a wide spectrum of disciplines, from the medical sciences to literary studies. Some of these collections are regionally based, such as Bisgaard and Søndergaard 2009 on northern Euorpe, Ormrod and Lindley 1996 on England, Symposium Geschiedenis, et al. 1999 on the Low Countries, and Assessorato Alla Cultura e alle Belle Arti 1979 on Venice. Bowsky 1971, Lehfeldt 2005, Paravicini Bagliani and Santi 1998, and Williman 1982 extend across Europe, and in some instances into the Middle East.

  • Assessorato Alla Cultura e alle Belle Arti. Venezia e la peste 1348–1797. Comune di Venezia. Venice: Marsillo, 1979.

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    A wide-ranging set of essays on demographic effects, government regulations, significance of health board policies, and consequences for art, architecture, and religion over five centuries in Venice or the Veneto.

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  • Bisgaard, Lars, and Leif Søndergaard, eds. Living with the Black Death. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2009.

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    Ten articles on plague patterns, ecology, labor markets, plague saints, Scandinavian art; concentrates on plague in northern Europe from the Black Death to the plague of 1711 in Copenhagen.

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  • Bowsky, William, ed. The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

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    A lively mix of translated sources and selected essays, with a wide variety of historical studies from England to Egypt, mainly emphasizing the plague as a turning point for better or worse; includes studies of demography, economy, morals, persecution of the Jews, prices, land tenure, and government.

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  • Lehfeldt, Elizabeth A. The Black Death. Problems in European Civilization. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

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    Abridgements of articles and book chapters by twenty 20th-century historians, mainly published since 1990, covering medicine, epidemiology, art, economics, popular reactions, and revolt.

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  • Ormrod, Mark, and Phillip Lindley, eds. The Black Death in England. Stamford, CT: Paul Watkins, 1996.

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    In contrast to Williman 1982, these essays stress the significance of the Black Death and plagues of the 14th century as accelerating social, religious, political, and architectural change; embodies new archival research.

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  • Paravicini Bagliani, Agostino, and Francesco Santi, eds. The Regulation of Evil: Social and Cultural Attitudes to Epidemics in the Late Middle Ages. Florence, Italy: Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998.

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    Concentrates on the Black Death and plagues to the 15th century, medical literature, social consequences, and the law, with comparisons to alchemy and leprosy.

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  • Symposium Geschiedenis der Geneeskundige Wetenschappen, Académie Royale de Médecine de Belgique, Koninklijke Academie voor Geneeskunde (Belgique), and the Belgian Association for the History of Medicine. De Pest in de Nederlanden: Medisch historische Beschouwingen 650 Jaar na de Zwarte Dood. Academia regia Belgica medicinae, Dissertationes, Series historica 7. Brussels: Koninklijke Academie voor Geneeskunde van België, 1999.

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    Evaluates medical aspects of the disease along with its social, economic, and demographic consequences from the Black Death to the 17th century.

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  • Williman, Daniel, ed. The Black Death: The Impact of the Fourteenth-Century Plague; Papers of the Eleventh Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1982.

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    Wide-ranging and interdisciplinary analysis of the Black Death from England to the Middle East, concentrating on culture, literature, and attitudes; deemphasizes the Black Death as a turning point, arguing that it only hastened trends already in train from the 13th century or earlier.

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Demographic and Economic Causes and Consequences

From at least the 1940s to the 1980s, studies of the Black Death were dominated by debates over the economic consequences from the mid-14th century to the 16th. For the most part, research was focused on regional economies to draw larger European generalizations. These debates turned on questions of economic depression, systemic economic change, and the decline or rise of towns. By the 1970s, the debate became structured in large part between neo-Malthusians such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (see Ladurie 1966 and Postan 1966) and Marxists, in what became known as the Brenner Debate (Brenner 1976, Aston and Philpin 1985). Over the past decade or more, ecological considerations have become prominent, with human actions seen within larger environmental contexts.

  • Aston, T. H., and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511562358Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Responses to Brenner 1976, defending older neo-Malthusian positions and proposing new arguments. Several essays show Europe to have been much more variegated than the generalist Brenner imagined; Europe east of the Elbe, for instance, was not so monolithic; land tenure and servility after the Black Death show differences in this region that were as significant as those in the West.

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  • Brenner, Robert. “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.” Past and Present 70 (1976): 30–75.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/70.1.30Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Attacks the neo-Malthusian interpretations of E. Le Roy Ladurie and M. M. Postan by presenting a comparative context for the demographic, social, and economic changes of the 15th and 16th centuries; shows radically different consequences for the Black Death between England and France and between western and eastern Europe, arguing that the crucial variable was class relations between lords and peasants.

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England

The question of the impact of the Black Death on the economy of England has been one of the dominant themes of English historiography over the past century.

Negative and Neutral Assessments

Against the backdrop of late medieval and early modern plagues, historians have traced the ebb and flow of agrarian and urban economies of the late Middle Ages. One group has argued that the economic effects of the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague, in either the short or long term, were detrimental to growth and prosperity. Most, such as Hatcher 1977, Postan 1939, and Postan 1966, have focused on archival sources to draw demographic and economic trends. Others, like Phythian-Adams 1978, have integrated cultural factors with economic and demographic trends. Still others, such as Hatcher 1994 and Saltmarsh 1941, have favored literary sources over what can be derived from statistical series drawn from sources such as manorial rolls.

  • Hatcher, John. Plague, Population, and the English Economy 1348–1530: Studies in Economic and Social History. London: Macmillan, 1977.

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    Argues for strong recovery in the late 14th century, but claims that it did not continue in the 15th. The 15th century, however, was “no ordinary depression—not falling per capita output, falling living standards or rising unemployment” (p. 47).

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  • Hatcher, John. “England in the Aftermath of the Black Death.” Past and Present 144 (1994): 3–35.

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    Argues against trends in economic history claiming that literary evidence should be discounted when contradicted by statistical evidence such as price series reconstructed from manorial records. Thus, Hatcher puts greater credence in testimony from contemporary chroniclers than in wage data, arguing that agricultural and urban workers drove their real wages vertiginously upward from immediately after the Black Death to the 15th century.

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  • Phythian-Adams, Charles. “Urban Decay in Late Medieval England.” In Towns in Societies: Essays in Economic History and Historical Sociology. Edited by Philip Abrams and Edward Anthony Wrigley, 159–185. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

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    Traces the post–Black-Death demographic and economic decline of towns; argues that decline intensified in the years 1520–1570, continuing after the national population had stabilized, in part because of burdens of “over-elaborate structures of office-holding” and conspicuous expenditures on festive life in towns.

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  • Postan, Michael Moissey. “Revisions in Economic History: IX. The Fifteenth Century.” Economic History Review 9 (1939): 160–167.

    DOI: 10.2307/2590221Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that England entered into a deep demographic and economic slump during the 15th century in which conditions improved slightly for peasants but declined for landlords, leading perhaps to greater pressure to defend feudal offices and revenues.

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  • Postan, Michael Moissey. “Medieval Agrarian Society in Its Prime: England.” In The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, I. Edited by Michael Moissey Postan, 549–632. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

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    Sees the 13th century as a high-water mark, with demographic and economic decline setting in by the early 14th century. The “Malthusian crisis” (see Demographic and Economic Causes and Consequences) was evident before the Black Death, as witnessed by the famines of the early 14th century. Moreover, successive waves of plague and abandonment of the land delayed economic recovery.

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  • Saltmarsh, John. “Plague and Economic Decline in England in the Later Middle Ages.” Cambridge Historical Journal 7 (1941): 23–41.

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    Largely from literary evidence, argues that England and Europe during the 15th century entered a period of “slow, relentless decay” that sapped human resources and “haunted the closing Middle Ages.” Concentrates on population figures, number of plague outbreaks, and the prosperity in London.

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Positive Assessments

A second group of historians has argued that the Black Death with its mass mortality had a silver lining, especially by the 15th century, restructuring the economy and leading to greater material prosperity especially for peasants, laborers, and artisans. Bean 1963, Campbell and Overton 1993, and Poos 1991 concentrate on the peasantry and agriculture; Bridbury 1962 concentrates on urban economies; and Dyer 2002 has integrated the two.

  • Bean, John Malcolm William. “Plague, Population, and Economic Decline in England in the Later Middle Ages.” Economic History Review, new series 15 (1963): 423–437.

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    Concentrates on plagues after the Black Death to 1485, distinguishing between local and national ones; argues that they afflicted the countryside far less in the 15th century than during the 14th. Pays little attention to economic developments other than the rise of wages and a fall in rents.

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  • Bridbury, Anthony Randolph. Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages. London: Allen and Unwin, 1962.

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    After a period of economic recession lasting until about 1370, England experienced an “astonishing record of resurgent vitality and enterprise” (p. 24), both in the countryside and in cities, especially in the 15th and early 16th centuries with the takeoff of the English cloth industry.

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  • Campbell, Bruce, and Mark Overton. “A New Perspective on Medieval and Early Modern Agriculture: Six Centuries of Norfolk Farming, c. 1250–c.1850.” Past and Present 141 (1993): 38–105.

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    Argues that after the Black Death and successive waves of pestilence to the Early Modern period (in contrast to the great famine, 1316–1318), agriculture and in particular husbandry made great strides in Norfolk.

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  • Dyer, Christopher. Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850–1520. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

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    From archaeological evidence, prices, wages, literature, manorial rolls, and more, argues for improved living standards for peasants, workers, and artisans by the late 14th century—housing, diet, leisure time, and expenditure on luxuries.

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  • Poos, Larry. A Rural Society after the Black Death: Essex 1350–1525. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    While post–Black Death Essex along with England in general witnessed agricultural shifts, such as increased animal husbandry relative to grain and larger houses for rural laborers, smallholding and the near-landless stratum in rural society persisted into the Early Modern period.

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France

For the most part, assessments of the demographic and economic consequences of the Black Death and subsequent plagues in France are embedded in numerous regional studies of the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, such as Ladurie 1966, Fournial 1967, and Bois 1976. These provide excellent sources on the incidence and demography of plague but tend to present their effects, perhaps reasonably, as intertwined with other factors, particularly the ravages of war, which is emphasized in French historiography for the 14th- and 15th-century crises more than in any other national context. In addition, several studies, such as Perroy 1949 and the excellent overview in Dubois 1988, based on many regional studies, provide national and comparative analyses.

  • Bois, Guy. Crise du féodalisme: Économie rurale et démographie en Normandie orientale du début du 14e siècle au milieu di 16e siècle. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1976.

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    Finds broad trends in the demographic history and prosperity of the peasantry in Normandy similar to those Le Roy Ladurie found in Languedoc (Ladurie 1966), but the key to understanding these shifts does not turn on relentless Malthusian mechanisms of population cycles but instead on class struggle—relations between lords and peasants and changes in feudal rent.

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  • Dubois, Henri. “La dépression: XIVe et XVe siècles.” In Histoire de la population française I: Des origines à la Renaissance. Edited by Jacques Dupâquier, 313–366. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988.

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    From a wide array of published and archival documents, shows the regional inequalities of demographic decline over the first hundred years of plague mixed with the ravages of war.

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  • Fournial, Étienne. Les villes et l’économie d’échange en Forez aux XIIIe et XIVe siècle. Paris: Presses du Palais Royal, 1967.

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    Part II, “Les Crises (vers 1330-vers 1435),” details mounting bad harvests and epidemics from the 1280s to 1348; from burial records and last wills and testaments, charts the seasonality and severity of the plagues to the end of the 14th century and shows the interconnected consequences of famine, war, and plague on demography, commerce, rents, taxation, persecution of Jews, popular revolt, and repression.

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  • Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Les paysans de Languedoc. 2 vols. Paris: SEVPEN, 1966.

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    Part 1 of this monumental regional study, the “Malthusian Renaissance,” shows a correlation between the population’s “low-water mark” in the 15th century, which resulted from war and plague, and prosperity among the peasantry, which lasted until the last decades of the 15th century, when population pressures again caused fragmentation of landholding, rise of rents, and the decline of wages.

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  • Perroy, Edouard. “Á l’origine d’une économie contractée, crises du XIVe siècle.” Annales 4 (1949): 167–182.

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    Sees the crisis of the 14th century coming before the Black Death, and attributable to a wide variety of causes: war, rising prices, social unrest in the cloth industry, credit crises, Philip IV’s manipulation of money, financial crises, the famines of 1314–1318, and ultimately the Black Death; considers evidence from various regions of France and England.

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Italy

In Italy the question of post-plague economic decline or prosperity has revolved around the broader debate of the “Economic depression of the Renaissance,” coined by Lopez 1953 and developed further by Lopez and Miskimin 1962. While Lopez mentioned but did not emphasize the Black Death, others such as Herlihy 1967 and Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber 1978 have placed greater stress on the late-14th- and 15th-century plagues and have been critical of Lopez’s inattention to per capita figures of production and consumption. Others (Brown 1989, Cipolla 1963, Goldthwaite 1980, and Goldthwaite 1993) have criticized aspects of his economic theory and failure to account for the growth and importance of new post–Black Death industries and markets.

  • Brown, Judith C. “Prosperity or Hard Times in Renaissance Italy?” Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 761–780.

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    An excellent summary of the debate since Lopez’s formulation in 1953 (Lopez 1953); examines studies of the 1970s and 1980s that focus on the rural economy, regional economies, cloth production, new markets, standards of living, and war-related industries that illustrate post–Black Death and Renaissance prosperity.

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  • Cipolla, Carlo. “Economic Depression of the Renaissance?” Economic History Review 15 (1963): 196–214.

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    Critical of Lopez’s thesis; questions his statistics on production (especially the cloth industry) and population, and points to the flaw of not considering per capita figures conditioned by the sharp decline in population caused by the Black Death and subsequent plagues.

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  • Goldthwaite, Richard. The Building of Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

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    Argues that the boom in palace building of the late 15th century shows the post-plague vitality of the Florentine economy, with its beneficial effects on employment and prosperity. The purchasing power of artisans and laborers created an economy more dynamic than that of the 13th-century “commercial revolution” seen earlier as the apex of the medieval economy, especially in Italy.

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  • Goldthwaite, Richard. Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

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    Counters the Lopez thesis by arguing strenuously that a more dynamic economy followed in the wake of plague, buttressing an efflorescence in the arts: economic prosperity, not decline, produced a greater base for luxury consumption, which included greater investment in religious and secular art during the Renaissance.

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  • Herlihy, David. Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200–1430. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

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    From tax records of 1240s to the famous Florentine catasto of 1427, analyzes the restructuring of the economy after the Black Death, which resulted in higher per capita wealth. The distribution of this new wealth, however, was not the same across the economy of the city or countryside of Pistoia.

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  • Herlihy, David, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Les Toscans et leurs familles: Une étude du catasto florentin de 1427. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1978.

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    Shows prosperity among peasants and artisans in the 15th century as a result of changing demographic pressures resulting from the Black Death, but emphasizes that population decline began a century before 1348 and population pressures did not mount again until the 1470s; argues that relations between city and countryside, taxation and urban investment in the land also influenced these pressures.

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  • Lopez, Robert Sabatino. “Hard Times and Investment in Culture.” In The Renaissance: A Symposium, February 8–10, 1952. By Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29–54. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953.

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    Sees the sharp decline in banking and investment opportunities after the Black Death as leading merchant elites across Italy to invest in culture.

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  • Lopez, Robert Sabatino, and Harry A. Miskimin. “The Economic Depression of the Renaissance.” Economic History Review 2d ser., 14 (1962): 408–427.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1962.tb00059.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees the 15th century across Europe, but mostly in northern Italy, as a period of economic decline, especially in commerce and industry, but does not emphasize the Black Death as the principal cause.

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The Low Countries

More than in any other area of Europe, economic and social historians of the Netherlands have shown the great variety of regional shifts and developments that occurred after the Black Death: the demographic and economic impact of the plagues, even within areas as close as Brabant and Flanders, could be fundamentally different. Blockmans 1980 has concentrated on late medieval developments; others, such as Thoen and Devos 1999 and van Bavel and van Zanden 2004, have concentrated on the longer-term consequences of plague for the Dutch economy to the 17th century.

  • Blockmans, Wim P. “The Social and Economic Effects of Plague in the Low Countries, 1349–1500.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 58 (1980): 833–863.

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    Chronicles the plagues and their demographic and economic consequences in various regions of the Low Countries; among other correlations, finds a strong coincidence between periods of dearth and plague.

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  • Thoen, Erik, and Isabelle Devos. “Pest in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden tijdens de Middeleeiwen en de Moderne Tijden: Een status quaestionis over de ziekte in haar sociaal-economische context.” In De Pest in Nederlanden, 19–44. Brussels: Koninklijke Academie voor Geneeskunde van België, 1999.

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    Discusses the demographic impact of the plague in the Netherlands from the 14th to the 17th century and its social, economic, and environmental ramifications.

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  • van Bavel, Bas J. P., and Jan Luiten van Zanden. “The Jump-Start of the Holland Economy during the Late-Medieval Crisis, c. 1350–c.1500.” Economic History Review 57 (2004): 503–532.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2004.00286.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Like Blockmans 1980, shows that Holland did not experience sharp falls in its population after 1348, but unlike others, argues that even with the absence of severe demographic crises, wages rose as sharply as in plague-stricken areas. In Holland their rise led to capital-intensive agriculture and proto-industrialization, giving its regions a comparative economic advantage by the 16th century.

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Price and Wage Legislation

The Black Death and its effects on prices and wages and the legislative means by which the nobility, city magistrates, and the crown attempted to turn back the clock to the status quo ante have been studied most widely in England, particularly the Ordinances and Statutes of Labourers in 1349 and 1351 (for instance, in Given-Wilson 2000 and Putnam 1908), to such an extent that students often think that such laws were peculiar to Edward III’s England. However, Braid 2003, Braid 2008, Munro 1994, Cohn 2007, and Verlinden 1938 have emphasized the international and comparative dimensions of this political reaction to plague and the new market forces it created.

  • Braid, Robert. “‘Et non ultra’: Politiques royales du travail en Europe Occidentale au XIVe siècle.” Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartres 161 (2003): 437–491.

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    Focuses on Europe’s earliest post–Black Death wage and price laws—those of the Kingdom of Provence in 1348—showing wide discrepancies between these laws and those in France, Spain, and England.

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  • Braid, Robert. “Peste, proletaires et politiques: La legislation du travail et les politiques economiques en angleterre aux XIIIeme et XIVeme siecles: Concepts, realités et contexte européen.” Thése d’état, Université de Paris (Paris 7, Diderot), 17 November 2008.

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    Examines the English Ordinances and Statutes of Labourers within large contexts of law, theology, and comparative developments on the Continent; stresses the economic rationality of Edward III’s laws and awareness of the new realities that faced the crown immediately after the Black Death.

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  • Cohn, Samuel. “After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe.” Economic History Review 60 (2007): 457–485.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2006.00368.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the post–Black Death price and wage legislation across Europe and particularly in northern Italian city-states, stressing the economic irrationality of these laws fueled by the general climate of hatred and fear in the immediate wake of the Black Death.

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  • Given-Wilson, Chris. “The Problem of Labour in the Context of English Government, c. 1350–1450.” In The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England. Edited by James Bothwell, Peter J. P. Goldberg, and W. M. Ormrod, 85–100. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2000.

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    Looks beyond the Statutes of Labourers to wage legislation at the end of the 15th century in England; argues that the statutes were enforced by relatively small fines that did not significantly dampen the migration of labor or rise in wages.

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  • Munro, John H. “Urban Wage Structures in Late-Medieval England and the Low Countries: Work-Time and Seasonal Wages.” In Labour and Leisure in Historical Perspective: Papers Presented at the 11th International Economic History Congress, Milan, 1994. Edited by Ian Blanchard, 65–78. Stuttgart, Germany: Steiner, 1994.

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    By computing the rise in real wages in England from the Black Death to around 1380, argues vigorously against previous conclusions of Putnam and others that the wage laws were justifiably enacted against peasant greed and their supposed extraordinary prosperity that followed in the immediate wake of plague; also challenges the claim that these laws effectively controlled wages according to their mandates.

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  • Putnam, Bertha. The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Death 1349–1359. Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law 32. New York: Columbia University, 1908.

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    Often praised as the definitive work on post–Black Death wage and price legislation in England, it follows the anti-peasant ideology of 14th-century contemporaries, accusing peasants of vicious greed and seeing the nobility as the victims. It maintains that the laws were enforced effectively, but shows the methodological limitations of early-20th-century historiography: more than nine thousand surviving cases are considered without statistical analysis.

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  • Verlinden, Charles. “La grande peste de 1348 en Espagne: Contribution à l’étude de ses conséquences économiques et sociales.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 17 (1938): 103–146.

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    Compares post–Black Death price and wage legislation in Aragon, Castile, and Catalonia with one another and with similar laws in France, England, and Germany, showing contrasts in laws that placed varying pressures on rural and artisan labor, with varying severity of punishment.

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Ecological Explanations

Against the dominant models of Malthus and Marx for understanding the demographic and economic consequences of the Black Death and subsequent plagues, Harvey 1991, Campbell 1984, and Campbell 2009 are among the works that use new types of evidence and new models of analysis that stress exogenous variables—climate and the world of microorganisms—for understanding the demographic catastrophe of the 14th century and its consequences.

  • Campbell, Bruce M. S. “Population-Pressure, Inheritance, and the Land Market in a Fourteenth-Century Peasant Community.” In Land, Kinship, and Life-Cycle. Edited by Richard M. Smith, 87–135. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    Argues against Malthusian and Marxist explanations of the Black Death; instead of internal contradictions within society, exogenous environmental setbacks, especially climatic change, account for the extraordinary events of the 14th century, beginning with the Great Famine and culminating with the Black Death.

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  • Campbell, Bruce M. S. “Physical Shocks, Biological Hazards and Human Impacts: The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Revisited.” In Le interazioni fra economia e ambiente biologico nell’Europa preindustriale, Secc, XIII–XVIII: XLI Settimana di Studi Datini, Prato, 26–30 aprile 2009. Edited by Simonetta Cavaciocchi. Florence, Italy: Le Monnier, 2009.

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    Unusual climatic conditions arose around the beginning of the 14th century and explain a weakening of human populations globally, as evidenced by the famines of the early 14th century, the Black Death, and the emergence of other diseases such as the “English sweats” in the 15th century.

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  • Harvey, Barbara. “Introduction: The ‘Crisis’ of the Early Fourteenth Century.” In Before the Black Death: Studies in the “Crisis” of the Early Fourteenth Century. Edited by Bruce M. S. Campbell, 1–24. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1991.

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    Reviews various interpretations of the economic depression of the 14th century and a turning point that begins in the 1370s; concludes that the advent of plague was an exogenous factor which transformed the economic life of western Europe. These changes could not have been predicted in the first half of the century.

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Cultural and Psychological Consequences

Literature on the Black Death, the combined effects of war, famine, and their concomitant social and economic trends has often opened into larger discussions of the origins of the Renaissance, even extending to the French Enlightenment. The historiography can be divided into the Renaissance and anti-Renaissance schools, inspired by two competing classics of the cultural history of the later Middle Ages and the Early Modern period: Jacob Burckhardt on one hand, and Johann Huizinga on the other, with their intellectual legacies. While Burckhardt’s work found the period roughly from Frederick II to Tasso to be a distinct era of cultural efflorescence, individualism, and modernity (at least in Italy), Huizinga and scholars who followed in his footsteps saw the 15th century as one of cultural depression. According to the latter historians, beneath a thin veneer of elite intellectual activity limited largely to Tuscany, the stresses of war, famine, and plague wore down 15th-century society and culture. The creative forces of the High Middle Ages became overloaded, symbols and rituals of the previous century lost their vitality, and only the plastic arts continued to thrive.

Psychohistories and the History of Mentalities

Historical works such as Camporeale 1989 and Binion 2005 have used psychoanalytical tools to understand the mental consequences of plague for European populations. In charting shifts in mentality, Cohn 1992 and Chiffoleau 1980 have examined last wills and testaments quantitatively; others, such as Delumeau 1978, Lauwers 1997, Smoller 2000 and Tenenti 1957, have examined a wide range of literary evidence—religious and liturgical tracts, sermons, physicians’ manuals, ars moriendi advice books, chronicles, and works of humanist literature.

  • Binion, Rudolph. Past Impersonal: Group Process in Human History. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

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    Chapter 7, “Death on a Rampage,” analyzes the Dance of Death, Triumph of Death, and the trope of Death and the Maiden as adaptive processes inuring populations to the horrors of repeated mass death, as orgiastic and sepulchral sex aimed at restoring lost population.

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  • Camporeale, Salvatore I. “Giovanni Caroli, 1460–1480: Death, Memory, and Transformation.” In Life and Death in Fifteenth-Century Florence. Edited by Marcel Tetel, Ronald G. Witt, and Rona Goffen, 16–27. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989.

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    Based on the Dominican biographies of friars at Santa Maria Novella (Florence), sees those of the late 15th century reflecting on the Black Death as the crucial break in the normal succession of generations and, as a consequence, the cultural and spiritual caesura of civic and religious life, and replacing this previous sense of civic community with “a strong sense of the transience of all human things.”

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  • Chiffoleau, Jacques. La comptabilité de l’au-dela: Les hommes, la mort et la religion dans la région d’Avignon à la fin du Moyen Age (vers 1320–vers 1480). Collection de l’école française de Rome 47. Rome: École française de Rome, 1980.

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    From testaments in the region of Avignon and literary works across Europe, argues that the Black Death did not mark an abrupt change in mentalities but accelerated ongoing processes. Earlier urbanization and commercialization were more important in breaking ties between survivors and their ancestors and forming new communities of the uprooted and new religious sentiments.

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  • Cohn, Samuel. The Cult of Remembrance of the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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    Largely from testamentary evidence, finds not a long single trend from the Black Death to the Early Modern period, but instead a swift reversal in psychology and culture from an initial despondency wrought by the Black Death to a Renaissance optimism and zeal for “fame and glory” after successive strikes of pestilence in the late 14th and 15th centuries.

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  • Delumeau, Jean. La peur en Occident (XIVe–XVIIIe siècle): Une cité assiégée. Paris: Fayard, 1978.

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    From an examination of liturgy, rituals, sermons, chronicles, and works of art, principally in France and Italy but also from other places in western Europe, describes a post-plague collective European psychology of fear, insecurity, panic, and despondency in Catholic and Protestant countries alike, a living nightmare that lifts only with the Enlightenment after 1740.

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  • Lauwers, Michel. La mémoire des ancêtres, le souci des morts: Morts, rites et société au Moyen Age. Paris: Beauchesne, 1997.

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    Looks at religious and liturgical literature and concentrates on the 12th and 13th centuries in the region around Liège to support Chiffoleau’s thesis that the big breaks in burial and funeral customs and the loosening of old seigneurial ties to ancestors were well in train before the Black Death.

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  • Smoller, Laura A. “Plague and the Investigation of the Apocalypse.” In Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Edited by Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman, 167–187. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

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    Considers chroniclers, clerics, and physicians who dwelled on ideas of the Apocalypse during the Black Death and immediately afterward. Yet to date none have explained the almost total absence of such ideas linked with plague during successive bouts of pestilence.

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  • Tenenti, Alberto. Il senso della morte e l’amore della vita nel Rinascimento (Francia e Italia). Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1957.

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    From the ars moriendi literature, religious and humanist writings, and the art of the macabre, argues that post-plague mentalities turned to an obsession for secular glory and the love of life.

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Flagellants, Burning of Jews, and Plague Spreaders

As with changes in mentality in general, some historians (e.g., Calvi 1981) have seen the history of plague and persecution as a continuum through the recurring bouts of plague to the 18th century. Other works, such as Cohn 2007, have distinguished between short- and longer-term consequences or changes in persecution from one epoch to the next, as do Ginzburg 1991, Preto 1987, and Naphy 2002. Some have seen these movements, especially the burning of Jews, as ones principally or exclusively of the poor (Cohn 1970, Graus 1987); others, such as Haverkamp 1981, have highlighted that elites from local castellans to the Emperor Charles IV were the perpetrators.

  • Calvi, Giulia. “L’oro, il fuoco, le forche: La peste napoletana del 1656.” Archivio Storico Italiano 507 (1981): 405–458.

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    Sees the history of hatred and persecution of plague spreaders from the Black Death to the 17th century as a single historical block (“an identical sequence”), beginning with the accusation of Jews poisoning wells to the untori of the 17th-century plagues.

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  • Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

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    Sees the flagellants and the persecutions of the Jews (1348–1351) as mass hysteria provoked by the mass death of plague; the two movements were interlinked and composed largely of peasants and poor artisans.

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  • Cohn, Samuel. “The Black Death and the Burning of the Jews.” Past and Present 196 (2007): 3–36.

    DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtm005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the widespread persecution of the Jews was unique to the first outbreak of plague in 1348–1351, and such hatred was not repeated with subsequent plagues, nor was it the product of “mass hysteria.” Instead, those at the height of power, from the Emperor Charles IV to local castellans and patrician oligarchs, orchestrated and perpetrated the massacres.

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  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. London: Penguin, 1991.

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    See chapter 2, “Jews, Heretics, Witches.” While in 1321 the political and religious authorities had directed the latent hostilities of the populace against lepers and Jews, in 1348–1349 the pressure came mostly from subaltern classes—”a thick sediment in the popular mentality.”

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  • Graus, František. Pest—Geissler—Judenmorde: Das 14. Jahrhundert als Krisenzeit. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1987.

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    The most comprehensive study of the post–Black Death flagellants and burning of Jews; maintains that the flagellants cut across social classes and did not constitute a social movement, but sees the burning of the Jews differently, speculating that peasants and the poor were among the perpetrators, enraged by previous exploitation at the hands of Jewish moneylenders.

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  • Haverkamp, Alfred. “Die Judenverfolgungen zur Zeit des Schwarzen Todes im Gesellschaftsgefüge deutscher Städte.” In Zur Geschichte der Juden im Deutschland des späten Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Alfred Haverkamp, 27–93. Stuttgart, Germany: A. Hiersemann, 1981.

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    A thoroughgoing review of the literature on the persecution of the Jews in German cities during the Black Death; shows that Jews made loans to elites, not to poor peasants or artisans, and the initiatives to massacre the Jews came from Junkers, patricians, and regional princes.

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  • Naphy, William G. Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague-Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530–1640. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.

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    Examines judicial records and town minutes at Geneva during plagues of the 16th and 17th centuries; argues that a small and interrelated community of health professionals, principally the cleaners, were responsible for spreading plague from self-interest.

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  • Preto, Paolo. Epidemia, paura e politica nell’Italia moderna. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1987.

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    Shows that the persecution of minorities was rare during plagues after the Black Death to the last decades of the 16th century, but with the plague of 1575–1578, fear of plague spreaders (untori) began to rise, culminating in the 1630 plague, especially in Milan.

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Criminality

In addition to the immediate outbursts of mass self-inflicted violence and persecution during the Black Death, 1348–1351 (see Flagellants, Burning of Jews, and Plague Spreaders), historians have pointed to increases in criminality in times of plague and, more significantly, an increase in popular revolt. Some works, such as Bowsky 1967, Chiffoleau 1980, and Smail 1997, have concentrated on the late Middle Ages; others, such as Calvi 1989, Pastore 1991, and Pastore 2004, on the Early Modern period.

  • Bowsky, William. “The Medieval Commune and Internal Violence: Police, Power, and Public Safety in Siena, 1287–1355.” American Historical Review 73 (1967): 1–17.

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    The Black Death marked a watershed in public safety in Siena: conditions worsened from an increase in the marauding of mercenary Free Companies and personal vendettas, with a concomitant reduction in the number of police and a decline in their training and reliability.

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  • Calvi, Giulia. Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence. Translated by Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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    Analyzes the criminal records of the Florentine Health Board during the plague of 1629–1633 to describe stories of theft, hiding cases of plague, the violence of the plague cleaners, accusations of plague spreading, etc., but shuns any quantitative analysis of these records.

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  • Chiffoleau, Jacques. “La violence au quotidien Avignon au XIVe siècle d’après les registres de la cour temporelle.” Mélanges d’ École Française de Rome: Modernes 92 (1980): 325–371.

    DOI: 10.3406/mefr.1980.2563Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that daily violence increased after the Black Death because of social dislocation created by increased migration and deracinated new arrivals in towns; similar to his work on mentalities in Avignon, concludes that these processes were mounting long before the Black Death but were accelerated by it.

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  • Pastore, Alessandro. Crimine e giustizia in tempo di Peste nell’Europa moderna. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1991.

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    Largely from secondary sources, surveys much of western Europe, then concentrates on Bologna, Rome, and Genoa with archival and published primary sources, arguing that plague provoked a loosening of social and moral norms, especially sexual ones, and led to accusations of heresy and witchcraft.

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  • Pastore, Alessandro. Il medico in tribunale: La perizia medica nella procedura penale d’antico regime (secoli XVI–XVIII). 2d ed. Bellinzona, Italy: Casagrande, 2004.

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    From archives in Bologna, Verona, Venice, Lucca, and Swiss Lombardy, explores the use of medical evidence and expertise in the adjudication of criminal cases during the Early Modern period.

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  • Smail, Daniel Lord. “Telling Tales in Angevin Courts.” French Historical Studies 20 (1997): 183–215.

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    Recounts tales from the criminal archives of Marseilles, arguing that in the eight years following the Black Death, criminality and factional violence increased and the courtroom itself became a venue for pursuing vengeance.

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Popular Revolt

A generation after the Black Death, clusters of popular protest broke out: in southern France in 1378–1379, in northern France and Flanders in 1380–1382, the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the Florentine Tumulto dei Ciompi in 1378. Among multiple factors, historical works such as Mollat and Wolff 1973, Dyer 1984, and Rigby 1995 have often pointed to the Black Death leading to a sharp demographic decline particularly of peasants, workers, and artisans, which shifted the supply and demand of labor and, as a consequence, the balance of power between ruling and subaltern classes. However, with certain revolts, such as the Ciompi and the popular uprisings in Barcelona in 1391, a superfluity of labor rather than labor scarcity was an underlying condition of revolt (see Wolff 1971 and Cohn 2006). Numerous grievances about aristocratic abuse, taxation, governmental policy, and above all, notions of justice sparked popular revolt in continental Europe from the mid-1350s to the end of the century.

  • Cohn, Samuel. Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200–1425 (Flanders, France, and Italy). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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    Argues that plague stimulated popular unrest throughout western Europe, but not immediately after the Black Death; instead, it began to mount after 1355. The causes of increased insurrection were manifold, but one was psychological—a new post-plague confidence that abuses of power and economic injustices could be effectively redressed within the secular realm.

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  • Dyer, Christopher. “The Social and Economic Background to the Rural Revolt of 1381.” In The English Rising of 1381. Edited by Rodney Howard Hilton and Trevor Henry Aston, 9–42. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    Sees the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as one of rising expectations, orchestrated by commoners whose economic position was improving as a consequence of the scarcity of labor created by plague.

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  • Mollat, Michel, and Philippe Wolff. Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages. Translated by A. L. Lytton-Sells. London: Allen and Unwin, 1973.

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    Describes popular revolts of peasants and artisans in western Europe from the mid-13th to the early 15th century; finds a remarkable “synchronism” of revolts a generation after the Black Death; stresses that there were “deep-seated causes” for it but does little to elucidate what they may have been. Originally published in French (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1970).

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  • Rigby, Stephen Henry. English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status, and Gender. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

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    Argues persuasively that the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the result of a collision course in the years after the Black Death between commoners’ rising expectations, stimulated by a shift in the supply and demand for labor, and a seigneurial reaction in which landlords used ancient custom and new price and wage legislation to defend their economic position.

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  • Wolff, Philippe. “The 1391 Pogrom in Spain: Social Crisis or Not?” Past and Present 50 (1971): 4–18.

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    At Barcelona and Gerona, sees pogroms against Jews as forms of social revolt intertwined with tax revolts: those attacking Jews were mainly the common people, while the bourgeois supported the king and oligarchs to suppress the violence. These social and political problems were fueled by an influx of immigrants to cities that caused wages to fall.

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War

The most significant rise in violence after the Black Death was the rise in state aggression, territorial expansion, and military might. This new aggression by city-states and monarchies that led to new military technology and bureaucratic development has rarely been linked or explained in relation to the Black Death or subsequent plagues of the 14th century; several suggestions for such a link can be found in Bois 1976, Caferro 1998, Pollak-Lagushenko 2003, and Wright 1998.

  • Bois, Guy. Crise du féodalisme: Économie rurale et démographie en Normandie orientale du début du 14e siècle au milieu du 16e siècle. Paris: Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1976.

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    Argues that the post–Black Death decline in revenues for the French nobility led them to seek profit in warfare as brigands and soldiers of fortune, or in service to the crown.

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  • Caferro, William. Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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    Shows how the acceleration of post–Black Death warfare and economic disruption profited some states such as Florence and weakened others such as Siena, underpinning the post–Black Death territorial reorganization of Italy.

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  • Pollack-Lagushenko, Timur R. “The Armagnac Faction: New Patterns of Political Violence in Late Medieval France.” PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2003.

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    Contrary to Bois’s thesis, the count of Armagnac’s activist and belligerent policies did not correlate with significant declines in ordinary revenues; nor in England did the nobility experience a decline in revenues; in fact, until the end of the 1370s their per capita income increased markedly.

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  • Wright, Nicholas. Knights and Peasants: The Hundred Years War in the French Countryside. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1998.

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    Suggests that the period of depopulation after the Black Death led to a brief revival of the aspects of Marc Bloch’s first feudal age, with a weakening of royal power and corresponding rise of warlords and anarchy. The thesis is, however, suggestive without much evidence for it.

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Religion and Popular Piety

Two debates center on the effects of the Black Death and its long-term consequences on the clergy and popular piety: one is principally English and concerns the long-term origins of the Reformation; the other is essentially Italian, going back to Jacob Burckhardt’s claims (see Cultural and Psychological Consequences) of a rise in immorality and even a return to pagan disbelief in Italy. More recently in England and Italy, such notions of decline in the post-plague church’s hold on the people have been tempered by charting the changes in religious belief, reform from within, and the resiliency of ecclesiastical authority and institutions. In Italy this change in the direction of the church and piety has become known as “civic Christianity.”

England

Historiography on the religious consequences of the Black Death traditionally has been driven by more distant concerns over the origins of the 16th-century Reformation (e.g., Coulton 1938 and Gasquet 1893). More recently, historical works such as Dohar 1995, Duffy 1992, Harper-Bill 1996, and Scarisbrick 1984 have considered the post-plague religious changes within their own cultural contexts—those of the late 14th to early 16th century—and have concluded that clerical education, piety, and Catholic orthodoxy continued to show great energy and creativity up to the Reformation.

  • Coulton, George Gordon. Medieval Panorama: The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1938.

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    See chapter 38: the Black Death shook the popular confidence in the clergy and church hierarchy, leading to a new religious independence and ultimately the Reformation.

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  • Dohar, William J. The Black Death and Pastoral Leadership: The Diocese of Hereford in the Fourteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

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    Against the condemnations of the clergy by contemporaries such as Henry Knighton and William Langland and later historians, uses archival evidence to show that clerical recruitment recovered rapidly after the Black Death; clerical standards did not decline with the admittance of supposedly unqualified men into holy orders after sharp decreases in population from the Black Death.

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  • Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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    Argues that late medieval Catholicism continued to exert “a strong, diverse, and vigorous hold over the imagination… of the people” up to the Reformation. The plagues did not dent that confidence.

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  • Gasquet, Francis Aidan. The Great Pestilence (A.D. 1348–9) Now Commonly Known as The Black Death. London: Simpkin Marshall, 1893.

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    Sees the Black Death as fundamental to a decline in the fortunes of the church and especially monasteries in England: “The ecclesiastical system was wholly disorganized… everything had to be built up anew.” Religion took a new tone with “a devotional and more self-reflective cast.”

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  • Harper-Bill, Christopher. “The English Church and English Religion after the Black Death.” In The Black Death in England. Edited by Mark Ormrod and Phillip Lindley, 79–124. Stamford, CT: Paul Watkins, 1996.

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    Argues against a connection between the Black Death and the Reformation: clerical recruitment reached its nadir in the 1370s but its numbers climbed over the next century and a half with “consistently high standards of Episcopal governance”; endowments of monasteries continued despite the saturation reached circa 1300. “By the late fifteenth century the recovery of the English church was complete.”

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  • Scarisbrick, J. J. The Reformation and the English People. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

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    Through parish records, last wills and testaments, guild and other civic records, argues that the church showed great vitality and popular devotion from the late 14th century to the Reformation.

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Italy

In Italy (and particularly Tuscany) the question of religious change after the Black Death has focused on developments called “civic Christianity”—new forms of communal and popular piety that emphasized socially beneficial “good works” and the exaltation of the church and God through elaborate and luxuriant artistic expenditure. See Cohn 1992 and Herlihy 1967 for more detail.

  • Cohn, Samuel. The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death: Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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    Argues that the second major wave of pestilence in Italy, 1361–1363, provoked a shift in piety and charity that buttressed a new cult of family and lineage remembrance, spurring new classes to become patrons of religious and burial art.

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  • Herlihy, David. Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200–1430. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

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    See chapter 10, which shows a change in piety and charity after the late 14th-century plagues, away from the old monasteries and nunneries and handouts to the “Poor of Christ” and toward the beautification of churches and foundations of hospitals with direct benefit to secular communities.

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Women

As with the history of workers and peasants, historians have seen an improvement in status of women following the Black Death to the late 15th century, when demographic pressures once again began to heighten competition for resources and labor between men and women (Cohn 1997, Goldberg 1992, and Hatcher 2001). However, Bardsley 1999, Bennett 1996, and, for Italy, Goldberg 1992 have argued that the structures of patriarchy prevailed, blunting any significant improvements in women’s economic or social status in the wake of the plagues.

  • Bardsley, Sandy. “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England.” Past and Present 165 (1999): 3–29.

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    From evidence of the East Riding roll (Ebury), argues that women were paid consistently as second-rate members of the workforce, with no post-plague equalizing of rates between men and women: little changed in the century following the Black Death.

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  • Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    In brewing, women saw no improvement in their position; just the opposite, they either left the trade or became second-rank members. But Bennett argues that across professions the position of women remained much the same: before and after the Black Death, women were subject to the laws and ideology of patriarchal societies.

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  • Cohn, Samuel. “Women and Work in the Renaissance.” In Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy. Edited by Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, 200–227. London: Longman, 1997.

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    From testaments and tax records, argues that the Mediterranean world shows striking differences in the status and property rights of women from one city-state to another, and that in general demographic changes wrought by plague improved women’s status and property rights to around the 1450s, with a steep decline in women’s well-being by the 1480s.

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  • Goldberg, Peter J. P. Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy: Women in York and Yorkshire c 1300–1520. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

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    From poll tax evidence, marriage contracts, and other archival sources principally from York, argues that the position and independence of laboring women improved after the Black Death until the second half of the 15th century, when demographic pressure increased competition between men and women. Asserts that this pattern was distinct to northern European and not the Mediterranean.

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  • Hatcher, John. “Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England.” Past and Present 173 (2001): 191–198.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/173.1.191Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Recalculates the data presented by Bardsley for the manor of Ebury and utilizes data from other villages. Concentrates on the more abundant evidence of piece-rate payments, showing that after the Black Death male and female workers received equal pay for equal work. In addition, peasant women shared in the post-plague general improvement in real wages and standards of living.

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Artistic Consequences

Debate over the artistic consequences of the Black Death triggered by the remarkably interdisciplinary work of Meiss 1951 has until recently been dominated by considerations of changes in artistic style in Tuscany: Siena, Pisa, and Florence. Criticisms have focused on differences in the dating of specific works of art or on stylistic interpretation of individual paintings. Some have devised new periods of artistic sentiment during the second half of the 15th century. More recently, art historians have attempted to apply aspects of the Meiss thesis to analyze changes in art and architecture in England after the Black Death and others have moved beyond the paradigm. An excellent summary of Meiss’s findings and their problems for Tuscany and beyond is Baschet 1994.

  • Baschet, Jérôme. “Image et événement: L’art sans la peste (c. 1348–c. 1400)?” In La peste nera: dati di una realtà ed elementi di una interpretazione: Atti del XXX Convegno storico internazionale, Todi, 10–13 ottobre 1993. By Università di Perugia: Centro di studi sulla spiritualità medievale, 25–48. Spoleto, Italy: Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo, 1994.

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    Summary of the criticisms of the Meiss thesis forty years on, concluding, “The plague was not a decisive factor in the evolution of art, at least during the fourteenth century.”

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  • Meiss, Millard. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.

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    Finds a parallel change in painting in Siena and Florence after the economic crises of the early 1340s and the Black Death, a turning from the proto-humanism of Giotto toward a more iconic, severe, and didactic art that recovered the religious ideals of the 13th century; sees similar changes in sermons and imaginative literature (especially that of Boccaccio).

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Florence

As with the art history of the Renaissance in general, Florence has been the city most intensely studied in regard to changes in artistic style, iconography, and meaning after the Black Death. The criticisms in Cole 1983, Fabbri and Rutenburg 1981, and Paoletti 1989 of the Meiss thesis and the impact of the Black Death on art for the most part focus on individual works of art or single artists. Boskovits 1975 is exceptional in attempting to reconstruct changes in style and iconography after the Black Death by examining a great number of late-14th-century Florentine paintings.

  • Boskovits, Miklós. La pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370–1400. Florence, Italy: Edam, 1975.

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    Finds four “revolutions” in Florentine painting during Trecento: (1) a reaction against the naturalism of Giotto beginning c. 1340; (2) a revival of “vivacity and humor” around 1360; (3) a return to sobriety with plague and economic decline in 1374–1375; and (4) another “revolution” in style with economic revival and the restoration of the oligarchy in the 1380s.

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  • Cole, Bruce. “Some Thoughts on Orcagna and the Black Death Style.” Antichità Viva 22 (1983): 27–37.

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    Examining the Strozzi altarpiece in Santa Maria Novella, questions Meiss’s bold interpretations, claiming that style had its own rhythms and history independent of events such as the 1340s bankruptcies and the Black Death.

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  • Fabbri, Nancy Rash, and Nina Rutenburg. “The Tabernacle of Orsanmichele in Context.” Art Bulletin 63 (1981): 385–405.

    DOI: 10.2307/3050142Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that certain works of art, such as the Orcagna Tabernacle of Orsanmichele, cannot be categorized as “Giottoesque” or “a return to dugento forms.” Rather, a “duality dominates” this magnificent work, reflecting its sacred functions in the secular setting of what had been Florence’s central grain market.

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  • Paoletti, John. “The Strozzi Altarpiece Reconsidered.” Memorie Domenicane 20 (1989): 279–300.

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    Argues that the iconography of Strozzi altarpiece is not “all retardataire or reflective of Dugento conventions,” but instead reflects the ecclesiology of the Dominicans, who desired to enhance the hierarchical strength of the papacy.

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Siena

Traditionally, art historians have contrasted characteristics of artistic style between Siena and Florence. A rich literature on the consequences of the Black Death on painting in this city has also followed from the thesis of Meiss 1951, but with penetrating criticism of it, as in the work of Steinhoff 2007 and Van Os 1981.

  • Steinhoff, Judith. Sienese Painting after the Black Death: Artistic Pluralism, Politics, and the New Art Market. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    By concentrating on patronage, working relations, political culture, and religious imagery, goes beyond Meiss, arguing against a post-plague reactionary turn and instead toward stylistic and iconographic pluralism with changing art patronage, artistic working conditions, and civic-religious aims.

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  • Van Os, Henk. “The Black Death and Sienese Painting.” Art History 4 (1981): 237–249.

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    The fall of the Government of the Nine marked the end of Siena’s “days of great commissions”; sees the post-plague change in style as determined more by shifts in patronage than by a new ideology wrought by plague.

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Beyond Florence and Siena

Even though the Black Death and the plagues of the late 14th century struck most cities throughout Europe, few art historians have examined the effects of plague beyond Florence and Siena or have questioned whether Meiss’s generalizations about style and sentiment, principally from Florence and Siena, can be borne out elsewhere. The exceptions have been, within Italy, for Pisa (Polzer 1964) and Padua (Norman 1995), and for England (Lindley 1996).

  • Lindley, Phillip. “The Black Death and English Art: A Debate and Some Assumptions.” In The Black Death in England. Paul Watkins Medieval Studies 15. Edited by Mark Ormrod and Phillip Lindley, 125–146. Stamford, CT: Paul Watkins, 1996.

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    Examines the Meiss paradigm in a study of post-plague English architecture; against the work of Joan Evans, sees the Black Death as a check on the “grand-scale rebuilding of the great monastic churches,” and, although the Perpendicular style antedates the plague, it was largely a post-plague style.

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  • Norman, Diana. Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society, and Religion, 1280–1400. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

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    Shows the pitfalls of generalizing from Tuscan art works. In Padua, art production appears to have accelerated in the second half of the century with the political patronage of the powerful Carrara regime, with no disjuncture in religious art after the Black Death.

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  • Polzer, Joseph. “Aristotle, Mohammed, and Nicholas V in Hell.” Art Bulletin 46 (1964): 457–469.

    DOI: 10.2307/3048209Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    On stylistic grounds and iconography, reattributes and redates the important fresco of the Triumph of Death in Pisa’s Camposanto from 1348 or shortly thereafter to the late 1320s or early 1330s.

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Saints and Art History

While the Meiss thesis (see Artistic Consequences) has been central for considerations of art and plague in Tuscany for the Black Death period, connections between art and pestilence have been the focus of other studies of art and plague, both for the later Middle Ages (Belting 1990 and Marshall 1994) and the Early Modern period (Bailey, et al. 2005).

  • Bailey, Gauvin, Pamela Jones, Franco Mormando, and Thomas Worcester. Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500–1800. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 2005.

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    Seven essays examine paintings and buildings produced principally during the Italian plagues of 1575–1578, 1629–1633, and 1656–1657 as prophylaxes, visual remedies, supplication, and thanks for divine assistance.

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  • Belting, Hans. The Image and Its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion. Translated by Mark Bartusis and Raymond Meyer. New Rochelle, NY: A. D. Caratzas, 1990.

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    Sees the Black Death as accelerating the production of less expensive devotional objects and private cult images, such as those for the bedchamber, fueled also by a concomitant rise in religious confraternities.

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  • Marshall, Louise. “Manipulating the Sacred: Image and Plague in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 47.3 (1994): 485–532.

    DOI: 10.2307/2863019Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines devotional images after plagues to argue that they were not expressions of despair but ones of optimism about the power of images.

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Plague Literature

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written soon after the Black Death, stimulated a long tradition of storytelling connected with plague, such as Giovanni Sercambi’s Novelle (modeled on the Decameron) and set during the Tuscan plague of 1374–1375, Niccolò Machiavelli’s Descrizione della Peste di Firenze dell’anno 1527, and numerous plague chronicles (progressi della peste) scripted during the Italian pandemics of 1575–1578 and 1629–1633, in which stories and psychodrama were inserted into statistical summaries of mounting plague deaths—a genre that reached its apex with Daniel Defoe’s reconstruction of life during the Great Plague of London of 1665 (Journal of a Plague Year, 1722), written while the Marseilles plague in 1720–1721 threatened England. The tradition continues with modern works, mostly novels informed by historical research, such as Follett 2007 and Kalechofsky 1988; others have inserted fictional reconstructions into works of history, as with chapter 13 in Ziegler 1970, or “docudramas” in which the spaces left blank by the surviving sources have been filled in with imaginary writings, as with Hatcher 2008.

  • Follett, Ken. World without End. New York: Dutton, 2007.

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    A novel that reconstructs the individual and community drama of a cathedral town in England confronted with and living through the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War.

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  • Hatcher, John. The Black Death: An Intimate History. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008.

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    A “literary docudrama” beginning with rich archival records in Suffolk to recreate personal conflict and change in the form of a parish priest’s chronicle of events before, during, and after the Black Death; reconstructs possible events and attitudes not recorded in surviving contemporary English accounts.

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  • Kalechofsky, Roberta. Bodmin, 1349: An Epic Novel of Christians and Jews in the Plague Years. Marblehead, MA: Micah, 1988.

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    From historical contexts, weaves a story of an English peasant during the plague year 1349 who discovers that his wife was the offspring of Jews sent into exile in 1290.

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  • Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1970.

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    Chapter 13, “The Plague in a Medieval Village,” departs from the historical narrative to fill in the emotional history of the Black Death in England, left largely in the shadows by surviving sources.

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Medical Literature

The Black Death witnessed an explosion of new forms of writing about plague and disease from physicians and, secondarily, from members of the clergy. It also infused the work of poets and prominent humanists, as discussed in Gianni 1998. By the late 16th century this literature began to fan outward more dramatically to include notaries, town bureaucrats, local poets, and even artisans. Gordon 1997 and Jones 1996 have assumed that this literature remained much the same from the Black Death (or even before) to the Enlightenment during the 18th century. Others, for instance Cohn 2009, have charted changes in the genre of plague writing and in ideas about disease and medicine.

  • Cohn, Samuel. Cultures of Plague: Medical Thought at the End of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Examines plague narratives and fiction written during the Italian pandemic of 1575–1578, arguing that a new genre of plague narrative was invented (the progresso della peste), which was the literary predecessor of plague writing during subsequent plagues and of Defoe’s classic.

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  • Gianni, Francesco. “Per una storia letteraria della peste.” In The Regulation of Evil: Social and Cultural Attitudes to Epidemics in the Late Middle Ages. Edited by Agostino Paravicini Bagliani and Francesco Santi, 63–124. Florence, Italy: Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998.

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    Concentrates on the reaction to medicine and plague in the letters and literary works of Petrarch and Coluccio Salutati.

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  • Gordon, Daniel. “The City and the Plague in the Age of Enlightenment.” Yale French Studies 92 (1997): 67–87.

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    Examines plague writing and rhetoric in France during the 18th century.

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  • Jones, Colin. “Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France.” Representations 53 (1996): 97–127.

    DOI: 10.1525/rep.1996.53.1.99p0319nSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that plague writing in Early Modern France can be divided into three “plague scripts” composed by three different groups with different aims: religious, medical, and administrative tracts.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399301-0062

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