THE CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF HISTORICAL EPIDEMICS
By Sparsh Sutariya
There have been several historical epidemics throughout history, each killing millions upon millions of people. Famous and notable examples include the Black Death/Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, several smallpox epidemics and many others. Each epidemic played a key part in the continent’s politics and culture.
The Bubonic Plague is perhaps the most famous example of a historical epidemic. This disease killed an estimated 75-200 million people in places like America, Europe, China and India. The plague decimated Europe, killing up to a third of its population. The plague itself had 3 iterations occurring over several centuries; The Plague of Justinian (542AD), The Black Death (1340-1400) and the third outbreak (1855-1959). Historically, the Black Death outbreaks changed the course of European and World History.
Before the introduction of the Black Death to Europe, Europe was suffering a massive overpopulation problem. This problem eventually caused the Great Famine of 1315 in which tens of millions died starving in the streets of cities. The shortage of food was so terrible that some even resorted to cannibalism to survive. The amount of people living in Europe was reaching unsustainable levels and if this continued, Europe would’ve increased the famine rate with mass killings and overpopulation a very significant problem. The deaths of so many caused by the Black Death solved this overpopulation and scarce resource problem. It left Europe weak and vulnerable, but also gave it a second chance to rebuild and become stronger.
Following the massive amount of deaths, the wages of peasants and workers increased, land became cheaper. There simply weren’t enough people to own land and farm at the same time. Feudalism and hierarchy relies on cheap workers to do their work cheaply so that nobles could profit off their work. After the deaths, there were demands for higher wages and peasant’s revolts happened much more often. The socioeconomic independence of peasants was starting to become a reality. Even if the revolts failed, Europe left the feudal system in the 16th century, giving way to the Renaissance and eventually the Industrial periods. Without the Black Death, Europe would have made the transition from feudalist society much later and would likely look very different than it does today.
In the 14th century, Europe was a major Catholic power, with Catholicism being mandatory and widely proliferating into people’s lives. With so many dying in the Black Death, this was seen by many as the biblical apocalypse. This instilled doubt in many people’s minds which was extremely significant factor in the Protestant Reformation later in the 16th century.