How the Black Death Changed the World
Following very precisely the medieval trade routes from China, through Central Asia and Turkey, the plague finally reached Italy in 1347 aboard a merchant ship whose crew had all already died or been infected by the time it reached port. Densely populated Europe, which had seen a recent growth in the population of its cities, was a tinderbox for the disease.
The Black Death ravaged the continent for three years before it continued on into Russia, killing one-third to one-half of the entire population in ghastly fashion.
The plague killed indiscriminately – young and old, rich and poor – but especially in the cities and among groups who had close contact with the sick. Entire monasteries filled with friars were wiped out and Europe lost most of its doctors. In the countryside, whole villages were abandoned. The disease reached even the isolated outposts of Greenland and Iceland, leaving only wild cattle roaming free without any farmers, according to chroniclers who visited years later.
Social effects of the plague were felt immediately after the worst outbreaks petered out. Those who survived benefited from an extreme labor shortage, so serfs once tied to the land now had a choice of whom to work for. Lords had to make conditions better and more attractive or risk leaving their land untended, leading to wage increases across the board.
The taste of better living conditions for the poor would not be forgotten. A few decades later, when lords tried to revert back to the old ways, there were peasant revolts throughout Europe and the lower classes maintained their new freedoms and better pay.
The Catholic Church and Jewish populations in Europe did not fare so well.
Distrust in God and the church, already in poor standing due to recent Papal scandals, grew as people realized that religion could do nothing to stop the spread of the disease and their family's suffering. So many priests died, too, that church services in many areas simply ceased.
Jewish populations, meanwhile, were frequently targeted as scapegoats. In some places, they were accused of poisoning the water because their mortality rates were often significantly lower, something historians have since attributed to better hygiene. This prejudice was nothing new in Europe at the time, but intensified during the Black Death and led many Jews to flee east to Poland and Russia, where they remained in large numbers until the 20th-century.
A study earlier this year found that despite its reputation for indiscriminate destruction, the Black Death targeted the weak, taking a greater toll among those whose immune systems were already compromised.
You always hear about the death toll in Europe, but never Asia. Why is that? Simply put: the Black Death + the Mongols killed so many in Asia, there weren't enough recorders to take an accurate census. We only have a rough idea of how many died in Europe, but we truly will never know how many died in Asia. If anything, Asia probably got off lighter precisely because they'd been ravaged by the Mongol hordes.
Europe, whose population was at a record high coming into the 1300s, truly was decimated like never before (or since). The Spanish Flu technically killed more people, but going by percentages, it's unlikely the Black Death will ever be topped barring nuclear or biological warfare.