In the plague years

In the plague years
In ?The Years of Plague? F. F. Cartwright provides an overview of conditions existing in Britain at the beginning of the 14th century and examines the impact of plague on subsequent changes to social, political, and economic systems that took place during the following centuries. He also provides a detailed discussion of the causes, occurrence, and disappearance of plague, effectively debunking the myth that the Great Fire of London in 1666 led to its disappearance in Britain. He concludes on a sobering note, observing that eight centuries lay between the Justinian plague and the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, yet it is only three centuries since the disappearance of plague in Europe. Thus, he reminds us that, though plague seems a long distant disease, it may yet be lurking in some unknown corner of the earth, ready once again to burst onto the world stage.
Cartwright describes a Britain that was flourishing in 1300. The population was increasing, the climate was conducive to agriculture, trade was expanding, there was a stable social system, famine was rare, and the people were healthier and more prosperous than they had been in the past. However, increasing population and favourable climatic conditions led to an expansion of farming into previously marginal land, making it vulnerable to land degradation and changes in climatic conditions; trade led to increased exposure to exotic diseases to which the population had no immunity; and there was growing resentment towards a ruling class viewed as foreigners, even after 250 years. In spite of the seeming stability of society at the beginning of the century, enormous social upheaval occurred during the latter part of the 14th century, leading to the demise of the Feudal system and increasing challenges to the established authorities of the day.

The massive loss of population caused by the spread of plague in 1348-1350 could, on a simplistic view, be credited with causing such widespread social change. However, Cartwright cautions against assuming that these changes occurred solely as a result of the Black Death. He makes a cogent argument for the Black Death as a catalyst, but not the cause, of change. Discontent with the Church and the ruling class, and the demise of the feudal system, had already begun prior to the Black Death, which merely hastened changes made inevitable by inequitable laws, increasing freedom for some and the attendant dissatisfaction of those who were not.

Further, he argues that it was not so much the number of people that died but the pattern of mortality that led to social upheaval. Had the pattern been uniform, he states, fewer workers would have farmed less land with little effect on the social system. However, the uneven pattern of mortality led to anomalies which served to emphasise the inequitable status of workers in different areas. In those areas with high mortality, there was a shortage of labour available to till the land, leading to greater demands for service on villeins, even those who had purchased their freedom, whilst in areas relatively unaffected by plague there was still a glut of labour in relation to land. Peasants became more mobile as landlords tried to attract workers by offering wages, thus undermining the Feudal system. Attempts by the central government to fix wages and prices at the 1347 level, and by landlords to enforce service obligations, led to hardship for the peasants, further exacerbating pre-existing resentments against both the ruling class and the Church, both of which, Cartwright observes, were seen as foreign systems imposed upon them.

The Church, already a focus of discontent, due to greed and excess, lost much of its prestige during and after the plague. Not only had it been impotent to alleviate suffering and death during the plague, in its aftermath it became as unpopular as the landlords by enforcing service obligations in an attempt to restore its material fortunes which, like most landowners, had suffered. Cartwright argues that dissent in Britain took a more dangerous form than that in Europe, with two major expressions- a relaxing of moral values and the cynical pursuit of pleasure, or a stricter adherence to the essence of religion rather than the focus, as had been in the past, on its worldly trappings. Both challenged the temporal and spiritual authority of the Church, with the latter becoming the theological and philosophical forebears to the Reformation two centuries later.

Through his discussion of the changes that had begun in the half century prior to the Black Death, Cartwright highlights the complexity and interrelatedness of the causes of historical change. He demonstrates that history lies on a continuum and that complex social, economic, and philosophical factors must be taken into account when tracing the causes of change. Although catastrophic events such as the Black Death serve as catalysts to change, Cartwright reminds us they are rarely the cause.

In the plague years 8.4 of 10 on the basis of 3104 Review.