Have you ever heard the children’s nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie?” How about the term “Black Death?” Well, guess what? The two are directly related. By examining the widespread death, economic disaster, and social distress created by the Black Death during the Medieval period, the devastation of this pandemic disease is more easily understood.
The Black Death of the 14th century, famous for holding the highest death toll from any non-viral epidemic, wiped out between one- and two-thirds of the European population. (Black Death.html) The popular aforementioned chant “Ring Around the Rosie” was created to describe the widespread death among the inhabitants. It is as follows:
“Because of The first line evokes the round red rash that would break out on the skin of plague victims. The second line’s ‘pocket full of posies’ would have been a pocket in the garment of a victim filled with something fragrant, such as flowers that aimed to conceal the smell from the sores and the dying people. A second creative explanation for this line is that it referred to the purported belief that fresh-smelling flowers, nosegays, and pomanders would purify the air around them thus warding off disease. A third possibility
includes the idea that ‘posies’ are derived from an Old English word for pus, in which case the pocket would be referring to the swelling sore. ‘Ashes, ashes’ would refer to when people alive and dead were gathered up into piles and lit on fire in a belief that burning the diseased bodies would not allow the disease to spread. Several alternate endings to the song exist, one being: ‘atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down,’ interpreted as invoking the sneezing before ‘we all fall down,’ the eventual succumbing to death.” (Ring A Ring O’ Roses.html)
Some regions suffered more than others. For example, in only one year 45 to 75 percent of Florence Italy collapsed while 60 percent of Venice was wiped out in a period of 18 months (with a daily rate of five hundred to six hundred deaths at the peak). There was a 50 percent mortality rate at Avignon. “Long-term population loss was also instructive. Urban populations recovered quickly, in some cases within a couple of years, through immigration from the countryside because of increased opportunities in the cities. Rural population though, recovered itself slowly, for peasants left their farms for the cities.” (Knox 15.html)
A second aspect is the disaster which the Plague placed on the economy. “Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for tragedy… Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death exacerbated a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century. As a consequence, social and economic change greatly accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” (Black Death.html)
In the cities, financial business became warped when debtors, their families, and their kinsmen nearly all fell victims to the plague. The creditors no longer had a means of collection. Consequently, the money was lost. Special machinery and mills would cease to run properly, but only a handful of townsmen could repair them. These men would most often be found dead due to the Black Death. Little or no construction was being done due to the loss of workers. Towns became desperate for this work to be completed and proposed excellent pay. The short-term effects of the rigorous labor shortage were increasing wages. The prices of numerous goods lowered in accordance with the mortality. To put it simply, the standard of living for the living went up. (Knox 16.html)
In the countryside, whole villages and farms felt the plague’s wrath as well. The only remaining survivors saw no point in sticking around, so they up and left these abandoned places. By the early 1400s Norwegian seamen rediscovered some of these villages and farms in Greenland only to find the remaining untamed cattle wandering aimlessly. Entire families died leaving whole homes barren. The remaining landlords were left to deal with labor shortages. Because of this shortage, they ceased to release their Serfs. (Knox 16.html) “As a result of depopulation, the nature of farming in some areas changed. In middle England, there was a move away from arable to pastoral farming which was less labour intensive. Lords leased out their land because rents had fallen and land that had been left was taken up and used to meet costs. Consequently, many labourers enjoyed higher standards of living and lords enjoyed greater profits, despite higher costs.” (Economy After Black Death.html)
Serfs wanted to get away from their lords so that they might enjoy the beauty of life amidst the grimness of death surrounding them. They left all the tilled land, crops, and animals as they were so those things eventually just died. (Knox 16.html)
There was no real law enforcement, so the people did as they pleased. “Bechini” were a group who ransacked houses, killed and sexually assaulted people. They wore red robes and masks which concealed all but their eyes. (Black Death: 1347-1350.html)
As far as social distress is concerned, it didn’t matter which social group a person was in or how much money they had when the Black Death hit; it was seemingly unstoppable. This is evidence that there was much social distress during that day and time. “The noted Florentine historian, Villani, wrote this: ‘And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted until __________’ Villani left a blank at the end of the sentence, planning to fill in a date after the plague had abated. He never did. Villani died in 1348 from the plague.” (Knox 18.html)
Schools and other educational facilities closed due to the mass loss of life. At Cambridge University 16 out of the 40 professors fell victim. In the churches, priests, bishops, and successors all died leaving no one to hear the remaining populations confessions. The people were left in hopelessness. There was a lack of religion at this point because nobody could figure out why God would allow such terrible things to transpire. (Knox 18.html) “The plague was a serious blow to the Roman Catholic Church, Europe’s predominant religious institution at the time, and resulted in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, Muslims, foreigners, beggars and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival created a general mood of morbidity influencing people to live for the moment.” (Black Death.html)
Many also assumed the end of the world was near. Courts and city counsels closed as well. Wills could not be proved genuine since there were so many. A name could be borrowed at any time for a quick profit from the remnants of the economy. (Knox.html) “Normal people were tormented by the threat of death, causing them to change their views on leisure, work, and art. Even children suffered.” (Black Death.html)
By now it is quite evident that the 14th century’s Black Death was indeed a mass surrounding of “black death.” After taking a look at the widespread death, economic disaster, and social distress, the ghastly epidemic could only bring back a plethora of horrific memories.