A1-Religion

Black Death
the Greatest Diseater for Eurasia

Overview

During the fourteenth century, the Pax Mongolica was founded. The foundation of the transcontinental connection not only brought benefits but also disasters and nightmares for Eurasia. The outbreak of the black death pandemic wiped out around one-third to one-half of the European population and decreased the Mongols’ population from 125 million to 65 million. The origin of the plague is a hot topic that scholars are discussing. There were many theories that came up. Among all those theories, Robert Hymes’ theory gave an detailed explanation about the source of the plague and acceptable answers to those skeptics’ questions. Although the source of black death still needs discussion, the consequence of the outbreak is unarguable tremendous for both continents, Europe and Asia. In Europe, the dark Medieval started. Great social, economic, environmental, and religious changes occurred. In Asia, the death caused by the plague destabilized the governments of four khanates, finally causing the collapse of Mongol Empire.

Yersinia Pestis, also known as black death, is a disease carried by rodents. There are many theories about the source of the plague. According to “Did the Plague Originate in China?”, some of scientists said that it came from Caspian Sea. Other believed that it was originated in Black Sea area. There were also theories that supported that Mongolia was the origin. To be concluded, the origin of the plague should be in somewhere of central Asia.( Did the Plague Originate in China?, Huachen Li) In “Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy”, Robert Hymes gave a more detailed explanation about the China-origin-theory and answered some questions about the theory. Hymes wrote that the source of the plague was probably from Xia. It “lay just north and northeast of the Qilian mountains that mark the Plateau’s northern edge”, the home of many rodents that carried the disease.( Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy, Robert Hymes) The Mongol army destroyed the environment of Xia during the war and caused the homeless rodents and fleas following them. This spread the plague and the outbreak began. However, there was a problem in this theory: the Mongol army seems to be not affected by the plague. The author of the reading make an argument about this. In the Mongol army, there was a medicine, rhubarb, that was possibly a treatment for the plague. The medicine helped decrease the mortality of the Mongol army. Besides, there were other evidences. The extremely high mortality in Kaifeng and other three cities that the Mongols conquered showed that there was actually plague outbreaking in where Mongol army passed. However, there was still some people arguing that why the history accounts, like Yuan shih, didn’t record the plague. The reason was that the Mongols saw the plague as a dangerous Yi or Wen, which means epidemic. The usage of different words made the historians hard to recognize the records of black death in Asia. Another question about the thoery is that why there seems to be little of no demographic loss for China or Mongol. Some serious scholars says that actually there is. Although, it seems little compared to the disaster in Europe. There were critical losses during Song-Yuan transition and Yuan-Ming transition. This occurred first in north and later in south. There were actually records about the epidemics during those time. With the evidences of reports of epidemic, it could be concluded that the epidemic is the plague and cause high mortality. Another central problem about this plague was that it actually originated in North America. How did it come to Eurasia? Hymes didn’t answer this question but he said that the Mongol Expansion must create a new reservoir for plague-bearing rodents. (Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy, Hymes)

Although black death originated in Central Asia, it actually influenced the European society most greatly. Travelling by the Silk Route, the plague was spread to every place of Europe. The instant effect of the outbreak was the sudden decrease of the population in Europe. This effect was very terrible but also brought benefits for the Europeans. Before the pandemic, the Europe was greatly overpopulated. The outbreaks actually smoothen the population problem worried by the Europeans. This Asia-originated disease also boosted other changes in Europe. This outbreaks had many social, economic, environmental, and religious effects on Europe.

For social changes, it mainly affected peasantries in Europe. The great depopulation favored the surviving peasants. The plentiful land, high wages and the disappearance of serfdom caused increasing social mobility. The farmers started to move about and rise higher in life. Younger sons and women of farmer family benefited the most. Besides, the untended land left by the population reduction were available for pastures. As a result, the consumption of meat and dairy products increased a lot, increasing the social surplus. The social mobility also caused conflicts between peasants and nobility as the nobles tried to stop peasants acting like a higher class members like them. The reduction of population caused by the black death greatly affected European society, increasing social mobility and furthermore inciting conflicts between different social classes. (/Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History/, Jay O’Brien; Willian Roseberry)

The outbreak of black death also greatly affect the economy of Europe. The high wages caused by large depopulation triggered the frequent relocation of many laborers. To stop the unhealthy economic activity, countries started to put forward new laws to freeze wage at before-black-death level.( Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws, Simon A.C. Penn; Christopher Dyer) However, the laws were poorly enforced and the wages remained doubled until 19th century.( Before and After the Black Death: Money, Prices, and Wages in Fourteenth-Century England, John H.A. Munro) According to Cohn, those laws actually reflected the social anxiety caused by the black death’s new horrors. At first, the black death caused extremely high mortality. The depopulation caused even more horrors for elites. This push the higher class of Europe to correct the malfunctioning economic system.( After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe, Samuel Cohn) The black death actually also brought benefits for the economy. The high labor costs encouraged innovation of labor-saving techniques. This leaded to higher productivity of the economy.( Plagued by dear labour, The Economist) Besides, the grain farming was shifted into animal husbandry to lower the need for labors.(/The black death: natural and human disaster in Medieval Europe/, Robert S. Gottfried) The new technology and the shift caused the birth of many emerging industries. The economy was largely influenced by the aftermath of the plague.

The environment of Europe was also influenced by the plague. Before black death outbreaks, there was large cultivation and deforestation. Many of the indigenous flora and fauna were lost, especially in Mediterranean basin and northern Germany. With the depopulation, the process was reversed. Primeval vegetations and forests returned again. The plague actually helped the conservation of the environment in Europe. (/The black death: natural and human disaster in Medieval Europe/, Gottfried)

However, black death still made terrible disasters for human society. Another terrible consequence of the plague was the fanatic change in religion. After the plague, the fervor and fanaticism of religion woke. During the disasters caused by black death, the Jewish community faced a smaller loss because of the better hygiene and greater isolation. This incited the conflicts between different religions and Jews were taken as scapegoats.(/A Concise History of the Jewish People/, Naomi E. Pasachoff; Robert J. Littman.) (/Encyclopedia of the Black Death/ Volume 1, Joseph P Byrne) There were rumors that framed Jews to be guilty for the disease outbreak.(/The Jews of Europe After the Black Death/, Anna Foa) (/Antisemitism/, Richard S. Levy) European mobs attacked the Jews, causing plenty of massacres and destroying communities. In some other cities, women also faced persecution. According to Joseph P. Byrne, there were rumors that the plague was the punishment for fornication. Therefore, laws were made that women weren’t allowed to make public appearances, which caused inconvenience especially for the Muslim community.(/The Black Death/, Joseph P. Byrne)

Although, there were no clear historical records that there were black death outbreak in Asia, the “Yi” or “Wen” recorded in histories of Mongol Empire could be considered as the plague, according to Hymes.( Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy, Hymes) The pandemic(black death) actually caused mass mortality and furthermore caused terrible influences for Mongol Empire. Compared with death toll in Europe, the effect in Asia seemed to be smaller. In fact, the death toll in Asia was also very high. The high depopulation caused the instability of government of khanates. In some khanates, the case was even worse. In Ilkhanate, the Khan and his six sons were all dead of the pandemic, causing chaos in the khanate. Although the transcontinental Silk Route increased wealth and cultural exchanges, it also brought the black death with them. This deadly contagion gradually caused the fall of the Mongol Empire.( How the Black Death Started in Asia, Kallie Szczepanski) This also cause the sever of the transcontinental connection for a long time.

Overall, the Central-Asia-originated disease, black death, was widely spread by the transcontinental connection achieved by Pax Mongolica. The outbreak of the plague largely influenced both Europe and Asia. In Europe, the rapid depopulation had upsides and downsides. The depopulation largely favored the peasants and gave them opportunity to rise to upper classes. To counter the high wages caused by mass mortality, the technology improved and industries started to shift. This creates high productivity and emerging industries. For environment, the depopulation reverse the deforestation and cultivation, causing the return of indigenous plants and animals. However, there were also a lot of disadvantages. The social mobility ,caused by black death, incited the conflicts between peasants and the nobles. The plague also drove up the wages of labor and cause frequent relocation of workers which were unhealthy economic activities. It also revived the fanatic religion behaviors. Jews and women were taken as scapegoats to suffer the blames caused by black death. Therefore, the whole Europe continents actually suffered more loss than advantages. In Asia, the mortality was lower but the effect was severe. The large depopulation in the four khanates decreased citizens’ confidence in the government, causing civil wars and destabilizing the government. At last, the Mongol Empire fell and the junction of the transcontinental connection was lost. To be concluded, the black death was a terrible product of the transcontinental connection.

Notes

 

  1. Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy / Did the Plague Originate in China?: Those two sources talk about the origin of black death. The second source gave a general background of the debate, showing different theories about where black death originated. It gave a rather obscure conclusion: the plague originated in Central Asia. The first source gave a more detailed description about one of the theory and reasonable answers to skeptics of the theories. This made the theory seem to be more convincing. Therefore, I use China-origin theory as the basis of my further research of impacts of plague in Asia.

  2. Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History: Talking about Dark Middle Ages or Dark Ages in Europe, the black death is always frequently mentioned as the main factor. One of the main consequences is mentioned in this source: social change.

  3. Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws / “Before and After the Black Death: Money, Prices, and Wages in Fourteenth-Century England” / After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe / “Plagued by dear labour” / The black death: natural and human disaster in Medieval Europe: Those sources talk about the economic effects of the plague. The first three sources are about the labors and wages. The depopulation caused soaring wages and frequent labor relocation. The economic system of Europe was in vicious cycle at that time. The nobles made new laws to regulate the unhealthy economic behaviors. This also shows that Europeans were afraid of the secondary disasters, like social or economic changes. The other two sources shows that black death actually boost the economy of Europe in other aspects.

  4. The black death: natural and human disaster in Medieval Europe: This source talks about the reverse process of the cultivation and deforestation process caused by the population reduction. This made the indigenous flora and fauna to return to the Europe environment. This was a rare advantage of black death for Europe

  5. A Concise History of the Jewish People / Encyclopedia of the Black Death Volume 1 / The Jews of Europe After the Black Death / Antisemitism / The Black Death: The first four sources talk about the conflicts between Jews and Christians during the Middle Ages. The black death incited fanatic parts of the religion, causing persecution against other religions. The sources talk about why Jews are taken as scapegoats. The bad behaviors of Christians at that time was also recorded. The last source talk about how women were taken as scapegoats in some cities.

  6. Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy / How the Black Death Started in Asia: There were actually no clear record about black death in Asia. However, according to the first source, there were actually pandemics happened in Mongol Empire and caused mass mortality. The last part of the second source also mentioned how black death affected the Mongol Empire. The great depopulation actually destabilized the Mongol government, gradually eroding the Empire. Finally, the Mongol Empire fell and the plague can be seem as one of the main reasons.

References
  1. Hymes, Robert. “Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy.” The Medieval Globe, 1 (2014): 285-308.

  2. Li, Huachen. “Did the Plague Originate in China?” Journal of Chinese Historical Geography, Vol. 22 No. 3. Jul, 2007.

  3. Jay O’Brien; William Roseberry (1991). Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History. U. of California Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-520-07018-9.

  4. Penn, Simon A. C.; Dyer, Christopher (1990). “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws”. The Economic History Review. 43 (3): 356–57. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0289.1990.tb00535.x.

  5. Munro, John H. A. (5 March 2005). “Before and After the Black Death: Money, Prices, and Wages in Fourteenth-Century England”. ideas.repec.org. Retrieved 5 August 2014.

  6. Samuel Cohn, “After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes Towards Labour in Late-Medieval Western Europe,” Economic History Review (2007) 60#3 pp. 457–85 in JSTOR

  7. Gottfried, Robert S. (1983). “7”. The black death: natural and human disaster in Medieval Europe (1. Free Press paperback ed.). New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-912630-4.

  8. “Plagued by dear labour”. The Economist. London. 21 October 2013. Retrieved 5 August 2014.

  9. Naomi E. Pasachoff, Robert J. Littman A Concise History of the Jewish People 2005. p. 154 “However, Jews regularly ritually washed and bathed, and their abodes were slightly cleaner than their Christian neighbors’. Consequently, when the rat and the flea brought the Black Death, Jews, with better hygiene, suffered less severely …”

  10. Joseph P Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death Volume 1 2012. p. 15 “Anti–Semitism and Anti–Jewish Violence before the Black Death … Their attention to personal hygiene and diet, their forms of worship, and cycles of holidays were off-puttingly different.”

  11. Anna Foa The Jews of Europe After the Black Death 2000 p. 146 “There were several reasons for this, including, it has been suggested, the observance of laws of hygiene tied to ritual practices and a lower incidence of alcoholism and venereal disease”

  12. Richard S. Levy Antisemitism 2005 p. 763 “Panic emerged again during the scourge of the Black Death in 1348, when widespread terror prompted a revival of the well poisoning charge. In areas where Jews appeared to die of the plague in fewer numbers than Christians, possibly because of better hygiene and greater isolation, lower mortality rates provided evidence of Jewish guilt.”

  13. Joseph P. Byrne, The Black Death (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004), 108.

  14. Szczepanski, Kallie. “How the Black Death Started in Asia.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/black-death-in-asia-bubonic-plague-195144.

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