The plague lasted from 1346 until 1350. In less than four years, the disease carved a path of death through Asia, Italy, France, North Africa, Spain and Normandy, made its way over the Alps into Switzerland, and continued eastward into Hungary. After a brief respite, the plague resumed, crossing the channel into England, Scotland, and Ireland. Eventually, the plague made its way into the northern countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and even as far north as Greenland. Although the death toll from region to region varied, modern demographers agree with the casual remarks of the medieval chronicler Froissart, who stated that "a third of the world died." Translated into a body count, about 20 million victims lay in hastily dug trenches.
So much death could not help but tear apart economic and social structures. Lack of peasants and laborers sent wages soaring, and the value of land plummeted. For the first time in history the scales tipped against wealthy landlords as peasants and serfs gained more bargaining power. Without architects, masons and artisans, great cathedrals and castles remained unfinished for hundreds of years. Governments, lacking officials, floundered in their attempts to create order out of chaos.
The living lost all sense of morality and justice, and a new attitude toward the church emerged. Medieval people could find no Divine reason for the plague, and dissatisfaction with the church gave way to reform movements that eventually broke apart the unity of the Catholic Church. Priests and elderly scholars, the holders of knowledge, died in unprecedented numbers. Into the vacuum left by the dead clergy and teachers flowed new ideas, and the revolutionary use of the vernacular to communicate these ideas allowed the common person to become educated. After the plague, concern for the survival of learning drove the founding of new universities across Europe. Only five years after the plague, England created three new colleges at Cambridge. It has been said that the Black Plague anticipated the onset of the Renaissance and the rise of humanism.
For those living in the years directly after the plague, the nightmare was over; but, getting on with the business of life in a new world remained painful and difficult. No longer were the mysteries of life easily explained, and the reality of death was all too plain. Several groups developed radically different ideas and displayed them very graphically during and after the plague. One such group is the Flagellants.
The Brotherhood of the Flagellants, as the movement was called, originated in Eastern Europe. It was in Germany, however, that the Flagellant movement really took root. Traveling from village to village, groups of chanting men performed their unique religious rituals for the townspeople. They carried heavy whips with several leather tails. In each tail was a metal stud. With these whips the Flagellants rhythmically and purposefully beat themselves. Some beatings were so severe that the metal studs became embedded in the flesh and blood splattered the crowd. The Flagellants believed that this type of behavior would save those of the Brotherhood from the fires of Hell.
The plague also had a powerful effect on the worlds of science and medicine. Doctors of the time were forced to research the plague and through this research many new discoveries were made. Although at this time they found no treatment or cure for the plague they made several significant advancements and developed a better understanding of diseases and the human immune system.
The Black Death affected the society of the time in numerous ways. It changed things religiously, economically, socially, scientifically, and politically. The plague also served as a catalyst for the Renaissance which was to occur soon after. It is very seldom that one event changes history so drastically. The Black Death is one of few examples of such an event.