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Bubonic plague


Bubonic plague
Bubonic plague

In 1328 the Valois dynasty replaced the Capetians. By this time, the royal government that controlled the territories constituting “France” was arguably the most powerful in Europe. During the next century, two major crises tested its creativity and endurance to the limit. One was the socioeconomic crisis of the 14th century, which resulted from the inability to meet the material needs of an expanded population and from the effects of the plague. The other was a political crisis that emerged from the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the Valois and the English royal house, a conflict that grew into a French civil war. This war indicates that a strong, pervasive national sentiment had not yet emerged.

In the late 1340s, bubonic plague struck France and most of western and central Europe. Bubonic plague was caused by bacteria carried by fleas. It spread rapidly through the cities and towns of medieval France, where the population was not in a strong condition to resist the disease. Already by the late 13th century, available resources were not sufficient to supply the growing French population, forcing farmers to cultivate even relatively infertile land to meet the demand for food. Productivity generally declined with the onset of colder weather, which meant a shorter growing season. Lumber, a critical resource in the medieval economy, became scarcer as forests were cleared.

Famine recurred frequently after 1300, when the population reached its peak. Lower living standards gradually slowed the growth of population, which stagnated over the first half of the next century.

In 1348 the plague swept northward through France from Marseille. A quarter to a third of the French people died during the next two years. Plague remained endemic for the next 350 years and contributed to further declines in the French population.

By the middle of the 15th century, plague and war had wiped out most of the population increases of previous centuries. Some areas did not again reach pre-plague population levels until the 18th or 19th century.The plague also had complex economic and social consequences, about which there is considerable historical debate.

It does seem to have contributed to the decline of serfdom and the emergence of a commercial economy, in which goods are exchanged for profit, often over long distances. As the population declined, so did demand for goods and the price of land. But wages rose because labor, which had been plentiful and cheap, suddenly became scarce. Landlords and other employers now had to bid for labor on a more competitive basis. Agricultural labor became even more expensive and difficult to hire as people migrated to the cities. The rising price of labor enabled peasants and workers to spend more money on luxuries such as meat and proportionately less on grain. Serfs may have used the greater demand for labor to win their freedom, thereby accelerating the decline of serfdom that had begun a century earlier.

In the end, however, the peasants were not able to retain most of their gains from the higher price of labor. Much of their gains went to the state, which, pressed to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, imposed higher taxes on the peasantry. To pay the taxes, the peasants often needed to obtain loans from urban moneylenders to whom they had to pay interest, further depressing their prosperity. In addition, landlords raised peasants’ rents where they could. Peasants’ grievances fueled a revolt in the 1350s, called the Jacquerie (after the name Jacques that nobles commonly gave to peasants). The Jacquerie was followed by more revolts between 1379 and 1383.

The plague seems to have had a deep psychological impact on late medieval French society, intensifying the sense of the fragility of life and the omnipresence of death. This awareness of death provoked a variety of reactions. Some people abandoned traditional moral constraints and turned to the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. Others focused more on the apparently imminent judgment of their souls and the need to repent for their sins, which some people believed were responsible for the plague. Finally, the plague unleashed a round of accusations against those whose presence in the community was resented for other reasons. Jews in particular were accused of poisoning wells and conjuring with evil spirits to bring on the plague. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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