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The Little Ice Age and the Black Death

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  • 0:05 Europe Cools Down
  • 2:25 The Black Death
  • 4:12 Impacts of the Plague
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Fourteenth century Europe experienced a devastating population decline due to a climate cooling, famine, and the plague. This lesson explores how these factors occurred and their impact on Europe.

Europe Cools Down

Grain may have contained the fungus ergot blight during the Little Ice Age.
Ergot Blight

Before the 14th century, Europe experienced a large population growth. However, by the late 13th century, this resulted in land being overworked and production being slowed. In addition to the overworked soil, the global climate experienced a cooling phase. The reasons for this are unknown. Although the temperature change was small, maybe as little as one degree, it had a large impact on agricultural production. The cooling phase brought with it wet conditions and heavy rainfall. This period in history has been labeled the Little Ice Age.

During the cooling phase, the growing season changed by up to 20%. This basically means the normal growing season was shortened by up to two months. Seeds that were used to growing at the time were not able to withstand extreme changes in the weather and moisture as we see in our modern seeds. These factors led to a shortage in usable crops. Wheat and rye, which were staples at the time, experienced a significant drop in production across Europe. Snow could be found on the ground late in the spring, encouraging the existence of parasites that devastated crop growth. There was also less hay to feed livestock, and straw or pine was used as a substitute. Still, much of the livestock had to be slaughtered to feed starving nations. As crop production declined, famine began to spread across Europe. Famine began around 1315 and lasted until around 1317. This was a slight beginning of population decline.

The cool moisture in the air led to the spread of illnesses that could affect entire villages with gangrene or death. Grains that were kept in storage during these conditions could have developed fungi or could have fermented long enough to cause hallucinations. Grain may have even developed a fungus called ergot blight, which is sometimes recognized by some historians as the cause of a mass hysteria-led witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

The Little Ice Age also caused a decline in the production of wine. Because of the weather, a lot of farms were destroyed. Fewer taxes could be collected, and property value declined.

The plague was spread by rat fleas.
Rat Flea

The Black Death

Several years later, around 1347, an even more devastating event began. The Black Death began to spread throughout Europe. The Black Death was devastating and wiped out at least a third of Europe's population in less than a decade.

The Black Death, sometimes referred to as 'the plague,' was spread by rat fleas. A person who contracted the plague could die within a matter of days - usually less than five. People who contracted the plague experienced a high fever, diarrhea, delirium, swollen lymph nodes, and eventually black splotches on the skin, giving it its moniker. Plague victims could also experience bleeding in their lungs, nausea and vomiting, muscle pains, and disorientation.

There were no antibiotics or medication at this time for the plague. Some treated plague by draining swollen places or giving the victim arsenic, lily root, or dried toad. Those who lived in towns and cities caught the disease more easily. People in cities lived very close together. At the time there was no knowledge of how contagious illnesses spread. The bodies of those who had died were not disposed of in a way that slowed the spread of disease. Those who handled the bodies did not wear any protective garments. The towns were dirty and rats were plentiful. Rats carrying diseased fleas helped spread the disease throughout many towns. People, having no medical knowledge, began to blame the disease on witches, astrology, or religious groups. The plague spread and encircled Europe within about five years, then disappeared.

People were at risk for disease due to improper body disposal.
Black Death Body Disposal

Impacts of the Plague

The consequences of the Little Ice Age, famine, and the Black Death were mostly seen in the population decline. The population would not increase to its original numbers until after 1500. People realized the plague spread more readily through cities, and a trend of de-urbanization resulted. People became more separated from each other and turned to extreme religious beliefs to quell their fear. Many people gave their possessions and even land to the Church in exchange for protection from the illness.

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