"We are faced with the evidence of an almost unimaginable catastrophe. The Black Death on a global scale exceeded in mortality any other known disaster."1 At the end of the first epidemic Pope Clement VI (see biography) was informed that 28,840,000 people had died, or about 31 percent of the population of 75 million.2 All three of these numbers are fictions, however. No one will ever know with any certainty how many people died of pestilence in Europe from 1347 to 1352. No one knows how many people lived in Europe in 1346, or 1330, or 1300, so that deriving an exact percentage is impossible. Scholars argue over the size of well-documented cities such as London, Florence, and Paris and defend very different numbers for even a compact society such as England's. By now, most shy away from declaring any gross figures to be accurate. Many medieval authors were not so cautious and boldly claimed that barely one in ten survived (Burgundian chronicler), or half the population of the world succumbed, or the biblical one-third (Rev 9:18) were swept away as a warning to the survivors (Jean Froissart). One must discount any such numbers as mere guesses, or as the equivalent of "very high numbers," or as symbolic figures. Even on a local level a counting of the dead was never carried out over the duration of the epidemic anywhere in Europe, yet many chroniclers satisfied the desires of an increasingly number-conscious urban audience for a satisfying accounting. The poet Boccaccio claimed 100,000 dead in Florence, and a Paduan chronicler used the same number for Venice. Robert of Avesbury said over 200 died each day in London, Jean Venette stated that 500 died each day in Paris, and one chronicler counted 500 funerals on a single day in Vienna. Agnolo di Tura claimed 52,000 dead in Siena; Friar John Clynn reported 14,000 dead in Dublin; and a Flemish chronicler wrote that 62,000 died in Avignon in just three months. All told, 97 of the 407 European chronicles studied by historian Samuel Cohn provide some estimate of the death toll, but none of them may be considered reliable as exact figures.3
Modern historians have turned to sources of data other than narratives to provide numbers or percentages on a small, local scale, such as the English manor, parish, or village. But at even this level few consistent records were kept, gaps in these appear, and accuracy of the source is always debatable. In all of fourteenth-century Europe only three parishes preserved burial records for both normal and Plague periods. In England "inquisitions post-mortem," which presented information about a deceased landholder and his heirs, exist, but only for the knightly class and higher. Courts that tried cases on manors recorded the deaths of those who owed rents on land, but only the head of the household, not family members. Heriots were death taxes owed by serfs to landlords, but records of these no doubt undercount those who were not holders of property. Some scholars have used bishops' registers to determine the death rates among priests and extrapolated from these across the whole population; others have used wills, and still others burial sites to get some sense of death counts or rates. In France and elsewhere governments levied taxes by "head" or by "hearth," roughly a count of individuals or families (occupied house). Hearths were far easier to count, but a modern researcher needs a firm sense of how many people lived around a "hearth." The multiplier one uses to represent average family size is crucial, but always controversial. Also, during Plague times, the abandonment of a hearth can mean many things: the whole family lived but fled, the husband died but all others went to live with relatives, or all died.4
Just for the record, some scholars have made estimates of mortality. Ann Carmichael estimates that across western Eurasia, out of a population of 100 million, perhaps 20 percent died, with local percentages in Europe as high as 40 to 50 percent. Naphy and Spicer posit a population of western Europe in 1290 of 75 to 80 million, and a mid-Plague estimate in 1430 of 20 to 40 million, for a maximum population drop of 75 percent. Of course the pestilence by no means accounts for this entire drop—famine, war, and other diseases did their dirty jobs—but if their estimates are anywhere near accurate, the demographic effect was horrendous. One trend is clear in recent scholarship: no one is reducing the generic percentage loss. Several decades ago it was "a quarter to a third" of the population; more recently "a third to a half"; for
England, historian John Aberth suggests 40 to 60 percent is warranted by local studies.5 In 2002 historian Christopher Dyer summed up the view of many: "it would be reasonable to estimate the death rate in 1348-49 at about half of the English population. Its effects were universal, and no village, town nor region for which records exist escaped. If the total population stood at about 5 or 6 million, there were 2.5 or 3 million casualties."6
But England—and Europe—did not merely take the midcentury hit and recover. Local records show modest recovery in the 1350s, but some combination of lower birth rates and high death rates, due in part to recurrences of pestilence, kept populations low and shrinking until at least the mid-fifteenth century. Of course women of childbearing age and younger died in great numbers, but after the Plague some, perhaps many, English women entered the wage-earning work force, especially in towns, thus delaying marriage and childbearing. In his classic study, population historian John Hatcher suggested that adults were financially and materially better off in the wake of the Plague, and may have chosen to keep their families smaller than before, the better to enjoy this higher standard of living. But he also concluded what most scholars today agree: the high mortality from pestilence was the main factor in keeping population low. Plague returned across England some fifteen times after 1370: in 1379-83, 1389-93, 1400, 1405-7, 1413, 1420, 1427, 1433-34, 1438-39, 1457-58, 1463-64, 1467, 1471, 1479-80, and 1485.7 Death tolls were far lower than in 1348-49, perhaps generally in the range of 8 to 15 percent, but the cumulative effect was to keep England's population low or even declining until sometime during the second half of the fifteenth century, when the country began to experience a sustained period of growth that laid the foundation for her growth under the Tudors.
Elsewhere in Europe the pattern was similar: a very heavy drop in population at the mid-fourteenth century, followed by a mild recovery, which in turn was followed by a continual slide well into the fifteenth century. Using tax rolls for hearths, regional French historians have noted the heavy blows caused by the pestilence. For example, between 1343 and 1357 the city of Albi's hearth count was halved, her population supposedly dropping from around 10,000 to about 5,000. At nearby Millau, between 1346 and 1353 the hearth count dropped from 1,541 to 918. But the lag in Albi's count was fourteen years, and that in
Millau's only seven. One should have more confidence in attributing epidemic deaths as the main factor in Millau's drop than in Albi's case. In both cases other diseases, famine, local warfare, and, of course, flight account for some unknown percentage of lost hearths. In a study of eight parishes near Montmelian in France, the number of hearths was counted in 1347, 1348, and 1349/50 for tax purposes. With this tight a series of observations, one can be quite confident that the Black Death was responsible for much in the drops from 303 to 260 to 142, or a decline of 53 percent over about two years' time.8
Much, but not all: what happened to the members of these households is not at all clear. Many people did die, but others fled and families mixed members. A close study of the changes inside Albi after 1343 demonstrates how movements of people as well as deaths affect these figures. In 1343 in the Vigan Quarter of Albi there were 638 taxpayers' (heads of households) names listed on the roll. In 1357 the number had dropped to 242 names. Of the original 638, seventy-four remained on the list; sixty-eight moved to another quarter of town (presumably to better lodgings); and 496 names disappeared from the area. On the new list of taxpayers, 124 were from Albi, but 118 (49 percent) were new to the area, or at least were new taxpayers. The pestilence not only killed people, but also mixed up the remaining population. People fled the Plague, rural folk moved into town looking for work, orphans moved in with others, widows returned to their birth families, widowers remarried, poorer branches of families took over the houses of wealthier ones or took inherited wealth and moved away.9
Between 1345 and 1355, in ten French localities studied by historian Emmanuel Ladurie, the number of hearths dropped from 8,511 to 3,839, or nearly 60 percent. Henri Dubois found similar numbers for Aix-en-Provence (45 percent), Moustiers (67 percent), Apt (52 percent).10 These records rarely show any recovery: the French population continued to slide. In the Lyonnais region of France pestilence returned in 1361, during much of the 1370s, in 1382, 1387, 1391, 1397, 1401, 14036, 1410-14, 1420, 1457 (very hard), 1471, and 1493. In each case death rates were said to be six to seven times normal rates.11 Ladurie estimates the population of France at about seventeen million in 1330; by the mid-fifteenth century it had dropped and hovered around ten million, beginning its ascent only after 1470. By 1700 France had about nineteen million people. In Catalonia one finds a similar pattern: 1365, 104,000
hearths; 1378, 83,000 hearths; and 1497, 61,000 hearths. Demographer Ole Benedictow estimates that Norway reached its low point in the last half of the fifteenth century, having shrunk from around 350,000 people in 1300 to 125,000 in 1450-1500, a drop of some 64 percent. Norway would reach its pre-Black Death population about 1650. In Russia, where the Plague hit somewhere once every five or six years from 1350 to 1490, pre-Plague populations seem to have been reached as early as 1500. Of course, as elsewhere, other trends and events played their parts, complicating any analysis of the specific role of pestilence: Mongol control disintegrated, three-field crop rotation spread, urban life developed more completely and new settlements appeared, and the Muscovites unified northeastern and northwestern Russia.12
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