Unit 4 Essay
The Black Death and its Artistic Influence
In the early 14th-century, a sickness beyond comparison pile-drived its way through the
Eastern world. It crossed continents, spreading fear, pain, and hysteria everywhere it went.
Although referred to by many names, its’ most infamous is “The Black Death” or the “Black
Plague.” The plague ravished hundreds of countries and led to political and social uprisings all
over the world. Ultimately, the Black Plague paved the way for political and social reform and -
thanks to notorious artists such as Boccaccio, Giotto, and Machaut- the plague led to the New
Realism that dominated 14th and early 15th-century art.
The Black Death was a global epidemic of bubonic plague that originated in Asia many
years before it touched the outskirts of Europe and is thought to have spread through trade ships
that traveled from country to country. It did not reach The Western world until October of 1347
when 12 “Death Ships” docked in Sicily with most of its passengers already dead. Although
immediately made to leave the harbor, it was too late to prevent infection. The plague had landed
in Europe and was there to stay. Killing more than 20 million people in Europe alone, the
bubonic plague quickly became the most fatal pandemic in world history and still holds that title
today. The bubonic plague attacked the lymphatic system and evolved into puss-filled buboes
(abscesses or boils) and black splotches (gangrened or dead flesh) covering the body’s surface
that were accompanied by a variety of other life-threatening symptoms (fever, nausea, diarrhea,
etc.). Once infected, many sufferers died within a matter of days (History.com).
Indiscriminatingly killing across all genders and social classes, the plague left economies,
governments, and social hierarchies wholly demolished. With labor shortages and the
opportunity to raise one’s social status and income, peasants that had survived the plague rushed
to fill the spots left by deceased tenant farmers. In contrast, others fled their rural homes to fill
the many jobs left open in the cities. This rural exodus drove urban growth and largely
contributed to the demise of the feudal order and manorialism. Though the economic impact of
the plague was significant, the psychological influence was overwhelming. People who were
once blindly faithful now began to doubt as they attempted to make sense of this catastrophe.
Some believed the plague was a punishment doled out from God himself as a result of society’s
contemporary worldliness, while others questioned the existence of a God at all. Death, once
regarded as a “welcome release from earthly existence,” now instilled a sense of angst, worry,
and self-consciousness (Fiero 363). This change of mindset was mirrored in the way death and
burial were depicted in art. Once a pleasant process guided by angels and loved ones, death was