How did medieval people respond to global pandemic?

Many people seem to assume that medieval people did not have much concept either of change or of the future. How can this possibly be the case, when they had to grapple with change of the most profound kind?  In the fourteenth century, the world was turned upside down. Professor Hannah Skoda tells us more…

In 1348, bubonic plague swept across the world. In many ways, this was a result of global networks of trade and diplomacy. It arrived first in Europe via trading ships at the port of Genoa, and reached England via Weymouth in Dorset: the first known English casualty was a seaman who had been fighting in Gascony in France. In Europe, mortality from the plague was probably as high as 50 per cent. Subsequent waves of the disease made recovery very hard. Pertinently for us, the plague coincided with a period of extreme climate change: the first part of the fourteenth century is often referred to as the ‘mini Ice Age’. The 1310s had brought extreme famine, and extreme weather conditions brought catastrophic harvest failures in the second half of the century also.

Demographic catastrophe brought a wealth of other changes. Although plague could kill anyone, it struck the poor disproportionately – after all, they had nowhere to flee to. The result was a shortage of labourers, and consequently landlords found themselves in a much weaker position: surviving labourers were able to demand better conditions, wages and freedoms. The period marked the decline of serfdom. 

Caroline Barron has argued that demographic catastrophe also brought fresh opportunities for women, as skilled male workers were in short supply. For example, one Agnes Ramsey, daughter of mason William Ramsey, continued her father’s work after his death in 1349. Economic shifts were not necessarily accompanied by a shift in attitudes, and the ‘golden age for women’ was short-lived.

The prevalence of death brought medical advances too. We may sneer at medieval people’s lack of understanding of what was happening, but this was a period of careful medical reflection, increasingly empirical investigation, the growth of anatomy, and a growing awareness of the importance of hygiene. Town councils devoted much more attention to cleanliness and trying to reduce contagion. In a cultural sense, many historians have also argued that plague provoked shifts in attitudes towards death: we can still today be moved by images showing death as the great equalizer.

Danse Macabre fresco in the Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia (Wikicommons – Public Domain)

To these dramatic changes we might add a host of other ways in which life was being turned, in the words of one preacher, ‘upside-down’. Contemporaries experienced almost continuous warfare, rapid and overwhelming political change and development, the growth of business and new economic practices, particularly in the form of credit networks. Towns continued to grow – even the landscape looked different.

How did people respond to this extreme sense of change?

Society was remarkably resilient. Life continued, people did not give up, customs continued, relatively few settlements were abandoned and when they were, it was to take advantage of new opportunities. The remains of a medieval settlement at Hound Tor on Dartmoor are particularly interesting. Abandoned after the Black Death, the residents left because more fertile and desirable land had become available and they were seizing the opportunity.

But not everyone was keen to seize new opportunities. The changes created winners and losers.  Notably, those who had benefitted from servile labour in the past were keen to preserve their rights over others. In England, the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers, in 1349 and 1351 respectively, were passed by Parliament in an attempt to prevent labourers from demanding higher wages, or from moving around in search of better conditions, and to fix prices. In 1363, there was even a legislative attempt to govern what people of different social statuses could wear and consume, because there was so much anxiety about social mobility.

Those demanding such legislation were afraid that their positions were threatened by the new opportunities opened up and seized by those who had been so exploited.  In a sense, they were nostalgic for a social order which they feared was crumbling. My own research explores this wave of nostalgia in response to dramatic structural change. In a whole range of contexts, fourteenth-century people reacted to change by longing for a past golden age. Preachers described the apparent stability and stronger morality of the past. Not all nostalgia was reactionary and conservative. In 1381, a huge revolt broke out, known as the Peasants’ Revolt: the revolt was driven by many things, but provided an opportunity to shout about the injustice of exploitation and corruption, and was underpinned by a sense of nostalgia for an imagined past in which life was more equal. So nostalgia, as a response to change, could serve both reactionary and radical agendas.

Professor Hannah Skoda is Tutorial Fellow in History at St John’s College, Oxford


Thinking about what you have read here, and using some of the Further Resources for this article, think about an answer to the question: What opportunities were opened up by the multiple traumas of the fourteenth century? You might want to write your answer as a mini-essay of 500 words.

Further Resources


  • After the Black Death: Economy, Society, and the Law in Fourteenth-century England by Mark Bailey (OUP, 2021)
  • The Great Transition: The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World by Bruce Campbell (CUP, 2016)

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