The Great Plague fell impartially upon an England prosperous with French spoils and a France desolate in defeat. Pestilence was a normal incident in medieval history; it harried Europe during thirty-two years of the fourteenth century, forty-one years of the fifteenth, thirty years of the sixteenth; so nature and human ignorance, those resolute Malthusians, cooperated with war and famine to counteract the reproductive ecstasies of mankind. The Black Death was the worst of these visitations, and probably the most terrible physical calamity in historic times. It came into Provence and France from Italy, and perhaps more directly from the Near East through Oriental rats landing at Marseille. In Narbonne, said a dubious tradition, 30,000 persons died of it; in Paris, 50,000;14in Europe, 25,000,000;15 perhaps, altogether, “one fourth of the population of the civilized world.”16 The medical profession was helpless; it did not know the cause of the disease (Kitazato and Yersin discovered the bacillus of the bubonic plague in 1894), and could only recommend bleedings, purges, cordials, cleanliness of home and person, and fumigation with vapors of vinegar.17 A few physicians and priests, fearing infection, refused to treat the sick, but the great majority of them faced the ordeal manfully; thousands of doctors and clergymen gave their lives.18 Of twenty-eight cardinals alive in 1348 nine were dead a year later; of sixty-four archbishops, twenty-five; of 375 bishops, 207.19

The epidemic had effects in every sphere of life. As the poor died in greater proportion than the rich, a shortage of labor followed; thousands of acres were left untilled, millions of herring died a natural death. Labor enjoyed for a while an improved bargaining power; it raised its wages, repudiated many surviving feudal obligations, and staged revolts that kept noble teeth on edge for half a century; even priests struck for higher pay.20 Serfs left farms for cities, industry expanded, the business class made further gains on the landed aristocracy. Public sanitation was goaded into moderate improvements. The immensity of the suffering and the tragedy weakened many minds, producing contagious neuroses; whole groups seemed to go mad in unison, like the Flagellants who in 1349, as they had done in the thirteenth century, marched through the city streets almost naked, beating themselves in penitence, preaching the Last Judgment, utopias, and pogroms. People listened with more than customary eagerness to mind readers, dream interpreters, sorcerers, quacks, and other charlatans. Orthodox faith was weakened; superstition flourished. Strange reasons were given for the plague. Some ascribed it to an untimely conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars; others to the poisoning of wells by lepers or Jews. Jews were killed in half a hundred towns from Brussels to Breslau (1348–49). Social order was almost destroyed by the death of thousands of police, judges, government officials, bishops, and priests. Even the business of war suffered a passing decline; from the siege of Calais to the battle of Poitiers (1356) the Hundred Years’ War dallied in reluctant truce, while the decimated ranks of the infantry were replenished with men too poor to value life at more than a few shillings above death.

Philip VI consoled himself for plague and defeat by marrying, at fifty-six, Blanche of Navarre, eighteen, whom he had intended for his son. Seven months later he died. This son, John II, “the Good” (1350–64), was good indeed to the nobles; he absolved them from taxes, paid them to defend their lands against the English, and maintained all the forms and graces of chivalry. He also debased the currency as an old way to pay war debts, repeatedly raised taxes on the lower and middle classes, and marched off in splendor to meet the English at Poitiers. There his 15,000 knights, Scots, and servitors were routed, slain, or captured by the 7,000 men of the Black Prince; and King John himself, fighting lustily, leading foolishly, was among the prisoners, along with his son Philip, seventeen earls, and countless barons, knights, and squires. Most of these were allowed to ransom themselves on the spot, and many were freed on their promise to bring their ransom to Bordeaux by Christmas. The Prince treated the King royally, and took him leisurely to England.

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