The Effect of the Plague During the 1600s
Throughout the 1600s, multiple outbreaks of the plague -- a disease carried by flea-bearing rodents -- shook Europe, leaving thousands dead and entire communities disrupted. During the Great Plague of 1665, over 100,000 people in London died, according to the National Archives, while mortality rates in Italy during the plagues of 1629 and 1656 were as high as 600 per thousand people, according to a paper published by Guido Alfani of Bocconi University. Along with deadly threats of infection, the 17th century plagues brought numerous social and economic changes to Europe as its people fought for survival.
1 Bring Out Your Dead
Along with food shortages and war, plague outbreaks had a widespread impact on Europe's population on both a local and national level. The National Archives reports that during London's Great Plague of 1665, 15 percent of the city's population died, while between the years 1600 and 1670, according to Alfani, Italy lost roughly 30 percent of its population to the plague when compared with the population existing in 1600, and Spain lost 25 percent of its population, according to Stephen J. Lee, author of "Aspects of European History." English history scholar and professor Steven Porter explains that the unpredictability of plague waves created a frightening existence for 17th century people, making living with the disease a virtual way of life.
2 An Infected Economy
The plague also significantly altered the buying and selling of goods. As a result of the Great Plague of 1665, the Council of Scotland voted to ban all trade with England, resulting in a widespread loss of jobs and the closing of public marketplaces, according to the National Archives. The shortage of goods wasn't the only problem people faced, however; simply going shopping presented the dangers of buying diseased goods or coming into contact with infected citizens. In Italy, according to Alfani, production of wool, linen and silk sharply declined following the 1630 plague and never returned to their pre-plague levels.
3 Social Class Divide
The poor were often the plague's greatest victims, resulting in sharper distinctions between the "haves and have nots." While the wealthy could flee to the countryside, the poor were forced to stay behind in the close quarters of cities, where avoiding contact with rats, animals and other infected citizens was virtually impossible. In London, guards were placed around city limits to keep people from leaving without permission from a local official, according to the History Learning Site. Many local physicians who had the means to leave the city also faced the moral dilemma of leaving for safety or staying to do what they could while facing a risk of death.
4 Cities in Chaos
Ultimately, the psychological impact of the plague left affected cities in upheaval. As the death tolls rose, orderly funeral procedures were all but abandoned, as most victims' bodies were dumped in mass graves or burned. Murderers, thieves and other criminals were let out of prison on the condition that they help dispose of the remains. Plague survivors and left-behind family members were also driven to suicide. Some even attempted to contract other diseases, such as syphilis, in hopes of becoming immune. In desperation, they turned to other bizarre cures like bloodletting and soaking the victims in mercury before roasting them in an oven, according to Jackie Rosenhek of the Doctor's Review.
- 1 National Archives: The Great Plague of 1665-1666
- 2 Bocconi University: Plague in 17th Century Europe and the Decline of Italy
- 3 Aspects of European History, 1494-1789; Stephen J. Lee
- 4 History Learning Site: The Plague of 1665
- 5 Gresham College: 17th Century Plague
- 6 Doctor's Review: Doctors of the Black Death