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The plague years
Santa Maria del Mar was constructed as the first outbreak of the Black Death raged through Barcelona. Photo by Michaela Xydi
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The plague years 2
Photo by Michaela Xydi
Between the years 1347 and 1653, multiple waves of disease swept through Europe, killing large swaths of the population and terrorising the survivors. It is said that during this period, the plague was always active in one part of Europe or another, although the largest outbreaks took place in one to four year periods (some lasted over ten years).
The first devastating outbreak was 1348-1351, popularly known as the Black Death. Although there is some doubt, research indicates that the disease itself was caused by several different strains, including strains that may no longer exist. Yersina pestis is a bacterium carried by fleas, probably originating in the steppes of Central Asia and carried to Europe aboard trading ships and the rats that inhabited them.
This is what we understand now—the victims of the plague had only vague notions of the causes of their suffering, which led to some violent responses, as we will see later. It is also probable that there were a number of other diseases that spread at the same time; these first outbreaks took place at the end of the Medieval Warm Period, when suddenly shortened growing seasons and
harshening conditions caused serious malnutrition in a large portion of the European population.
If we imagine life in Barcelona at the time, anyone who is familiar with the old city would find recognisable aspects to compare with today’s Barcelona. It was relatively clean for a medieval city, with many stone buildings and functioning sewers in the older, Roman portion of the city. Other than fleeing from or isolating the sick, popular preventive measures against the plague included burning lemon, laurel or juniper leaves. Medical recommendations were hardly more effective and included scrubbing floors with vinegar, drinking orange juice, wearing linen or keeping windows open to the north wind. All, perhaps, good measures against one disease or another, but not effective against this one.
The effect on Barcelona was significant. Still recovering from the famine in the previous decade that killed ten thousand in the city— 25 percent of the population—the plague is likely to have eliminated 40 percent of the population of Catalunya, although it is difficult to determine a reliable figure. The city government was devastated. Four of the five Consellers had died, and less than a score of the Consell de Cent remained alive. The remaining Conseller, still weak from the disease himself, called for a renovation of the Consell de Cent, an act which Pere el Ceremonious (King of Aragon and Duke of Barcelona at the time) later took as an usurpation of his own royal powers which very nearly cost the former his life. Pere had reason to be touchy— when the plague broke out he was being held prisoner in Valencia by the Unió Valenciana, a popular political force. He took advantage of the chaos caused by the epidemic there to escape and later took vengeance on Valencia. The plague, however, would take its toll on Pere’s family; his second wife Leonor died of the disease the same year, 1348.
Other responses to this massive mortality were as regrettable as they were ineffective. One main interpretation of the plague was as a sign of God’s wrath, which led to desperate and exaggerated responses, like the processions of the flagellants, a movement that pre-dates the plague, but became more widespread during those difficult times. Men stripped to the waist and walked the streets whipping themselves until they bled in dramatic displays of piety. Although we cannot know the other displays of piety that certainly took place on the streets of Barcelona in those years, we do have the lasting monuments of Santa Maria del Mar (1329-1383) and Santa Maria del Pi (1321-1391), works whose construction overlapped the Black Plague.
Early reports of the flagellants in Italy state that they accused those who would not join them of being in league with the devil, attacking priests who opposed the practice, as well as Jews. Turning on others, especially marginal members of society, was a common response during the trauma of the Black Death. Jews, Roma (gypsies), beggars, lepers and anyone else with signs of skin disease, such as psoriasis or acne, were attacked and killed throughout Europe. Barcelona was no exception. The violence committed against Jews in the city led to the end of the Jewish neighbourhood, El Call, and foreshadowed greater and more intensified persecutions of Jews, including the Inquisition.
The fact that Pope Clement IV issued two papal bulls in 1348 condemning those engaging in violence against Jews as having been “seduced by that liar, the Devil”, and another bull in 1349 condemning the flagellants, the violence did not stop. He also granted remission of all sins to everyone who died of the disease, which didn’t seem to make anyone more eager to contract it. The flagellants themselves eventually became victims of the Inquisition in the 15th century.
Barcelona and Cervera were the first, but sadly not the last, European cities in which the Jewish community was accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells. This bizarre accusation—a number of people, including Pope Clement himself, observed that Jews were dying of the plague as much as anyone else—spread with alarming speed throughout Europe and led to a number of massacres, burnings, arrests, torture and “confessions” of crimes.
The long terms effects of the plague were many, and subject to debate and interpretation. Documents indicate that the population of Barcelona remained below pre-plague levels for over two hundred years. Although unreliable, the general indicator was that the population of the city remained stable, while smaller towns in Catalunya lost people, including migration to Barcelona. It is worth noting the Pere the Ceremonious was engaged in multiple wars and empire building in Sardinia, Sicily, Greece and Mallorca at this time. Many people certainly emigrated from Catalunya to these colonies.
Social upheaval followed the widespread deaths. Whole families died without heirs, leaving their farms abandoned, and looters and nobles were quick to take advantage; the latter seizing any property unclaimed after 30 days. The result of this abuse and the increased value of labour was a series of peasant uprisings starting in 1370 and continuing for many years, part of a long struggle of working people against the upper classes.
The final outbreak attributed to the plague was between 1651 and 1653. The Black Death, and other plagues of the middle ages may only be a memory today, but they were deeply traumatic for the people who lived through them, and have shaped the Barcelona—and Europe—we live in today.