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Renaissance or Resilience?: How Medieval Europe Recovered from the Black Death

Renaissance or Resilience?: How Medieval Europe Recovered from the Black Death

Paper by Simon R. Doubleday

Given at Hofstra University on November 3, 2021

Overview: In the fourteenth century, the world faced the greatest public health crisis in its history: a pandemic disease, caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis, which killed approximately 40-50% of the population of large parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This pandemic, which later came to be known as the Black Death, resulted in profound individual and collective trauma. Yet the 50-year period that followed—one of the most vibrant in the history of the European continent—provides us with a remarkable case study in human resilience.

The period after the plague saw a growing willingness to interrogate established truths and traditions. Ideas of freedom and liberty propelled a struggle for social justice that would inspire later revolutionaries, including Thomas Paine. Meanwhile, cultural life flourished—this was the age of Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Medieval resilience also implied practical responses to the plague. Some responses were intolerant and violent: a reminder to be watchful of our own collective responses to fear. Yet the culture that survived the plague remains a source of hope, as we too face challenges on a global level.

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Simon R. Doubleday is a Professor of History at Hofstra University. Click here to view his personal website or follow Simon on Twitter @SimonDoubleday

Top Image: Ragusa (Dubrovnik) by Konrad von Grünenberg in 1487

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