How a “Brood of Vipers” Survived the Black Death: Recovery and Dysfunction in the Fourteenth-Century Dominican Order

Speculum 86 (3):688-714 (2011)
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Survivors of the Black Death confronted a world changed very much for the worse, or so we often say when ignoring nuance. There is no denying that many chroniclers wrote from a situation of real anxiety about an uncertain future. Many locales felt the effects of severe wage inflation and dramatic price fluctuations, some work regimes intensified, social mobility increased, and the utility of traditional safety nets failed to provide against localized food scarcity. Nevertheless, we should view with caution descriptions of plague-induced economic and social dislocation leading to anarchy and decadence, which can become colorful exaggerations, especially when buboes and piled bodies get added to the narrative mix. In recent years many researchers have begun to confront the overload of stereotypes about postplague living to which a human inclination to prurience and some vast historical lacunae have led us. Edwin Hunt, James Murray, and others have found men and women in late-medieval Europe seizing latent economic opportunities in the midst of their difficult circumstances, stimulating producer innovations and encouraging a consumption boom. The medical practitioners studied by Jon Arrizabalaga and John Henderson did not surrender to the defeatism often ascribed to them. And despite the evidence that social stress made room for extremism—flagellant self-abuse, attacks upon Jewish communities, urban riots and rebellions—in government and the world of custom pragmatic flexibility insulated foundational institutions against radical upheaval. Important continuities bridged the pre- and postplague eras. Plague epidemiology has also grown more complex in response to a keener understanding of the morphology of disease agents and the historical shaping of disease categories



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