The Black Death Actually Improved Public Health

Analysis of skeletons from before and after the height of the epidemic yields surprising results

Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken by Josse Lieferinxe Corbis

Tens of millions of people died when the Black Death swept through Europe. It was a horrific tragedy enacted on a massive scale. But all that devastation might just have been a positive development…at least for the people who managed to survive and for their descendants. A new study published in PLOS One found that, for 200 years after the Black Death struck in the 14th century, living conditions in London improved and life spans lengthened.

As the author of the study, Sharon De Witte, writes:

Given that the mortality associated with the Black Death was extraordinarily high and selective, the medieval epidemic might have powerfully shaped patterns of health and demography in the surviving population, producing a post-Black Death population that differed in many significant ways, at least over the short term, from the population that existed just before the epidemic

And, indeed, that's what she found. The BBC reports:

"It really does emphasise how dramatically the Black Death shaped the population," she told BBC News.

"The period I'm looking at after the Black Death, from about 200 hundred years after the epidemic. What I'm seeing in that time period is very clear positive changes in demography and health."

She said although general health might have been improving, the aftermath of the epidemic would have been "horrifying and devastating" for those who survived.

"Those improvements in health only occurred because of the death of huge numbers of people," Dr DeWitte said.

De Witte looked at over 600 skeletons from London cemeteries and found that, while birthrates didn’t change much between the period before and after the Black Death, afterwards, people’s diets improved. Many were able to live longer lives than their predecessors.

It's not totally clear, though, why mortality improved. Was it the improved quality of life—lower food prices and higher wages—of a smaller population? Was it that the survivors of the epidemic were less frail? Or both? 

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