The Plague and its Aftermath

Subhash Kak
6 min readMay 23, 2024
Edvard Munch, Melancholy, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.

Since the world is expecting a historic reduction in population, it is instructive to look at earlier instances of large population decline to make a sense of how it might change society.

The largest proportional decline in history took place in the fourteenth century plague in Europe that has come to be called the “Black Death”. It weakened the Church, which responded by suppressing unorthodox views, and finally with a violent persecution of minorities. The number of dead in the plague has been estimated to be about twenty-five million.

The modern Covid pandemic of 2020- 2023, which killed over seven million people directly, is a watershed event like the plague of nearly seven hundred years ago. There are estimates that the total deaths associated with Covid, because of harsh mitigation efforts and the use of vaccination based on unproven technology, exceeds twenty million.

The looming population decline facing the world won’t be caused by disease but by deep psychological reasons arising from pervasive job losses due to artificial intelligence and the fact that women have more control over their bodies. Will its aftermath in terms of challenge to established institutions have any similarity to the changes that occurred in the wake of the plague?

The plague

The plague was caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis and it peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1350, causing the death of an estimated third of the continent’s population. In most parts of Europe, it took nearly 80 years for the population to recover, and in some areas, it took more than 150 years.

As many as a quarter of all villages were depopulated and the survivors fled to larger towns and cities. The plague caused social, economic, political, and religious upheavals that changed Europe. It was a disastrous blow to the Catholic Church that used to control every aspect of a person’s life in a high-handed way, and for some the plague was a curse from God.

Larger cities were the worst off, as close living quarters made disease transmission easier, and some rural isolated areas were spared. Cities of the medieval times were strikingly filthy, infested with lice, fleas and rats. It is estimated that of the large cities, Bremen in Germany lost almost 7,000 of its 12,000 inhabitants, Florence 40,000 of its 90,000 inhabitants, and Paris more than 50,000 of its 180,000 inhabitants.

The previous centuries in Europe

The understand the aftermath to the plague, it is good to go back to the period of twelfth to fourteenth centuries in Europe when Catharism thrived in the south, which was denounced as a heretical sect by the Catholic Church. The term Cathar has been used by outsiders for the Cathars called themselves Good Men (Bons Hommes), Good Women (Bonnes Femmes), or Good Christians (Bons Chrétiens). Some see this movement as a successor to the Bogomil (Friends of God, see the cognate Bhagamitra) of Thrace.

The Cathars were vegetarians, with the exception that they ate fish. They believed in reincarnation, and some scholars see their ideas as having come from the east. They believed there were two realms: the spiritual and the physical. If God was the deity of the spiritual realm, the deity of the physical universe was Rex Mundi, and this was similar to the dichotomy of Deva and Asura.

All visible matter, including the human body, was created or crafted by this Demiurge; matter was therefore tainted with darkness. To regain light one had to renounce the material self completely. Until one did so, one would be stuck in a cycle of reincarnation. The Cathars denied Jesus’s physical incarnation and resurrection.

The Cathars were first attacked by Pope Innocent III in a Crusade. The first Inquisition was temporarily established in the south of France in 1184, and permanently established in 1229; it was run by the Dominicans.

Initially, the Inquisition was only to put heretics on trial, and if they were found to be guilty, they were to be banished. Inquisitionists often used torture on those on trial to gather confession of heresy. The Inquisitionist wished to save souls by obtaining confessions of heresy and converting all to orthodox beliefs.

The Cathars were slaughtered, hanged, or burnt at the stake by the Inquisition, which eradicated the sect by the beginning of the plague. The Inquisition was to become a permanent institution until it was dismantled by the French in the nineteenth century.

By the time the plague struck Europe in 1347, the Catholics had been persecuting heresy for more than 100 years via fear, torture, and deceit, and it is estimated that over 50,000 heretics had been killed and others had converted to Christianity to survive.

Widespread persecution

The plague led to people doubting the authority of the Church. The Cathars were gone, so the Church reacted by a persecution of the Jewish minority, who were accused of poisoning the water or the air. The attacks against Jews began in the south of France but were most dramatic in parts of Switzerland and German areas. Jews were rounded up and burned or drowned in marshes.

There were reports of Jews committing suicide by shutting themselves in their synagogue and putting the building on fire although it is more likely that the buildings were set on fire by the mob. It is estimated that by 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been exterminated, and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred.

Jews were often called the King’s property and they were only allowed to stay at the permission of the king: the king could tax them heavily whenever he wished, which also gave him an incentive to protect them.

Jews were forbidden by the Catholic Church from not only owning land, but were forbidden to join any guilds, professional or social organizations, or engaging in administering to Christians in any professional capacity whatsoever. They were allowed to be money lenders at interest which was forbidden to Christians by the Church.

Over half of Spain’s Jews had converted to Catholicism as a result of the Massacre of 1391. Those who remained in hiding were persecuted and killed for their beliefs.

Jews were formally expelled from Spain following the Alhambra Decree in 1492. The decree was enacted that the converted population did not revert to Judaism. The expulsion led to a mass migration of Jews from Spain to Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries.

The plague didn’t strike East Europe as badly as the West. As violence against the Jews continued, they were invited by Duke Casimir II of Poland to settle in his country. This is how the majority of European Jewry ended up in Poland and Russia, where it remained until the 20th century.

The plague accelerated social and economic change and led to uprisings by peasants, artisans, and craftsmen in many parts of Europe. Of these is the Jacquerie revolt of 1358 in France, and the Ciompi revolt, from 1378 to 1382, in Italy.

Political and administrative change

Perhaps the current cancel culture popular in the academia and the media is similar to the censorship practiced by the Church that eventually led to large-scale murder and mayhem.

The power in our times is not wielded by the Church, but by the industrial-military-pharma complex and the shadowy Deep State behind it. If we look at parallels with the events that took place nearly 700 years ago, can one say that the current wars in Ukraine and the Middle East will only get worse?

The government reaction to Covid showed that we are governed by complex bureaucratic systems that are somewhat opaque from the outside, and seemingly free of any political control. Many experts believe that the extreme reaction to Covid was unnecessary, because for most people the virus was never really that dangerous, and what was done was counterproductive and obviously ineffective.

The response showed a decay in the nature of state power, which has been ceded to bureaucracy by the Deep State as a means of insulating the government from criticism, using agents in the media to whip up hysteria and panic to force its policies on the state actors. The policy movement is subject to inertia and bad policies can last for years, even as the damage caused by them is for everyone to see.