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What If The Black Death Killed Everybody?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Craig Butler
The Black Death spread across medieval Europe and Eurasia in the 14th century, as one of the worst plague pandemics that the world has ever seen. But, what if the Black Death had totally wiped out Europe? How would global history have changed? In this video, Unveiled finds out what would've happened if the Black Death had killed every European.

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What If the Black Death Had Killed Every European?

The Age of Enlightenment. The colonization of America. The French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution. The horrors of the Holocaust. There’s no question that Europe – and Europeans – have played a vital role in shaping the world as we know it. But, at one time, the continent faced one of the worst pandemics in history… Which raises an interesting question: What if the Black Death had killed every European?

We've all heard of “the Black Death”, but the phrase is so familiar to us that its meaning tends to get lost, beyond ideas of it having something to do with a plague, and rats. Of course, both are true.

The Black Death was a bubonic and pneumonic plague, and it’s accepted that one of the main routes of transmission was from fleas via rats. It’s thought to have started in central Asia, before being brought to Europe along busy trade routes, especially the Silk Road. After which it spread quickly and ruthlessly, peaking between the years 1347 and 1351. While it’s true that the spread was most devastating in Europe, it caused massive loss of life in central Asia and the middle East as well.

There isn’t really such a thing as a ‘good plague’, but even as plagues go, the Black Death was a nasty piece of business. An infected person could expect to develop the pus-filled swellings known as buboes in their armpit, neck or groin. These growths could get as big as an apple, as they multiplied all over the body. In time, they’d take the appearance of black spots – hence the name the Black Death – and would soon trigger an intense fever, followed by noxious vomiting and, in some cases, a sufferer’s lungs would also be infected, leaving them unable to breathe.

Because the Black Death struck in the 14th century, when record keeping was erratic to say the least, it’s hard to know exactly how many people died from it. Estimates range from a low of 30% to a high of 60% of the entire European population. Some places where hit harder than others, like in Italy, where as many as 80% of the population died… while others were less affected, like Poland, which appears to have been barely touched by it. Generally, urban areas were more impacted than rural ones.

All in all, it was a devastating situation, and one which dealt a serious blow to Europe. But if every European had been killed, the consequences would have been even more significant.

For one thing, it would have essentially wiped out Western civilization. For centuries, the East and the West had been in (or had been threatening) conflict. With everyone in Europe gone, the continent would’ve been ripe for plucking. Sure, those from the East might’ve initially been reluctant to enter a plague zone – and wisely so. But eventually, someone would’ve decided that it was worth the risk. Several groups – particularly the Mongols or some North African tribes – could’ve been poised to claim the land as their own.

With Europe essentially dead, Christianity as well would most likely have either died out completely or become a much more minor religion. The seat of Catholicism has been wiped out, and Martin Luther – being both not born, and without an institution to protest – wouldn't have led the charge for Reformation. Therefore, the new inhabitants of Europe would most likely have been Muslim and Buddhist.

How much Europe may have physically changed depends to a degree on how long it takes new powers to enter the area and claim it for themselves. The longer the re-establishment of people, the more the land would’ve returned to Nature. New inhabitants may decide it’s safer to build entirely new cities rather than risk a dormant plague resurfacing in the likes of Paris or Florence. And so, the European architecture would’ve crumbled as buildings in the styles of the new inhabitants took over.

Certainly, any industries which were largely based in Europe, such as the production of wool or the creation of various wines, would cease, or perhaps see their related skills picked up by those exploring Europe for the first time.

Beyond industry, the entire history of the world is likely to have been changed immeasurably if Europe had just been wiped out. For one thing, with no Columbus or Queen Isabella, the opening up of America and its subsequent colonization would have occurred at a later date – possibly much later – and under different circumstances. With that in mind, the First Nations and Indigenous peoples of North America may have retained control of the Americas – or whatever the continents would have come to be called. With this change in history, there may not have been a massive importation of slaves, or it may have occurred at a later date, again under different circumstances.

Alternatively, of course, the wars between indigenous peoples and colonizers might have been even more brutal, causing even greater death. Potential colonizers might’ve come from Africa, Asia or the Middle East, perhaps bringing different, even more fatal strains of bacteria to natives of the Americas. Then again, it's also obviously possible that the bacterial impact of colonizers from elsewhere could’ve proven less fatal as well. And then, there’s the proposal that it would’ve been those from the Americas colonizing Europe, instead of the other way around. Clearly, such a shift would’ve led human history in a completely different direction.

But, the decimation of Europe in the 1300s would have many effects beyond how the so-called ‘New World’ developed. Another of the after effects of the Black Death was that the labour pool in Europe significantly shrank. As a result, the cost of labour went up, which was great for the workers but not so good for those paying them. This in turn inspired a search for means of increasing production, a mode of thought which, a few centuries later, brought about the Industrial Revolution.

Now, even if Europe were wiped out, it is quite likely humanity would still have experienced some sort of Industrial Revolution. But the change would have happened differently, and perhaps in a different part of the world. Instead of Britain largely leading and benefiting from these advances – building the British Empire on most of them – the engineering hotbed emerges elsewhere.

No Europe also means no Renaissance – again, at least not in the way we know it today. In fact, one theory holds that the Renaissance was jump-started at least partially by the Black Death itself. It’s said that it was this incredible and unimaginable loss of life that prompted those in Italy in particular to think more about mortal life and less about spiritual existence. This in turn fuelled many of the ideas promoted during the Renaissance.

Whatever its origins, without the Renaissance, vast areas of human culture would’ve been significantly altered. The arts, humanities, sciences, mathematics, navigation, geography, architecture, religion, and the school of humanist thinking were all profoundly affected by the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s creations for the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo's “Mona Lisa”, the plays of William Shakespeare, Galileo’s advances in science, St. Paul’s Cathedral – all of these and many more were products of the period.

Speaking of societal change, if Britain hadn’t colonized America, there’d have been no American Revolution, either. And without France, no French Revolution. So how would that have affected the development of democratic society as it’s currently known? There’d also have been no British settlement of India or Australia – meaning that, had the Plague really claimed every European, the histories of those countries are deeply altered, too.

The Age of Enlightenment was also centred in Europe. The principles developed during this period had huge ramifications for such ideas as the separation of church and state, tolerance, and constitutional government. It’s a movement that marks another turning point in time, and without it society could’ve played out very differently.

Clearly, there are many developments in European history that the world would have been better off without as well. Adolf Hitler and Nazism developed in Europe, as did Fascism and Mussolini. Both World War I and II were also Eurocentric. Few would hold up France’s Reign of Terror as something to be celebrated. And while Arabian slave trading existed independently of Europe, the European and American involvement in slavery is a distinct low point in human history.

It’s clear that if the Black Death had killed every European, the world today would be a very different place. True, it’s fairly certain that many technological advances would still have occurred; someone other than Johannes Gutenberg would have invented something very similar to the printing press eventually, if not at the same time or in the same way, for example. But many of the changes could have been so profound as to have created a world that those of us alive today would find unrecognisable. Would that world have been a better one, or worse? That’s impossible to know but intriguing to speculate over.

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