28 January 2019

The Black Death claimed more victims in the Southern Netherlands than was assumed so far

Mortmain rekening september 1438 september 1439 (Archives departementales du Nord à Lille bestand B 12206 folio 1)
Mortmain record dated September 1438 - September 1439 (Archives departementales du Nord à Lille file B 12206 folio 1)

Demographic historical research shows that the plague has resulted in a higher mortality rate in the Southern Netherlands than was assumed so far. And during plague times, more women than men died of the plague. Joris Roosen (Utrecht University) and Daniel Curtis (Erasmus University Rotterdam) draw this conclusion after studying Medieval archive sources.

Afbeelding van de Zwarte Dood in de Toggenburg-bijbel (1411)
Depiction of the Black Death in the Toggenburg Bible (1411)

In the Middle Ages, a big part of the European population was struck by the Black Death. This first European plague epidemic in the middle of the 14th century resulted in a population death that had never been seen before. The mortality rates vary between 30 % and 60 %. Although the impact of all plague-related deaths in the Middle Ages is very difficult to assess, some areas lost up to 80 % of their respective populations between 1300 and 1400. For a long time, the Southern Netherlands were believed to be less affected by the plague.

There is still a persistent notion that the Low Countries only experienced a 'light touch' of the first wave of the plague (between 1349 and 1351), and that this enabled them to recover quickly and fully. But the numbers tell a different story, at least for modern-day Belgium and parts of the Netherlands. The plague caused an enormous death rate in this region, which persisted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and reached cities as well as rural regions.


The researchers wanted to know what the impact of the plague in the Low Countries was. They consulted countless archive and literature sources for this. Among other things, they used the death records of the county of Henegouwen in the period between 1349 and 1450. 

The Black Death affected all layers of the population, women had a higher chance of mortality.


These records document sums of money, the ‘better part’ of movable property that had to be paid to the count as inheritance tax. “This could vary from a cow, a horse to a coat or some dirty rags. The poorest people in society also had to pay this mortmain, even beggars. This meant the count could literally make you lose your shirt,” Roosen says. It is of special interest to note that all layers of society appear in these sources, including women. Analysis of these records, which document more than 25,0000 people, shows that the death peaks line up with known plague periods.


They also show that the Black Death affected all layers of the population, but that women had a higher chance of mortality. Roosen: “The difference is 5 to 10 percent. The data doesn't reveal why this happened. The best argument that we have was borrowed from medical literature; women have a higher chance to develop lung conditions. Maybe the deadly variant of the plague, pneumonic plague, developed a bit quicker in them.”

Mortmain rekening september 1400 september 1401 (Algemeen Rijksarchief Brussel Rekenkamer Brussel I 004 bestand 17870 folio-1)
Mortmain record September 1400 - September 1401 (Algemeen Rijksarchief Brussel Rekenkamer Brussel I 004 file 17870 folio 1)


Why do we often think that the Plague was less fierce in the Southern Netherlands? The researchers think this is in part due to more urban than rural records surviving. Roosen: “And the belief in the past was ‘if the sources are silent, there was little impact,’ but I think silent sources can also mean that the impact was enormous. It was a time of chaos and there was no time to document it.”


The researchers also think that the population of the Low Countries might not have recovered quicker than other parts of Western Europe, but instead had a bigger degree of migration from rural regions to the cities after plague periods. Roosen: “There are some signs that the Black Death has contributed to the stimulation of this migration in the Southern Netherlands. One example of this is that an agreement between the West-Flemish coastal town Nieuwpoort and the village Veurne was drafted on 3 April 1350, which explicitly stated that the recent plague-mortality rate has resulted in the inhabitants of the villages Leke and Veurne moving. And the city Bruges raised its entry fees in the wake of the Black Death, especially for ‘outsiders’ or non-Flemish people.”


Joris Roosen
Joris Roosen

Roosen believes that this demographic research is important to the purpose of discovering why some regions recover from disasters like the plague faster than other regions. What makes one society more resilient than the other? “If the plague was just as fierce in the Southern Netherlands, how do we explain that this region recovered faster than other regions? The Low Countries experienced a full demographic recovery during the 16th century (population level prior to the Black Death), but a similar recovery in England did not occur until the 18th century.”


The researchers think that the explanation might be found in a higher birth rate than in the surrounding countries; the result of high actual wages and lower ages of marriage in the time after the Black Death. Roosen: “There are of course other possible factors, such as internal migration to the core areas in the Low Countries. Besides that, the rural industry, such as weaving linen, could also have resulted in faster occurrences of family expansions. This offered a higher income on the one hand, and enabled children to be used as a labour force within the household on the other hand.”


The researchers published their findings in:

Curtis, Daniel & Roosen, J. (2017). The sex-selective impact of the Black Death and recurring plagues in the Southern Netherlands, 1349–1450. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 164 (2), (pp. 246-259).

Roosen, J. & Curtis, Daniel (2019). The ‘light touch’ of the Black Death in the Southern Netherlands: an urban trick? The Economic History Review, 72 (1), (pp. 32-56).