The years 1347 to 1350 were the peak of the Bubonic Plague phenomenon. Its impact on Europe's population in those years were so great that the exact death toll varied. Some sources claimed that one European out of four fell victim to this pestilence, while others say that half of Europe died off.

In this alternate scenario, the Black Death was even more severe to the population of Europe. Some would say that one European out of three survived the pestilence while others would say it was one out of four.

With an increased severity in the plague, how would this affect the culture, society and history of Europe? Could a rat flea have still carried such a disease, or would such damage come from a different species of invertebrate better capable of inflicting such virulence?

  • $\begingroup$ You have two questions here the first might be considered too broad, but I think you need to at least separate them. Effect on culture etc. and the actual virulence. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Jan 16, 2016 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ They are interrelated. $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2016 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ Just to comment that unless you are specifying yersinia pestis it's not significant whether the vector is fleas or some other creature or direct person to person infection. If a plague can grow exponentially most people will be exposed and it's just a matter of percentages naturally immune, surviving infection, and dying. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jan 16, 2016 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ @nigel222 Could Yesinia be that virulent? $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2016 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson posits just this scenario -- a very high death toll from the bubonic plague -- in his novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Europe is re-populated by Muslim explorers, the indigenous peoples of the Americas form a league to resist Chinese invaders, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Wingman4l7
    Jan 17, 2016 at 2:09

2 Answers 2


The real life effects of the Black Death on European culture was to essentially undermine Feudalism. With the estimated death rate of 30%, the labour pool was heavily depleted, so wages rose and it became impossible to hold peasants on the land when remunerative labour was so attractive.

With a much higher death rate, large areas of cultivated land would be abandoned due to lack of workers, and large urban centres would become much smaller. Political and social changes might become quicker inside the cities (as they are smaller and oligarchies would be less rigid), but there would be fewer opportunities for ideas to spread since there would be less trade and therefore less travel.

Militarily, there would be fewer people available either as professional fighting men or levies, which would make it harder to carry out wars or protect your territory (especially against outside invaders like the Huns or Ottomans). One possible effect would be to advance the "Infantry Revolution" in order to be able to field the largest numbers of effective fighting men. (The Infantry Revolution was the development of weapons and tactics which could be quickly mastered by untrained men and allowed them to effectively take the field against traditional, highly trained fighting men. Pikes, crossbows and pole arms are some examples of weapons that allowed the Infantry Revolution to take place).

Another cotrafactual is the lack of manpower would make it more difficult to carry out trade in the Middle East, and the Sarecens would probably take the opportunity to cut the end of the Silk Road, blocking European trade. This would provide extra impetus for the Europeans to begin sailing expeditions to bypass the Middle East. Perhaps ironically, the Vikings were still in Greenland at the time (the late 1300's are still during the European Warm Period) so Europeans will discover North America permanently in the late 1300's rather than the late 1400's, and most likely it will be Northern Europeans discovering modern day Labrador rather than the Spanish discovering the Caribbean. There are so many variables that it is impossible to say how this would affect the settlement of the Americas, but the initial conditions will be so different (many of the European nations that exist in the 1300's are radically different in OTL in the 1500's) that it is unlikely the current nations of the Americas would arise. Once again, the process will be slowed by the smaller manpower base, although there might be a "baby boom" in the new lands as people come and take what they see as "free" land.


Part of it will depend on the pattern, not just the fraction killed but the variance. Even with the existing time period in some cases whole villages vanished.

With a higher death rate, more villages will vanish. I suspect that mortality rates were higher in cities than in the country side. (Read somewhere that until a century ago, cities were net population sinks, subsidized by immigration from the surrounding countryside.) So a higher death rate will mean that large towns and cities will become more disfunctional.

The overall effect would be the collapse of anything like government.

Travel at the time was already hazardous. Take out 2/3 of the road side inns and more travelers spend far more nights under the trees. With governmental collapse, highwaymen have more freedom to act. Travel more than ever becomes a matter for armed caravans, and is no longer a family affair.

With fewer towns, there is less reason for such caravans to travel. Only villages that are on the path between surviving larger towns will see the caravans.

The tradition of the medieval fairs would vanish.

Each village or town has to become far more self dependent. Prices of anything that cannot be made locally skyrocket. Wooden and stone tools replace metal.

Language languishes. (couldn't resist) No, not languishes, but starts to diverge. Much of Europe becomes like Prussia -- a raft of tiny kingdoms, essentially city states: You could rule a radius 1 armed horseman's day's travel.

The rise of nations is delayed by some {insert plausible time here}

Population that survived the plague might consolidate into larger villages, leaving even larger pockets of empty space between.

Because it would be semi random, there would be paths and streaks of people left. You can model this if you like with a large hexagonal grid. There is a known (but I can't cite references) about the distribution of cities, market towns, villages and hamlets based on travel effort costs. It's your typical 80/20 rule all the way up. E.g: 80% of the people live in hamlets. Of the remainging 20% 80% (16% of the total) live in villages, ... hamlets are about a day's round trip apart. In a one dimensional form you get something like

h-v-h-h-M-h-h-v-h-C-h-v-h-h-M-h-h-v-h.... With of course major perturbations: Any place that roman roads cross will become at least a market town. Ditto a bridge or ford over a river.

After the big die off, you will have connected lumps of varying size and shape. Some under some critical size will either die off and/or lose population to immigration to successful towns.

For story building, taking one such medium to large collection you can have fun with internal conflicts and struggles for dominance both internally and externally.

Don't forget the monasteries. In many cases these were located at the end of nowhere, and they may have tended to better survive the plague, due to isolation, and generally better health.

As a thread: Due to the depopulation, there may be exhortations to have children. The church (at least locally) may abandon the requirement of celibacy in the clergy.

Which brings up another issue: Bishoprics would have been isolated. Re-establishing contact with the papacy could prove interesting.

Commerce would redevelop along rivers first -- a much smaller group can be defensively independent on a river, and the cost per ton mile is lower.


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