How The Black Death Helped Make Us All Healthier

The Black Death of the 14th century remains one of the most notorious and deadly outbreaks ever. Per History, over 20 million people were killed as it rampaged through Europe on a reign of terror that lasted around five years.

Proving that there's always a silver lining to be found somewhere, though, this outbreak of the bubonic plague actually resulted in some positive changes to our health (after wiping out close to one-third of Europe's population at the time).

As Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, bubonic plague remains a threat today (albeit a rare one), and is characterized by distinctive swellings in the lymph nodes (buboes). It can — and must — be treated with antibiotics, but the society stricken by the Black Death did not have access to such things. American Scientist's estimates are even higher than those of History and allege a horrific total of 75 to 200 million people were killed by the  14th-century pandemic — and that 72% to 100% of those who are infected by the bubonic plague will die without treatment. This was devastation on an almost inconceivable scale, and needless to say, society would never be the same again.

The workers hit back

Sharon DeWitte, a University of South Carolina anthropologist, conducted a study of the remains of plague victims, in an effort to advance our understanding of the far-reaching consequences of pandemics. The Black Death, she reported (via American Scientist), heralded "the beginning or, at the very least, an acceleration of a huge economic and sociological shift in Europe." The feudal system had been devastated — from the highest to the lowest on society's rungs — but the lack of workers resulted in greater demand for and better treatment of them. Manual workers, then, began to be able to make livings of their own, and so were better fed.

DeWitte further suggests that the Black Death, in tragically killing millions who were most susceptible to it, actually better prepared future generations for further outbreaks. Later generations, her research suggests, tended to live longer, perhaps benefiting from strengthened immune systems, better diets, and more, thanks to ancestors who survived the Black Death.

Further, per the BBC, ordinary working people saw their worth. They were increasingly able to travel, find more land, and secure higher wages. This resulted in the birth of the yeoman farmer, peasant workers who held a significant portion of now-very-cheap land. This was a small group, but an incredibly significant one that indicated a huge and crucial shift towards better lives and conditions for ordinary people. Without the Black Death, devastating as it was, it's tough to say when such changes may have happened.