According to Norman Cantor in his book In the Wake of the Plague, the Black Plague that hit Europe in the middle of the 14th century (1348-1349) was the “greatest biomedical disaster in European history”23, killing 30 to 50 percent of the population in England. Waves of plague would follow to the end of the 14th century. The sociological impact of the plague is impressive: So many deaths led to de facto land reform. Peasants, newly empowered, gained access to land, and with it, capital. In religion, there was an awakening, attacking the corruption and secular power of the church, and with it, questioning the aristocracy and class society. Led by John Wycliffe, the Lollards called for the publication of bibles in vernacular languages, and allowed women as preachers and in leadership roles. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales excoriates the corruption of the Church, portraying commoners and women with wit, power, and intelligent voices.
Women, who seem to miraculously survive the plague, were persecuted as witches, beginning centuries of abuse for any woman who speaks truth to power. But women will survive in greater numbers24. With the plague killing so many men, land and property fell into the possession of the sole woman left to inherit, who became legal heir to the estate and gained legal protection for this property. Among the working class, women took more prominent roles in commerce, with some guilds such as brewing and textiles becoming women-dominated. Cantor notes that “the Black Death was a boon to women of the gentry. Their superior survival rate brought enhanced wealth, independence, and position local society”25. Their voices also become more powerful in literature.