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The Black Plague
Category: Medieval Europe
Bring out Your Dead: The Black Death
The 14th century speaks of catastrophes. Some of them man-made, such as the Hundred Years' War, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Schism. There were two more or less natural disasters: the Great Famine and the Black Death. Each caused millions of deaths. Together they subjected the population of medieval Europe to tremendous strains, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubt traditional values. These events altered the path of European development in many areas.
The Black Death, the most severe epidemic in human history, ravaged Europe from 1347-1351. Although sources are a bit sketchy, it is thought that as many as 25 million people (one third of Europe's population at the time) were killed during this short period,. Thousands of people died each week. This plague killed entire families at a time and destroyed at least 1,000 villages. Once a family member had contracted the disease, the entire household was doomed to die. Parents abandoned their children, and parent-less children roamed the streets in search for food. Boccaccio said it best"... brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and often husband by wife: nay fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children..." If the people weren't dead they ran away in vain attempts to save themselves. Victims, delirious with pain, often lost their sanity. Life was in total chaos. The Black Death struck the European people with very little warning. Physicians and philosophers harmed rather than helped. They did not understand the causes of infectious diseases, or how they spread. It is no wonder that the people looked to priests and story-tellers for answers, rather than doctors. They did not have the ability to understand where this sudden cruel death had come from. And they did not know whether it would ever go away. The Plague was a disaster without a parallel, causing dramatic changes in medieval Europe, contributing to what is called the Crisis of the Fourteenth Century. The Black Death had many effects beyond its immediate symptoms. Not only did the Black Death take a devastating toll on human life, but it also played a major role in shaping European life in the years that followed.
What Is it
The Black Death is believed to consist mainly of bubonic plague, but pneumonic and septicaemic plagues were also thought to be present in the epidemic. The bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The workings of how the disease is transferred as described by modern science:
"The disease was transmitted primarily by fleas and rats. The stomachs of the fleas were infected with bacteria, Y. Pestis. The bacteria would block the "throat" of an infected flea so that no blood could reach its stomach, and it grew ravenous since it was starving to death. It would attempt to suck up blood from its victim, only to disgorge it back into its prey's bloodstreams. The blood it injected back, however, was now mixed with Y. Pestis. Infected fleas infected rats in this fashion, and the other fleas infesting those rats were soon infected by their host's blood. They then spread the disease to other rats, from which other fleas were infected, and so on. As their rodent hosts died out, the fleas migrated to the bodies of humans and infected them in the same fashion as they had the rats, and so the plague spread."
The symptoms were described as: convulsions, followed by a rise of temperature, with vomiting, headache, giddiness, intolerance to light, pain in the lower abdomen, back and limbs, sleeplessness, apathy and delirium. The body temperature varied greatly from 101º-107º but fell two or three degrees on the second or third day. The headache was described as splitting. The eyes became red, the tongue swelled and became covered with a white fur except on the tip. Later the tongue became dry and the fur turned yellow or brown. Constipation was the rule but there might be diarrhea - an even worse sign. The patient might die within 24 hours, but more commonly death occurred on the second or third day. Recovery was very rare. Historically, 60% of all those infected died of bubonic plague. In septicaemic plague, which is almost always fatal, the contagion enter the bloodstream directly. Like bubonic plague, the septicaemic variety is caused directly by flea bites. Pneumonic variety is the most deadly. It does not require flea bites to spread it and is usually fatal. When the bacilli reach the lungs, severe pneumonia occurs, and the bacilli are present in the water droplets spread by coughs and on clothing. Thus it is highly contagious, especially in crowded, poorly ventilated buildings, perhaps typical of medieval times.
Though the disease was originally called the "Great Mortality" and the "Great Pestilence," the name "Black Death" was eventually adopted. There is still some mystery as to why this name was adopted. It was not used by the people of the age and it's first recorded use was in a reference to the Swart Doden in Sweden in 1555. It appeared in Denmark about 50 years later and not in England until sometime after 1665. One plausible theory is that it was just a "to literal translation."Another theory is that "Black Death" not only referred to the sinister nature of the disease, but also to the black colouring of the victims' swollen glands. Still another is that the pestilence was named the Black Death because of discolouration of the skin and black tumours that occurred on the second day of contracting the plague. Because the name was adopted after the fact it is hard to credit explanations such as the appearance of a black comet and large numbers of people in morning cloths as viable reasons. The epidemic was also known as "the poor plague" because of the frequent first occurrence in the poorer parts of town. The wave that went through in 1361-1362 was sometimes called "The Children's Plague" because of the large mortality rate in the young. It was thought that the adults had developed immunities to it in previous out breaks.
History of the Black Death
The Black Death is usually associated with Europe and the period 1346-1350 but it neither began nor ended then. The earliest records of this pestilence are in China. In 46 AD an epidemic in Mongolia killed two-thirds of the population. In 312 northern and central China became a wasteland and in the province of Shensi, only one or two out of 100 taxpayers survived. In 468, 140,000 people died in the Chinese cities of Honan, Hopei, Shantung and others. During the next 900 years this pestilence traveled slowly throughout China and the Middle East though major outbreaks were not common.
Three pandemics (an epidemic that strikes literally everywhere within a short time) that spread across Europe have been recorded. The first beginning in Arabia, reaching Egypt in 542 and from there spreading through the Europe. Since the failure of Justinian's attempt to reconquer the lands of the Western Empire in 540-565, Europe had been relatively isolated, its population sparse, and intercommunication among its villages slight. It was as if the continent were divided up into a number of quarantine districts. Although many diseases were endemic (that is, they were always present), contagious diseases did not spread rapidly or easily. This pandemic stuck Europe was thought to have been the one brought to the West by Justinian's armies in 547. The third out break began in Yunnan, China in 1892 and spread to India by 1896, killing approximately 6 million people in India alone. The middle one is were the term Black death is usually associated. Setting the Stage
By the 14th century, the revival of commerce and trade and the growth of population had altered the situationin Europe. There was much more movement of people from place to place and European merchants travelled far afield into many more regions from which they could bring home both profitable wares and contagious diseases. The diet, housing, and clothing of the average men and women of Western Europe were relatively poor. Contrary to popular belief, medieval people actually liked to wash. They particularly enjoyed soaking in hot tubs and, as late as the mid- thirteenth century, most towns and even villages had public bath houses not unlike the Japanese do today. The conversion of forest into arable land had reduced the supply of wood, however, and the bath houses began to shut down because of the expense of heating the water. They tried using coal, but decided that burning coal gave off unhealthy fumes (They were right, by the way) and abandoned the use of the stuff. By the mid-fourteenth century, only the rich could afford to bathe during the cold Winter months, and most of the population was dirty most of the time, even if they did not enjoy being so
The Plague of 1346-1350 and beyond
The Black Death of the middle ages was really a series of plagues that ravaged Europe, erupting then dying back from 1346 until the 1700's. The mortality rate of the Black Death was horrendous. It is estimated in various parts of Europe at two-thirds to three-quarters of the population died. In England it was even higher during the first wave. Some countries were less seriously affected. Hecker, the author of Epidemics of the Middle Ages, calculates that a quarter of the population of Europe, or 25 million, died as a result of the Black Death. No clear reason for the spread of the epidemic in Europe in the middle ages was known. Strong suspicions were directed at sailors and traders involved in commercial activities resulting from the wide expansion of trade during this period. Those from Asia and the Middle East, where a history of plague dated back a thousand years, came under severe restrictions. Quarantines were implemented in many European ports but they were ineffective at preventing the epidemic.
Many accounts have been written on how it happened from contemporary to modern:
In the East, hard by Greater India in a certain province ,horrors and unheard of tempests overwhelmed the whole province in the space of three days. India was depopulated, Tartary ,Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia where covered with dead bodies. The Kurds fled to the mountain. In Caramania and Caesarea none where left alive...
No one knows exactly why, but in the late 1320s or early 1330s, bubonic plague broke out in China's Gobi desert. Spread by flea-infested rats, it didn't take long for the disease to reach Europe. In October of 1347, a Genoese ship fleet returning from the Black Sea -- a key trade link with China -- landed in Messina, Sicily. Most of those on board were already dead, and the ships were ordered out of harbor. But it was too late. The town was soon overcome with pestilence, and from there, the disease quickly spread north along trade routes -- through Italy and across the European continent. By the following spring, it had reached as far north as England, and within five years, it had killed 25 million people -- one-third of the European population.
The Black Death seems to have arisen somewhere in Asia and was brought to Europe from the Genoese trading station of Kaffa in the Crimea (in the Black Sea). The story goes that the Mongols were besieging Kaffa when a sickness broke out among their forces and compelled them to abandon the siege. As a parting shot, the Mongol commander loaded a few of the plague victims onto his catapults and hurled them into the town. Some of the merchants left Kaffa for Constantinople as soon as the Mongols had departed, and they carried the plague with them. It spread from Constantinople along the trade routes, causing tremendous mortality along the way.
Most major European centers felt the impact of the Black Death. It reached Sicily in 1346, Italy in early 1347, and towards the end of 1347 was in Marseilles, France. In 1348 it attacked Spain and spread throughout Germany and France. It arrived in London early in the same year and by 1349 was in Oxford and spread throughout England where it was present until 1359. Scotland was affected somewhat later.
The plague lasted in each area only about a year at a time , but a large percentage of a district's population would die during that period. People tried to protect themselves in many ways. One was carrying little bags filled with crushed herbs and flowers over their noses, but to little effect. It is a popular (perhaps incorrect) belief that this latter sequence is recalled in a children's game-song that most people know and have both played and sung:
Ring around the rosie,
A pocketful of posie,
All fall down!
According to this conception, the ring mentioned in the verse is a circular dance, and the plague was often portrayed as the danse macabre, in which a half-decomposed corpse was shown pulling an apparently healthy young man or woman into a ring of dancers that included man and women from all stations and dignities of life as well as corpses and skeletons. The rosie is believed to represent the victim with his or her face suffused with blood, and the posie is the supposedly prophylactic bag of herbs and flowers. Ashes, ashes is the sound of sneezing, and all fall down! is the signal to reenact the death which came so often in those times.
Life at the time
When the plague was raging, a person might be in full health one day and die miserably within 24 hours. And the price of everything was cheap, because of the fear of death; there were very few who took any care for their wealth, or for anything else. Things like a man could buy a horse for four shillings which before was worth forty. In the face of intense and immediate crisis, when an outbreak of plague implanted fear of imminent death, ordinary routines and customary restraints broke down. Its presence was often felt to be punishment of divine origin. This discredited any human effort to explain the mysteries of the world.
The physicians of the time were mystified and had little to offer either by way of explanation or cure. There where to schools of thought at the time. Some believe that it was transferred via person - to - person infection and those who believed it was a "poisonous cloud. Those who held this corruption of the atmosphere theory where by far the larger of the two groups. With Doctors unable to help people turned to other possibilities.
Many commoners believed in a legendary witch called the plague maiden. She was very beautiful and carried around a red scarf. It was said that she travelled from village to village, passing by each house waving her red scarf in front of a house's window or door. This house would become plague-infested. A legend told that a brave young man waited all night for the witch to arrive, and when she did he cut her hand off with a sword. It was said that he was the last to die of the plague in his village. In Switzerland and elsewhere it was a common belief that the Jews were poisoning the waters supplies. In some towns, all the Jews were rounded up and burned to death. Those Jews who had been lucky enough to be spared by the plague, found their death.
The most common belief was that the plague had been sent by God and that it was his punishment for the sins humankind had committed. Even innocent people, such as infants, had to suffer for the horrible crimes of others. The church was quick to condemn gambling, excessive drinking, the immodesty of women and the laziness of peasants. Guilt lay upon every man's heart. It was only natural that the first measures taken against the plague were the confession of all sins and prayer for forgiveness. There where many other remedies for the plague. Wealthier people would separate themselves by going to country estates. Many herbal and dietary remedies where tried. Some believed it was caused by excess and tried to live a "Balanced life" by being neither too happy or sad, by eating moderately etc. All these had little effect. In time rituals arose to discharge anxieties in socially acceptable ways but in the 14th century local panic often provoked bizarre behaviour.
Confession and prayer seemed to have little effect. Therefore, many believed it was a necessity for extreme measures A group of men decided to punish themselves in order to persuade God to forgive them. Each of these "flagellants" would carry a scourge, a wooden stick with a couple of leather tongs attached to one end. At the end of each tongs would be a sharp iron spike. about an inch in length. In many parts of Europe, flagellants aimed at propitiating God's wrath by beating each other bloody and attacking Jews, who were commonly accused of spreading the pestilence.
Symptoms of the plague
The flagellants would walk from town to town in long processions. Once they arrive in a village, town or city, they would proceed to a public place, such as a market place. Then they would begin to beat themselves which their scourges, hitting their backs until the blood flowed freely. Since they were always welcome by the townspeople, they encouraged them to join the self-beatings. It was common for people to suddenly die in this ceremony. After a few days, the flagellants would leave the town, usually in company of a few locals they had convinced to join. In this manner, their numbers steadily grew to 200 to 300, and sometimes even 1000 per procession. Undoubtedly, the harm they inflicted on themselves did not help, but instead they carried the plague with them where ever they went, only speeding up the process. The flagellants disdained all established authorities of church and state and their rituals were well nigh suicidal for the participants
Far more popular and acceptable was the upsurge of mysticism, aimed at achieving encounters with God in inexplicable, unpredictable, intense and purely personal ways. Since Conventional Christian practices had no ritual to propitiate the intense fears that the plague induced in threatened populations. Indeed clerics were often most severely affected. Many scholars have theorized that this diminution of church control, brought about by the plague death of clerics, scholars and teachers allowed local dialects to replace Latin as the official language and ultimately created the conditions that allowed Protestant religions to begin to flourish.
The plague also affected religion and art, which became very dark and preoccupied with death. Many people believed that the Black Death came from God's extreme anger at the world. A group of fanatics, called Flagellants, inflicted various punishments on themselves in an attempt to atone for the world's sins--and end the disease. An artistic style known as the danse macabre depicted skeletons and corpses mingling with the living during happy occasions. These actions reminded the people of the overriding sense of doom that shadowed their lives because of the Black Death.
The Black Death changed European history in many significant ways. Its fatal symptoms took many human lives, and its influence carried over into many areas of society. Economically, Europe flourished because depopulation allowed wealth for more people. But people suffered religiously because the disease brought out the darker side of life and made them question God. Europe would not be the same today without these changes, brought on through the devastation of the Black Plague.
The Black Plague was a contributing factor to many things that happened. As previously mentioned depopulation effected wages and labour availability. It has been said that it was a contributing factor in the rise of protestantism. Because the church was left with few educated clergy more abuses occurred. It has been linked to the down fall of feudalism. It was even proposed by one historian that it helped to weaken the position of the English lords in the Magna Carta. Which ever theories you subscribe to one thing is for certain: the world was never the same again.
The New Encyclopedia Brittanica. Robert McHenry, editor., vol 2. (Chicago; Brittanica Inc, 1992).
Collier's Encyclopedia. Lauren Bahr, Bernard Johnston, editors. (New York; P.F.Collier, Inc., 1993).
Lecture by Lynn Harry Nelson,Emeritus Professor of Medieval History,The University of Kansas
Philip Ziegler The Black Death (1969)
HG Koeningsberger Medieval Europe 400-1500 ( 1987)
C Warren Hollister Medieval Europe:A short history sixth edition (1990 )
Maurice Keen The Pelican History of Medieval Europe (1968)