- The Black Death was a plague that killed many people. It first showed up in Europe in October 1347.
- It came to Europe on 12 ships from the Black Sea.
- Authorities in Sicily ordered the fleet of death ships to leave the harbor, but it was too late.
- Over the next five years, more than 20 million people died from a disease that almost killed one-third of Europe’s population.
Plague is one of the most deadly diseases. It is second only to smallpox. It is a disease that comes from rodents and fleas, but it can also quickly go to people in close contact with each other.
The 14th century saw the worst plague in human history. The “Great Pestilence” or “Great Plague” was the term used by medieval people to describe it. Contemporary writers referred to it as the “Great Mortality.”
In the 1340s, rumors about the Great Pestilence were spreading before it hit Europe. It first started in China, then India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt.
It is believed that the plague started in Asia over 2000 years ago. People think it was spread by trading ships, but new research has shown that it could have existed in Europe as early as 3000 B.C.
The plague first arrived in Europe at port cities. It went by sea and land, following trade routes. The most common form was the bubonic plague.
The Black Plague was a very contagious disease. It spread quickly from person to person. Even if people were healthy in the morning, they might die at night. Some towns shut themselves down and sealed their gates so no one could come in or out.
First, the Black Death came to Messina. After that, it traveled to Marseilles in France and Tunis in North Africa. Then it went to Rome and Florence. These were places where people had lots of trade routes, so many people came there too. In the middle of 1348, the Black Death spread to Paris, Lyon, and London.
Some of the worst-hit regions were mountainous and remote areas, such as in Snowdonia in Wales or Mangona, a mountain village north of Florence. It is difficult to explain why the Black Death did not hurt Milan and Douai in Flanders. For some reason, they did not have a big problem with it.
Many people died when the Black Death came. The authorities didn’t know what to do with the bodies, so they just piled them up in carts and left them lying there. They told people to stay at home and not talk to anyone since they might get sick.
There weren’t enough regular gravesites for all the dead. So new plague cemeteries were opened.
Some people think that the Black Death spread at a rate of one mile or more each day. But other accounts say it traveled as fast as 8 miles every day. It is thought to have traveled 30 to 100 times faster than the bubonic plagues of the 20th century.
People used to think that the Black Death was a person. They would show him as the Grim Reaper who would come to take healthy people.
Rats and the Disease
In the fall of 1347, a ship came from Asia. It had people on board too, but also rats. The rats carried the Black Death and the bubonic plague with them.
The bubonic plague happened because of two groups of rats: those who were not vulnerable to the disease and those who were. When the second population dies, the fleas move on to other animals and then to people. They make people sick.
The rat carries the fleas that make people sick. The black rat was the original carrier of the plague-infected fleas thought responsible for the Black Death. The bacterium responsible for the Black Death is called Yersinia pestis. Other animals that can carry the plague are cats and dogs.
Symptoms of the Black Death
The plague affected everyone. It did not matter if you were rich or not, old or young, man or woman. The Black Death was very bad for all people in society.
The Black Death killed many knights, ladies, and merchants. It also killed many people in convents, friaries, and monasteries. Artisans lost their jobs because of this event.
The plague had three distinct strains, each of which resulted in a variety of symptoms.
The first one was the bubonic plague. This was a disease with symptoms like painful swellings. Buboes were found around the neck, armpits, and groin. They oozed pus or blood. The symptoms damaged your skin and tissue until you were covered in dark blotches.
Most people who got the plague died in about a week. This would kill 30-75% of those who had it.
The second one was the pneumonic plague, which was a type of airborne sickness. It attacked the lungs before it went to any other part of the body. This is why it was so deadly during the Black Death.
Finally, if you contracted the septicemic plague, you got sick because of your blood. The septicaemic plague caused dangerous bleeding in your body, which was almost always deadly. This was the deadliest form of plague in medieval times.
Medieval Doctors and Medicine
In the past, doctors wore a mask and clothes to protect them from the plague. The costume looked like a bird and had different scents.
The mask had openings for the eyes. Straps held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose, which was a type of respirator.
Doctors thought that if there were bad smells, they could remove them. They thought this would prevent the disease. They also thought herbs could remove the smell of evil and keep people from getting infected with the plague.
A wooden cane was used to point out problems and examine patients without disturbing them. A cane was also used to keep people away and remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them.
Many important developments in the history of medicine and health happened during times when there was the plague. Doctors learned how to do surgery, they learned about blood circulation, and they also figured out how to make public places safer from disease.
People thought they could get cured using unusual remedies. Here are some of them:
- God sent the plague to punish people who did bad things. If you do good things, then the plague will not be given to you.
- Mix tree resin, roots of white lilies, and human excrements and spread it on your skin.
- Bathing should not be avoided. Bathing with vinegar and rosewater is an option, or you can bathe in your own urine if you prefer.
- Quarantine for 40 days (quarantine derives from Latin for “forty”).
- To capture the pestilence, place a live hen near the sores. Drink two glasses of your own urine twice a day to draw out the disease.
- Make an emerald tea by grinding the gem. Sip it in wine.
- Drink a hot drink of eggs shells, some flowers, and treacle. Do it every day.
Many people left the city. They couldn’t escape the disease. People were desperate to save themselves, so they left their sick relatives in the city.
This disease also affected sheep. A lot of them died. This caused a European wool shortage.
The best estimates are that at least 25 million people died in Europe from 1347 to 1352. This is about 40% of the population (some estimates say 60%).
Half the people in Paris who lived there died. In Italy, Florence’s population was reduced from 120,000 people to 50,000. The plague was a disaster that is hard to find in recorded history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover after the plague.
The plague never ended. It came back years later. But the people in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa were able to slow its spread.
They put sailors in isolation until they were sure that they did not have the disease. They also created social distancing by keeping people apart to slow down the spread of the disease. The sailors were held on their ships for 30 days, and this was later increased to 40 days or a quarantine.
The plague made the system of serfdom collapse. There were fewer laborers, so people who still had their jobs could charge more for their work. There was more land, food, and money to go around.
Women gained property rights. Laws varied depending on the region, but in some parts of England, women who had lost husbands could keep their land for a certain period until they remarried or remarried and still keep the property.
People who were descendants of people who survived the plague were more likely to live to their 50s or beyond. That was because their ancestors had some genetic advantage that allowed them to survive the plague.
The Great Plague of London happened in 1665. It was the last major plague in England. In the 17th century, the plague also disappeared from Spain and Germany. The last major plague epidemic happened in Marseilles, France, from 1720-1721.
Modern sanitation and public-health practices have significantly reduced the number of people who get the disease, but it is still around. Antibiotics can be used to kill the Black Death, but there are still about 1,000 to 3,000 cases every year, according to the WHO (World Health Organization).