Imagine an illness so powerful that people who go to bed healthy do not live until dawn. It kills most of the people exposed to it, depending on the particular strain. Imagine a plague that kills an estimated 35% of the entire population of Europe in a matter of three short years. Now imagine that you are living in the Late Middle Ages (1300-1450), modern medicine had not developed yet, and modern scientific processes explaining where the disease comes from and how it is transmitted is more than 400 years in the future. This is the situation in which the people of Europe found themselves in the mid-1300s, as the plague swept through Europe.
Bubonic plague, also known as Black Death or The Plague, was a deadly disease introduced to Europe by ships carrying rats infected with diseased fleas. There are few distinct forms of the plague, but bubonic was the most commonly seen and therefore lent its name to the epidemic as a whole. The name itself comes from the swelling and blackening of the lymph glands of the groin, armpits, or neck of the infected individual. These black lumps were known as buboes.
The infected person might also carry the disease in the bloodstream, resulting in the septicemic version of the plague. These forms of the illness were fatal most of the time. The third subtype of the plague, pneumonic, was the most deadly, taking the lives of nine of ten infected individuals. The illness created boils, which could ooze pus and blood, and also caused a fever, chills, vomiting, general malaise, or respiratory ills manifested through coughing and sneezing. Physical contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids could also pass on the disease.
From late 1347 until 1350, the Black Death ravaged Europe. It was most active in the spring, summer, and fall months and less active in the cold winter months, but all individuals were at risk of infection. The plague took the lives of more than half of the inhabitants of some cities. Peasants were found dead along roadsides, and ships would wash ashore after their crews perished at sea. Entire streets or families would succumb to the illness seemingly overnight.
Map 1. Spread of the Black Death from 1347-1350. (Sayre, 2008)
Historical records from the time are not complete, so determining an exact number of victims is impossible. However, many estimates put the death toll at or above 25% of the European population during the height of the plague years alone. All of Europe was impacted. No one could be assured of being spared. Much of this was due to the fact that people did not know how the disease was spreading. They did not take basic precautions that would be encouraged in modern times to stop or slow the spread of disease.
Fig. 1 Pages with Three Living (left) and Three Dead (right), from the Psalter and Book of Hours of Bonne of Luxemburg. ca. before 1349 (Sayer, 2008)
The Black Death was carried by rats and fleas and transmitted by the bites of these animals. Although rats and fleas are not part of modern daily life for most individuals, in the fourteenth century, these creatures were part of day-to-day existence. Records show that there had been rumors of a plague sweeping through areas in the east in the years before it came to the European continent, but relatively little attention was paid to the tales.
It is widely believed the disease first appeared in Europe when ships coming from trading ports on the Black Sea returned to Genoa, Italy in 1347. Fleas, once their rat hosts died, would feed on other nearby mammals. In the case of rats on ships, the sailors became the victims. As the rats and their fleas literally jumped ship in Genoa, the plague began a reign of terror and continued throughout Europe for many years to come.
The people of Europe did not know how disease was spread or what precautions to take to overcome the diseases effects. Isolating oneself from the general public or large gatherings during times of disease was also an unknown practice, as it relates to reducing one’s exposure to disease. Likewise, isolating the ill from the well, and ensuring that the well did not come into contact with bodily fluids of the ill were not common practices. The treatment of the dead and the handling of corpses were also different from what is done in modern practice. The lack of knowledge about how the disease was transmitted and what could be done to slow or stop the spread contributed to the great number of deaths.
The impacts of the Black Death were many and varied. The initial decimation resulted in a decrease in the foods available at the market. It is also reported that animals were likely affected by the plague. Some reports note entire flocks of dead sheep in the fields. However, with fewer people for whom food needed to be produced, this temporary decrease was soon made up for as the remaining population took over the farmland of those who had perished.
Fig. 2 Black Death did not spear those it across, all were susceptible. (Sayre, 2008)
Economically the Black Death would hurt the nobles the most. Nobles were accustomed to collecting significant amounts of dues either in the form of crops or cash payments but eventually there were fewer serfs on whom they could depend for on ‘payments’. This decreased their power to demand payment for the privilege of working the nobles’ lands. Eventually, serfdom was replaced by a system in which the landowners paid those who worked their lands. The sociopolitical structure existing prior to the plague underwent significant changes.
Another effect of the Black Death was an increase in university enrollments at institutions where medicine was a field of study. Students who had seen the effects of the plague and survived brought with them new ideas about how diseases could spread or how they might be treated. At this time, there was also a push for the translation of major medical texts into vernacular languages from the more traditional Greek or Latin presentations.
The late Middle Ages were a time of change in every sense of the word and would give way to the Renaissance. Black Death, in essence, helped fuel much of the social, political and economic changes seen in later years. In many towns traditional burial services were not preformed and the dead were buried in mass graves. “By 1350, all of Europe, with the exception of a few territories far from traditional trade routes, was divested by the disease.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 200) As the push for better understanding about the natural world was thriving in the universities, the Middle Ages as the “age of faith” was giving way to “an ages of intellectual exploration”. (Sayre, 2013, p. 207) During this time humanist, individual interested in the recovery, study, and spread of art and literature of Greece and Rome, would emerge. These individuals would start to rebuild and revolutionize the Western course of history and change social behaviors to the greatest degree ever seen in the West.
Sayre, H.M.(2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd. ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.