The Black Death

Figure 1: Dead bodies being carried into a wagon after being piled up on the side of the street

The Black Death, also referred to as the Black Plague was a deadly disease that spread throughout Europe and the surrounding countries in the 14th century AD, having its first major outbreak between the year 1347 and 1351. During this time, nearly one-third of the European population lost their lives to a plague caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that causes health complications and half of the time, leads to death. The plague was transmitted to humans through a bite from a flea, which came from an infected rodent. These rodents came from ports and traveled with ships, spreading the disease to different parts of Europe.

The plague: what was it?
The Black Plague resulted from a bubonic plague, or the bacterium Yersinia pestis. There are three types of plagues: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. Bubonic plagues are the most common and are carried by animals with the infectious disease, and transferred to people through bites. After coming into contact with the plague, symptoms appear two to six days later. Symptoms include: shivering, vomiting, headache, intolerance to light, back and limb pain, the inability to sleep, indifference, hallucination, and more. Swollen lymph nodes and other boils found in the armpits and the groin are also prominent characteristics of the bubonic plague. Those with the plague can expect to have a fever and feel exhausted.
Figure 2: Map of the affected areas

Where did it occur?
The Black Death was not the only occurence of the bubonic plague. Some countries that were affected by the same epidemic were: Spain, Sicily, Italy, North Africa, England, France, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltic lands. The country with the highest mortality rate was England, who lost nearly half of the population due to the bubonic plague.

Why did it occur?
During the 14th century, people were not very hygienic. Rats would crawl onto ships constantly and no one would inspect the ships or try to kill the rodents. Living in such unsanitary conditions is a breeding ground for fleas and parasites. These parasites latched onto the rats, infecting them, and then moving to another host, the human body. Many did not understand how the disease was being spread and tried to avoid dead bodies or infected people, believing that somehow it could be spread through contact or that the plague was airborne. Overall, it was ignorance that left people ill prepared to prevent contacting a deadly plague.

What was the cure?
Unfortunately, during the 14th century, there were many cases of the plague and those who had been infected knew that death was near. Those infected were avoided, and due to the lack of a cure, dead bodies accumulated on the streets. As villages and towns were infected, those living in them slowly died and those villages were wiped out. Nowadays, antibiotics are used to treat any such symptoms of a plague, and there are nearly no deaths for those who take the proper medication, but during the 1300-1400 time period, there were no known cures for plagues.

The Social Effects of the Plague:
Europe was surely never the same after losing such a large portion of the population to a malicious plague. Carried by rodents and transmitted by fleas, the black plague affected the social behaviors and circumstances of the Europeans. European families began to panic in the face of danger, the Catholic Church was weak during the time it was needed most, and the economy took a fall, only to rise from its ashes after the plague.

The Breakdown of Families:
With poor hygiene and the close quarters of those in European cities, families were ravaged left and right, and either some or all were infected with the black plague. In sight of the spreading of this disease, many families broke apart to increase their chances of survival. While some were selfish and took on the “every man for himself” mentality and abandoned their families to seek a safer location, others left their families to prevent the spreading in the event that they were infected. Either way, not many families were left together and not many families that did decide to stay together survived very long. If families were infected due to poor hygiene, those surrounding them were probably in the same situation.

The Breakdown of the Catholic Church:
With the plague taking over Europe, those in the Catholic Church were at a loss for words. The people needed a place to feel safe, a God to believe in, but the Church was unwilling to provide that security. Priests were afraid that they were next, and the only response they could muster to the question “why?” was that it was God’s will. This turned many against the Church and God. If no one was there for them and if their creator brought this plague about them, then there was no more hope left. The plague caused the Catholic Church to fall apart, and provided the Protestant Reformation to take place after the plague.

Economic Crisis:
With the death of millions of Europeans, there were not many left alive to work, and those who were still alive were unwilling to wait until death came knocking on their door. With the lords, serfs, farmers, cobblers, tailors, and any others disease ridden or dead, there was no one to look after properties or tend to the agriculture to provide food and stimulate the economy. With so many gone, feudalism began to dissipate, and entrepreneurial capitol began to rise when the plague was gone and had stopped ravaging Europe. This gave the Europeans a fresh start, because since the plague had wiped out a third of the population, there were many occupational needs and those willing to fill those positions were able to further their careers and incomes.

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