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The Black Death was spread across Europe by rats. Source: rawinfoto / Adobe Stock.

Culling the World: The Catastrophic Conquests of the Black Death

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Medieval history is seldom kind. The decades and centuries slumbered onwards, each one bringing its own share of wars, crime, poverty...and disease. Happiness and prosperity were rare and almost unknown for the lower classes, and the common man’s future looked about as bright as a bottom of a barrel. And to make things worse, the 14th century brought a devastating disease, a vermin-borne plague that swept from the windswept steppes and trade routes of the East, a microscopic death that rode triumphantly on the backs of rats.

This striking plague, known as the Pestilence, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death , ravaged Europe from roughly 1347 to 1351, harvesting around 200 million lives in one fell swoop. From 30-60% of the entire European population was dead, taken away by the invisible hand of an unknown and merciless illness. How did Europe recover?

How did medieval society deal with this uncompromising illness, in a time when medicine was crude, superstitious, and not even in its infancy? Today we are painting a truly macabre and unsettling picture, as we recount the grim tale of the Black Death.

The Asian Origins of the Black Death

The Black Death is widely regarded as one of the most debilitating, disastrous, and catastrophic pandemics of recent human history. The sheer magnitude of this pestilence, and the inability of the populations of Eurasia to resist its merciless onslaught, meant that millions upon millions perished powerlessly.

The disease took both the rich and the poor alike, the nobles and the beggars all dying in the same, violent manner. For death does not differentiate between creed and wealth and power. The scythe mows down all.

It is believed that the Black Death on the whole was a bubonic plague, one of the three types of highly infectious diseases known simply as a plague . It is caused by the bacteria called Yersinia pestis . The bubonic plague was and is mostly spread by fleas.

The bacteria blocks the flea’s digestive tract and when they try to feed on a host (i.e. a rat) they are forced to regurgitate, spreading the disease further. These tiny infected insects thus infect small animals and rodents, mostly rats, who can further spread the disease through human populations, either via their bite or simply by contaminating food stores and the like. The plague can also be acquired simply from the exposure to the bodily fluid that comes from decomposition of plague afflicted creatures, so even death is sufficient to spread the illness.

Oriental rat flea infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium which appears as a dark mass in the gut. (7mike5000 / Public Domain)

Oriental rat flea infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium which appears as a dark mass in the gut. (7mike5000 / Public Domain )

Once in the bloodstream, this malignant bacteria travels through the lymphatic vessels and goes to certain lymph nodes, causing them to swell. This swelling is the first and most characteristic symptom of the plague. These are known as buboes and give this pestilence its name - bubonic plague.

Seven days after being affected, a person develops severe flu-like symptoms. Swelling occurs at the groin, the armpits, and neck. High fever follows, as well as chills and ill feelings.

Seizures occur and gangrene sets in on the fingers, toes, lips, and nose. As the illness matures, the person is victim to continual blood vomiting, decomposition of the skin, necrotic swollen bulbs on the body, and eventual gruesome death.

But this plague that decimated Europe originated somewhere much further - Asia. Modern scholars mostly agree that the Black Plague originated somewhere in the area of China and Mongolia. During that period, the Mongols waged war on China, causing widespread economic decline and poverty. This in turn started a widespread famine, from which a plague was born.

It is believed that the Yersinia pestis and the fleas that carried it, via the rats, was transported from that region through the major trading route of the Silk Road , infecting all nations along the way. It eventually reached Crimea, where the rats traveled to mainland Europe via trading ships.

Most notably, a ship of Genoese traders that fled the Crimean port of Kaffa in 1347, sailed for Sicily and by the time they reached their destination, they were fully afflicted by the plague. The ship was denied entrance and expelled, but it was too late. The plague spread through Italy, from Genoa and Venice, all the way to Pisa.

In the meantime, the ships that were denied docking due to the plague sought other destinations and arrived at Marseille. From there, the rats and with them the plague, successfully spread out through Europe, reaching Spain and Portugal, and soon after, England. From there it spread all over northern Europe.

In 1349 a single ship arrived in a Norwegian port, introducing death. From there it spread through Scandinavia and Germany, and eventually it reached northwest Russia. It also entered Egypt through the Nile. Its population was nearly halved.

Spread of the Black Death in Europe and the Near East from 1346 to 1353. (Flappiefh / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Life Extinguished – Europe Brought to its Knees

The plague spread like wildfire. The then-primitive medieval medicine knew nothing of such magnitude and could in no way pinpoint the source. The royalty and the clergy were quick to blame the heavens, and they all wanted to quarantine the sick people.

They simply overlooked the true source of the disease, which were rats – they spread freely from port to port, from fishing village to fishing village, and from there further and further inland. Entire villages were depopulated and Europe’s major towns were almost halved in their population. In fact, the death tolls were so high and so rapid that the dead were often left lying where they perished, without sufficient workforce to bury them.

In Italy, major towns such as Florence had between 45-75% loss of population. Venice, Pisa, and Rome were also struck with huge losses. In France, mainly in Provence and Normandy, around 60% decrease in populations were recorded. Hamburg and Bremen in Germany suffered as much as 70% of losses.

And England suffered incredibly, as its total population fell from 7 million before the plague, to just 2 million some 50 years after. Death tolls were high in Asia as well, especially in ground zero China. Its losses were numbered in the millions, and the total Chinese population fell from 125 million in 1200 to just 65 million in late 1300’s.

The poor classes suffered the most. Life in the urban centers in the 1300’s was far from idyllic. The society was mostly divided in three major classes, the highest being the nobility, the craftsmen and tradesmen below them, and the serfs at the lowest rung.

Life in a city was unhygienic - to put it mildly. Towns were notorious for their open sewage and rampant diseases. Feces were dropped from windows and flowed freely down the streets. Pigs, dogs, and rats roamed freely and died freely – often remaining on the street.

The open sewage contaminated the water and caused further health hazards. In England, laws were made to curb these unsanitary conditions, but were mostly in vain. A law was passed in 14th century London, that proclaimed that all those who were dumping their feces onto the street below were required to shout: “Look out below!” three times before tossing the waste.

Furthermore, medicine was in its most primitive state and was thoroughly unprepared for a disease on the scale of the Black Plague. All these conditions combined caused the rampant spread of the Black Death and a high number of deaths. It is interesting that isolated rural communities that lived in high mountains were almost not affected or suffered only minor losses.

“Just Put a Frog On It and It Should Be Fine”

Some of the iconic figures that connect us to the infamous pestilence, were the so-called plague doctors. Known for their unique appearance, these ‘doctors’ were far from successful. In fact, they weren’t successful at all, as they rarely or never cured anyone who was struck with the bubonic plague.

Many of them weren’t doctors at all, but rather ‘jumped on the wagon’ in order to exploit the diseased. These plague doctors were hired by city officials in hopes of treating the sick – both the poor and the rich alike. But their usual methods of treatment were not too suited for treating a plague.

Their usual routine involved bloodletting and the placing of leeches and frogs on to the buboes – the inflamed lymph nodes. It was thought that this would ‘rebalance the humors’ in a person’s body. Unsurprisingly, the method was not a success.

A bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with the Black Death. (CDC / Public Domain)

A bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with the Black Death. (CDC / Public Domain )

But even funnier than their medicinal methods were their outfits. Later on, these plague doctors developed an outfit that was designed to protect them from the plague. At the time, it was believed that diseases were brought by ‘bad air’ and their suits were designed with that in mind.

Doctors wore long overcoats, made from thick material, that reached the floor. Long leather gloves and boots were a must, as well as a wide brimmed hat. They carried long canes, which were used to keep people at bay and to point out certain details on a body without the need to get close.

But the most iconic part of the outfit was the leather mask. This was also the chief protective measure. It fully enclosed the face and had two eye holes protected with glass.

In the front it had a large and long beak, which gave them the look of a vulture. This beak was stuffed with aromatic herbs, such as lavender, roses, mint, laudanum, cloves, myrrh, and camphor. Sometimes it held a sponge soaked in vinegar. Either way it served as a primitive respirator.

A plague doctor in his typical apparel. ( channarongsds / Adobe Stock)

The Black Death Seemed Never-Ending

The Black Plague of the 14th century eventually faded significantly by the 1350’s, but it wasn’t entirely gone. The main reason for its ‘end’ is the fact that such diseases have a certain ‘lifespan’.

This is mostly due to the severity of the disease. The pathogen that needs victims to reproduce eventually runs out of victims, as it is simply too deadly. It eventually evolved into a less deadly virus.

But the plague epidemics were not over. From that period onwards, bouts of plague were a constant occurrence in Europe, albeit on a much smaller scale. Roughly every 20 years it returned, all the way up to the 19th century.

London was one of the towns that was severely afflicted by these recurring bouts of plague, which is generally known as the ‘Second Pandemic’. Between 1360 and 1363, roughly 10 years after the Black Death, London again suffered a plague, which killed 20% of its inhabitants. Just six years later, in 1369, 15% of London’s population died.

The next major suffering was in 1665 and 1666, with the arrival of the Great Plague of London, which killed over 100,000 people – 25% of the London population of that time. It was also an indirect precursor to the Great Fire of London of 1666 , which completely ravaged the city and prolonged the suffering of the plague survivors.

Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague of London. The last major outbreak of the Black Death in England. (7mike5000 / Public Domain)

Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague of London. The last major outbreak of the Black Death in England. (7mike5000 / Public Domain )

From 1596 to 1602, a major outbreak of plague returned to Spain, once again entering through the ports. It ravaged Madrid and Castile and claimed roughly 700,000 lives in Spain. The plague returned to Spain not too long after this, from 1646 to 1652, this time called the Great Plague of Seville.

It swept through Valencia, Malaga, Seville, Aragon, and Catalonia, claiming 500,000 lives. It returned roughly 25 years later, sweeping through Spain for nine years from 1676 to 1685, claiming 250,000 lives.

Collectively, the plagues of the entire 17th century were crippling for Spain, whose population didn’t increase for roughly a century. In central Europe, it was Vienna that suffered, being hit with the Great Plague of 1679, which claimed roughly 76,000 of its citizens. In the 1700’s, The Great Plague of Marseille swept through this region of France and claimed 100,000 lives.

Contemporary engraving of Marseille during the Great Plague in 1720. (Rvalette / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Black Death was the Wrath of Nature

The Black Death was considered as the Wrath of God by those that suffered it. But it was far from it – it was the Wrath of Nature. A deadly bacteria that spread rapidly and could thrive in the unsanitary conditions of the Middle Ages .

It was a wakeup call, a great culling that reminded the victims that hygiene does matter. The sheer deadliness and the threat it posed caused the people of Europe and the rest of the world to seek better hygiene, better medicine, and better understanding of the world around them. But the Pestilence was never forgotten – it rocked the foundations of Europe and claimed victims in numbers that are hard to imagine.

Top image: The Black Death was spread across Europe by rats. Source: rawinfoto / Adobe Stock.

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Byrne, J. 2012. Encyclopedia of the Black Death . ABC-Clio.

Cantor, N. 2001. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made . The Free Press.

Gottfried, R. 1983. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster Medieval Europe . The Free Press.

Salzberg, S. 2011. The Black Death is dead (thanks to evolution) . Forbes. [Online] Available at:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2011/09/02/the-black-death-is-dead-thanks-to-evolution/#1df9f97f33d2

Zahler, D. 2009. The Black Death (Pivotal Moments in History). Twenty-First Century Books.

Comments

A study of 17th century graveyards in Britain designed to investigate bone structure in the feet of Celts and Saxons produced a footnote of interest. They found that the occurance of an occipital bun started rising around 1400 and rose to 20% of the population by 1700. Then it rapidly declined to extinct by 1800. I consider the external force that did this was the black death. Why it disappeared in one century I have no idea. The article was ten years old, I thought I would see many follow-ups on the subject of this bun, but never have. I wanted to see more about why Saxon feet and legs evolved so differently than the rest of humanity, but nothing, not one article in ten years. I think about it every time I see “Black Death".

 

dave

Scary. This bacteria is still with us. Thank God for penicillin. Hope it doesn't become resistant

An excellent article and extremely well-written.  Thank you.

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