Black death or black plague – short facts

Black Death or Black Plague (latin: mors atra) is the name for one of the most pandemics in the history. A highly infectious disease (probably plague) that occurred during the second pandemic in 1348. The first, or Justinian, pandemic, that started in 543 may not have reached the British Isles, but the second is regarded by historian George Macaulay Trevelyan as the greatest single cause of social upheaval in history. Originating in China, the disease was carried to Europe by Italian merchants who, besieged by the Tatars in the Crimea, acquired the disease from their besiegers and disseminated it on escaping to Genoa. It was recognized at Weymouth in August 1348, and before waning in the winter of 1349 had reduced the population of England by a third. The term Black Death came from one of its most visible symptoms: the hemorrhage spots that accumulated in the body turned dark after death. As a result, the disease was believed to have connections and associations with evil supernatural powers and forces.

Apart from being highly contagious, the disease manifested itself quickly. Often death occurred within three days, yet in many cases it happened in a 24-hour period. Its sudden onset and its high level contagiousness made people paranoid and afraid of each other; many also believed that evil dark powers had been at work.

Deaths in Europe attributed to this disease numbered circa 24 millions while numbers rising if we thinking about of the wider aspect of infected territory. Just in small period between 1346-1353 this Plague cause the death up to 200 million people in Europe and Eurasia. Further outbreaks of the disease ranged from restricted episodes in major cities (e.g. London in 1433) to widespread epidemics, in 1361, 1368, 1375, 1390, 1406 and other years, recurring with varying frequency to the end of the 17th century, after which sporadic disease clusters became the pattern. According to Robert S. Gottfried in 1349 all of the Islamic countries had been hit by the disease. The city of Tunis lost 1,000 people each day.

The Bills of Mortality (1532) are attributed to awareness of a need for closer observation of the epidemics. Despite inherent defects in the Bills, which were reports of deaths in various localities, they were brilliantly used by the London haberdasher John Graunt (1620-74) in his Observations on the Bills of Mortality, to found the science of vital statistics. The 1665 epidemic was graphically recorded by the diarist Samuel Pepys and was reconstructed by Daniel Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year (1722). The reduction in population led to labour shortages and unprecedented economic changes, which precipitated social unrest. Black Death had a drastic impact on the European population, irreversibly altering the social structure and population of Europe. People did not know where the disease came from or how to stop it. In seeking the cause, many believed that the Black Death was God’s punishment.

Gangrene is one of the manifestations of plague
Gangrene is one of the manifestations of plague.

Medieval streets and thoroughfares that had been open sewers before and during the plague were cleaned up to prevent further outbreaks. The prestige of the Catholic church was weakened, because bishops and priests could offer no protection at all from the plague and so the people that managed to live through it became disillusioned.

In some areas, such as in England, the plague left small hamlets deserted. The shortage of farm laborers forced some landowners to raise sheep, beginning, perhaps, a process that would culminate in the rise of English textiles centuries later. Additionally, worker shortages had the impact of increased overall wages. Fewer workers forced employers to pay more for daily labor. As the population corrected itself, these wages would be cut, prompting peasant revolts in several sections of Europe.

The plague also renewed interest in religion and death. Groups of people known as flagellants marched through cities flogging themselves in an orgy of blood and pain, hoping to appease an obviously angry God who was calling people to repentance. With religion came superstition and local remedies as old as pre-Christian Europe. Rhymes like Ring Around the Rosy date back to the plague in London, ending with the line, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” referring to the certain death that came in a city that some scholars say suffered a 60% population loss. Charms and amulets were worn to protect against the plague, a favorite charm inscribed with the magical word “abracadabra.”

The Black Death is, from descriptive and circumstantial evidence, thought to be plague. Plague is primarily a disease of rodents and is transmitted from rat to man by the bites of infected fleas. Direct spread from man to man was rare even in epidemics, although it could happen by direct inhalation of infected droplets expelled during coughing or sneezing. The dark skin haemorrhage (ecchymosis) and expectorated blood (haemoptysis) account for the popular name of the disease. The dramatic impact on localities is perpetuated in accounts which have entered folklore, such as the Reverend Mompesson’s determined handling of the outbreak in the village of Eyam, Derbyshire, and commemoration remains in some playground dances of children, e.g. Ring a’ Roses. The third pandemic, around 1894, was of importance in the Middle and Far East, and it was during this outbreak that the causal organism, Yersinia (Pasteurella) pestis, was first discovered.

Sources:

  • George Macaulay Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe, 1368-1520 (1899).
  • Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death, Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, The Free Press 1983.
  • Armstrong, Dorsey (2016). “The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague”. The Great Courses.
  • Byrne, J. P. (2004). The Black Death. London
  • Cohn, Samuel K. Jr., (2002), The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe, London.
  • Giulia Calvi, Histories of a Plague Year: the Social and the Imaginary in Baroque Florence (University of California Press, 1989).
  • Philip Ziegler, The Black Death (Harper & Row, 1971)
  • Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475 (McGraw-Hill, 1992) p 482.
  • William H. McNeill, Plagues and People (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976).