The Black Death

The Black Death

A plague is a bacterial infection that can take on more than one form. One of the greatest plagues that have stricken mankind throughout history was the Black Death. The Black Death was the outbreak of the bubonic plague that struck Europe and the Mediterranean area between 1347 and 1351. This plague was the most severe plague that hit the earth because of its origin (the spread), the symptoms, and the effects of the plague. Scientists and historians are still unsure about the origins of the bubonic plague.

Medieval European writers believed that it began in China, which they considered to be a land of almost magical happenings. Chroniclers wrote that it began with earthquakes, fire falling from the sky, and plagues of vermin. Like medieval travel literature, these accounts are based on a number of myths about life in areas outside of Europe. It now seems most probable that infected rodents migrated from the Middle East into southern Russia, the region between the Black and Caspian seas.

The plague was then spread west along trade routes. Plague moved quickly along the major trade routes. From Pisa, where it had arrived early in 1348, it traveled to Florence and then on to Rome and Bologna; from Venice it moved into southern Germany and Austria; and from Genoa it crossed the Tyrrhenian Sea to Barcelona in Spain and Marseilles in France. It continued through the towns of southern France, reaching Paris. From there the contagion spread to England and the Low Countries. Parts of Europe were initially spared the epidemic.

Milan was almost unique among the major Italian towns. The lord of the city closed the gates to travelers coming from plague areas, and few people died. Many parts of Germany and Eastern Europe also escaped the epidemic in 1348 through 1351. Probably because of their relative isolation, Bohemia, Poland, and central Germany experienced no plague before the 1360s and 1370s. The people from these vast countries did not know this was carried by vermin, so they were scared of what they could do and could not have done to acquire the plague.

This made the disease spread easily. In bubonic plague, the first symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, aching joints, and a general feeling of ill health. The lymph nodes of the groin or, less commonly, of the armpit or neck, suddenly become painful and swollen. The temperature, accompanied by shivering, rises to between 38. 3 and 40. 5 C (101 and 105 F). The pulse rate and respiration rate are increased, and the victim becomes exhausted and apathetic. The buboes swell until they approximate a chicken egg in size.

In nonfatal cases, the temperature begins to fall in about five days, and approaches normal in about two weeks. In fatal cases, death results in about four days. In primary pneumonic plague, the sputum is at first slimy and tinted with blood; it later becomes free-flowing and bright red. Death occurs in most cases two or three days after the first appearance of symptoms. In primary septicemic plague, the victim has a sudden onset of high fever and turns deep purple in several hours, often dying within the same day that symptoms first develop.

The purple color, which appears in all plague victims during their last hours, is due to respiratory failure; the popular name Black Death that is applied to the disease is derived from this symptom. The Black Death and the other epidemics of bubonic plague had many consequences. One was a series of vicious attacks on Jews, lepers, and outsiders who were accused of deliberately poisoning the water or the air. The attacks began in the south of France, but were most dramatic in parts of Switzerland and Germanyareas with a long history of attacks on local Jewish communities.

Massacres in Bern were typical of this pattern: After weeks of fearful tension, Jews were rounded up and burned or drowned in marshes. Sometimes there were attacks on Jews even where there was no plague. The Pope, the leader of the Catholic church, and most public officials condemned the massacres and tried to stop them. In the face of mob fury, however, they were often unsuccessful. Persecutions only ended when the deaths from the plague began to decline. There were occasional local persecutions during later plagues, but never with the violence of those that occurred from 1348 through 1351.

Contemporary chroniclers of the Black Death called the epidemic a horrible and cruel thing. It seemed to them that the towns of Europe were nearly deserted in the aftermath of the plague. Overall, European population declined by about one-third. In many European cities population may have declined by up to 50 percent or more. Bremen in Germany lost almost 7,000 of its 12,000 inhabitants. The prosperous city of Florence, Italy, may have lost 40,000 of its nearly 90,000 inhabitants. Nearby Siena probably lost two-thirds of its urban population.

Paris, the largest city north of the Alps, lost more than 50,000 of its 180,000 inhabitants. Most major cities were quickly forced to create mass graveyards were the dead could be buried. Many towns and villages lost almost all of their populations, and some eventually disappeared altogether. Larger towns declined drastically, as their workforces and merchant classes either died or fled. The initial population losses could have been quickly made up, but new epidemics prevented a return to the high population levels of the period before 1348.

European population only began to grow again in the last decades of the 15th century. The plagues also brought economic changes. The death of so many people concentrated wealth in the hands of survivors. In many cases those workers who remained alive could earn up to five times what they had earned before the plague. In the towns, plague had the effect of consolidating wealth somewhat, especially among the middle class. As plague destroyed people and not possessions, the drop in population was accompanied by a corresponding rise in per capita wealth.

Large increases in spending in the towns at this time are well documented. Profits, however, for landlords and merchants declined as they found themselves having to pay higher wages and getting less when they sold their products. Governments were forced to adjust to the social disruption caused by plague. First local governments, and then in the case of England, the monarchy, attempted to regulate the movement and price of foodstuffs as well as wages paid to laborers. The English Statute of Laborers of 1351 tried to hold wages at preplague levels.

Similar statutes were passed in various parts of France, Germany, and Italy. Landlords tried to collect higher fees from tenant farmers as a way to increase declining incomes. Unrest among the peasants was one of the major causes of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The English rebels objected to high payments to landowners and legal limitations on the rights of some peasants. Economic and political unrest occurred in most parts of Europe during the second half of the 14th century.

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