The Black Death was one of the worst pandemics in human history. It is estimated that 1/3 to 1/2 of the population died due to the disease. The main outbreak of the plague lasted from 1348 to 1351 in Europe and the Middle East. But what caused the plague, and how did people deal with it? How did they get rid of the bodies of so many people? How did we get to where we are today and come back from such a tragic event? There are some things about the Black Death you probably didn’t know.
1. The Black Death Wasn’t The Only Outbreak of the Plague
The Black Death was the second outbreak of the plague. The first instance was during the Justinian Plague in the 6th century. The first outbreak wasn’t as bad as the second, but it was still widespread and deadly. After 1351, the plague continued to have epidemics throughout history until the 15th century. The first named victims of the plague during the Black Death was in 1338 or 1339 in the area of Lake Issyk Kul in Russia. A grave marker states “in the year of the hare (1339). This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of the plague with his wife, Magnu-Kelka.”
After the Black Death, the third outbreak in Europe happened in 1665 with thousands of deaths. London was struck by the Great Plague of 1665 and almost followed immediately by the Great Fire, leaving London in ruins. A third pandemic started in China and India in the 1890s and eventually reached the United States. Infections were increasingly affecting the San Francisco Bay Area. It was during this pandemic that the real cause of the plague was found and a cure was created.
2. The Cause of The Black Death Was Never What They Thought
During the Black Death, the real cause was never found. It wasn’t until the 1890s when the real cause was found, and they were able to find a cure. The Black Death was spread by Oriental rat fleas. These rats would travel on carts and ships across the world, and the fleas would jump off and bite humans, transmitting the disease. The fleas carried Y. Pestis which affects the flea by blocking its stomach, causing it to regurgitate bacilli into its host. When the host dies, the fleas and its offspring seek a new host was how humans became infected. Doctors thought the plague was caused by punishment from God for the sins of the people. During the Plague no one ever suspected rats and their fleas to be the cause.
People who lived during this time thought the plague was caused by “bad air” released by earthquakes or by the unfavorable alignment of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius on March 20th, 1345. Sadly for them, the plague started much earlier than that. People also blamed the Jewish community for spreading the plague to wipe out Christians. Kamikaze mission then? Jewish people and Muslims were just as likely to contract the disease. After being tortured many Jews confessed to poisoning the water in wells and caused the plague. Thousands of people were expelled or killed. As a result of these forced confessions, Jews in Straussberg, Germany were given a choice to convert to Christianity or be burned in rows on stakes on a platform in the city’s burial ground. About 2,000 Jewish people were killed.
3. People Did The Craziest Things To Combat The Plague
People tried everything to combat the plague and avoid it. They tried to be happy and avoid bad thoughts, drank only good wine, avoided eating fruit, put fragrant herbs in beverages, avoided lechery, didn’t abuse the poor (which you shouldn’t do anyway), ate and drank in moderation, maintained a household in accordance with a person’s status, among other things. Doctors believed that bad smells could drive out the plague, so some treatments for the disease were using urine and dung. This caused the disease to spread rather than cure it.
With the idea of bad smells curing them, bathing was discouraged. Their first idea was the changing of clothes was a sign of vanity which angered God and was subsequently punished for their sins. Bathing was also believed to open pores, which hot water does, and caused the bad air to enter and exit the body. This was believed in Europe up until the 19th century. Due to not bathing, the Black Death caused the first instance of using Eau de Cologne and perfumes to cover up odors. So we have pestilence to thank for our fancy perfumes and body sprays.
4. There Isn’t Just One Type of Plague; There’s Three
The plague didn’t enter the body in just one way. There were three different types of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The bubonic plague is what we commonly hear when speaking about the Black Death. The bubonic plague was caused by the bites of fleas carrying Y. Pestis. The bacteria then moved to the lymph nodes and quickly multiples created buboes (black growths) on the body. The pneumonic plague was airborne, so there was some bad air about. The disease entered through the lungs causing an infection. The infection causes the victim to cough blood and spread the bacteria from person to person.
Septicemic is the rarest form of the disease. Septicemic plague causes disseminated intravascular coagulation and is almost always fatal. The black spots seen on a body was blood coagulating under the skin. Most plague symptoms included diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, weakness, bleeding, shock, and skin turning black. The affected lymph nodes are usually around the groin, neck, and armpits which are tender and warm. Luckily today, we have a cure, and it’s rare to contract the plague.
5. The Mortality Rate Is Unlike Anything We’ve Ever Seen
From 1348 to 1351, in Europe alone, the population diminished by 25-60%. Some estimates are as high as 2/3 of the population. The exact death toll from primary sources is hard to pinpoint due to the area and the source. Some sources exaggerate the death toll, but it is estimated to be around 75 to 200 million people. Sources say that the Black Death started in Central Asia and made it’s way up the Silk Road, affecting the Middle East and Europe. Genoese ships traveling the Black Sea to Messina, Sicily carried dead and dying soldiers that were affected by the plague. All that was alive on the ship died within days. From Sicily, it took three years to spread through Europe and moved as far as Greenland and Iceland. The plague and climate change eradicated coastal European colonies in Greenland.
The plague was also carried by the military. English soldiers traveling back from France was a cause of the spread in England. Some estimates claim that the plague killed as much as 75% of the population in some areas. Closed communities and nunneries were extremely vulnerable to the Black Death. If one became infected, the entire community was at risk. Since friars and nuns tended to the sick, infection among them was common. Gherardo, brother of the famous humanist Petrarch and monk in the monastery of Montrieux, was the only survivor of the pestilence in his monastery. The only other survivor was his dog, and they buried the 34 other monks.
6. Everyone Died. It Didn’t Matter What Status You Were.
Although the plague affected the poor more than anyone else, no one was immune to the disease in regards to status. Nobility did not escape pestilence. Noble families became so diminished that incest was a way for the patriarch to survive. With 1/3 of the population gone, it was nearly impossible to find someone who wasn’t related to you. From Naples to England, many noble families were eradicated. The only reigning monarch to die from the plague was King Alfonso XI of Castile and Léon.
Some notable people who died of the plague a little after the massive outbreak were Blanche of Lancaster, Anne of Bohemia, and Thomas Bradwardine. Thomas was a famous English cleric, scholar, mathematician, courtier, and briefly the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas died in 1349 during the height of the Black Death. Blanche of Lancaster was the mother of Henry IV and the first wife of John of Gaunt. She was part of one of the wealthiest and powerful families in England. Blanche died in 1368, almost two decades after the Black Death. Anne was the Queen of England and the first wife to Richard II. She does not count like King Alfonso since she died in 1394, but Joan of England, daughter to Edward III, does!
7. Thanks To The Black Plague, Church and Nobility Declined
The Black Death created a lot of problems for the church and nobility. The population loss caused a collapse of the urban grain markets, which was a major source of income for the nobles and churches with surplus grain to sell. The clergy and nobles whos income was based on land and relied on grain selling were hit the hardest, losing much of their income. Both the nobility and clergy resorted to selling their serfs for some quick cash. This wasn’t the best idea for them in the long run since they lost their future revenues. Serfs that were now free peasants had an incentive to work harder since they were working for themselves instead of a lord.
These changes led to a major shift in the economy as well as the end of serfdom and feudalism. The distribution of wealth evened out, and town, agriculture, and trade began to rise. It led to the rise of capitalism since the guild’s would not lower prices for their expensive goods for the average person. Nobles sold the same goods outside of the guilds’ jurisdiction for a decent profit. The church, however, had other ideas. They would sell church offices (simony), charges fees for church services, and sold indulgences to buy time out of Purgatory after death. As a result of the Black Death, the church’s authority started to crumble, and the rise of Christian factions like Lutheran and Protestant began.
8. Climate Change May Have Caused The Widespread Death
Climate change during the beginning of the 14th century may have been the cause of the massive death toll. The High Middle Ages was a time of growth and prosperity. New agricultural techniques led to a rise in population which in turn led to more fuel and food demands. The inflation in the environment led to a strain on the lands, so people found new lands to cultivate. Newly cultivated lands triggered more population growth, and so on. That changed in the early 1300s.
During the early 1300s, the climate turned colder and wetter. This resulted in earlier frosts and floods. Primary sources spoke of great famines in 1316 and 1317. There were also reports that the Baltic Sea froze over in 1306 and 1316. With the lack of food, people were malnourished and anyone born during that time had a weaker immune system. Our immune system develops during childhood so these people were more susceptible to diseases. This was the same generation years later that became adults during the Black Death. If the climate change didn’t spark famine, and in turn weaker immune systems, more people may have survived.
People thought anything, and everything would stave off the plague from sex to not bathing to not eating certain foods. The flagellants took things to a new level. They would march from town to town whipping themselves to atone for their sins. They thought if they punished themselves, God would show mercy and stop the pestilence. But with the flagellants came the pestilence. They too were infected and spread the plague from town to town. Officials outlawed them, but that didn’t stop them from making their rounds.
This also gave rise to the pseudo-flagellants. These people would also roam town to town but instead committed unusual sex acts public for a fee. Flagellants did not charge a fee but urged people to join them. Officials outlawed them too, but it worked about as much as banning the real flagellants. The most effective way of avoiding the plague was to avoid people with it and avoid fleas. Whipping yourself to atone for your sins wasn’t the way to do it.
10. Medical Logic To Help The Plague Wasn’t…Well…Logical.
During the Middle Ages, we’re still talking about the time doctors thought leeches cured diseases by sucking out the bad blood. Medieval doctors believed that there were several causes of the black plague and one of them was a punishment from God for the sins of the people. Religion was a bigger authority and institution then than it is today. In reality, doctors helped spread the plague. Bodies were piled up outside city walls and laid there until mass graves could be dug. This contributed to the bad air and infestation to help spread the disease.
Doctors also wore beaked masks to protect them. They thought the plague was airborne, which it was in a way, and the masks helped them to breathe “good air.” The beaks were stuffed with herbs they thought would combat the disease. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work. Attempts to find a cure for the disease led to the development of the scientific method and changes of thinking which in turn led to the Renaissance. So if it wasn’t for the Black Death, the Renaissance may have been different, or not existed at all.
One would think sex was the last thing on the minds of medieval people during the Black Death, but it wasn’t. Sexual activity was advised to be limited since doctors thought the plague would enter through the pores of the body and heavy breathing would increase the chances. What did they expect someone to do? Tell stories with good music to delight the heart.
People would often fornicate in graveyards to laugh in the face of death and celebrate life. This eventually became illegal, and the papal office threatened people with excommunication if they were caught. People thought that sexual immorality was one of the causes of the plague, so sodomy, prostitution, adultery, etc. was outlawed and heavy fines enacted. Luckily for prostitutes, the plague helped their working conditions by institutionalizing their “job,” and they even had royal safeguards standing outside of the municipal buildings.
12. The Plague Still Exists Today…And You Can Catch It
A cure for the plague was found in the 1890s after it made a resurgence and people figured out the cause. In the 1980s researchers blamed other diseases such as anthrax and typhus for the plague. Why? Because their argument claimed other diseases spread more easily between people without the flea vector and can display similar symptoms. Luckily those ideas were put to rest in 2000 when a study of tooth pulp from a French mass grave showed the presence of Y. Pestis in all 20 samples from three victims.
Although a cure was found, you can still contract the plague. It’s rare today, but it still happens. Y. Pestis foci still exist in Asia, Russia, Southwest America, and other areas were host rodents, and fleas live. Today it’s rarely fatal except for one drawback. A cure for the septicemic plague has never been found, and it has a 100% mortality rate. If you travel to any of these areas and see a flea on you, it’s unlikely you’ll catch septicemic plague since it’s so rare, but it could happen.
We all played Ring Around the Rosie as kids. Singing, laughing, dancing, having a good time. But did you know the rhyme was inspired by the Black Death? Ring Around the Rosie also knows as Ring a Ring o’ Roses, first appeared in print in 1881. Reports say that a version of it with the same tune was sung in the 1790s with and similar rhymes were known all across Europe. The actual meaning of the song has been argued for centuries, but most folklore believes it is about the Black Death.
“Pocket full of posies” relates to the flowers used to either help create the “good smells” like inside doctor’s masks or the strewing of flowers on dead bodies. “We all fall down” relates to the fact everyone was dying, and we’d all die eventually. “Ashes, Ashes” is debated, but most believe it was the burning of bodies, namely the Jews that were punished after forced confessions. The title “ring around the Rosie?” It’s said it refers to the buboes on an infected person’s body. So before you happily sing that old rhyme, remember what it was based on.
Before the Black Death, life was happy, abundant, and great all around. Think of it as the Roaring 20s before the Great Depression. Music was plentiful and happy, and the art was beautiful. Artists were respected professionals who often interacted with princes and the Pope. During the Black Death, things changed for the worst. Music became rare and grim. People would hear the grim church bells chime day and night constantly due to increasing deaths. Eventually, people had enough of the bells, and they stopped chiming with every death since the toll was too great.
Paintings took a darker turn during this period. They were overflowed with tortured souls, death, dying, fire, brimstone, and all around darkness. Thousands of craftsmen, artists, painters, writers, and art patrons perished from the plague. Many artists began painting the Grim Reaper, Hell, and Satan due to the insecurity of survival. Others stopped creating art altogether because they believed it was hopeless to create beauty in a world full of death and destruction. So not only was the world a mess, music, and art didn’t help to ease the hopelessness.
15. The Plague Created Peasant Uprisings and Urban Worker Revolts
When the plague hit, it created a massive labor shortage, especially in cities where 70% of the population died. Workers started demanding higher wages which is something nobles and guild masters strongly opposed. The Black Death also severely depleted the tax base. This caused kings to raise taxes drastically to meet expenses coming from the warfare of the time, mainly the Hundred Year’s War between France and England. Thwarted demands and high taxes caused revolts among the people.
These uprisings would take authorities by surprise who were already dealing with death and issues of fornication and playing the blame game. Authorities would either be killed or flee to the safety of local castles and towns. Rebellions would sweep like wildfire but eventually would be squashed due to poor planning. Rebels were poorly armed, untrained, and highly unorganized. Authorities would gather forces and leave more death in their wake with massacres and executions as a warning to quell other rebellions.
We know that rats and humans were affected by the plague, but were other animals immune? Nope. Chickens, sheep, pig, and cows were all susceptible to the plague. At one point, sheep were dying off so quickly that it was dubbed the “European Wool Shortage.” Funnily enough, a ship from England carrying wool made it’s way to Bergen, Norway in 1349. The ship carried the plague with it and made its way throughout Norway. Within days the ship’s crew was dead.
Eating the dead animals probably wasn’t a good idea either. Even with cooking, you could still become infected with the plague. Other wild animals would often eat the dead ones that were waiting to be buried, and they too would contract the plague since it could be passed through blood. The massive death toll of animals created a shortage of food for people, so if they didn’t die of pestilence, they could die of starvation or some other disease/infection.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: