The Black Death was one of the deadliest plagues the world has ever seen. It claimed the lives of anywhere from 30% to 60% of Europe’s population and killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide. Despite this there is still much that is unknown about the Medieval plague and there are many pervasive myths about the plague that continue to this day. Some myths about the Black Death have persisted for over a century and others have only recently been understood. While the Black Death may have wiped out Europe centuries ago, today it barely makes the news when someone contracts the disease as it is no longer a death sentence. In fact, with modern medicine it has become quite rare for someone to die from the Black Death.
“Black Death” Does Not Refer to the Blackened Flesh of its Victims
One of the pervasive myths about the Black Death is that the name is descriptive, in that it describes what happens to the victims. This belief has continued throughout the years because it is quite fitting. One of the effects of the bubonic plague is that it causes acral gangrene which in turn causes parts of the body to turn black. Another is red spots that appear on the skin and eventually turn black. The spots would grow in size and number until they covered large portions of the body. The victim would die two to seven days after the initial infection.
Given that those who contracted the disease turned black as they died and that there was no cure, it made sense that the disease would be referred to as the “Black Death.” However, the term Black Death did not even arise during the same time period as the plague. The plague was rampant throughout Europe in the 14th century but it was not until the 16th century that the term “Black Death” was used to describe it. The real reason for the name was a choice of translators who were translating a 14th century poem that referenced the plague.
In 1350 the Flemish astrologer Simon de Covinus described the plague that ravaged his country. He wrote a poem which he entitled “mors atra.” The title could be translated two different ways either as “Black Death” or “Terrible Death.” The translators, for whatever reason, decided interpret the title as “Black Death” and from there the infamous plaque got the name for which it is best known. The name took on quickly and it would eventually be a way for historians to differentiate between the medieval plague of the 14th century and the Great Plague of 1665 which devastated England.
While it would seem obvious that a disease that was believed to be spread by fleas and rats would be one that mostly affected the poor. The rich would not be living in the squalor of the poor and their better living conditions would provide a better chance of avoiding the disease or surviving it. Reality, however was that the rich were just as affected by the Black Death as the poor. While the poor may have died in greater numbers their population also vastly outnumbered the rich.
Chroniclers of the period report that many important knights, ladies and merchants fell victim to the black death. Records from the time also show that many wealthy and well-fed convents, friaries and monasteries were just as devastated by the plague as the rest of Europe. Many of these convents, friaries and monasteries lost more than half their population and some even disappeared altogether. The Black Death not only killed the wealthy but it gave peasants power they never had before.
After the Black Death peasants who survived believed that they were blessed by God. This meant that they will not as willing to accept oppression and just accept their lot in life. They believed this blessing from God put them above Parliament and anything that the Parliament could do to them. In 1381 the peasants revolted in order to fight against rising taxes and the fear that power would once again shift back to Parliament.
The Black Death caused an employment shortage which along with the belief that the Black Death was linked to God emboldened the peasants to fight for the rights and freedoms they did not have under the feudal system that existed prior to the plague. It was the peasants themselves who brought about the end of the feudal system as they moved to towns and cities during and following the plague. Coincidentally the belief that the plague was brought by the Almighty did not increase confidence in the church but rather the opposite, which would eventually lead to the reformation.
One of the unique aspects of the spread of the Black Death was how it affected Poland. While many believe that Poland escaped the plague, this is not true. The small country did have outbreaks of the plague; however, it was far less affected than the rest of Europe. While true that Poland was not as badly affected, it is misleading to say that Poland was “spared.” In reality about a quarter of Poland’s population succumbed to the plague.
There are many theories about why Poland did not get the plague as badly as the rest of Europe. One theory is that the borders were closed almost immediately after the outbreak of plague. King Cashmir closed the boarders of the country and prevented movement of people who were infected. This did not mean that people were not allowed into the country. The Jews were blamed for the plague in many parts of Europe and King Cashmir allowed them to settle in Poland where they enjoyed peace and safety. Ironically despite being blamed for the plague, Jews carried the plague in fewer numbers and therefore they did not spread the plague as much as other Europeans who might have otherwise emigrated to Poland.
The idea that the borders closed is not precise because there were no distinct borders nor was there a wall with a gate that could be closed. People could still come and go throughout the country even if they were not allowed into individual cities. Another theory was that Poland was too spread out and too sparsely population that the plague could not spread as well as it did in the rest of the Europe. This is not necessarily true either. Poland wasn’t all that different from other parts of Europe in terms of spread and population as other areas that were devastated by the plague. In the end historians are not sure on why Poland was not hit as hard as it could have been and it may remain a mystery, but the country was hit and hit hard by the plague.
Advancements in Transportation Do Not Increase the Speed of the Plague
One fact about the bubonic plague that is hard to understand is that it spread faster during the middle ages then bubonic plagues traveled in the 20th century. Today it is widely believed that the Black Death spread at a rate of a mile per day and other estimates put its rate closer to 8 miles a day. This is somewhat staggering when you consider the rate of travel for plagues of the 20th century.
Scientists in South Africa, New Orleans and other areas that were hit by the bubonic plague in the 20th century created experiments that would allow them to track and clock the speed of the plague that was occurring. What they found was that the plague in the 20th century was moving no faster than 8 miles a year. So even with high speed trains, cars and planes the rate of spread of the bubonic plague was much slower in the modern era that it was during the medieval era.
While some might credit this to better hygiene or medical treatment, that does not really affect the spread of the plague. The modern bubonic plague was a rodent disease and it was spread by the house rat. In the modern era it is rare for a home to have rats and if one is seen, it is typically dealt with rather quickly. So, with few rats around to transfer and spread the plaque, it moves at a snail’s pace compared to the medieval era. Some of this does have to do with cleanlier habits around the home but it also shows that even as the speed of transportation increased it did not increase the rate of spread of the bubonic plague in local areas.
One of the interesting myths about the Black Death is that nothing could stop the spread of the plague. The truth is much more interesting because some cities were able to do things that saved large portions of their population but their methods were brutal at best. One of the most successful cities at stopping the spread of the bubonic plague was Milan.
Milan was already at an advantage over other areas of Europe because they had better hygiene habits and they were not particularly superstitious. The lack of superstition is important because it meant that they did not bleed a person that was sick (and therefore spread the disease) but rather did something far worse for the patient. If a person was found to have the plague the entire home would be walled up. All the windows and doors would be bricked shut, along with anyone inside – whether or not they were infected. This strict method of quarantine largely stopped the spread.
Another way that Milan took efforts to protect themselves was to close off the city. The city was already surrounded by walls and therefore they closed the gates and would not let anyone into the city. Merchants delivering goods would have to leave the goods outside the gate and step away while guards retrieved the goods and left money from the merchants.
Quarantine efforts and border patrols were the reason the plague stopped spreading and would eventually prevent future plagues from breaking out as the practice spread. During the bubonic plague people would carry health ID cards that would identify the person and where they came from. Spies would then travel throughout Europe and report cities and areas that were being affected. Cities would then know who could be allowed to enter the city. Venice was also effective at restricting shipping until it could be verified that the boat and its sailors were not bringing the plague with them.
The phrase “Quarantine” comes from an Italian variant of “quaranta giorni” which means forty days. It refers to the period that ships would be placed into isolation before passengers and crew could be allowed to go ashore. But even though the phrase is Italian, they were not the first ones to impose a quarantine or come up with the forty-day period. In 1377, the city of Ragusa (present day Dubrovnik in Croatia) imposed a 30 day wait period for all new comers (a trentine). The newcomers would be kept in a restricted place like the nearby islands where they were watched to see if any symptoms of the Black Death occurred. It was later decided that the isolation period should be increased to 40 days and thus the quarantine.
Ragusa was very progressive in its attempts to protect itself from the plague. And with the success of their quarantine of ships and newcomers the practice quickly spread throughout Europe. It would become common practice in future outbreaks but the period of quarantine would be adjusted as knowledge about the diseases increased. In Milan during the plague of 1557 – 75 they decided that it was sufficient enough to isolate all newcomers to the city for a period of 8 days rather than forty.
One of the reasons why Venice and Italy are credited for being the ones to create quarantine is because they embraced the practice and took the lead on finding ways to combat the plague. They appointed three guardians of public health in the first years of the plague in 1348. They created hospitals solely for the treatment of plague victims and they created the first lazaret. Lazarets are quarantine stations for maritime travelers that would allow them to wait out their quarantine period in relative comfort. Lazarets were set up all ports not only in Italy but throughout Europe following Venice’s lead.