During the late 1340’s and early 1350’s, approximately one third to one half of the population of Europe was wiped out by the Bubonic Plague, otherwise known as the “Black Death”. During this time people were armed with little to no understanding of why or how the plague was happening, let alone how to control it. The time period of unanswerable questions that surrounded this disease allowed for the immense destruction that occurred in just a few short years.
The Bubonic Plague is caused by the bacillus Yersinia Pestis, which is contracted to humans by the fleas of rodents. This bacillus works its way into the lymphatic system where it travels to the lymph nodes. In the lymph nodes a combat between the lymphatic system and the bacilli takes place. The bacilli excrete toxins, the body sends immune-system cells, and the node swells with the dead of both armies and coagulated blood (Farrell 88-89). The most characteristic symptoms of the plague are large, painful nodes, known as buboes, which grew in the groins, armpits, and necks of the infected persons. The early symptoms of the Plague consisted of a high fever, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fatigue, delirium, headaches, purple tint to skin, etc. Later symptoms included the buboes, which could grow to the size of oranges and burst leaving a ghastly open wound, but in many cases offered slight relief. Another later symptom included blood vessels breaking causing internal bleeding. This disease could kill in a day and if it had not, than the infected person would be sure to die in the next couple of days.
The actual origin of the plague is unknown, but was believed to be started in India or Africa. However, the first recorded epidemic that took place began in A.D. 541, spreading throughout the Mediterranean civilizations. The second epidemic took place in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, during the 1330’s reaching China, India, and the Middle East killing an estimated 25,000,000 people (Kohn 25). The third epidemic finally hit and that was in Europe from 1347-1351 killing one third of Europe’s population. London especially lost half of its population (Kohn 25).
Before the plague infected humans, the disease lived among rodents and used their intrepidness to travel across the face of this earth (Farrell 76-77).
“Plague is carried by rodents like rats and squirrels, but is transmitted to humans by fleas who live on them. A flea, having ingested plague-infected blood from its host, can live for as much as a month away from that host before he needs to find another warm body to live on. When a blood-engorged flea attempts to draw blood from another victim, it invariably injects the bacterium yersinia pestis,” (Snell Death).
The pneumonic plague, resulting as a complication of the Bubonic Plague, and as an invasion of the lungs by the bacterium, spread from person to person without intermediary transference by fleas (Kohn 25). But the Bubonic Plague was only transferred through the fleas of rodents. For when an epizootic outbreak reduces the rodent population, fleas from the dead animals fail to find another rodent host and thus begin to infest man (Britannica 2001). Because all the rodents were dying the fleas had to find a new host to feed off of and this is how the plague was transmitted to humans. Transportation of the disease was said to enter Europe in different ways. The most obvious way the plague got to Europe and other countries was through trade. Ships carried infected rats that jumped aboard and went on their merry way into different countries spreading the plague. One story in specific gives a quite conclusive example of how the plague arrived into Europe.
“Fear and anger at the disease gave way to accusation. The natives of the land began to blame the Italian traders who traveled in and out of their ports. The natives soon took up arms and attacked the ports; and after a week of fighting, the natives found their soldiers dying of the disease. Hoping to infect the Italians, the natives threw the dead and dying bodies over the barrier; they succeeded. When the traders fled to the island of Sicily, they carried the plague. The plague arrived in Messina, Sicily, in October of 1347. The twelve Italians on board the ship were forced to stay on board. Officials were hoping to contain the disease, but black rats carrying fleas contaminated with the Plague scurried off the ship and within eight months spread the Plague throughout the island and boarded ships for mainland Italy and the rest of Europe.”(Bushey Plague).
The plague was also believed to travel with other merchants and traders. It seems very possible borne in the saddlebags of these swift Mongol ponies, and in the sacks of grain carried to the traders on their way, and in booty stolen by ransacking Mongol warriors traveled the plague (Farrell 86). Then those people would travel to other countries thus spreading the disease. Also soldiers returning from different wars helped carry the plague. The main ways the Plague traveled from country to country were through the rodents and people traveling, vacationing, and trading with one another.
Many beliefs and superstitions were made about the Bubonic Plague. Many people believed many different things such as Galen’s theory who believed it was caused by miasma, poisonous vapors from swamps that corrupted the air caused the disease. They believed the wind was carrying these poisonous vapors, especially southern winds. Many also believed in such things like not to pass looks at one who was sick because the plague spirit would jump through your eyes and into your body. There had been reports of clouds of pestilential gas floating over China when the plague broke out there. Many also believed that this was also the curse of God for everyone who had committed sins. Many stated they saw the signs of the plague coming on March 20, 1345, at 1 p.m. when Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars were aligned in the house of Aquarius (Farrell 81). At this time there was a ball of fire in the skies over Paris, earth shook so violently in Venice that the St. Mark’s bell rang on it’s own, there were falling stars, whales stranded on the beach, and the hot winds blowing from the South (Farrell 82). Many people also blamed the Jews for the Plague, stating that they were poisoning the wells with this disease. Thousands of Jews and some Arabs were persecuted for this.
Man made primitive attempts to try to stop this dreadful plague, but no matter what they did the plague still got to best of them. The medical knowledge of man had in many ways, caused more harm than repair. Since they really had no idea where the plague was coming from they could only base treatments off of these theories. One practice was known as bleeding which was used to release evil spirits. This practice however, for the most part only caused more harm to the patient who would probably be more prone to the Plague or other diseases now. But the doctors seemed to believe the sick could bleed the disease out. Other doctors recommended getting rid of the miasma by burning wood scented with aloe or musk, sprinkle the floor with vinegar or rose water, and to carry perfumes or flowers to your nose if you went out (Farrell 81). People believed that a quarantine, which means “40 days” in Italian, was long enough to make sure that the ships were free of the disease. But that did not work to well because the rats would escape off the ships and infect the people. Other attempts were made, such as wearing amulets of sapphires or amber for protection, and some even carried magic words on charms saying such things like “abracadabra”. Segregation of the sick was ordered in many cities, but in some the quarantine practice and stations were put into effect too late (Kohn 25). French doctors designed an anti-plague outfit, which consisted of a leather robe, crystal eyepieces, beak filled with perfumes, and a cane to point at bodies of the sick (Farrell 83). They also fumigated letters and washed money with vinegar. Some other forms of treatment also included bathing in human urine, use of leeches, drinking molten golden, chopping up a snake everyday, and not eating any desserts (Snell Plague). There was also a group that was formed in Germany, known as the Brotherhood of the Flagellants. They inflicted various punishments on themselves in an attempt to atone for the world’s sins-and end the disease. (Witowski Plague). There was also a chant that was about the sick that has been a tradition even in our culture. Do children really know what Ring around the rosies, A pocket full of posies, Ashes, Ashes! We all fall down really means? The rosies referred to rosary beads, used for praying for help. The buboes released an offensive odor, the posies, flowers, were carried to mask the stench. Ashes derived from the burning of corpses. Fall down symbolizes dying people (Patricia Plague).
The Bubonic Plague took a great toll on the people, towns, and countries who suffered from it. The people of the infected towns would see families in piles in front of doorways, waiting to be taken away by the death carts. People rarely braved the streets and if they did it was at the break of dawn and they had flowers or perfumes stuck to their noses. In Florence, Italy, people were paid to carry away the dead (Farrell 79). These people usually became bandits who broke into living people’s homes telling them to give them booty or they would be wheeled away with the dead people. Since so many people were sick and dying no one tended to the crops, laborers were limited, no one ran the courts or policed the streets. People stole the goods of the dead and healthy people abandoned responsibilities partying and drinking while others ran away to hide from the Plague. Many people such as Jews and Arabs were persecuted for supposedly causing the Plague. Innocent people died because these people did not know where the plague came from so they blamed each other, which resulted in the deaths of these people. Not only that, but the plague also made people start to not believe in God and see the darker side of life. They wondered how God could have done this to them and through this questioning people began to express themselves in different ways through art and literature. Thus showing a much more darker and morbid side of life.
Towns were effected heavily by the plague; it was as if they were ghost towns. The dead for the most part usually outnumbered the living, which meant there were a lot of jobs left unattended. Bodies were everywhere so people of towns had to dig big holes and bury everyone in them. An expectant quiet settled over the city, broken only by the rattling of the wagons on their rounds to pick up the dead, (Farrell 79). Stores were empty, riderless horses roamed the streets, and ships with no crews drifted into ports only to release more diseases.
Countries suffered tremendously from the “Black Death”. Not only had it ravaged the country, but also killed thousands of people who were expected to help the country run properly. Food prices rose greatly, trade was disrupted, numerous leaders in church and government perished, and intelligent persons fostered an obsessive cult about death (Kohn 26). So many problems came from this plague, but surprisingly enough some good things did come from this morbid disease too.
Europe did recover from the Plague once the people became more sanitary. These people really only became sanitary through the death’s of others though. They gained wealth and inheritance from the dead, which gave them a better standard of living. At this time, the pawnshop business, made famous by the Medici family, became extremely successful (Witowski Plague). The plague also brought the Hundred Years’ War to a holt, but that was later reinitiated in 1355. At least the fighting stopped for a little while though. This disease helped bring feudalism to an end and clear the way for Europeans to form new social conditions, to systematize land-holding relations between owner/farmer and tenant/ laborer on the basis of rent, to strike a balance between capital and labor (Kohn 26).
The Bubonic Plague in many ways marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern ages. Things were pretty bad before the Plague and were even worse during the plague. Yet, at the end of the plague things gradually turned out for the better.
Honestly, if the Plague had never struck, Europe might have still been in the economic crisis it was in at that time, if not worse. The Bubonic Plague was not something good that happened, but we did learn from it. Although it had to be the hard way, at least we learned from it, just as we have from all other natural disasters. It is just a good thing that we have pretty much controlled any future outbreaks of the Plague with antibiotics such as Tetracycline and Streptomycin. Even though the Plague was such a horrific thing, in the long run, it may have helped a great deal in the prominent foundation of Europe that still stands today.