The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. It is widely thought to have been an outbreak of bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, an argument supported by recent forensic research, although this view has been challenged by a number of scholars. Thought to have started in China, it travelled along the Silk Road and had reached the Crimea by 1346. From there, probably carried by Oriental rat fleas residing on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships, it spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe's population, reducing the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. This has been seen as having created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe's population to recover. The plague returned at various times, killing more people, until it left Europe in the 19th century.
The Plague of Justinian in the 6th and 7th centuries is the first known attack on record, and marks the first firmly recorded pattern of bubonic plague. From historical descriptions, as much as 40% of the population of Constantinople died from the plague. Modern estimates suggest half of Europe's population was wiped out before the plague disappeared in the 700s. After 750, major epidemic diseases did not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century.
The plague is thought to have returned at intervals with varying virulence and mortality until the 18th century. On its return in 1603, for example, the plague killed 38,000 Londoners. Other notable 17th-century outbreaks were the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, and the Great Plague of Seville (1647–1652), the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), and the Great Plague of Vienna (1679). There is some controversy over the identity of the disease, but in its virulent form, after the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720–1722, the Great Plague of 1738 (which hit Eastern Europe), and the Russian plague of 1770-1772, it seems to have gradually disappeared from Europe. By the early 19th century, the threat of plague had diminished, but it was quickly replaced by a new disease. The Asiatic cholera was the first of several cholera pandemics to sweep through Asia and Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The 14th century eruption of the Black Death had a drastic effect on Europe's population, irrevocably changing the social structure. It was, arguably, a serious blow to the Catholic Church, and resulted in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival has been seen as creating a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to "live for the moment", as illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353).
Medieval people called the catastrophe of the 14th century either the "Great Pestilence"' or the "Great Plague". Writers contemporary to the plague referred to the event as the "Great Mortality". Swedish and Danish chronicles of the 16th century described the events as "black" for the first time, not to describe the late-stage sign of the disease, in which the sufferer's skin would blacken due to subepidermal hemorrhages (purpura), and the extremities would darken with gangrene (acral necrosis), as the term is more likely to refer to black in the sense of glum, lugubrious, or dreadful as to denote the terribleness and gloom of the events. The German physician and medical writer Justus Hecker took that precise idea from the Latin atra mors when he described the catastrophe in 1832 in his publication "Der schwarze Tod im vierzehnten Jahrhundert". The work was translated into English the following year, and under the influence of the cholera epidemic of that time, "The Black Death in the 14th century" gained widespread attention which coined the term Schwarzer Tod and Black Death in the German and English speaking worlds, respectively.
Populations in crisis
In Europe, the Medieval Warm Period ended sometime towards the end of the 13th century, bringing the "Little Ice Age" and harsher winters with reduced harvests. In Northern Europe, new technological innovations such as the heavy plough and the three-field system were not as effective in clearing new fields for harvest as they were in the Mediterranean because the north had poor, clay-like soil. Food shortages and rapidly inflating prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay and consequently livestock, were all in short supply. Their scarcity resulted in malnutrition, which increases susceptibility to infections due to weakened immunity. In the autumn of 1314, heavy rains began to fall, which were the start of several years of cold and wet winters. The already weak harvests of the north suffered and the seven-year famine ensued. In the years 1315 to 1317 a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck much of North West Europe. It was arguably the worst in European history, perhaps reducing the population by more than 10%.
Where government authorities were concerned, most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain and outlawed large-scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable and at worst they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England, were unable to buy grain abroad: from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labour. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. This situation was worsened when landowners and monarchs such as Edward III of England (r. 1327–1377) and Philip VI of France (r. 1328–1350), raised the fines and rents of their tenants out of a fear that their comparatively high standard of living would decline.
The European economy entered a vicious circle in which hunger and chronic, low-level debilitating disease reduced the productivity of labourers, and so the grain output was reduced, causing grain prices to increase. Standards of living fell drastically, diets grew more limited, and Europeans as a whole experienced more health problems.
When a typhoid (contaminated water) epidemic emerged, many thousands died in populated urban centres, most significantly Ypres (now in Belgium). In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, targeted the animals of Europe, notably sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry.
Malnutrition, poverty, disease, and hunger — coupled with war, growing inflation, and other economic concerns — made Europe in the mid-14th century ripe for tragedy.
Infection and migration
The plague disease, generally thought to be caused by Yersinia pestis, is enzootic (commonly present) in populations of ground rodents (most specifically, the bobac variety of marmot) in Central Asia. In October 2010, medical geneticists confirmed that the plague originated in China. The wide presence in China of its natural hosts, rodent species such as marmots and voles, was likely the main factor behind its origin rather than the country's human population size. (In China, the 13th century Mongol conquest disrupted farming and trading, and led to widespread famine. The population dropped from approximately 120 to 60 million.) The 14th-century plague killed an estimated 25 million Chinese and other Asians during the 15 years before it entered Constantinople in 1347.
The disease likely spread by way of the Silk Road. It may have traveled along the Silk Road with Mongol armies and traders making use of the opportunities of free passage within the Mongol Empire offered by the Pax Mongolica.
Plague was reportedly first introduced to Europe at the trading city of Caffa in the Crimea in 1347. After a protracted siege, during which the Mongol army under Jani Beg was suffering the disease, they catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls to infect the inhabitants. The Genoese traders fled, taking the plague by ship into Sicily and the south of Europe, when it spread. Whether or not this hypothesis is accurate, it is clear that several pre-existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Black Death.
Several possible causes have been advanced for the Black Death. The most prevalent explanation is the bubonic plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the pathogen responsible for an epidemic that began in southern China in 1865, eventually spreading to India. The identification was tentatively made by the historian F. A. Gasquet in 1893. The investigation of the pathogen that caused the 19th-century plague was begun by teams of scientists who visited Hong Kong in 1894, among whom was Alexandre Yersin, after whom the pathogen was named Yersinia pestis. The mechanism by which Y. pestis was transmitted was established over the next decade and was found to involve the bites of fleas whose midguts had become obstructed by replicating Y. pestis several days after feeding on an infected host. This blockage results in starvation and aggressive feeding behaviour by the fleas, which repeatedly attempt to clear their blockage by regurgitation, resulting in thousands of plague bacteria being flushed into the feeding site, infecting the host. The bubonic plague mechanism was also dependent on two populations of rodents—one resistant to the disease, who act as hosts, keeping the disease endemic, and a second who lack resistance. When the second population die, the fleas move on to other hosts, including people, thus creating a human epidemic. By the second edition of his work in 1908, Gasquet was able to adopt the epidemiology of the bubonic plague for the Black Death, implicating rats and fleas in the process, and his interpretation was widely accepted for other ancient and medieval epidemics, such as the Justinian plague that was prevalent in the Roman Empire from 541 to 700 AD.
This interpretation was first significantly challenged by the work of British bacteriologist J. F. D. Shrewsbury in 1970, who noted that the reported rates of mortality in rural areas during the 14th century pandemic were inconsistent with the modern bubonic plague, leading him to conclude that contemporary accounts were exaggerations. In 1984 zoologist Graham Twigg produced the first major work to directly challenge the bubonic plague theory, and his doubts about the identity of the Black Death have been taken up by a number of authors, including Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. (2002), David Herlihy (1997), and Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan (2001). Supporters of the bubonic plague theory point to the similarity of symptoms, the existence of an established population of black rats (Rattus rattus) in Europe before the 14th century, the facilitation of the propagation of the disease through the transport of flea-infested goods such as wheat and the discovery of Y. pestis DNA in the teeth of bodies from the period in southern French cities. In addition to arguing that the rat population was insufficient to account for a bubonic plague pandemic, sceptics of the bubonic plague theory point out that the symptoms of the Black Death are not unique (and arguably in some accounts may differ from bubonic plague); that transference via fleas in goods was likely to be of marginal significance and that the DNA testing may be flawed and have not been repeated elsewhere, despite extensive samples from other mass graves. Other arguments include: the lack of accounts of the death of rats before outbreaks of plague between the 14th and 17th centuries; temperatures that are too cold in Northern Europe for the survival of fleas (particularly in Iceland, which endured two outbreaks despite a lack of rodents); that, despite primitive transport systems; the spread of the Black Death was much faster than modern Bubonic plague; that mortality rates of the Black Death appear to be very high; that, while modern bubonic plague is largely endemic as a rural disease, the Black Death indiscriminately struck urban and rural areas; that the pattern of the Black Death, with major outbreaks in the same areas separated by between 5 and 15 years, differs from modern Bubonic plague, which often becomes endemic for decades, flaring up on an annual basis.
A variety of alternatives to the Y. pestis have been put forward. Twigg suggested that the cause was a form of anthrax and N. F. Cantor (2001) thought it may have been a combination of anthrax and other pandemics. Scott and Duncan have argued that the pandemic was a form of infectious disease that characterise as hemorrhagic plague similar to Ebola. However, no single alternative solution has achieved widespread acceptance. Many scholars arguing for the Y. pestis as the major agent of the pandemic, suggest that its extent and symptoms can be explained by a combination of bubonic plague with other diseases, including typhus, smallpox and respiratory infections. In addition to the bubonic infection, others point to additional septicemic (a type of "blood poisoning") and pneumonic (an airborne plague that attacks the lungs before the rest of the body) forms of the plague, which lengthen the duration of outbreaks throughout the seasons and help account for its high mortality rate and additional recorded symptoms.
However, in October 2010 the open-access scientific journal PloS Pathogens published a paper by a multinational team who undertook a new investigation into the role of Yersinia pestis in the Black Death. Their surveys tested for DNA and protein signatures specific for Y. pestis in human skeletons from widely distributed mass graves in northern, central and southern Europe that were associated archaeologically with the Black Death and subsequent resurgences. The authors concluded that this new research, together with prior analyses from the south of France and Germany
- "...ends the debate about the etiology of the Black Death, and unambiguously demonstrates that Y. pestis was the causative agent of the epidemic plague that devastated Europe during the Middle Ages."
The study also found that there were two previously unknown but related clades (genetic branches) of the Y. pestis genome associated with different medieval mass graves. These clades (which are now thought to be extinct) were found to be ancestral to modern isolates of the modern Y. pestis strains Orientalis and Medievalis, suggesting that the plague may have entered Europe in two distinct waves. Surveys of plague pit remains in France and England indicate that the first variant entered Europe through the port of Marseille around November 1347 and spread through France over the next two years, eventually reaching England in the spring of 1349, where it spread through the country in three successive epidemics. However, surveys of plague pit remains from the Netherlands town of Bergen op Zoom showed that the Y. pestis genotype responsible for the pandemic that spread through the Low Countries from 1350 differed from that found in Britain and France, implying that Bergen op Zoom (and possibly other parts of the southern Netherlands) was not directly infected from England or France in AD 1349, and suggesting that a second wave of plague infection, distinct from those in Britain and France, may have been carried to the Low Countries from Norway, the Hanseatic cities, or another site.
Some historians have suggested another theory for the cause of the Black Death, one that points to social, agricultural and economic causes. Often known as the Malthusian limit, scholars use this term to express and explain tragedies throughout history. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus asserted that eventually humans would reproduce so greatly that they would go beyond the limits of food supplies; once they reached this point, some sort of "reckoning" was inevitable. In his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, professor David Herlihy explores this idea of plague as an inevitable crisis wrought on humanity in order to control the population and human resources. In the book The Black Death; A Turning Point in History? (ed. William M. Bowsky) he writes "implies that the Black Death's pivotal role in late medieval society ... was now being challenged. Arguing on the basis of a neo-Malthusian economics, revisionist historians recast the Black Death as a necessary and long overdue corrective to an overpopulated Europe."
Herlihy also examined the arguments against the Malthusian crisis, stating "if the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier" due to the population growth of years before the outbreak of the Black Death. Herlihy also brings up other, biological factors that argue against the plague as a "reckoning" by arguing "the role of famines in affecting population movements is also problematic. The many famines preceding the Black Death, even the 'great hunger' of 1314 to 1317, did not result in any appreciable reduction in population levels". Herlihy concludes the matter stating, "the medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period" and states that the phenomenon should be referred to as more of a deadlock, rather than a crisis, to describe Europe before the epidemics.:34
Contemporary accounts of the plague are often varied or imprecise. The most commonly noted symptom was the appearance of buboes in the groin, the neck and armpits, which oozed pus and bled when opened. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Some accounts, like that of Louis Heyligen, a priest living in Avignon, noted a distinct form of the disease which infected the lungs and led to respiratory problems. Most victims died within two to seven days after infection. David Herlihy identifies another potential sign of the plague: freckle-like spots and rashes.
The modern bubonic plague has a mortality rate of thirty to seventy-five percent and symptoms including fever of 38–41 °C (101–105 °F), headaches, painful aching joints, nausea and vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. If untreated, of those that contract the bubonic plague, 80% die within eight days. Pneumonic plague has mortality rate of ninety to ninety-five percent. Symptoms include fever, cough, and blood-tinged sputum. As the disease progresses, sputum becomes free flowing and bright red. Septicemic plague is the least common of the three forms, with a mortality rate close to one hundred percent. Symptoms are high fevers and purple skin patches (purpura due to disseminated intravascular coagulation). In cases of pneumonic and particularly septicemic plague the progress of the disease is so rapid that there would often be no time for the development of the enlarged lymph nodes that were noted as buboes.
Anthrax can enter the human body through the skin (cutaneous), intestines (ingestion), or lungs (inhalation), and causes distinct clinical symptoms based on its site of entry. Cutaneous anthrax infection in humans shows up as a boil-like skin lesion that eventually forms an ulcer with a black center (eschar), often beginning as an irritating and itchy skin lesion or blister that is dark and usually concentrated as a black dot. Cutaneous infections generally form within the site of spore penetration between 2 and 5 days after exposure. Without treatment about 20% of cutaneous skin infection cases progress to toxemia and death. Respiratory infection in humans initially presents with cold or flu-like symptoms for several days, followed by severe (and often fatal) respiratory collapse. Historical mortality was 92%. Gastrointestinal infection in humans is most often caused by eating anthrax-infected meat and is characterized by serious gastrointestinal difficulty, vomiting of blood, severe diarrhea, acute inflammation of the intestinal tract, and loss of appetite. After the bacteria invades the bowel system, it spreads through the bloodstream throughout the body, making more toxins on the way.
Figures for the death toll vary widely by area and from source to source as new research and discoveries come to light. It killed an estimated 75–200 million people in the 14th century. According to medieval historian Philip Daileader in 2007:
The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45% to 50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75% to 80% of the population. In Germany and England ... it was probably closer to 20%.
The most widely accepted estimate for the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran and Syria, during this time, is for a death rate of about a third. The Black Death killed about 40% of Egypt's population. Half of Paris's population of 100,000 people had died. In Italy, Florence's population was reduced from 110,000 or 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. At least 60% of Hamburg's and Bremen's population perished. Before 1350, there were about 170,000 settlements in Germany, and this had been reduced by nearly 40,000 by 1450. In 1348, the plague spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. In crowded cities, it was not uncommon for as much as 50% of the population to die. Europeans living in isolated areas suffered less, whereas monks and priests were especially hard hit since they cared for the Black Death's victims.
Because 14th century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague's emergence. The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was little understood in the 14th century; many people believed only God's anger could produce such horrific displays. There were many attacks against Jewish communities. In August 1349, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated. In February of that same year, the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed. The Brotherhood of the Flagellants, a movement said to number up to 800,000, reached its peak of popularity.
In England, in the absence of census figures, historians propose a range of pre-incident population figures from as high as 7 million to as low as 4 million in 1300, and a post-incident population figure as low as 2 million. By the end of 1350 the Black Death had subsided, but it never really died out in England over the next few hundred years: there were further outbreaks in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. An outbreak in 1471 took as much as 10-15% of the population, while the death rate of the plague of 1479-80 could have been as high as 20%. The most general outbreaks in Tudor and Stuart England seem to have begun in 1498, 1535, 1543, 1563, 1589, 1603, 1625, and 1636.
The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, and although bubonic plague still occurs in isolated cases today, the Great Plague of London in 1665–1666 is generally recognised as one of the last major outbreaks. According to Biraben 1671 was the first year since 1346 when northern and western parts of Europe were free of plague. The Second Pandemic was particularly widespread in the following years: 1360–1363; 1374; 1400; 1438–1439; 1456–1457; 1464–1466; 1481–1485; 1500–1503; 1518–1531; 1544–1548; 1563–1566; 1573–1588; 1596–1599; 1602–1611; 1623–1640; 1644–1654; and 1664–1667. According to Geoffrey Parker, "France alone lost almost a million people to plague in the epidemic of 1628–31."
In 1466, perhaps 40,000 people died of plague in Paris. According to Biraben, plague was present in Paris for almost one year in three in the 16th and 17th centuries to 1670. The Black Death ravaged Europe for three years before it continued on into Russia, where the disease hit somewhere once every five or six years from 1350 to 1490. Plague epidemics ravaged London in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665, reducing its population by 10 to 30% during those years. Amsterdam lost over 10% of its population to plague in 1623–1625, and again in 1635–1636, 1655, and 1664. There were twenty-two outbreaks of plague in Venice between 1361 and 1528. The plague of 1576-1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Late outbreaks in central Europe included the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years' War, and the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679. Over 60% of Norway's population died from 1348 to 1350. The last plague outbreak ravaged Oslo in 1654.
In the first half of the 17th century a plague claimed some 1,730,000 victims in Italy, or about 14% of the population. In 1656 the plague killed about half of Naples' 300,000 inhabitants. More than 1,250,000 deaths resulted from the extreme incidence of plague in 17th century Spain. The plague of 1649 probably reduced the population of Seville by half. In 1709–1713, a plague epidemic that followed the Great Northern War (1700–1721, Sweden v. Russia and allies) killed about 100,000 in Sweden, and 300,000 in Prussia. The plague killed two-thirds of the inhabitants of Helsinki, and claimed a third of Stockholm's population. Europe's last major epidemic occurred in 1720 in Marseilles.
The Black Death ravaged much of the Islamic world. Plague was present in at least one location in the Islamic world virtually every year between 1500 and 1850. The cities of North Africa were especially hard hit by the disease. 30,000–50,000 died in Algiers in 1620–21, 1654–57, 1665, 1691, and 1740–42. Plague remained a major event in Ottoman society until the second quarter of the 19th century. Between 1701 and 1750, 37 larger and smaller plague epidemics were recorded in Istanbul, and 31 between 1751 and 1800. Baghdad has suffered severely from visitations of the plague, and sometimes two-thirds of its population has been wiped out.
From 1944 through 1993, 362 cases of human plague were reported in the United States; approximately 90% of these occurred in four western states; Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. Plague was confirmed in the United States from nine western states during 1995.
The plague bacterium could develop drug-resistance and again become a major health threat. The ability to resist many of the antibiotics used against plague has been found so far in only a single case of the disease in Madagascar, in 1995.
The Black Death had a profound impact on art and literature throughout the generation that experienced it. Much of the most useful manifestations of the Black Death in literature, to historians, comes from the accounts of its chroniclers. Some of these chroniclers were famous writers, philosophers and rulers such as Boccaccio and Petrarch. Their writings, however, did not reach the majority of the European population. Petrarch's work was read mainly by wealthy nobles and merchants of Italian city-states. He wrote hundreds of letters and vernacular poetry, and passed on to later generations a revised interpretation of courtly love. There was one troubadour, writing in the lyric style long out of fashion, who was active in 1348. Peire Lunel de Montech composed the sorrowful sirventes "Meravilhar no·s devo pas las gens" during the height of the plague in Toulouse.
They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in ... ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura ... buried my five children with my own hands ... And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.—The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle
How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! The condition of the people was pitiable to behold. They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help. Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies. Consecrated churchyards did not suffice for the burial of the vast multitude of bodies, which were heaped by the hundreds in vast trenches, like goods in a ships hold and covered with a little earth.—Giovanni Boccaccio
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- Quotes from the Plague
- Cantor, Norman F. (2001), In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made, New York, Free Press.
- Cohn, S. K. Jr., (2002), The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe, London: Arnold.
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- Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 978-0061718984.
- Media related to Black Death at Wikimedia Commons
- Black Death on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
- Black Death at BBC
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