An Overview of the Black Death

The Black Death was a worldwide pandemic that struck Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East at the same time in the 14th century. Our focus for today will be in the peak years of the outbreak, which took place from 1348-1350. We’ll look at the theories surrounding the origins of the Black Death, the approximate death tolls, and the aftermath.

First, let’s use a quick timeline of the events to get started:

The first signs of the Black Death appeared in China between 1333-1334. From 1338-1339, the outbreak reached India and spread farther via overland trade routes. The Black Death arrived in the Crimean Peninsula, a major trading hub, in 1346. The next year, Genoese ships fleeing the siege of Caffa arrived in Sicily, bringing the plague to Europe. At the same time, Egypt, the Middle East and North Africa were infected. The infection spread rapidly to northern Italy, France, Spain, and England by 1348 and continued on toward the rest of the British Isles and Norway the next year. Between 1350-1352, the Black Death spread across Scandinavia and made its way back to Eastern Europe.

After the worst of the pandemic had passed through Europe by 1350, there would be many recurrences of the plague in local areas. London was hit especially hard in 1665 with perhaps as many as 200,000 people falling victim to the Great Plague. It was around this time that the term “Black Death” was first employed to distinguish the 14th-century crisis from the Great Plague. The Black Death is a mistranslation of the Latin atra mors (terrible or dreadful death). Its contemporary name differed in the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Christian writers wrote of the ‘great pestilence’ and the ‘plague of Florence’ spreading across Christendom while Islamic scholars described the effects of ‘the great destruction’ or the ‘year of annihilation’ which devastated North Africa and the Middle East. Whatever the name used or the locations of the outbreak, the effects were much the same.

The Black Death is commonly held to have been a mixture of the three types of plague: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. The bites of the fleas carrying the plague would cause the formation of painful boils, buboes, on the patient’s groin or armpits. These would range in size from an almond to an orange. About 60% of victims would perish within a week of infection. The pneumonic variant affected the lungs of victims, causing them to cough up blood. This was both highly contagious and deadly, with an estimated 95% mortality rate. Arguably, the most terrifying strain of all was the septicemic variant which entered the bloodstream and killed every one of its victims within hours. Other symptoms included blotches on the skin, high fever, pains in the limbs, and moments of delirium.

The origins of the Black Death remain an area of dispute among scholars, but one of the more generally accepted explanations is that it developed in rats and was passed to humans by fleas. The xenopsylla cheopis or Oriental rat flea is a particularly durable parasite capable of surviving many weeks without a host, making them the ideal vector for the plague. They acted rather like syringes, rapidly passing the infection from one host to the next. Medieval settlements tended to be overcrowded, with little or no sanitation. This meant that once a town was infected, the Black Death would spread rapidly and exact a dreadful toll upon the population. Wealthier citizens would flee to the country in hopes of escaping the outbreak while the poor would be left to their fate.

The arrival of the Black Death in Europe has commonly been attributed to trade ships landing in the Sicilian port of Messina from the Crimean peninsula. The infection was carried to Eastern Europe along the Silk Road, the great overland trade route that linked the Western and Eastern worlds. As the name suggests, silk and other luxury goods were carried by caravan. The route allowed the Black Death to spread westward. When a Genoese port was attacked in 1346, the besieging forces catapulted the corpses of plague victims over the walls of Caffa to spread the infection as a form of biological warfare. The defenders fled the city by ship, bringing the Black Death with them. Messina was believed to have been the first European port afflicted by the arrival of infected ships.

Medical science was primitive in the 14th century and ill-equipped to understand or manage the Black Death. Blood-letting, a common medical practice for some 2000 years, had little effect. Some physicians attempted to lance the buboes of patients, an extremely painful experience more likely to spread the infection than cure it. Bathing in vinegar was another similarly ineffective remedy tried by some doctors. Overwhelmed by the volume of patients and the danger of the profession, some just stopped seeing patients entirely. The dead soon piled up on the streets with scarcely enough survivors to dispose of the bodies. Many believed that the seemingly unstoppable spread of death was a divine punishment from God for the sins of mankind. The period saw groups of worshippers travel from town to town seeking forgiveness through acts of self-mutilation. Others chose to live in the moment, and many towns became centers of drunken violence and lawlessness.

Many looked for scapegoats and the period was blighted by a succession of atrocities committed against the Jewish populations of several European cities. A papal condemnation against the attacks on Jews had little effect on stopping the violence. Such widespread anti-Semitic hatred would not be matched in Europe until the 20th century.

So what were the outcomes of this bleak period of human history?

Huge numbers of people in Europe died, with similar devastation observed in North Africa and the Middle East. With few exceptions, almost every major settlement in Europe had experienced substantial losses, with the countryside faring little better. As with many aspects of the Black Death, the precise details are unknown and the subject of intense scholarly debate. The global population at the time was around 400 million people, and it is estimated that between 30-60% of humanity succumbed to the Black Death.

The changes that came with such major losses of life had profound effects on the future of the continent. In the years prior to the Black Death, a series of poor harvests and natural disasters saw widespread famine and malnutrition. The drop in population caused by the pandemic eased the problem of overpopulation and resultant food shortages. As well as fuller stomachs, those who survived had more reason to view the future with optimism: With labor in short supply, the peasants who worked the land were able to enjoy marginally better wages and conditions than before. Though far from ideal by modern standards, agricultural workers could simply migrate to another area in search of better opportunities. The influence of the Church on the population was weakened by the failure of the clergy to prevent or stop the Black Death. Fewer workers in general also drove a need for innovation and opened up access to education for those who had been excluded before and more schools were built. These changes were some of the driving forces behind the Renaissance and the advancements which followed.

Now before we go, here are some review questions to test your knowledge:

1. Which of the following spread the Black Death to Europe?

  1. Biological warfare
  2. Fleas on rats
  3. Trade routes
  4. All of the above

The answer is D, all of the above.

As mentioned earlier, the siege of Caffa in 1346 saw attackers use the corpses of plague victims to spread the infection. Fleas from rats spread the Black Death to humans and the trade routes carried these fleas from Asia to Europe.

2. Which group of people was blamed for causing the Black Death?

  1. Foreigners
  2. Jews
  3. Gypsies
  4. None of the above

The answer is B, Jews.

With few exceptions, the Jewish populations of European settlements, despite also dying in great numbers, were blamed for the Black Death and were either banished or massacred.

3. What was a result of the Black Death?

  1. Greater faith in the Church
  2. The end of international trade
  3. Higher wages
  4. All of the above

The answer is C, higher wages.

Because there were fewer workers, those who survived the Black Death could command a better wage for their labor. As a result of higher wages, living standards improved and consumer goods were more widely available than before.

Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: January 14, 2021