The Black Death

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The Black Death
The Black Death was a devastating pandemic that first struck Europe in the mid-14th century (134750), killing about a third of Europe's population, an estimated 34 million people. A series of plague epidemics also occurred in large portions of Asia and the Middle East during the same period, indicating that the European outbreak was actually part of a worldwide pandemic. The same disease is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying degrees of intensity and fatality until the 1700s. Notable late outbreaks include the Italian Plague of 1629-1631, the Great Plague of London (1665–66), and the Great Plague of Vienna (1679).
The initial 14th-century European event was called the "Great Mortality" by contemporary writers and, with later outbreaks, became known as the "Black Death" because of a striking symptom of the disease, called acral necrosis, in which sufferers' skin would blacken due to subdermal hemorrhages. Historical records attribute the Black Death to an outbreak of bubonic plague, an epidemic of the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus), although today's experts debate both the microbiological culprit and mode of transmission.

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The plague consisted of three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The bubonic and septicemic plague are transmitted by direct contact with fleas. The bacteria multiplies inside a flea, blocking its stomach and causing it to become very hungry. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues to feed because it is unable to satisfy its hunger. During the feeding process, infected blood carrying the plague bacteria flows into the wound. The plague bacteria then has a new host, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.

The pneumonic plague has a different form of transmission. It is transmitted through infected droplets of saliva coughed up by bubonic or septicemic infected humans. The airborne bacteria enters the lungs through the windpipe and starts attacking the lungs and throat.

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The three forms of plague brought an array of signs and symptoms to those infected. Bubonic plague refers to the painful lymph node swellings called buboes. The septicemic plague is called "Blood poisoning", and pneumonic plague is an airborne plague that forms a first attack on the lungs. The classic sign of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in the groin and armpits, which ooze pus and blood. Victims underwent damage to the skin and underlying tissue until they were covered in dark blotches. This symptom, called acral necrosis, led to the disease being called the "Black" plague. Most victims died within four to seven days after infection. When plague reached Europe, it first struck port cities and then followed the trade routes, both by sea and land.

The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death, with a mortality rate of thirty to seventy-five percent and symptoms including fever of 38 to 41 °C, headaches, aching joints, nausea and vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. The pneumonic plague was the second most commonly seen form of the Black Death, with a mortality rate of ninety to ninety-five percent. Symptoms included slimy sputum tinted with blood. As the disease progressed, sputum became free flowing and bright red. Septicemic plague was the most rare of the three forms, with mortality close to 100 percent. Symptoms were high fevers and skin turning deep shades of purple due to DIC (Disseminated intravascular coagulation).

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Information about the death toll varies widely by area and from source to source. Approximately 25 million deaths occurred in Europe alone, with many others occurring in northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Estimates of the demographic impact of plague in Asia are based on both population figures during this time and estimates of the disease's toll on population centers. The initial outbreak of plague in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334 claimed up to 90 percent of the population, an estimated five million people. During 1353–54, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol/Chinese empires may have caused the death of two-thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of 25 million deaths.

It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of the European population died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350. As many as 25% of all villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities, as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities. The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard. Some rural areas, for example, Eastern Poland and Lithuania, had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were also strikingly filthy, infested with lice, fleas and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. According to historian John Kelly, "(w)oefully inadequate sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside." (p. 68) The influx of new citizens facilitated the movement of the plague between communities, and contributed to the longevity of the plague within larger communities.
The precise demographic impact of the disease in the Middle East is impossible to calculate. Mortality was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine and Syria. Many surviving rural people fled, leaving their fields and crops, and entire rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Surviving records in some cities reveal a devastating number of deaths. The 1348 outbreak in Gaza left an estimated 10,000 people dead, while Aleppo recorded a death rate of 500 a day during the same year. In Damascus, at the disease's peak in September and October 1348, a thousand deaths were recorded every day, with overall mortality estimated at between 25 and 38 percent. Syria lost a total of 400,000 people by the time the epidemic subsided in March 1349. In contrast to some higher mortality estimates in Asia and Europe, scholars believe the mortality rate in the Middle East was less than one-third of the total population, with higher rates in selected areas.

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The governments of Europe had no effective response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. 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 worse 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 labor. 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, another of the crises of the fourteenth century, would deplete the treasuries, manpower, and infrastructure of both kingdoms throughout and beyond the worst of the plague. Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for tragedy.

The plague did more than just devastate the medieval population; it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death began during a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century, and only served to worsen it. As a consequence, it greatly accelerated social and economic change during the 14th and 15th centuries. First, the church's power was weakened, and in some cases, the social roles it had played were replaced by secular ones. It also led to peasant uprisings in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).
The Black Death should have opened the way to increased peasant prosperity. Europe had been overpopulated before the plague, and a reduction of 30% to 50% of the population should have meant less competition for resources: more available land and food, and higher wages. However, for reasons that are still debated, population levels in fact continued to decline until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until 1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not entirely provide a satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity.
The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labor provided an incentive for landlords to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation that, some argue, represents the roots of capitalism, and the resulting social upheaval caused the Renaissance and even Reformation. In many ways the Black Death improved the situation of surviving peasants. In Western Europe, because of the shortage of labor they were in more demand and had more power, and because of the reduced population, there was more fertile land available; however, the benefits would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again.
In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. Sparsely populated Eastern Europe was less affected by the Black Death and so peasant revolts were less common in the 14th and 15th centuries, not occurring in the east until the 16th through 19th centuries. Since it is believed to have in part caused the social upheavals of 14th- and 15th-century Western Europe, some see the Black Death as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation in Western Europe. Therefore, historians have cited the smaller impact of the plague as a contributing factor in Eastern Europe's failure to experience either of these movements on a similar scale. Extrapolating from this, the Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe's considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances as well as in the move to liberalise government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. A common example is that England is seen to have effectively ended serfdom by 1550 while moving towards more representative government; meanwhile, Russia did not abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed so in 1861.

On top of all this, the plague's great population reduction brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry, if not immediately, in the coming century. However, the upper class often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting laws which barred the peasantry from certain actions or material goods. A good example of this is the sumptuary laws which were passed throughout Europe which regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear, so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as a higher class member with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the causes of England's 1381 Peasants' Revolt.

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As with other natural and man-made social disasters, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of Black Death. In many parts of Europe, rumors circulated that Jews caused the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Fierce pogroms frequently resulted in the death or banishment of most of the Jews in a town or city. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been exterminated, and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred. This persecution was often done, not solely out of religious hatred, but as a way of attacking the Kings or Church who normally protected the Jews; indeed, Jews were often called the King's property. It was a way of lashing out at the institutions who had failed them. Because fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to rabbinical law which called for a lifestyle that was, in general, cleaner than that of a medieval villager, and Jewish ghettos which kept them more separate from the general population, inevitably Jews looked suspicious. An important legacy of the Black Death was to cause the eastward movement of what was left of north European Jewry to Poland and Russia, where it remained until the 20th century.

Lepers were also singled out and persecuted, indeed exterminated throughout Europe. Anyone with a skin disease such as acne or psoriasis was thought to be a leper, and leprosy was believed to be an outward sign of an inner defect of the soul. Both Jews and lepers were persecuted because they became scapegoats for the disasters of society.

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The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their frequent promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or even explain the plague. In fact, most thought it spread somehow through air, calling it miasma. This increased doubting of the clergy. Pope Clement VI reigned during the plague years in Europe during a time when the papacy was based in Avignon, France. This period in papal history, known as the Babylonian Captivity to its detractors, was a concurrent cause of the people's lack of faith in the Catholic Church. The Avignon popes were seen as having subordinated themselves to the French monarchy, and their ineffectiveness regarding the Black Death only compounded the common man's disillusionment. Extreme alienation with the church culminated in either support for different religious groups such as the flagellants, which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death (angering church and political officials greatly), or to an increase in interest for more secular alternatives to problems facing European society and an increase of secular politicians.

The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their close quarters and their kindness in helping the sick, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of new clergy members, most of whom did not share the life-long convictions and experiences of the veterans they replaced. This resulted in abuses by the clergy in years afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people.

The result of the plague was not just a massive decline in population. It irrevocably changed Europe's social structure, was a disastrous blow to Europe's predominant religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church, caused widespread persecutions of minorities like Jews and lepers, and created a general mood of morbidity that influenced people to live for the moment, unsure of their daily survival.

The Black Death – Lead in


Match the following headings with the relevant sections of the text.

  1. ________ The effects on religion

  2. ________ Signs and symptoms

  3. ________ Persecutions

  4. ________ Effects on society and economy

  5. ________ Depopulation

  6. ________ Types of the plague


Answer the following questions.

  1. Why was the disease called the Black Death?

  1. Why do flea carrying the bacteria that cause the bubonic and septisemic forms bite other animals or humans?

  1. What is the difference in the way bubonic/septisemic and pneumonic forms are transmitted?

  1. What kind of places (geographically) were first affected by the disease?

  1. Why were cities more affected by the disease than rural areas?

  1. How did rulers try to stop the disease?

  1. Write the social effects of the epidemic on Europe.

  1. How did the plague help improve the situation of peasants in Western Europe?

  1. What difference is there in the way the Black Death affected Eastern and Western Europe?

  1. Why were Jews blamed for the plague?

  1. Write one effect the Black Death had on religion in Europe.

SL Int BtB Unit 9 S. Erdogan

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