“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” the driver cried as the horse-drawn carts rumbled through the streets of Europe in the 1300s. Bodies were dragged from almost every house and thrown onto the carts. Corpse was tossed on top of corpse until they were like logs in a pile of firewood. Sometimes several bodies were carried out of the same house. The Black Death had struck! One person in every three would die of the plague before it ran its course.
The Black Death was the worst calamity of all times, wiping out the entire populations of some villages. In the large city of Smolensk, Russia, only five people survived the plague. Nine out of every ten citizens of London fell victim to the Black Death. Virtually the entire populations of Iceland and Cyprus were wiped out.
So many people were struck down by the plague that the supply of coffins was soon exhausted, and the dead were carried in wooden planks to huge mass burial pits. Corpses were piled several high, and then a thin layer of dirt was shoveled over them. Often the burials took place with no member of the family or clergy present. As people fled before the spreading plague, spouse abandoned spouse, and parents forsook children.
The plague spread quickly from person to person. People went to bed well and were dead by morning. A doctor might arrive at a home to treat a victim only to catch the plague and die before the original sufferer.
The Black Death derived its name from the color of the victim’s skin in death. A person who was infected always died within three days, skin covered by black patches. There were other symptoms too. Patients developed egg-sized swellings in the groin and armpits. Sometimes victims coughed and sweated violently.
The first people to know the horror of the Black Death were the Chinese, who were hit by the plague earlier in the 14th century. The disease quickly spread to the Mongols, a people originally from the area where the present day Mongolia. They had conquered all the Russian lands as far into Europe as the Black Sea-but they carried the plague with them.
The Mongols advance had been halted by a trading colony of Italians located on the Black Sea. As more and more of Kipchak’s Mongols became victims of the Black Death, he began to realize that the Italian city would never fall to him. Kipchak’s troops had brought huge catapults, devices like giant slingshots, with them. They used them for throwing huge stones against the stone walls of the fort. Kipchak has the catapults loaded with the bodies of Mongols who had died of the Black Death. The corpses were thrown over the walls and into the city where they quickly spread the plague to the Italian colonists.
Both Italian and Mongols abandoned the city. Some of the Italians boarded a galley and rowed to Italy as fast as they could. When the galley arrived at the Italian port of Messina, the inhabitants of the port found some of the rowers dead and the remainder dying of the plague. The Black Death had come to Italy.
The plague quickly spread throughout Italy and passed on to France. From France, the plague was carried across the English Channel to Great Britain. The cycle of dead was completed when the plague spread from Britain to all the rest of Europe, sparing not one country. Human survival was threatened. No wonder people said- and believed-“This is the end of the world”.
Many people believed that the plague was caused by the wrath of God. Societies of flagellants formed. The societies derived their name from the whips members used to beat themselves and one another. Dressed in sackcloth and ashes, the flagellants moved from town to town, beating themselves with leather whips tipped with metal points.
Since the scientist of the time had no idea of the plague’s cause, their “cures” were nearly as horrible as the disease itself. People ate and drank concoctions of blood, goat urine, lizards, toads, and boils that had been dried and powdered. Plague victims were advised to rip open the bodies of puppies and pigeons and hold the torn flesh against the plague boils. While people were daily trying these cures, the Black Death continued its deadly passage across Europe.
The real cause of the plague had been partially discovered by an Arab physician about 400 years before. The physician had noted that the plague broke out only after rats had come out of their holes to die in the open air. This observation was accurate but failed to take into account one final piece needed for the puzzles solution-fleas. The plague germs lived and multiplied in the bodies of fleas. Every rat had hundreds of fleas that lived on rats blood and infected them with the Black Death. When the rats died of the plague, the fleas jumped onto the nearest people. It was the bite of the fleas that spread the plague germs to their human victims.
There were house rats in every 14thcentury city, so nobody was spared. The Black Death carried off king and commoner alike. It raged back and forth over Europe, on and off for 200 years. Then gradually it died away. Some people think that the real end of the plague didn’t come until the London Fire of 1666. The London Fire of 1966 destroyed most of London, along with the rats, fleas, and germs that caused the plague.
Surprisingly, during all the 200 years that the plague ravaged Europe, the cure had been at hand. The germs of the Black Death can be destroyed by the application of soap and water.