DBQ: Why was the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) so Devastating to European Society?
The Bubonic Plague or “Black Death” came out of the eastern Mediterranean along shipping routes, reaching Italy in the spring of 1348. By the time the epidemic was abating in 1351, between 25% and 50% of Europe’s population had died. The epidemic is believed to have started in China and made its way west across Asia to the Black Sea. One theory is that it entered Europe when a group of Tartars used catapults to hurl the dead bodies of infected soldiers over the walls of a Genoian trading outpost that was under siege. Because people had no defense against the disease and no understanding of how it spread, it brought panic as well as illness and death. Lepers, as well as Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities, were accused of spreading the plague and thousands of people were executed.
We now know that the disease was spread by infected fleas that attached themselves to rats and humans. The most striking symptom of the plague was dark swellings or “buboes” in the lymph glands on a victim’s neck, armpits and groin. They ranged in size from an egg to an apple. Once the swelling appeared, an infected person was usually dead within a week. Another even more virulent form attacked the respiratory system and was spread by breathing the exhaled air of a victim. Once a person was infected, their life expectancy was one or two days. (Source: EyeWitnesstoHistory.com).
abating = lessening; tapering off
Tartars = Turkic and Mongolian peoples who invaded Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
Genoian = Genoa, Italy
virulent = powerful
Source A: Boccaccio Describes the Arrival of the Bubonic Plague in Florence, The Decameron (adapted from a translation by Richard Hooker )
In 1348, there came into the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful of all Italian cities, a deadly pestilence, which, . . . several years earlier had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously. No human wisdom or foresight had any value: enormous amounts of refuse and manure were removed from the city by appointed officials, the sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health; just as useless were the humble supplications to God given not one time but many times in appointed processions, and all the other ways devout people called on God.
At the beginning of the spring of that year, that horrible plague began with its dolorous [misery causing] effects in a most awe-inspiring manner. . . [I]t began with swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs, some were small and others were large; the common people called these swellings gavoccioli. From these two parts of the body, the fatal gavoccioli would begin to spread and within a short while would appear over the entire body in various spots; the disease at this point began to take on the qualities of a deadly sickness, and the body would be covered with dark and livid spots, which would appear in great numbers on the arms, the thighs, and other parts of the body; some were large and widely spaced while some were small and bunched together. And just like the gavoccioli earlier, these were certain indications of coming death.
To cure these infirmities neither the advice of physicians nor the power of medicine appeared to have any value or profit; perhaps either the nature of the disease did not allow for any cure or the ignorance of the physicians . . . did not know how to cure it; as a consequence, very few were ever cured; all died three days after the appearance of the first outward signs, some lasted a little bit longer, some died a little bit more quickly, and some without fever or other symptoms.
1. What is the source of this passage?
3. What are the symptoms of people who are ill with the plague?
4. According to the author, why was the plague so difficult to treat?
Source B: Marchione di Coppo Stefani, The Florentine Chronicle (c. 1370), Adapted from Stefani, Marchione di Coppo. Cronaca fiorentina. Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, Vol. 30. , ed. Niccolo Rodolico. Citta di Castello: 1903-13.
Physicians could not be found because they had died like the others. And those who could be found wanted vast sums in hand before they entered the house. And when they did enter, they checked the pulse with face turned away. They inspected the urine from a distance and with something odoriferous [to block the smell] under their nose. Child abandoned the father, husband the wife, wife the husband, one brother the other, one sister the other. In all the city there was nothing to do but to carry the dead to a burial. And those who died had neither confessor nor other sacraments. And many died with no one looking after them. . . . At every church, or at most of them, they dug deep trenches, down to the waterline, wide and deep, depending on how large the parish was. And those who were responsible for the dead carried them on their backs in the night in which they died and threw them into the ditch, or else they paid a high price to those who would do it for them. The next morning, if there were many [bodies] in the trench, they covered them over with dirt. And then more bodies were put on top of them, with a little more dirt over those; they put layer on layer just like one puts layers of cheese in a lasagna.
odoriferous = giving off a smell
5. What happened to people when they became sick with Bubonic plague?
6. Why was it so difficult to bury the dead?
Source C: The Cremation of Jews in Strasbourg, Germany on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1349, Adapted from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1348-jewsblackdeath.html Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it [the plague] through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells . . . and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. Nevertheless they tortured a number of Jews in Berne and Zofingen [Switzerland] who then admitted that they had put poison into many wells, and they also found the poison in the wells. Thereupon they burnt the Jews in many towns. . . . On Saturday - that was St. Valentine’s Day - they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.
7. What happened to many European Jews during the Bubonic Plague? Why were some Jews spared?
8. According to the author, why were the Jews really blamed for the plague?
Source D: The Black Death: How Many Died? http://www.hyw.com/books/history/Black_De.htm