Historical Context

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Why was the Bubonic Plague (Black Death)

so Devastating to Europe?

Historical Context: 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 human. 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. One of the most striking descriptions of the plague is in the introduction to The Decameron. The book was written by Giovanni Boccaccio of Florence. It tells the story of seven men and three women who flee to a villa outside the city where they are able to survive (Source: EyeWitnesstoHistory.com).

Document 1: The Bubonic Plague spreads through Europe

1. Where and when does the Bubonic Plague first enter Europe?

2. How long does it take before the Bubonic Plague is recorded in Messina in Sicily? In London, England?

3. What is the last region of Europe affected by the Bubonic Plague?

4. In your opinion, why did the spread of the plague follow this route?

Document 2. An Image of Plague by Giovanni Sercambi.

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