Spread and Impact of the Black Death The Bubonic Plague ravaged the European continent between 1346 and about 1351. This is the first and greatest outbreak of the plague. It would remain endemic in the European continent until the 17th century. The plague has its origins arguably in Central Asia in mid-14th century. It moved east into China and East Asia and west into the Mediterranean Arabia and Western Europe.
Because of trade routes, it's likely that the plague spread as rats and the fleas on those rats moved with merchandise into the European continent. The Genoese had substantial to the Black Sea. It's likely that the plague travelled from the Black Sea into the Italian peninsula by way of these trade routes. In 1347, the plague is present in Constantinople and also in Sicily. It makes its way into the Italian peninsula later in 1347. Over the course of 1348, it spreads throughout all of Italy, most of France and Spain, Switzerland and lower Germany. By late-1348, it's present in the low countries in England. By 1349, it has ravaged England and Ireland and moved on into Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
And so, over the course of four years the plague really spreads throughout the entire continent. The mortality was horrific. Historians argue anywhere from 25% to 50%, one third is a likely compromise. You have to appreciate what it would be like for one out of every three people you know to die of disease in a relatively short time.
While it's true that the disease spread through Europe over the course of four or five years, it moved in concentric circles from its point of origin. And so, in fact any particular locale probably only experienced the plague for a year which means one out of every three people you know would die over the course of a year or even six months. In some communities, the plague was so serious that literally everyone died. The sources speak of empty villages and cattle roaming through the fields without any anyone to milk them. More typically, the plague would take a significant bite out of the population but people would survive.
In urban centers, the percentages were worse because people were packed more closely together and probably lived more closely with rats. Although, I do want to point out that rural populations suffered terribly. Rats were actually very widespread everywhere. There is some distinction of mortality, i.e. death as a result of plague, with respect to class. It seems that richer people died at lower levels. They are still however extremely susceptible. There are plenty of records of European nobility or European royalty that died of the plague but it's likely that wealthier people lived in lesser proximity to rats. It's also likely that their diet gave them some resistance to the plague because of higher protein intake. But all levels of European society and all parts of the content were ravaged by the plague.Some records indicate that Poland and some cities in northern Italy may have escaped real disaster and it's not really clear why that happened.
The effect of the plague on the populace needs to be considered psychologically and medically as well as physically, i.e. with respect to the medical establishment. It's really clear that European medicine in the 14th century was not capable of dealing with the plague in any substantial way. There was no understanding of bacteria or germs as a source of disease. There was no real connection between sanitation and disease. Obviously, no connection between rats and fleas on the disease.
And so, any medical attempts to deal with Bubonic plague were fruitless. And in fact the medical community, in many cases fled rather than actually deal with plague victims for fear of their own lives. One could argue that the plague, in fact, discredited medieval medicine. Psychologically, the plague brought with it an immense sense of doom and foreboding. In fact, European culture acquires a very dark character. If you look at European Art of the period, there is a real concern with death and the fleeting character of life and that would last obviously well into the 15th century. And so the Black Death ravages Western Europe in demographic terms and has a huge effect on the European population and cultures as well.
"Transcript: Spread and Impact of Black Death." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
European Response to the Plague In the second half of the 14th century, the Italian humanist and author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote his Decameron, literally "The Ten Days." It's a set of stories told over the course of ten days by a group of people hiding in a castle. They are in fact sheltering themselves from the Black Death in the hopes that the pestilence would pass while they remain secluded from the general population that was suffering from its effects.
At the beginning of the Decameron, Boccaccio actually describes the plague. He describes the boils or I should say the buboes that formed in the arm pits of its victims. And he describes the terrible toll that it took among the population of Northern Italy—in his case, Florence. He also describes just how contagious it was. Boccaccio tells the story that pigs allowed to root about in the clothes of the dead promptly fell dead themselves. Well, that's an exaggeration. Boccaccio does really recount the effects of the plague and its symptoms very effectively. He also transmits the notion of complete helplessness before the plague. It's clear that European medicine could not deal with the crisis. And so people responded, at least according to Boccaccio, by separating themselves from society in the hope of avoiding infection altogether.
The European medical establishment in the 14th century was based on the scholastic medicine derived from the Greek physician Galen. There was no sense of germ theory. There was no sense of sanitation having a link to a disease. In fact, disease was believed to proceed from an imbalance in one of a person's four humors. And so, the medical establishment really had no success in dealing with the plague. As doctors, in fact, refused to treat plague victims for fear of their own lives, confidence in the European medical establishment fell significantly. Some people maintained that this actually lead to a significant change in European medicine after the plague ended.
With medicine as an uncertain recourse or an uncertain factor, many Europeans sought supernatural causes for the plague. It was believed that it might be a collective punishment for the sins of Europe. And so, collections of flagellants, i.e. people who literally whip themselves through the streets of towns and cities. You know, paraded across Western Europe, hoping that by mortifying their own flesh they would somehow repent and convince God to remove this terrible pestilence. Others blamed the outliers in European society, particularly the Jewish community. Because the Jews were outside the Christian community and seen as you know in others in European communities. They were blamed for a lot of different misfortunes and the plague was no exception. Whole Jewish communities were destroyed as Christians sought scapegoats for the terrible mortality that came from the plague. A number of church authorities including the pope, actually wrote defending the Jewish communities in saying "The Jews are dying at the same rates as Christians. Clearly, they are not the cause of the plague." This however did not really prevent the pogroms and the anti-Jewish persecutions that took place during the period. Others maintain that astrological causes explain the plague and sought to reverse or at least to seek when the signs of the heavens would indicate a reversal.
In the end, the plague really had a significant effect on European consciousness. It's safe to say that, over the course of a weak 14th and 15th century, a lot of European art, particularly funerary art, was concerned with the brief character of life and the unpredictable character of death. And so, it's certainly clear that the high mortality, particularly among people who are healthy and young, made Europeans obsessed with the notion of death for some time. It had a profound cultural effect. It's also safe to say that the Black Death had a profound effect on European economics and on European society. High mortality would have a big effect on available labor and on feudal and manorial systems. These effects obviously need to be treated at length in a separate discussion.
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"Transcript: European Response to the Plague." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Effects of the Plague The Black Death, or at least the first outbreak of the Black Death, ravaged Western Europe between 1347 and 1351. It then remained endemic and flared up periodically throughout the later 14th and 15th centuries. While probably a third of the European population died in the first outbreak, it's estimated that another third may have disappeared over the next 150 years. It is clear that Europe would not reach pre-plague population levels until the 17th century.
We must consider what the effect would be off such a large decline in population over a relatively short period of time. The first is actually fairly obvious: the survivors inherited the wealth of the dead. While the Black Plague obviously had a terrible cultural effect on Western Europe. The wealth of the average person, after the plague passed, probably went up. Because land, material possessions and other forms of wealth were, if you like, concentrated in the hands of fewer people. A lot of people suggest that consumer spending goes up because people had more disposable income. It's certainly clear that the quality of farm land went up. The European population was almost at carrying capacity in the mid-14th century, i.e. at the capacity of the land to support it. As the population went down, it is very clear that less good agricultural land was allowed to pass back into a wild state and only the best land continued to be farmed. One could argue that the plague had an effect on average wealth that is positive.
On the other hand, the plague also had an extremely disorganizing effect on the relationships between lords and peasants or for that matter between masters and apprentices across European economic and agricultural society. In the countryside, the large mortality suffered by the peasantry meant that there was a profound labor shortage. And landlords, the European nobility, really had a problem finding sufficient labor to till their fields. It's important to point out that Europe had really become a money economy by the mid-14th century. And so, the European peasantry were largely paying their rents in cash. They would sell their grain to grain merchants and then pay their rents to their landlords in silver. Some rents were certainly paid in kind, i.e. in agricultural products.
With the significant loss of labor as a result of the Black Death, European landlords tried to re-impose the old labor services typical of 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, i.e. they tried to have peasants pay for their land by working the lord's land for free. This change in rent systems, this disruption in the slowly evolving relationships between landlords and tenants led to significant peasant unrest. In France, peasant revolts took place in the 1350's. Those revolts were sometimes referred to as the Jacquerie. In England, the peasant revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler may in fact have been inspired by the dislocations and the disruptions caused by the Black Death and the attempts of the English nobility to maintain a steady labor supply. And so, demographically and agriculturally, the Black Death had a real effect on European society.
Medically, one can argue that the Black Death really had a discrediting effect on European medical authorities and may have led to substantial change in medical studies and medical practice over the course of the 15th century. Some also argue that the behavior of the clergy during the Black Death may have discredited the Church, that churchmen fled rather than administering the sacraments to the dead and at a time when fear of eternal damnation is profound and the church's sacraments are really the only path to salvation. If churchmen and clergy fail to perform their duty and deliver those sacraments, people obviously will be very disillusioned with the Church because it did not seek their eternal salvation or the welfare of their eternal souls. And so, some argue that popular discontent with the Church already spreading in the 14th century would only be accelerated by the events of the Black Death. In any case, the Black Death had a profound effect on European society economically and culturally as well as demographically and medically. And so, it's safe to say that the Black Death is one of those huge changes that leads to the end of the High Middle Ages and really the beginning of late medieval society.
Introduction to the Black Death Perhaps the greatest disaster to affect the European continent during the Middle Ages is the Bubonic Plague, or the Black Death, of the 14th century. The Bubonic Plague is a disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, a bacillus that has the capacity to infect the circulatory system, the lymphatic system, or the respiratory system. The disease is spread by the rat flea. A flea that reproduces on the European black rat or Rattus rattus, as opposed to brown or Norwegian rats of everyday experience. In Western Europe, the black rat—a smaller pointy-nosed variety of rat was far more common than the brown rat. While the fleas reproduce on rats, they will leave their hosts to bite and draw blood from other nearby mammals—humans included. And so, if humans live in proximity to rats which is very much the case in European cities, or for that matter in the European countryside, the disease can be spread if the rats are infected. The spread of the disease comes as infected rat populations move and fleas reproduce to infect new rat populations.
Over the course of the 14th century, the Black Death or Bubonic plague spread from Asia to the Middle East and ultimately to Western Europe. The mortality in Western Europe was tremendous. Historians estimate anywhere from 25% to 50% mortality. There's really no way to get an accurate count. There are places in the continent where literally everyone died. And there are other places that were more lightly affected.
There are in fact three different manifestations of Black Death or Bubonic plague. If the disease enters the lymphatic system, the most common version, Bubonic plague develops. Bubonic plague is literally a form of plague where large swellings or buboes form in arm pits, in the neck, and in the lower groin area. These are in fact vastly expanded lymph nodes that turn black as a result of the large numbers effect of bacteria forming there. This form of plague is frequently fatal, between five days and ten. Probably, it's the easiest form to recover from but it is still very dangerous.
If enough people with plague spit bacteria into the air through coughing, it's then possible to catch pneumonic plague which is a plague infection of the lungs. That, in fact, is a more deadly form of plague that can kill in two or three days. And indeed, most people who get that form of the disease would die. Finally, there is septicemic plague which is the plague infecting the blood. That can actually come from a rat bite or from other exposures of the blood to the bacteria. This, again, has an extremely high mortality rate.
All forms of plague had a profound effect on Western Europe because it was a new disease. In short, while there were people in the population with the resistance to the plague, there were also many people—in fact, most people without such resistance. And so, when the plague hit in the 1340's vast numbers of people with no natural immune defense against the disease died relatively quickly. Those who survived presumably had some resistance to the plague. Nevertheless, the plague would remain endemic in Western Europe for two centuries. The last outbreak of plague in England took place in the mid-17th century, 1665 in fact. And the last outbreak of plague in Italy, historians believe took place in 1715. And so, this would become a long term factor in European history. Although none of the later outbreaks had the virulence or the scope of the initial outbreak of the mid-14th century.
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"Transcript: Bubonic Plague." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.