Great epidemic of plague, mainly the bubonic variant, that ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century. Contemporary estimates that it killed between one-third and half of the population (about 75 million people) are probably accurate. The cause of the plague was the bacterium Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas that infested migrating Asian black rats. Originating in China, the disease followed the trade routes through India into Europe. The name Black Death was first used in England in the early 19th century.
The plague arrived in Sicily, Italy, in October 1347, reached southern France in January 1348, and was first recorded in England in August 1348, after two fishing boats from France docked at Weymouth, Dorset. Symptoms were violent headache; dark blotches caused by bleeding under the skin; and buboes, massively swollen lymph glands that could grow to the size of an orange in the groin or armpit. Buboes were variously described as black pustules, boils, and abscesses. Few victims lived longer than four to seven days, though there were rare cases of survival if the buboes burst. Medieval medicine was helpless, and many doctors and priests simply ran away. Doctors blamed bad air or a conjunction of the planets for the disease, others suggested that beggars or the Jews had poisoned the wells. Most agreed that the plague was a punishment from God. Ignorance of the cause made the disease even more terrifying. It was, wrote one Flemish priest, ‘the most terrible of all terrors’.
Two other strains of bubonic plague were also at work, pneumonic plague and septicaemic plague, making the disease even more incomprehensible to medieval doctors. Pneumonic plague attacked the lungs, causing coughing of blood. Plague bacilli were sprayed into the air, even during breathing, making it the most infectious form of plague. Victims always died within two to three days and buboes were not always present at the time of death. Pneumonic and pure bubonic plague appear to have struck in alternate seasonal waves throughout the epidemic. Septicaemic plague was rarer, but could kill within a few hours. It attacked the bloodstream, flooding it with so many plague bacilli that human fleas were able to become carriers. There were reports of priests and doctors attending the dying who died at the bedside before their patient.
Medieval society lapsed into a despair in the face of death, that was reflected in the ‘dance of death’, a recurring theme in medieval English art. In England, the ensuing shortage of labourers led to increased wages and the collapse of the feudal system, and contributed to the Peasants' Revolt in June 1381.
Satan Triumphant: The Black Death
The Black Death is the name given to the great pandemic of plague that ravaged parts of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe in...
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An epidemic which struck England in 1348-9 and reduced the population by between one-third and one-half. The economic consequences were...