Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: BLACK DEATH from A Dictionary of Entomology

Second pandemic of Bubonic Plague (14–17 centuries AD); purported to have killed ca 30% of human population in Europe. BD attributed to aetiological agent Yersinia pestis mediaevalis and vectored by Oriental Rat Flea. BD probably originated in Central Asia (Alma Ata) and spread east to China, south to India and west to Europe. Syn. Bubonic Plague. See Oriental Rat Flea; Plague.

Summary Article: Black Death (1347–1352)
from Encyclopedia of the Black Death

The story began somewhere between China and the Crimean Peninsula. Lonely gravestones at Issyk Kul appear to testify to plague's passage in the 1330s. Modern theories point to Mongol horsemen disrupting reservoirs of plague-carrying rodents, who entered the stream of commerce and conquest. An incident during the Mongols’ siege of Italians at Caffa on the Black Sea gave rise to the tale that plague-stricken warriors hurled plague victims’ bodies into the town, panicked the Europeans, and caused them to take ship for the West with plague aboard. Evidence of political and social disruption in the Khanate of the Golden Horde suggests plague's depredations, which may have facilitated the rise of the Ottomans.

Islamic records testify to epidemics cascading southward from the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Spread by armies and caravans, the divine event that hurled the faithless into Hell and rewarded believers with a martyr's death wrought havoc in city after city from Afghanistan to Syria. However, the plague took ship and arrived in Constantinople; the Byzantine capital began to suffer and sent cargoes of death south to Alexandria and westward to Sicily. Today, we know that plague is a disease caused by bacteria carried by fleas that live on rodents. When rats lacking any immunity die, the fleas jump to other animals and people, sparking epizootics among the animals and spreading quickly to humans. Frequently docking ships provided the perfect vessels for spreading the rats and their disease, as did the heavily laden caravans with their vulnerable food supplies. Ships and caravans circulated the plague down the Nile and the Red Sea to Mecca, as well as across North Africa and up the coast from the Sinai. Islamic cities suffered terribly, losing from a third to a half or more of their populations. Rural villages contracted the disease from merchants, pilgrims, soldiers, overseers, or villagers returning from stricken cities. No less than townsfolk, villagers died in horrific numbers; they depopulated and sometimes abandoned settlements, reduced food shipments to cities, and left necessary such infrastructure as canals and dikes to fall to nature. Muslims had a sophisticated version of ancient Greek medicine, but this availed little as it blamed the presence of contaminated air (miasma, caused by God) for the disease. Though Muslims tended and treated the sick and buried the dead, and some prayed that the scourge be lifted while others fled, Islamic leaders counseled resignation and acceptance rather than concerted action.

Plague arrived in Messina, Sicily, in late 1347 and proceeded up both lateral coasts of Italy. Michele da Piazza recorded the “terrible and unnatural event” in Messina, the eviction of the Genoese believed to have brought it, the faith people put in religious ritual, and the flight of Messinesi that helped the disease spread. It appeared along the coast of Dalmatia on its way north to Venice and Trieste and, to the west, moved upriver to Florence and rich Tuscany. Poet and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio later captured the terror and torpor, the lack of charity and even humanity the Tuscans displayed as they were ravaged. Coasting vessels took the plague across southern France and to Spanish ports in Aragon and Catalonia; river vessels and land cartage, along with refugees, served as capillaries that penetrated the countryside, targeting some settlements and ignoring others. Barcelona and Marseille suffered terribly while Milan's powerful rulers shut the gates and drove away contaminating visitors, reducing its death rate to a few in scores of thousands.

The Rhône River brought plague to the pope's door, and Clement VI proved unable to mitigate its effects. Prayers and masses gave way to new cemeteries and a blessing of the river that whisked away so many corpses. Faced with increasing levels of anti–Semitic violence against Jews “convicted” of spreading poison out of hatred for Christians or merely libeled and slaughtered, Clement condemned the lies (Jews died as readily as Christians) and the violence they sparked in an arc from Aragon to Savoy. Meanwhile, European physicians, both Christian and Muslim, sought to explain the disaster and to render relief. From the Italian Gentile da Foligno to the Muslim Ibn Khatimah to the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris, practitioners steeped in Galenic (Greek) medicine repeated the formula: God caused the planets to align malignantly, which caused poisoned air (miasmas) to develop on earth, killing those exposed who were susceptible to it. The Christian God unleashed fury and wrath, prompting ritual and personal attempts to placate His righteous anger. Here, Christ or the Trinity differed from the dispassionate Allah. Wicked Christendom began turning to saintly intercessors with prayers and offerings of art and charity. Physicians counseled flight to avoid the plague and humor-balancing diets and exercise to strengthen resistance. Though Muhammad denied the operation of contagion and miasma theory had no place for it, most medical men believed the disease could be caught and passed on, recommending that people minimize contacts. City governments, too, curtailed even religious gatherings and funerals while mandating the elimination of miasma-inducing sources of stench.

And still the Black Death proceeded northward. It was introduced to England with continental cargo and across the Alps into Germany and Austria from Italy. Monks, mendicants, and clerics dropped as they anointed the sick and blessed the dead, and bishops and orders were overwhelmed with demands for replacements. In Germany and the Low Countries, certain folks abandoned the clergy and followed self-whipping flagellants who processed through the countryside, stopping in town squares to perform penitential acts including hymns and prayers. Others turned on the enemies of God in their midst, the Jewish communities, whose purported culpability for Christian suffering was as much their refusal to convert as their supposed spread of plague. Gathered in their neighborhoods, Jews were easy targets for bloodthirsty mobs—both lower and upper class—that sought to (and did) destroy them. Innocent Jews died by the hundreds, sometimes killing themselves and their children. England, having driven out its Jews in 1290, witnessed no pogroms, and few instances of flagellant frenzy made history. At the same time, neither King nor civil governments did much of anything to alleviate the suffering or prevent its spread. Instead, Edward tried to maintain social control by forbidding the natural rise in wages and prices in the plague's immediate wake. His Ordinance of Laborers (June, 1349) was an unprecedented extension of royal writ into the economy and would be soon followed by further extensions. Several truces during the Hundred Years War recognized the Mortality's impact, but only temporarily.

The Scots felt the plague's putrid breath: finding the English army opposing them decimated by disease, they attacked and themselves fell prey. They naturally fled, disseminating plague as they returned to their homes. Eastern Europe, too, succumbed as the disease moved north from the Balkans and Hungary and eastward from the Rhine. Hansa towns along the Baltic fell early, and their ships introduced the plague to other Scandinavian ports. It appears to have been no less virulent here than in the sunny Mediterranean, with upward of half the population of any given city lost. Rural areas suffered no less, leaving crops and animals untended as peasants or farmers died or fled. Where they could, wages and other perks rose as the labor pool shrank. In Catalonia and underurbanized Eastern Europe—that presented few alternatives to agricultural labor—the landlords maintained a steady and oppressive hand on those who survived. Despite their relative isolation, Scandinavian farms disappeared by the thousands.

The last regions savaged by the Black Death were the cities of Russia. Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow recorded terrible onslaughts in 1352. Plague moved eastward and south from Europe rather than up the great rivers from its reservoir in the southern steppes, though for no clear reason. All ranks in society died, and the aristocracy's losses were so severe that Moscow's dynasty almost disappeared, and elsewhere, their balance against autocracy withered away.

The estimates of percentages and numbers who died between 1347 and 1352 have been rising over the past decades. Historical demography is an imprecise science, but with each new study and every overthrown theory, the trend seems clear. In 1969, Philip Ziegler accepted an average toll in Europe of about 33 percent, with an upward limit of 45 percent. Thirty-five years later, Benedictow, a historical demographer, presented a gross European population of around 80,000,000, and a death toll of about 60 percent overall in Europe, which is a total of about 48,000,000 dead. To this would be added the toll in the Muslim world: should it be any smaller in proportion? Even if the total figure were the well-worn 25,000,000 dead, the impact is absolutely staggering.

See also: Black Death: Origins and Early Spread; Boccaccio, Giovanni; Bubonic Plague; Caffa (Kaffa, Feodosiya), Ukraine; Causes of Plague: Historical Theories; Clement VI, Pope;Compendium of Paris; Contagion Theory; Demographic and Economic Effects of Plague: The Islamic World; Demographic Effects of Plague: Europe 1347–1400; Economic Effects of Plague in Europe; Flagellants; Galen and Galenism; Gentile da Foligno; Hundred Years War; Ibn Khatimah, Abu Jafar Ahmed; Islam and Medicine; Islamic Civil Responses; Issyk Kul, Kyrgystan; Jews; Labourers, Ordinance and Statute of; Li Muisis, Gilles; Mongols; Plague Saints; individual cities.

  • Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350. Bedford New York, 2005.
  • Benedictow, Ole. The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History. Boydell & Brewer Rochester NY, 2004.
  • Biraben, Jean-Noel. Les hommes et la peste en France et dans les pays européens et méditeranéens. Mouton, 1975 2 vols. Paris, 1976.
  • Bisgaard, Lars; Leif Søndergaard, editors. Living with the Black Death. University of Southern Denmark Press Odense, 2009.
  • Borsch, Stuart. The Black Death in Egypt and England. University of Texas Press Austin, 2005.
  • Byrne, Joseph P. The Black Death. Greenwood Press Westport CT, 2004.
  • Carmichael, Ann G. Plague and the Poor in Renaissance Florence. Cambridge University Press New York, 1986.
  • Cohn, Samuel K. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. Oxford University Press New York, 2002.
  • Dohar, William J. The Black Death and Pastoral Leadership: The Diocese of Hereford in the Fourteenth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia, 1995.
  • Dols, Michael W. The Black Death in the Middle East. Princeton University Press Princeton NJ, 1977.
  • Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester University Press New York, 1994.
  • Jillings, Karen. Scotland's Black Death: The Foul Death of the English. Tempus Publishing London, 2003.
  • Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death. HarperCollins New York, 2005.
  • Kelly, Maria. A History of the Black Death in Ireland. Tempus Stroud, Gloucs UK, 2001.
  • Naphy, William G.; Andrew Spicer. Plague: Black Death and Pestilence in Europe. Tempus Stroud, Gloucs UK, 2004.
  • Nutton, Vivian, ed. Pestilential Complexities: Understanding the Medieval Plague. Supplement #27 to Medical History. Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine London, 2008.
  • Ormrod, W. M.; P. G. Lindley, eds. The Black Death in England. Paul Watkins Stamford, 1996.
  • Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late-medieval England. University of Toronto Press Toronto, 1996.
  • Smail, Daniel Lord. “Accommodating Plague in Medieval Marseille.” Continuity and Change 11 (1996): 11-41.
  • Wray, Shona Kelly. Communities and Crisis: Bologna during the Black Death. Brill Boston, 2009.
  • Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Harper and Row New York, 1969.
  • Copyright 2012 by Joseph P. Byrne

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Black Death
    The Cambridge Historical Dictionary of Disease

    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...

    Full text Article Black Death
    All Things Chaucer: An Encyclopedia of Chaucer's World

    The years that the Black Death fell across Europe have long been accepted as pivotal ones in history. In the plague's wake, no aspect of society...

    Full text Article Black Death
    The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature

    An epidemic which struck England in 1348-9 and reduced the population by between one-third and one-half. The economic consequences were...

    See more from Credo