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41 Interesting Facts About . . .

The Black Death

  1. A plague epidemic swept through Europe from 1348 through 1351, killing an estimated 25–60% of Europeans. Some estimates are as high as 2/3 of the population.b
  2. The exact death toll is difficult to measure from medieval sources. The number of deaths varied considerably by area and depending on the source. Current estimates are that between 75 and 200 million people died from the plague.c
  3. The term "Black Death" is recent. During the plague, it was called "the Great Mortality" or "the Pestilence."i
  4. Although the period known as the Black Death ended in 1351, the plague continued to return to Europe, with epidemics every few years through the end of the fifteenth century.d
  5. The Black Death was the second plague pandemic of the Middle Ages. Justinian’s Plague in the sixth century was deadly and widespread, but did not create the same devastation as the second pandemic.d
  6. The Black Death followed a period of population growth in Europe which, combined with two years of cold weather and torrential rains that wiped out grain crops, resulted in a shortage of food for humans and rats. This caused people and animals to crowd in cities, providing an optimal environment for disease.d
  7. In 1346, rumors of a plague that started in China and spread throughout Asia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, and India reached Europe. All of India was rumored to have been depopulated.i
  8. The first named victims of the plague died in 1338 and 1339 in the area around Lake Issyk Kul (Lake Baikal) in Russia, where a grave marker says, "In the year of the hare (1339). This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of the plague with his wife, Magnu-Kelka."c
  9. black death
    The Black Death might have killed as many as 200 million Europeans between 1348 and 1351
  10. During a siege of the Genoese city of Kaffa by the Tatars in 1347, the inhabitants were reportedly infected with the plague when the Tatars threw the bodies of plague victims into the city.d
  11. In November 1347, a fleet of Genoese trading ships landed in Messina, Sicily after trading along the coast from the Black Sea to Italy. The ships carried dead and dying sailors, many of whom had strange black growths on their necks, in their armpits, or in their groins. Many coughed blood. Those who were alive died within days.i
  12. From Sicily, the disease took three years to sweep through Europe, moving north and traveling as far as Iceland and Greenland. The plague and simultaneous climate changes put an end to the European colonies on the coast of Greenland.c
  13. In Siena, more than half the population died. Work stopped on the city’s great cathedral, planned to be the biggest in the world, and was never resumed. The truncated transept still stands as reminder of the death that halted construction.i
  14. In May 1349, the plague reached Bergen, Norway, on a ship carrying wool from England. Within days of arriving in Bergen, the crew and passengers of the ship had all died.d
  15. Most experts agree that the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis (or Y. pestis), a bacillus carried by fleas that live primarily on rats and other rodents that were common in medieval dwellings.d
  16. Since the 1980s, several researchers have blamed other diseases, including anthrax and typhus, for the plague. The argument claims that other diseases spread more easily between people without the required flea vector and can display similar symptoms.c
  17. A November 2000 study of tooth pulp in a French plague grave showed the presence of Y. pestis in all of 20 samples from three victims.c
  18. Y. Pestis infects its flea by blocking its stomach. The flea tries repeatedly to feed, but the blockage causes it to regurgitate bacilli into its host. When the host dies, the flea and its offspring seek a new host, infesting humans when necessary.a
  19. Y. pestis causes three varieties of plague: bubonic plague, caused by bites from infected fleas, in which the bacteria moves to lymph nodes and quickly multiplies, forming growths, or buboes; pneumonic plague, a lung infection that causes its victim to cough blood and spread the bacteria from person to person; and septicemic plague, a blood infection that is almost always fatal.c
  20. The mortality rate for humans who caught the bubonic plague was 30-75%. The pneumonic plague killed 90-95% of its victims. The septicemic plague killed nearly 100% of the people it infected and still has no cure to this day.a
  21. god's wrath
    Many believed that the plague was a divine scourge to punish the people for their sins
  22. Medieval doctors believed the plague had at least one of several causes. Many thought it was a punishment from God for the sins of the people.d
  23. Many also believed the plague was caused by pockets of bad air released by earthquakes or by an unfavorable alignment of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius on March 20, 1345.f
  24. Virtually nobody suspected the ever-present rats and fleas.e
  25. The Jews were often accused of causing the plague to destroy Christiansf, even though Jews and Muslims were as likely to be infected as Christians.c
  26. After being tortured, some Jews confessed that they were poisoning wells and other water sources, creating the plague. As a result, Jews were expelled or killed by the thousands.i
  27. As a result of forced confessions, the entire Jewish population of Strassburg, Germany, was given the choice to convert to Christianity or be burned on rows of stakes on a platform in the city’s burial ground. About 2,000 were killed.h
  28. Many doctors believed that bad smells could drive out the plague. As a result, some of the treatment for the disease included dung and urine, as well as other ingredients that were more likely to spread disease than to cure it.c
  29. Other ways purported to prevent or cure the plague were to be happy and avoid bad thoughts, drink good wine, avoid eating fruit, put fragrant herbs in beverages, avoid lechery, do not abuse the poor, eat and drink in moderation, maintain a household in accordance with a person’s status, and so on.g
  30. Bathing during the plague was discouraged for two reasons. First, along with changing clothes, it was a sign of vanity, which invited the wrath of God and the punishment of sin. Second, bathing was believed to open the pores, making it easier for bad air to enter and exit the body, spreading disease. The latter belief was common throughout Europe well into the the nineteenth century.d
  31. original Eau de Cologne
    Colognes were used during the plague to cover up odors due to not bathing or changing clothing
  32. Eau de Cologne and other perfumes were first used during the plague to cover up odors due to not bathing or changing clothing.d
  33. Although the poor were hit hardest, nobility didn’t escape. King Alfonso XI of Castile and León was the only reigning monarch to die, but many members of royal families from Naples to England were killed.i
  34. Bodies were piled up inside and outside city walls where they lay until mass graves could be dug. This contributed to the bad air and helped to spread the disease.d
  35. Closed communities, such as monasteries and nunneries, were especially vulnerable. If one person became infected, the whole community might die. And because friars and nuns tended the sick, infection among them was common.e
  36. Gherardo, brother of the famous humanist Petrarch and a monk in the monastery of Montriuex, was the only survivor of the plague in his monastery, along with his dog. He buried the other 34 monks himself.e
  37. Of 140 Dominican brothers in Montpellier, only seven survived.i
  38. English soldiers carried the disease from France to England, beginning an especially devastating round of plague in England that some estimates claim killed as much as 75% of the population in many areas.d
  39. Prior to the Black Death, music was plentiful and cheerful. During the plague, music was rare and grim. Other art forms, including visual arts and literature, also reflect the misery of the time.a
  40. As the population dwindled and society crumbled, old rules were ignored. The Catholic church lost influence, creating the seeds that led to Protestantism.c
  41. The attempts to find cures for the plague started the momentum toward development of the scientific method and the changes in thinking that led to the Renaissance.c
  42. After the Black Death, plague epidemics continued to ravage Europe. For example, London was struck by the Great Plague of 1665, with thousands of deaths. This plague was followed almost immediately by the Great Fire, leaving London devastated.d
  43. A third pandemic began in China and India in the 1890s and eventually reached the United States, with infections being especially dangerous in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was during this pandemic that the real cause (Y. pestis) was discovered, along with a cure.d
  44. Plague continues to survive in the modern world, with Y. pestis foci in Asia, Russia, the American Southwest, and other areas where the host rodents and fleas live. Today, though, it is rarely fatal.d

-- Posted June 9, 2009

References

a "The Black Death 1347-1350." Insecta -Inspecta.com. Accessed: May 25, 2009.

b Borst, Arno. 1980. Lebensformen im Mittelalter. Vienna, Austria: Ullstein Bücher.

c Byrne, Joseph P. 2004. The Black Death. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

d Kelly, John. 2005. The Great Mortality. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

e Kotker, Norman, ed. 1984. The Middle Ages. New York, NY: American Heritage/Bonanza Books.

f Kreis, Steven. 2006. "Satan Triumphant: The Black Death." Accessed: May 25, 2009.

g Lydgate, John. "A Diet and Doctrine for the Pestilence." In The Black Death by Joseph P. Byrne, 162-166. See Byrne 2004.

h "The Strassburg Chronicle." In The Black Death by Joseph P. Byrne, 186-188. See Byrne 2004.

i Tuchman, Barbara W. 1978. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.