Europe was no stranger to the plague. In the sixth century a devastating epidemic struck Constantinople and swept westward through much of what is today Greece, Italy, France and Spain, and since then there had been periodic outbreaks of the disease. There would also be another notable plague in the sixteenth century. But these events would pale in comparison to the overwhelming pandemic of the 1340s and -50s that would later be known as The Black Death.
What Was the Black Death?
"Plague" is the disease, still extant today, that struck so brutally and spread so swiftly through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. Though some theories have been put forward claiming it was not the sole illness, postulating anthrax and other communicable diseases, the various forms of plague (bubonic, pneumonic, septicemic and enteric) adequately account for the varying symptoms reported in contemporary chronicles. Lacking any forensic evidence to the contrary, we can reasonably work from the theory that plague was the illness that constituted the Black Death.
The particular pestilence of the fourteenth century moved so quickly from ship to city to village and countryside, that the very whisper of its proximity could spark panic. It is no surprise that it followed trade routes both by land and sea, carried by infected humans as well as by rats and their attendant fleas. These routes were fairly well-established byways by which many people traveled, not only for purposes of trade but for pilgrimage and education.
With the quickly-transmitted pneumonic form of the disease in such full force, it usually didn't take long for panicking victims to carry it from a stricken city into the countryside. This phenomenon allowed the Black Death to cover more territory away from seaports and major trade routes and into more isolated places than any previous epidemic.
Here I present for you a series of maps designed to illustrate the spread of the Black Death through Europe in the fourteenth century. This is a work in progress; more maps will be added in the future.
These representations are mere estimates gleaned from various historical sources, including but not limited to historical atlases. While every effort has been made to represent the progression of the plague without error, no guarantees are made as to the complete accuracy of these geographic renderings.
All maps in this series are copyright © 2003-2009 Melissa Snell and licensed to About.com. You may print these maps for personal or classroom use only, as long as the copyright notice remains intact. To use any of the maps in an offline publication, please submit a reprint request to About.com. Permission is not granted to reproduce any of these maps on another website.
I hope you find these maps informative and helpful!
- Europe on the Eve of Plague
- Origins of Plague
- The Black Death Comes to Europe
- A Swift Strike
- An Insidious Spread
Guide's note: This series of maps originally debuted in June, 2003 and has been updated in May, 2009.