It is exceedingly difficult to arrive at a definitive conclusion concerning the number of people who died of the plague. Contemporary chronicles tended to exaggerate, and while the survivors saw dead bodies overflowing the cemeteries and cluttering the streets, it's not hard to understand why. The most conservative modern estimate is 20% throughout Europe, with some countries losing as much as 40% of the population. Writers of the time claimed a third of the continent, an estimated 20 million souls, died in a mere handful of years. Once deemed a wild exaggeration, this is now considered a fairly accurate number.
As centers of trade, cities were hard hit, but once a small village encountered the plague the results could be just as devastating. Losses of 40% were common and even minor, and there were even a few cases where the death toll was so high that the pitiful number of survivors were forced to abandon the village altogether. In enclosed communities like monasteries and convents, when one individual contracted the plague it wasn't long before everyone did. And in almost every case, none survived.
The following statistics can give you some idea of the extent of the devastation:
- The plague is estimated to have killed 25 million people in
China and India before reaching Europe.
- When the plague was at its worst, Pisa and Vienna lost 500 people a day.
- At the peak of the epidemic, Paris lost 800 people a day, and
by the end of its long run with the disease (which lasted there
until 1349), half its population of 100,000 people had died.
- Avignon, where the papacy was located for most of the 14th
century, also suffered losses of 50%. Losses were even greater
among the clergy, and one third of the cardinals died.
- Venice, Hamburg and Bremen lost at least 60% of their
- Florence lost a third of its population in the first six
months, and from 45% to 75% of its population in the first
- Milan lost relatively few people, due in part to the drastic
measures Archbishop Visconti took in walling up the first few
houses where plague victims lived, dead or alive.
- Southern Aquitaine and Bohemia also lost very few people, thanks to their isolation from the busier trading routes.
The numbers alone speak volumes: The Black Death was a harrowing event the likes of which has not truly been seen since. But there was much more to the plague than numbers. Please visit Part Two of the Great Mortality: Living with Death.
Sources and Suggested Reading
- The Black
by Philip Ziegler
The Black Death:
Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe
by Robert S. Gottfried
Life in Medieval
by Marjorie Rowling
by Barbara Tuchman