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The Black Death

What You Need to Know about the 14th-Century Plague

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Dance of Death

Dance of Death from Hartman Schedel's Chronicle of the World (1493), believed to have been made by Michael Wolgemut.

Public Domain

What the Black Death Was

When historians refer to "The Black Death," they mean the specific outbreak of plague that took place in Europe in the mid-14th century. The Black Death came to Europe in October of 1347, spread swiftly through most of Europe by the end of 1349 and on to Scandinavia and Russia in the 1350s. It returned several times throughout the rest of the century.

The Black Death Was Also Known As

The Black Plague, the Great Mortality, and the Pestilence

The Disease

Traditionally, the disease that most scholars believe struck Europe was "Plague." Best known as bubonic plague for the "buboes" (lumps) that formed on the victims' bodies, Plague also took pneumonic and septicemic forms. Other diseases have been postulated by scientists, and some scholars believe that there was a pandemic of several diseases; but currently the theory of Plague (in all its varieties) still holds among most historians.

Where the Black Death Started

Thus far, no one has been able to identify the point of origin of the Black Death with any precision. It started somewhere in Asia, possibly in China, possibly at Lake Issyk-Kul in central Asia.

How the Black Death Spread

  • Bubonic Plague was spread by the fleas who lived on plague-infected rats, and such rats were ubiquitous on trading ships.
  • Pneumonic Plague could spread with a sneeze and jump from person to person with terrifying speed.
  • Septicemic Plague spread through contact with open sores.
Through these methods of contagion, the Black Death spread via trade routes from Asia to Italy, and thence throughout Europe.

Death Tolls

It is estimated that approximately 20 million people died in Europe from the Black Death. This is about one-third of the population. Many cities lost more than 40% of their residents, Paris lost half, and Venice, Hamburg and Bremen are estimated to have lost at least 60% of their populations.

What Medieval People Believed Caused the Plague

The most common assumption was that God was punishing mankind for its sins. There were also those who believed in demonic dogs, and in Scandinavia, the superstition of the Pest Maiden was popular. Some people accused the Jews of poisoning wells; the result was a horrific persecution of Jews that the papacy was hard-put to stop.

Scholars attempted a more scientific view, but they were hampered by the fact that the microscope wouldn't be invented for several centuries. The University of Paris conducted a study, the Paris Consilium, which, after serious investigation, ascribed the plague to a combination of earthquakes and astrological forces.

How People Reacted to the Black Death

Fear and hysteria were the most common reactions. People fled the cities in panic, abandoning their families. Noble acts by doctors and priests were overshadowed by those who refused to treat their patients or give last rites to plague victims. Convinced the end was near, some sank into wild debauchery; others prayed for salvation. Flagellants went from one town to another, parading through the streets and whipping themselves to demonstrate their penitence.

Effects of the Black Death on Europe:

Social Effects

  • The marriage rate rose sharply -- in part due to predatory men marrying rich orphans and widows.
  • The birth rate also rose, though recurrences of the plague kept population levels reduced.
  • There were notable increases in violence and debauchery.
  • Upward mobility took place on a small scale.

Economic Effects

  • A surplus of goods resulted in overspending; it was swiftly followed by a shortage of goods and inflation.
  • A shortage of laborers meant they were able to charge higher prices; the government tried to limit these fees to pre-plague rates.

Effects on the Church

  • The Church lost many people, but the institution became richer through bequests. It also grew richer by charging more money for its services, such as saying mass for the dead.
  • Less-educated priests were shuffled into jobs where more learned men had died.
  • The failure of the clergy to help the suffering during the plague, combined with its obvious wealth and the incompetence of its priests, caused resentment among the people. Critics grew vocal, and the seeds of the Reformation were sown.

The persistence of plague and the horrors it wreaked had long-term effects on the medieval psyche both subtle and severe. For a more thorough look at Europe after the plague, see:

Test your knowledge of the Black Death! Try the The Diabolical Black Death Quiz

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