The Scando Review
The Scando Review
Black Death: The Plague that shook Europe

Black Death: The Plague that shook Europe

The disastrous mortal disease called the bubonic plague, often referred to as the Black Death, spread across Europe from 1346 to 1353.

Bubonic plague was an infectious disease caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis, which led to the pandemic,. This bacteria was  most commonly seen in rats. A type of flea found in rats caused the spread and made it an infectious disease.

Plague spread through  rats known as house rats or ship rats, which prefer to live near human dwellings. Infected rats tend to diet within 10 to 14 days. Thus, by the time the entire colony of rats died, infection would have spread to humans. From the bite site, the infection spreads to a lymph node, which swells and becomes painful. A bubble or blister often forms over the thighs, armpits, or neck and hence it got the name bubonic plague.

In 80 per cent of affected cases, the victims died. This method of spreading is called ‘spread by leaps’ or ‘metastatic spread’.

The bubonic plague soon spread to urban and rural areas, from where the disease proliferated to villages and townships in the surrounding districts through a similar outbreak.

For bubonic plague to be considered infectious, it must spread to other rat colonies in the area and humans in the same way. It took some time for  experts to realise that a terrible pandemic was brewing among the population.

Plague bacteria dispersed  when bubo (or, bubble), bursts,  causing droplet infection. The bacteria were  then carried in the blood, to the lungs, causing a variant of the plague to spread through contaminated air droplets, when patients coughed or sneezed.

Ole J Benedictow in his article The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever which was published in History today describe the spread of this deadly disease. The plague spread considerably on ships, mainly through rats. Infected ship-rats died, but the bacteria inside them often survived and found new hosts in other rats, whenever they landed. The bacteria  easily infected the clothing of people who entered the homes of the infected and travelled with them to other areas. This gave  plague epidemics a particular rhythm, speed of transmission, and characteristic spread. Black Death is said to have originated in China. In 1347, during the invasion of Kaffa, the trading port of Genoese in the Crimean peninsula, Kipchak Khan Janibeg’s army was overcome by the plague. Seeing the breakdown of his army, Kipchak Khan brought the plague victims to the city with the intention of infecting his enemies as well.

From Kaffa, Genoese ships carried the plague westward to the Mediterranean ports. From there it spread to Sicily (1347), North Africa, Italy, Spain, France (1348), and later to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and Germany.

In August 1348 a ship from Calais carried the plague to the Melcombe Regis in Dorset. It soon reached Bristol and spread rapidly throughout the south-western part of England. The Black Death reached the far north of England, Scotland,  Scandinavia, and the Baltic states in 1350.

Modern research indicates that there were recurrences of the plague between 1361 and 1400.

Mortality from Black Death varied from place to place. Some districts such as the Duchy of Milan, Flanders, and Bern more or less escaped the worst of it. The pandemic affected cities more than rural areas.

It is estimated that 25 million people died of plague in Europe during the pandemic.

All the powerful and wealthy surrendered to the pandemic. The victims included members of the royal family like Eleanor, Queen of Peter IV of Aragon, and Alfonso XI, King of Castile. Joan, daughter of the English King Edward III, died in Bordeaux while on her way to marry Alfonso’s son. Canterbury lost two consecutive Archbishops, and the Pope’s Church in Avignon was reduced to one-fourth. Whole communities and families were destroyed.

Contemporary studies indicate that one-third of Europe’s population had died from the pandemic.

By 1400, the population of England was half that of a century before. In that country alone, the Black Death certainly caused the wipeout of populations in about 1,000 villages.

It is estimated that 25 million people died of plague in Europe during the pandemic. The population of Western Europe did not reach the pre-1348 levels until the beginning of the 16th century.

With the early stages of modernisation, Europe was also on its way to the ‘golden age of bacteria’. There had been a huge increase in the number of infectious diseases caused by the increase in population density, trade, and transportation as well as a great increase in knowledge about the nature of infectious diseases. Therefore, the ability to organise effective preventive measures against them was very limited at that time. Most people believed that plague and similar diseases were God’s punishment for their sins. They responded with acts of religious repentance and penance or inaction aimed at appeasing the wrath of God.

Italian ships from Kaffa arrived in Constantinople in May 1347 with the plague. The pandemic broke out in early July. It began on September 1 in North Africa and the Middle East, arriving in Alexandria with ships from Constantinople.

The plague’s spread from Constantinople to European Mediterranean trading centres began in the autumn of 1347. It reached Marseille in the second week of September.

The Italian merchants who left Constantinople a few months later returned to their hometowns of Genoa and Venice with the plague. During the voyage, ships from Genoa also infected the port city of Pisa in Florence.

During the voyage to Spain, the Black Death erupted from the French city of Narbonne along the north-west main road to Bordeaux, a commercial centre on the Atlantic coast. By the end of March, it had become a critical centre of the spread. Around April 20, a ship from Bordeaux might have arrived in La Coruna, in north-western Spain. A few weeks later, another ship sailed to Navarre in north-eastern Spain, spreading the plague. By 1349, the whole of England had been affected by the plague.

Napoleon and Hitler did not succeed in conquering Russia, but Russia did surrender to the Black Death. At the end of autumn of 1351, it affected the territory of the city-state of Novgorod. In 1353, it destroyed Moscow. The disease reached the border of the Golden Horde, and this time it penetrated from the west.

Researchers generally agree that the Black Death had wiped out 20-30 per cent of Europe’s population. However, until the 1960s there were few studies on mortality in the general population, so the basis for this assessment was weak. Since the 1960s, numerous mortality studies have been published from various parts of Europe.

The Black Death began in the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared in every generation over the centuries.

It is generally estimated that the population of Europe at that time was about 80 million. This indicates that about 50 million people died in the Black Death. This is a really shocking revelation. This obscures the horrors of World War II and is double the number of assassinations by Stalin in the Soviet Union. Considering the proportion of the population who lost their lives, the Black Death resulted in unparalleled mortality.

The Black Death began in the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared in every generation over the centuries. Modern hygiene and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease, but have not eliminated it.

Though antibiotics are available to treat plague, according to World Health Organisation, there are still 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague each year. However, the Black Death of 1346-53 is unparalleled in human history. It is a historic turning point, as well as a great human tragedy.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

How would you describe the term “Black Death” to your students?

Can you think of the reason why the bubonic plague was called the “Black Death”?

Can you think of the reasons for the spread of bubonic plague?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!