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The Black Plague

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The Black Plague of the Middle Ages is thought to have originated in India about 1332,[1]  but this is not certain.  There were reports of bubonic Plague outbreaks in China prior to that date.[2]  In the 1330’s, unusually dry, windy weather caused Chinese nomads to migrate in search of food and water, along with their pack animals and relocating, hungry rodents.[3]

The Plague is caused by bacteria normally resident in field mice, ground squirrels and marmots (rodents similar to woodchucks).[4]  Flea bites carry the germ from rodent to rodent, and it is normally not fatal to its hosts.  If a flea bites a non-immune animal, the animal will die.  The fleas then leave that body for a new host.  If the fleas bite humans, the epidemic begins. The plague began to spread through cities after they attracted large numbers of scavengers, especially the black rat.

The black rat, a nimble climber, could scoot up mooring ropes; as a result, it was carried from India to the eastern Mediterranean and eastern Africa.  From Egypt, the rat and plague went by ship to Constantinople and to the ports of Europe.[5]

The European seaports knew that a wide-spread, deadly plague was raging in the East.  People heard rumors of the disease’s progress.  India was depopulated, as were Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, and other neighboring countries.  Nobody thought the plague would spread to Europe. The plague did not hit Europe with full force until 1346, when a new route for overland trade with China provided rapid transit for flea-infested furs from China.[6] Traders returned from Asia, China, India, and the Middle East to Genoa and Venice in Italy.

From there the disease went as fast as ships could travel to other Mediterranean ports and then to cities on Europe’s Atlantic coast and along Europe’s main rivers.  People fled the port cities and died of plague in roadside ditches.  In 1347, when the weather turned cold, bubonic plague had spread through most of Southern Europe.  The deadlier, pneumonic form traveled father and reached England in 1348.  It also spread eastward from Asia towards Moscow by land, and by ship to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Nile Delta.

 “Black” death had several meanings in the 1300’s, including dreadful or terrible. [7]  The plague has and has three well-known forms, bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic.[8]  The term “Black Death” was first used two centuries after the second plague pandemic began.  Until then, Europeans referred to it as “The Great Dying”.

In the Middle Ages, nobody understood the disease’s cause.  They guessed at ways to cure it, finally quarantining arriving ships for forty days.  This failed to contain the disease since the rats jumped ship.  Some people did notice that when the plague arrived, dying rats left their hiding places to die.  The concept of contagion itself did not even exist at this time.[9]

Certain professions suffered higher mortality, especially those whose duties brought them into contact with the sick – doctors and clergy.  In Montpellier, only seven of 140 Dominican friars survived.  In Perpignan, only one of nine physicians survived, and two of eighteen barber-surgeons. http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/plague/15.shtml


People of the Middle Ages could watch the victims’ flesh turn black before they died.  The most commonly noted symptom was the most dramatic – large boils that started in the groin or armpits and spread over the body.[10]  This is the bubonic form of the disease.  Another common form is pneumonic, similar to pneumonia.  Pneumonic could be passed from person to person by sneezing.  Septicemic means blood poisoning.  Toxins in the blood turned it dark.[11]

When Pope Clement VI asked the death toll, he was told 42 million dead, 25 million in Europe.  These records may be inaccurate, inflated or true.  Some cities, such as Milan, were almost untouched, even though one-third to one-half of all Italians died.  France, England, Russia, Poland, and the Balkans suffered badly.  There are estimates that the Black Death killed a third of England’s population.[12]  The Pope blessed the Rhone River so the corpses dumped in it would have a consecrated home.

The toll was at least as dreadful in the Old World.  The Byzantine empire collapsed.  North Africa was ravaged, and the Islamic world lost one-third to one-half of its people.  China’s population dropped by half, to 65 million people.  The Mongolian empire ceased to exist because of loss of life.[13]  The Black Plague itself recurred in England in 1361, 1443, 1528, and 1563[14], and in Italy in 1575.[15]   Indeed, in 1528, when the plague raged through London, Queen Elizabeth moved to Winsor and was isolated from all Londoners.  Crown contender Catherine Grey and her baby were sent to her uncle’s house in Essex.  The Spanish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth’s Court died from the plague.[16]

The last outbreak in England was the Great Plague of London in 1665.  After the 15th Century, Plague outbreaks were restricted to cities or regions.  When the Plague struck a city or a region, aristocrats would go to their estates in the country.  The poor remained in the Plague area and died.  One of the aristocrats with a country estate was a young Cambridge professor, Isaac Newton.  The 1665 Plague forced him into isolation.  While at his country estate in the summer of 1665, Newton solved the mathematical problems associated with his theory of gravity. (http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/plague/23/shtml)

The Middle Ages’ Black Plague or Great Dying did not end feudalism or bring about the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the rise of the secular state, but it hastened their arrival.  Europe’s center of trade and prosperity shifted from the Mediterranean Sea port cities to the northeastern cities.  The years from 1350 to 1500 were a period of complex transition, as Europe entered its age of global exploration[17] and spread diseases from the Old World to the New.[18]

The Black Plague tremendously affected European civilization, economy, trade, the church, music, and art.  As a result of death in the church, written language was almost lost.  Whole churches were abandoned.  Churches were abandoned.  Artists were so depressed by the deaths surrounding them that they painted pictures of sad and dead people.  It would take 400 years before Europe’s population equaled the pre-Black Death figures.

Agricultural workers could travel and command higher wages.  People left rural areas and migrated to cities.  Small towns and cities grew.  Large estates and manors began to collapse.  The very social, economic, and political structure of Europe was altered forever.  The Plague toppled feudalism and changed the course of European History. (http://www.insecta-inspect.com/fleas/bdeath/Europe/html)

The Plague has a long history as a biological weapon.  Infected human and animal carcasses were catapulted by Mongols and Turks to contaminate enemy water supplies.[19]  In World War II, the Japanese Army bred and released infected fleas during its occupation of Manchuria.  After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union developed means of using pneumonic plague as a biological weapon.

The United States’ offensive program ended in 1970.  Aerosolized pneumonic plague remains the most significant threat, even though modern antibiotics, such as Streptomycin, Tetracycline, Gentamicin, and Doxycycline, are effective in treating all forms of plague and in greatly reducing the death rate from the septicemic form. (http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/283/17/2281)   Experts believe that the pneumonic form could be disseminated by terrorists.  Untreated people die within 48 hours of their first symptoms.  Victims must be isolated and treated immediately.[20]

The disease still exists throughout the world in rodent populations, such as rats, squirrels, rabbits and skunks.  It is still widespread in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and in other parts of the world. (http://history.boisestate.edu.westciv/plague/23.shtml)


Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Beers, Mark H., MD, and Editor. The Merck Manual of Medical Information. Second Home Edition. New Jersey: Inc.-Merck & Co., 2003.

Black Death:  Effect on European Civilization. Ed. Melissa Loftus. 1999. <http://www.insecta-inspect.com/fleas/bdeath/Europe.html>.

The Black Death.  Dr. Ellis E. “Skip” Knox. 2004.  http://history.boisestate.edu/westciv/plague/shtml.

Funk & Wagnall. Standard College Dictionary. 1967.

Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History. Third Revised Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Great. 1959. First American Edition. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1958.

Jordan, William Chester. Europe in the High Middle Ages. Yew York, New York: Inc.-Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Karlen, Arno. Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996.

Plague as a Biological Weapon — Medical and Public  Health Management. Ed. Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, MD, and et al. 3 May 2000. JAMA-AMA. Apr. 2006 <http://www.jama.ama-assn.org/cg/content/full/283/17/2281>.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. paperback ed. United Kingdon: Sutton Publishing, 1997.

[1]Bernard Grun, The Timetables of History (Third Revised Edition; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975) p. 189.

[2]Philip Ziegler, The Black Death, paperback ed. (United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing, 1997), p. 3.

[3]Arno Karlen, Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996) p 86.

[4]Funk & Wagnall, Standard College Dictionary, 1967.

[5]Karlen, p. 77.

[6]Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999) p. 207.

[7]Ziegler, ps. 7-9.

[8]William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (Yew York, New York: Inc.-Penguin Putnam, 2003) p. 295.

[9]Karlen, p. 88.

[10]Ziegler, p. 7.

[11]Jordan, p.296.

[12]Grun, ps. 193, 207, and 235, and 255.

[13]Karlen,  ps. 89-90

[14]Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1959. First American Edition; New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1958).

[15]Grun, p. 249.

[16]Jenkins, p.103

[17]Karlen, p. 91.

[18]Karlen, p. 116.

[19] Karlen, p. 87

[20]Mark H. Beers, MD, and Editor, The Merck Manual of Medical Information (Second Home Edition; New Jersey: Inc.-Merck & Co., 2003), p. 1107.

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