Before answering this, be sure to view the Power Point presentation on the Bubonic Plague. Then answer the following:
What, in your opinion, was the most significant outcome of these medieval Black Death epidemics? Explain your answer.
The Black Death
Bubonic Plague Changes the World
The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, as it was known, began with the bacteria Yersinia Pestis, which is often found in the digestive systems of fleas and other parasites.
Until recently, we believed the plague had begun when infected fleas infested black rats, which then came into contact with humans who were either bitten by the rats or the fleas themselves.
A recent study by the National Academy of Science in Oslo, Norway, finds that Yersinia Pestis was probably transmitted via bites from fleas and more commonly, body lice, which was endemic throughout Eur-Asia in the Middle Ages.
Human body lice, hopefully without Yersinia Pestis
The first reports of the plague came from China in 1331. It had spread to Europe by 1347, and to Africa by 1409.
We know more about the plague outbreaks in Europe than elsewhere, because many Europeans thoroughly documented what was happening to them.
The first instance of plague in Europe came from Italy, in the banking town of Genoa. Genoa was a port city and was walled for her protection.
When a ship docked with sailors from the Far East who were clearly ill and had deaths among the crew, they were refused admittance into the city, even though they begged for help and medicine.
In retaliation, the remaining sailors are said to have catapulted their dead fellow crewmembers over the wall into the city- possibly one of the first documented cases of biological warfare.
The Plague Spreads
Within days, plague had spread through Genoa. The panicked people fled the city, traveling by road and by water to escape the dreaded disease….but inadvertently spreading the plague throughout the continent.
Largest outbreak was in 1348, lasting for about 3 years….we now believe 50% of the total population of Europe died during this initial outbreak alone.
The Middle East lost about a third of its population by the early 1400s.
Losses in Africa were probably not as bad, but records are incomplete.
Why So Virulent?
Outbreaks of disease was not unheard of, but this particular pestilence was a catastrophe. Why did so many in Europe die of the plague? …Because conditions were perfect for a pandemic.
The climate had entered into a mini ice age by the 1200s, with colder weather and failing crops, horrendous floods and blizzards. Famine became widespread.
The Great Famine of 1315-1317
Starve a Cold, Feed a Famine
As famine continued in Europe, hungry bodies weakened and immune systems began to falter. Epidemics struck, one after the other.
In 1316 a typhoid epidemic killed thousands.
So, the bad weather led to poor harvests, which led to malnourishment, which led to disease.
Famine Victims…note the emaciated legs
There were three different areas the plague attacked the body during these massive epidemics:
Lymphatic: The bacteria affects the lymphatic system; buboes appear on the neck, armpits or groin. They range from the size of an egg to an apple. Some survived but usually the appearance of the buboes meant the victim had about a week or less to live. This type came from the bites of infected fleas and possibly lice.
2. Pneumatic: This came through the respiratory system, usually by breathing the air around a victim of bubonic plague. This is why so many people died while caring for others who had fallen sick.
Life expectancy in this case was one or two days.
This strain attacked the circulatory system. It was also caused by bites from fleas or lice, but because it spread so quickly throughout the body it was particularly violent.
Blood usually gushed from the nose and death came within an hour or two of exposure.
According to eyewitness, animals were sometimes infected as well. Dogs, cats, horses, cows, mules and pigs all died of plague.
Some Bizarre Reactions…
Unsure how the disease was spreading, doctors adopted bizarre masks to try to keep contagion out. The beak of these masks had bouquets of herbs and flowers (called posies) in them to try to prevent the infected air from getting through to them.
As more people died despite the prayers and pleas of the faithful, a group called the Flagellants arose.
The Flagellants went from town to town, offering (for a price) to scourge themselves with whips and flails to atone for the sins of the townspeople, in the hope that God would spare them.
…Even a Nursery Rhyme
Remember this one?
“Ring around the rosy,
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down!”
This very old children’s rhyme actually originated from the Black Death. The ring around the rosy was the rise of the buboes on the body, the pocket full of posies was the flowers and herbs people carried to ward off the contagious air.
Ashes, ashes is believed to originally been “Achoo, achoo” (because we are all sick), but some think it might refer to the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
“We all fall down” should be pretty self-explanatory…we all fall down dead from plague. History is creepy, isn’t it?
As plague continued to ravage the towns and countryside, people responded in a variety of ways. Some turned to religion, hoping God would spare them if they repented their sins.
Others believed that God had turned against them, so felt they had nothing to lose by living hedonistically while they could, committing crimes and drinking hard.
Some Economic Results
The Black Death disrupted the entire fabric of society in Europe. Entire villages were emptied out, sometimes for years. Many records exist of taxmen, etc. coming to collect taxes in villages that were completely deserted, with only the bones of the dead remaining.
Workers, especially skilled workers, were in very short supply and could now demand higher wages – however, because the lords had suffered economic setbacks also because of plague, they couldn’t afford the higher wages, and governments had to pass the first laws putting a salary cap on worker’s wages. Lords weren’t getting their rents or their crops, remember.
Some Social Results
The class system got out of whack as peasants began to take over abandoned manor houses and set themselves up as lords.
To differentiate upper from lower class, a law was passed in England saying that certain classes could only wear certain colors and eat certain foods. This is when we get the color purple to denote royalty – purple was an expensive color to create in fabrics.
Results in the Church
In the Church, it became very hard to get decent men to become church officials – partially because so many suffered a loss of faith during the plague, and partially because so many church officials died from ministering to the sick. The Church was in greater need of people than ever.
More Economic Results
Feudalism did not end with the plaque, but it was dealt a death blow. Eventually peasants would begin offering money instead of crops or time served to the lords.
Lords were eventually able to buy up land that was abandoned and begin enclosing the land with fences, which was also a new concept. Enclosure will eventually change quite a bit of European history.
More Economic and Social Changes
The plague brought about the beginning of a true middle class- before there were ‘those who fought, those who prayed and those who labored’ but now, as more people left farming and moved to the cities, there was the rise of a middle class of merchants who were not tied to the land, and who had skills they were paid well for.
It took about 400 years for Europe to return to its pre-plague population.
…And One More Very Important Result
The labor shortage caused the invention of labor- saving devices such as the caravel, a ship that was smaller and required fewer sailors to sail. It could also travel over longer distances faster, making it possible for people to travel to other lands.
As the disruption of trade during the worst of the epidemic caused overland trade routes to fall into disrepair and become unsafe, the Europeans increasingly tried sea routes to reach Asian trade centers.
The combination of these factors (fewer people, more effective ships, more dangerous overland trade) gave rise to the great age of exploration of the late 1400s and early 1500s, where Europeans will travel across the globe and discover an entire New World…thus opening up a whole new phase in World History.