What Were the Symptoms of the Black Death?

Burial of Black Death Victims

A contemporary manuscript shows victims being buried in Tourmai.  Presumably this is near the beginning of the outbreak; later there were not enough survivors to property bury the dead, they were simply thrown into plague pits.
A contemporary manuscript shows victims being buried in Tourmai. Presumably this is near the beginning of the outbreak; later there were not enough survivors to property bury the dead, they were simply thrown into plague pits. | Source

The Black Death: Swift and Deadly

The plague that hit Europe in the mid fourteenth century was not the first deadly epidemic to afflict the continent. Several centuries earlier plague had visited Constantinople and left nearly half its inhabitants dead. Smaller outbreaks of the disease carried on for a few years, but Europe was spared from the scourge of plague until around 1347.

Generally, we tend to think that the Black Death was what we now call bubonic plague. Certainly, some of the symptoms described at the time do bear out that diagnosis. However, there is a great deal of variance in the contemporary accounts of the symptoms of the plague and it is almost certain that whilst bubonic plague played a role in the Black Death, they also suggest that it was not the only form of plague stalking the population of medieval Europe.


Symptoms of Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague is one of the plagues associated with the Black Death
Bubonic plague is one of the plagues associated with the Black Death | Source

General Symptoms

The Black Death started with a feeling of general illness:

  • headache
  • lethargy
  • aching and
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • internal bleeding

Victims quickly deteriorated no doubt horrified by the quick advance of their worsening symptoms. Their horrified relatives would have tried the various cures available to them, but it was usually in vain. Few survived.

Death was usually swift, taking around a week.

Why Was it Called the "Black Death"?

Just as alarming as the buboes was the blackening of the skin. A form of gangrene could afflict the victim's extremities and it is perhaps this discolouration of the skin that gave the disease its name: Black Death.

This form of gangrene is known to be a sign of bubonic plague.

Buboes and the Plague

A commonly reported symptom of the Black Death, and perhaps the most infamous, was swelling of the lymph nodes. Victims would notice that a lump would appear in their groin, armpit or neck. These lumps were called buboes (from the Greek for "groin"), hence bubonic plague.

Sometimes the buboes were quite small, but could reach the size of an apple. Once one appeared, the victim would be afflicted by more, occasionally all over the body. The buboes might ooze pus; this could be a good sign, as it sometimes indicated that the victim might recover.

Pneumonic Plague Symptoms

Pneumonic plague was responsible for the respiratory symptoms of the Black Death and for making it spread from person to person
Pneumonic plague was responsible for the respiratory symptoms of the Black Death and for making it spread from person to person | Source

More Symptoms of More Plagues

Other reported symptoms of the Black Death are not symptoms of the bubonic plague. Many victims were struck down with

  • chest pain,
  • breathing difficulties and
  • severe coughing.

These symptoms indicate that some people were suffering not from bubonic plague, but pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is just as deadly as bubonic plague and worse, it is highly infectious. Whilst bubonic plague can only be spread by a bite from an infected carrier, pneumonic plague could be spread by an infected person's cough.

Other symptoms included black rashes under the skin, the result of internal bleeding. It is possible that this was a third form of plague: septicaemic plague, the rarest but most deadly form. Bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague are all caused by the same bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Many modern researchers are of the opinion that the Black Death was caused not just by bubonic plague, but a combination of all three plague forms, perhaps with other diseases playing a role too.

Three Forms of Plague

Form
Transmission
Main Symptoms
Mortality Rate
Bubonic
via bite from infected flea
Lethargy
80%
 
 
Fever/chills
 
 
 
Headache
 
 
 
Swollen lymph nodes (Buboes)
 
Pneumonic
via airborne bacteria
Weakness/lethargy
90-95%
 
(ie from person to person due to coughing)
Fever/chills
 
 
 
Coughing/chest pain
 
 
 
Coughing blood
 
Septicaemic
via bite from infected flea
Fever
almost 100%
 
(sometimes person to person)
Diarrhea
 
 
 
Internal bleeding
 
 
 
Delirium/shock
 

Do You Know Your Black Death Facts?

Ancient and Modern Plagues

The Black Death was only one outbreak of plague in Europe. There were plagues before and after, some small scale, some larger. People can, and do, still get infected with the plague bacterium and it can still manifest itself in the three forms outlined above. The symptoms are exactly as described above. However, what distinguishes the Black Death from other outbreaks of the plague is that it appears that all three forms, plus perhaps some other diseases, attacked the population of Europe together, causing a cataclysmic epidemic. This is evidenced partly by the range of symptoms experienced by the victims.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Black Death, I have written a hub about its causes.


More by this Author


Comments 30 comments

DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Very well researched hub, Judi Bee, even though the subject matter gives me the creeps. Can you imagine the horror people must have felt when the symptoms started to appear?


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Deb - it is a gross subject, but curiously fascinating. I can only imagine that you hoped the end would be quick, it all sounds so dreadful. I wasn't aware that it was still around, but luckily antibiotics make it reasonably treatable.

Thanks for commenting, always appreciate your visits :-)


Yourglobalgirl profile image

Yourglobalgirl 4 years ago from UK

Very interesting- thanks


joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

Hi, I found this Hub so interesting, mainly because throughout my multiple readings of historical novels, I have often come across description of characters in the novel who are afflicted and die. If my memory is correct, the famous Duke of Lancaster (the King-maker)who married Blanche of Castille somewhere along the way, had a wife who was a victim. I don't remember which one, or whether she died, but the description was harrowing!

I also remember a novel by Daphne du Maurier, that included the plague somewhere in it. The name was something about "sands". Very good story, I read it several times, and then lost track of the book. Voted up, awesome and interesting!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Yourglobalgirl - glad you found this interesting and thank you for commenting, I appreciate it :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi joanveronica - I don't know about the Duke of Lancaster, but I do know that Edward III's daughter Joan was one of the first English victims, dying of plague in France en route to meet her fiancé, a prince of Castille. The plague reached England soon after.

Thanks very much for your comments, great to hear from you :-)


twinstimes2 profile image

twinstimes2 4 years ago from Ohio

I agree with the other comments, Judi Bee, well researched. I will say that it gave me the heebie jeebies but i learned quite a bit! Very informative!


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Wow - very in-depth and definitely creepy! It kind of worries me that the pneumatic plague is getting more difficult to treat with antibiotics.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi twinstimes2 - yes, definitely one of those subjects that makes you worry next time you have a headache or a rash! Glad you found it informative though!

Thanks so much for your comments, I appreciate them :-)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Natashalh - sadly antibiotics are getting less effective with lots of diseases. I don't know about the US, but here in the UK it's now really difficult to get antibiotics from your doctor as they are trying to cut back on them - in the past they dished them out too readily and this has made apparently contributed to diseases becoming resistant.

Many thanks for your comments, much appreciated :-)


artofadulthood profile image

artofadulthood 4 years ago

Great information. Now I'm going to be nervous every time my lymph nodes swell up! Really is scary and probably possible that something like that could happen today - and probably spread faster. Like the movie Contagion. Thanks again for the well researched hub!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi artofadulthood - it is scary and you have just reminded me that a researcher into plague died a few years ago, possibly from contracting it - will go and look that up!

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated :-)


TheMagician profile image

TheMagician 4 years ago from Tampa, FL

Wow, I didn't know there were different types of the plague! Crazy stuff. Love learning about the Black Death and this time period, so I really enjoyed this article :)


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi TheMagician - glad you enjoyed reading this. Yes, three different strains of the plague, all horrible. Hoping to do more on this subject, hope you will enjoy those too.

I appreciate you taking the time to comment, thanks very much :-)


GClark profile image

GClark 4 years ago from United States

Interesting article that truly makes one appreciate the advances in present day medicine. Voted Up. GClark


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi GClark - there's a lot to be thankful for, isn't there!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Fascinating. Oh for the benefits of living today! Voting and thanks for super information. I realize I really don't know my history at all when I read your wonderful Hubs - and to think I once rented a flat overlooking Blackheath!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi GoodLady - it's fascinatingly horrible, isn't it! I also used to live in London and used Aldgate Station on a regular basis, that's supposed to be built over a plague pit too - think Blackheath is meant to be from Black Death, but Aldgate was, I think, the Great Plague of 1665.

Thanks for your comments, always great to hear from you :-)


hola 123 4 years ago

Really helpful for my homework x


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi hola 123 - excellent to hear that - hope you get a good grade :-)


PenHitsTheFan profile image

PenHitsTheFan 4 years ago from Home

Thanks Judi for this hub. It's frightening to think this still exists today. My friend lives in Colorado and there are walking trails that are closed to people because they have found infected rodents. Scary stuff, for sure.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi PenHitsTheFan - really scary stuff - one of the commentators (Shea Duane) on my Black Death Cures hub mentions that her friend actually caught the plague whilst in Alaska! Fortunately, she survived. Hard to imagine that it is still a problem after all these centuries.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)


theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

Have read a couple of Karen Maitland novels which do a fine job of putting all this into context and how it affected people. The diagnoses and treatments seem unbelievably crude to us now but it must have been logical then.

Another great hub, Judi Bee.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

I've never read a Karen Maitland novel - I've picked them up, but never taken them home. Can't imagine why not. I really do need to read a bit more, may be one of hers would be a good start - off to the library tomorrow. Excellent!

Thanks so much for commenting and giving me something to do tomorrow :-)


Julie DeNeen profile image

Julie DeNeen 4 years ago from Clinton CT

I have this weird fascination with the Black Death..thanks for sharing this interesting hub!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Julie - it's an interesting time in history, I share your fascination - thanks so much for your comments!


jay 4 years ago

if you dig up a plage pit can you still get infected cheers j


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Jay - thanks for the warning!


DT 2 years ago

Very unlikely as the bacteria will be very weak so you would be unlikely to catch it unless you had an open wound and the bacteria got in, but you would be alright to dig one up. Give it a go!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Not sure what is unlikely DT? Catching plague? You don't need to dig up a body, Yersina pestis still exists today, though victims can be treated with antibiotics and survive if treated quickly. Indeed a Colorado man has been diagnosed with Pneumonic plague this week. Edit - just realised you maybe answering the comment left by Jay above.

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