The fourteenth century was one of the most devastating periods of British history, in terms of population decline. From the decimation of the population by the plague known as the Black Death which occurred six times during this century, the continuation of over a hundred years of war with France, peasant's revolts, tyrannical rule by the king and the final revolt of 1399 when King Richard 2nd was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry 4th. The plague, or Black Death as it was called, spread from Asia across the whole of Europe, terrifying people and killing indiscriminately. As the study of medicine in this country was still in its infancy, the medics had no answer to it. It had to run its course, and it did so, killing thousands.
Black Death Victims
Black Death Spreads
Thought to have started in Asia, the Black Death reached Turkey in 1346. Called the Black Death from the huge black, suppurating sores that broke out on people's bodies, it killed within a week of contracting it. From Turkey, probably carried by fleas residing on the black rats that infested ships travelling to the Mediterranean Seaports, it spread throughout Europe.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% – 60% of Europe's population, over 100 million people. It took 150 years for Europe's population to recover, with the plague returning time and time again, killing more people, until it left Europe in the 19th century.
Riots in Moscow
The first outbreak of plague swept across England in 1348-49. It travelled across the south of England first. It hit London in September 1348, and spread into East Anglia, all along the coast early in the new year. By the spring of 1349 it was ravaging Wales and the Midlands, and by late summer, it had leaped across the Irish Sea and penetrated Ireland. It was spreading across Scotland by 1350. There was no escape from it and thousands died weekly. The cemetery at Smithfield in London, opened by the Bishop of London to accommodate black death victims became so full that a local landowner donated land nearby at Spittle Croft for a second one. Later excavation of the East Smithfield cemeteries, revealed that the dead were neatly stacked five deep in mass graves. On average, between 30-45% of the population of Britain died in the Black Death of 1348-50. In some villages, 80% or 90% of the population died and in Kilkenny in Ireland the death-rate was 100%.
The pestilence of 1350 was just the beginning, as the Plague kept coming back. It came back in 1361-64 in Italy, 1368, 1371, 1373-75, 1390, 1405 and continued into the fifteenth century.
The pestilence returned every generation with varying strength and mortality. It is known that more than 100 plagues swept across Europe. When it struck in 1603, for example, the plague killed 38,000 Londoners. Britain was not alone in this devastation, Italy suffered from 1629 to 1631, Seville in Spain from 1647 to 1652, and Vienna in 1679. Then of course, the Great Plague of London, just before the Great Fire of London in 1665 – 1666.
The Marseilles Plague was one of the most horrific of the European outbreaks of the early 18th century. It struck in 1720, imported on a ship from the Levant, Eastern Mediterranean killing 100,000 people in the city and the surrounding provinces.
The Great Plague of 1738 was an outbreak of the plague that affected areas in the modern countries of Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and in the Ukraine. An estimation of the deaths it caused was put at 50,000 people.
The Russian epidemic of 1770-1772 was the last massive outbreak of plague in central Russia claiming between 50 and 100 thousand lives in Moscow alone. People were terrified of the plague and started to Riot when the government decided to destroy all houses where the plague had struck. The plague was most prolific in September 1771, killing an estimated thousand Russians a day, even though an estimated three quarters of population fled the city.
On September 15, 1771, Moscow residents revolted against the authorities. Active rioting continued for three days; the remaining unrest was finally subdued at the end of September.
Holland lost over 10% of its population to plague in 1623–1625, and again in 1635–1636, 1655, and 1664. The plague of 1576-1577 killed 50,000 in Venice, almost a third of the population. Over 60% of Norway's population died from 1348 to 1350. The last plague outbreak ravaged Oslo in 1654.
By the early 19th century, the threat of plague had lessened, but it was quickly replaced by a new disease. Asiatic Cholera was the first of several pandemics to sweep through Asia and Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Plague again started in China in the middle of the 19th century, spreading quickly throughout Asia. It killed 10 million people in India alone.
Nowadays, thankfully, Black Death has been wiped out in most countries of the world.
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