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The Black Death

Updated on October 8, 2013

The Black Death was believed to have had its first documented cases in the Gobi Desert region in the 1330’s. From there it swept through China and India. The infection was then carried via the trade routes, such as the spice and silk route, of Central Asia to the Middle East as well as North Africa.

It is believed that the Black Death became an issue in Europe after Italian traders carried it in upon returning from their trade routes in the Mediterranean. The first known European case occurred in October 1347 when a fleet of ships pulled into a port in Sicily. The sailors and merchants on this fleet were already dying or dead, and when the port authorities realised what was happening, they sent the fleet away. By then, it was too late. Within weeks the infection had spread throughout Sicily and into the Italian mainland. This, along with several other starting points, caused The Plague spread swiftly, where it reached England in September 1348.

The plague to end all plagues

The Black Death, or The Plague, was the most devastating pandemic in human history. Sweeping through three continents, it killed millions and the impact of this epidemic was so drastic that effects of it were felt until the 18th century.

Other names for the Black Death include ‘the Great Plague’, and at the time it was called ‘the pestilence’.

The estimated death toll was between 75-200 million people. Between 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population were included in this toll.

Two continents devastated

Whole countries were devastated, even remote settlements, such as the Norwegian settlement on Greenland, were completely wiped out by The Plague. India was described as depopulated, where Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia were ‘covered with bodies’ according to one chronicler.

Despair and panic were felt all through Europe. Overcrowded cities fell swiftly, as it was difficult to avoid contact with other people. There, the corpses piled up as few were able, or willing, to dispose of them. Those who were financially able to, fled to the country to avoid the infection though in some cases this was in vein and country populations were equally devastated by the Black Death.

Precautions were ineffective, partially due to living conditions but also because not a great deal was known at the time about what caused the infection to occur, therefore no treatment could be utilised and The Plague continued to wipe out victims indiscriminately.

Strangely, the death toll had great variations between places where infection was present. Some cities may only lose 10 percent of their population, while another more remote village may lose up to 60 percent of their population. The unpredictability of survival rates made The Plague even more terrifying to those who encountered it.

Source

Microbiology

We know now that there were at least three strains of plague, recent analysis indicates the bacteria Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) was responsible for the infection and capable of producing symptoms of three distinct types of plague; pneumonic, bubonic and septicemic plague.

Pneumonic plague infected the blood or respiratory system and was passed on easily from person to person through the contact of bodily fluids or even inhaled water droplets from an infected person. Pneumonic plague varieties were more deadly than their counterparts, strains of bubonic plague. Symptoms of pneumonic plague include fever, chills, coughing, chest pain, lethargy, low blood pressure, shortness of breath, coughing blood, and shock.

Bubonic plague was spread via fleas found on black rats. The infection was spread through flea bites, and it was the bites which caused the symptoms that were most commonly associated with the plague, such as the swellings in the armpits, groin and neck. These quickly turned black, as a result of internal bleeding. The fleas carried the plague bacillus Pasteurella pestis in its stomach. They lived in the hair of the animal and infected them via their bloodstream with the bacillus. When the host died, the flea moved to another host and infected them. Symptoms of bubonic plague include an incubation period of 2-6 days, general feeling of being unwell, fever, headache, chills, and as previously mentioned, swelling of the lymph nodes.

In cases of septicemic plague ,which spread via the blood system through bites from infected fleas or contact with infected bodily fluids, the patient may die before any symptoms occur. If symptoms do occur they include delirium, low blood pressure, general feeling of being unwell, fever, seizures and shock.

The multiple strains of plague are one reason why it was so difficult to take precautions against infection. Isolating a victim gave no protection against flea bites, and rats and fleas were commonly found in the homes and surrounding areas of the inhabitants of this time period. Sanitation was poor, which also contributed to the number of rodents and fleas.

Y.pestis bacteria was responsible for The Black Death
Y.pestis bacteria was responsible for The Black Death | Source

Learn more about Y. pestis

Quick Facts

  • The first cases occurred in the 1330's
  • By 1351 between 75-200 million people had died
  • Europe's population was reduced by between 30-60% of what it was
  • The effects of the Black Death were felt as far into the 18th century

End of the Black Death

The end of 1351 saw the end of the Black Death. One historian described the death toll as ‘a third of the world’ that had died. The infection returned a number of times, though nowhere near as devastating as the first run of it. In 1361, 1369 and reoccurred every few years until the end of the 15th century. The 16th century saw it strike less and less often and finally, it almost disappeared completely in the 18th century.

There are mostly isolated cases which have occurred since these times, most recently in 2003 (where 2100 cases were treated and 180 deaths occurred in Africa) and 2006 (again in Africa, where 50 people died). None of these reached near the pandemic levels or caused such extreme devastation that was found in the Black Death plague pandemic.

Learn more here!

Learn more here!

Through the eyes of a survivor

An Italian writer described the horror after burying all five of his children who had become infected and died as a result of The Plague:

‘The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in their groins and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without a priest or service. Nor did the death bell sound. And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night...And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world’.

Map of the spread of Plague
Map of the spread of Plague | Source

Learn more about The Black Death

The Black Death
The Black Death

The Black Death explores the pandemic in Europe

 

The End... or not?

While there are now a number of measures which can be used to treat or prevent a re-occurrence of a Y.pestis related pandemic, there are fears Y.pestis could be used as a bioterror weapon, particularly to spread pneumonic plague which can cause infection in a person via contaminated water droplets.

Overall, we as a species stand a much better chance of surviving now than we did back then. Advances in medical technology, improved sanitation and infection control procedures will limit the number of deaths if another major outbreak was to occur.

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