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What Were the Symptoms of the Black Death?
Burial of Black Death Victims
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
The Black Death started with a feeling of general illness:
- aching and
- 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
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
via bite from infected flea
Swollen lymph nodes (Buboes)
via airborne bacteria
(ie from person to person due to coughing)
via bite from infected flea
(sometimes person to person)
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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.