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What was the Black Death?

Updated on April 13, 2012

Black Death was a devastating plague that struck Europe in the late 14th century.

It received its name from the black spots that appeared on the skins of its victims. The Black Death was bubonic plague or its more virulent relative, pneumonic plague.

Symptoms of the bubonic form included high fever and hard swelling of the lymph glands, which often became abscessed. The pneumonic variety attacked the lungs, causing hemorrhages and vomiting of blood. Both forms brought death within a few days. The plague bacillus was transmitted either by the fleas of black rats (bubonic) or by the infected wastes of its victims (pneumonic) .

The Black Death was carried to Europe from the Middle East by rats on merchant vessels.

Arriving in southern Italy in the summer of 1347, it soon spread by trade routes to Spain and France. The plague reached England in 1348, Germany in 1349, and Russia in 1350.

When the Black Death struck, Europe was completely helpless to combat it. There was no natural immunity to the disease, and standards of public health and personal hygiene were nearly nonexistent.

Mortality Rates

The mortality figures for the Black Death will never be known. Either there were no records or existing records were interrupted during the worst years of the crisis (1347-1350). Chronicles and other contemporary accounts exaggerate losses, some claiming that nine tenths of the population of a given region perished. Undoubtedly city dwellers were hit hardest as crowding and lack of sanitation facilitated the plague's spread. Contemporary figures indicate that Florence lost two thirds of its 100,000 inhabitants in 1348.

From the limited information available, it is estimated that somewhere between one quarter and one third of Europe's population died in the years 1347-1350. Nations might have recovered rapidly from the effects of the plague, for marriages and births increased after the first epidemic.

However, recurrent epidemics prevented the recovery of Europe's population to pre-plague levels until at least the mid-15th century.

Religion. The number of clergy who died of the Black Death deprived many people of spiritual guidance at a time of crisis. Perhaps 40% of England's clergy perished in the years 1348- 1350. This left churches understaffed, necessitated hasty recruiting of inferior priests, and accelerated the abuses of pluralism and nonresidence.

The appearance of both lay piety movements and heresy during the Black Death owes something to the moral crisis of the late Middle Ages and to the disillusionment of the people with the church of that time. Popular terror was reflected in frenzies of religious excess, as in the case of the Flagellants. Jews were accused of spreading the plague by poisoning wells, and pogroms directed against them occurred in the Rhineland and Switzerland, in spite of papal protests. Hysterical charges of sorcery and witchcraft were brought against eccentric and unpopular people. The art and literature of the period testify to the contemporary obsession with death and decay.


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