The Black Death
An Introduction to the Black Death
This is an article that I wrote for a history magazine for homeschooled middle and high school students. It contains a brief overview of what the Black Death was and how it functioned. Study questions for students below.
The Black Death
The Black Death is known by several names, including the Black Plague, the Bubonic Plague, and sometimes simply The Plague. When people use any of these names, they are specifically referring to the bubonic plague which swept across Western Europe from 1348-1349 (you may also see it dated 1347-1351 if you include Eastern Europe and other more remote places). Oddly enough, it didn't get any of these names for centuries; it was just referred to as a "pestilence" at the time. Modern historians estimate that between 25%-50% of the entire population of Western Europe died in those two years.
Various pestilences (these could be any disease) went through Europe throughout the middle ages. What made the plague of 1348-1349 The Plague was the fact that it spread all over Europe and that it killed and sickened more people than any pestilence that had come before, or has ever come since. Previous plagues had been fairly local. A city might have an outbreak of a pestilence, but it generally didn't spread too far. After a month or two, it had run its course and everyone was back to business as usual. The young, the old, and the sick were the most likely to die from disease; healthy adults did not often die.
When the Black Death came through Europe, it did not follow any of those rules. It went from city to city, village to village, spreading like a wildfire across almost all of Western Europe in just one summer. It almost completely disappeared over the winter, only to spring back to life as terrible as ever the next summer (which is also opposite normal cycles of disease, which are typically worse in the winter when people are in very close quarters). It killed healthy adults as easily as children, the old and the sick. No one anywhere seemed safe from it.
So, what exactly is the Black Death? The Black Death is the bubonic plague, and it is caused by bad bacteria (Y. Pestis) which lives in the stomachs of fleas that live on rats. Normally these bad bacteria just hang out in the flea's stomach, but given the right conditions, the bad bacteria can multiply to the point that the flea gets sick, and when it bites a rat, it vomits the bad bacteria into the rat. Now the rat has the bubonic plague. And because the bad bacteria gets in its blood, every flea that bites the rat will suck the bad bacteria into its stomach. Then those fleas hop onto other rats and give them the plague.
People originally caught the Black Death when those infected rat fleas decided to bite them instead of rats (there were a lot of rats and a lot of fleas in the middle ages). Once people had the bad bacteria in their bodies, they could spread it to others.
The word "bubonic" refers to the buboes or lymph nodes in the body. It seems that most of the time the bad bacteria would get into these buboes and they would swell up and become very painful. Within a day or two of the swelling, they would get so large they would break open and make bad wounds. The bad bacteria could also cause the skin to die, and when it died, it would turn black-which is why it is known as the Black Death. Some people died within a day or two of the buboes breaking open, but some people might be sick for a week or two before dying-or they might get better. It is thought that about half of the people who got the bubonic form did manage to get better and live. And, as gross as the sick person is, you can only catch the plague from him if you touch one of his open wounds with a bare hand; you are okay if you wear gloves when touching him.
Although we call being sick with this bad bacteria "the bubonic plague," the bacteria didn't always settle in the buboes; sometimes it settled in the lungs, and sometimes it stayed in the blood. When it is in the lungs, it's called the pneumonic form; when it is in the blood, it is the systemic form. The pneumonic form is easiest to spread because when the bad bacteria are in the lungs, every time that person breathes out, the bad bacteria are released into the air, up to several yards around that person. Anyone that breathes air containing the bad bacteria can then catch the plague.
The other thing that made the pneumonic form of the plague so easy to spread is that people weren't visibly sick. And because they did not look sick and did not feel sick for several days after catching it, they would keep on working or traveling and would cough the bad bacteria into the air all around them. When the bacteria got very bad in their lungs, they would have some blood come out of their mouth or nose and then die very quickly after that. It is thought that about 90% of people who caught this form of the plague died.
The systemic form of the plague, where the bacteria stays in the blood, was the most deadly, but it didn't spread. You could not get the plague from someone with the systemic form unless you touched their blood. But it is thought to be fatal 100% of the time. It is not known how long people with the systemic form of the plague lived with it because they never showed any symptoms. These people would be walking behind their plow or down the street and just fall down dead. Some of them might feel a bit tired and lay down for a nap and be dead within the hour.
So why did the bubonic plague become so bad when previous plagues weren't so bad? It seems that it was bad because of a number of things that happened all at the same time. First, the population in Europe had gotten so large by the 1200's that it was becoming difficult to feed everyone, even in good years. But there were many bad years before the Black Death when too much rain and cool weather ruined the crops, and several diseases killed many sheep and cattle. So famine was common throughout the 1200 and 1300's and large parts of the European population were weakened by this.
Also, those large numbers of people had to live somewhere, and many of them lived in cities. The more people you have together in a small space, the easier it is for disease to spread. When you are sick with the pneumonic form and are out on your large farm when you cough, there's no one around to catch it. When you are in a city market and you cough, 20 people might catch the plague.
Trade was much more frequent and widespread in the 1300's than it had been previously. More people and goods traveled further, which meant that goods infested with fleas or people already sick with the Black Death could carry it much further and much faster than in the past.
It is even thought that the weather had some effect on the spread of the Black Death. A couple of very warm, dry summers after many summers of cold and wet may have been just what the bad bacteria needed to multiply like crazy and start getting out of the fleas. Dry air also allows airborne diseases (like the pneumonic form) to spread easier.
The Plague did eventually die down after it had occurred for two summers in most places. It continued to occur off and on for several more centuries, but it was generally confined to a single city or small region and it did not sweep across all of Western Europe again.
It wasn't until the 1700's that Europe again had as many people as it did in the year before the Black Death. By then medicine and sanitation were improving, which helped prevent large outbreaks of bubonic plague. It still exists today and occasionally appears in poor parts of the world, but the U.S. usually only sees one or two cases a year. And it is easily treated with antibiotics. Our ancestors once thought the world was coming to an end thanks to a disease that a little penicillin and a few days resting at home will now cure!
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1. Many historians credit the Black Death with bringing about the end of the feudal system and beginning the modern era. This is because the severe lack of workers allowed the working people that survived to bargain for better wages. Before the Black Death there were a huge number of poor people. After the Black Death, the number of poor people shrank considerably and the number of well-to-do people (what we call the middle class) increased dramatically. Do you think it's important for a society to have a large middle class? What are the benefits?
2. After The Black Death, because labor was scarce and more expensive, it became more important to invent machines to do work instead of people. Was this a good thing at the time? Machines still do work instead of people. Is this a good thing now?
3. People responded to the Black Death in many ways. Those who had money fled to the countryside and locked themselves up in their houses and kept away from the sick. Others, who could not get away from the cities, went to church and prayed constantly for their own sake and for everyone else (most people thought that the world was about to end). Others put on their best clothing and feasted and partied almost constantly because they assumed they were going to die at any moment, so they might as well have fun while they could. Still others traveled from house to house trying to care for the sick.
If we were to have a plague today, and people were dying all around you, what would you do? Run away from the sick, or stay and take care of them? Party and have a good time or pray? What would you chose if some of your family were sick?
4. Our Halloween image of the Grim Reaper comes directly from medieval drawings about the Black Death-the plague is represented by the reaper. Find an image of the Grim Reaper and see if you can figure out what the elements associated with him (hooded robe, skeletal figure, sickle) meant to people who were experiencing the Black Death.
- The Plague - Before and After
If you would like more information on the Plague, especially regarding how it affected medieval people and society, or are looking for adult reading-level material, see this more detailed lens.
- Eyewitness to History
A short article on the Black Death, including quotes from medieval people who saw it as it was happening.
- Gode Cookery Presents: Medieval Macabre
A collection of medieval woodcut pictures of death personified. Death art came about after the Black Death and was popular for at least a couple hundred years. The purpose was to remind people that they might die at any moment, and to prepare their s
- Mary King's Close Tour
This is a tour you can take in Edinburgh, Scotland. In the middle ages, there were streets and houses that went down off the side of the rock that Edinburgh is built on. Later (1600 or 1700's), they decided they needed more land on top of the rock fo
- The Medieval Nun's Lensography
A list of all of my Squidoo lenses, organized by topic.
Books Used for This Article
The first four books are adult-level books that I used to research this article (although the book on the year 1000 can certainly be read by high school students, as it is very readable, and not your typical dry academic text). The Edgar Allen Poe story, however, can be read by younger children (I know I read it in elementary school).