The Black Death, also known as the Plague, was the most devastating pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of up to 75-125 million people globally, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The plague created religious, social, and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.
It is believed that the Black Death originated in Central Asia or East Asia from where it traveled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that traveled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin, reaching the rest of Europe via the Italian Peninsula.
In England, the first outbreak of plague swept across the country in 1348-49. It seems to have traveled across the south in bubonic form during the summer months of 1348, before mutating into the even more frightening pneumonic form with the onset of winter. It hit London in September 1348, and spread into East Anglia all along the coast early during the New Year. By spring 1349, it was ravaging Wales and the Midlands, and by late summer, it had made the leap across the Irish Sea and had penetrated the north. The Scots were quick to take advantage of their English neighbours' discomfort, raiding Durham in 1349. Whether they caught the plague by this action, or whether it found its way north via other means, it had reached Scotland by 1350.
At the time it was believed that the plague was caused by the presence in the air of a miasma, a poisonous vapour in which were suspended particles of decaying matter that was characterised by its foul smell. The most authoritative contemporary account is found in a report from the medical faculty in Paris to Philip VI of France. It blamed the heavens, in the form of a conjunction of three planets in 1345 that caused a "great pestilence in the air". We now know that it was most likely the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which results in several forms of plague (septicemic, pneumonic and, the most common, bubonic), that was cause.
The onset of the plague created panic the length and breadth of Europe. One graphic testimony can be found at St Mary's, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, where an anonymous hand has carved a harrowing inscription for the year 1349:
‘Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.'
Of course the doctors of the time had no way of knowing how to cure the plague. For those who believed in the Greek humours there were a range of cures available. ‘Blood-letting’ – deliberately bleeding a vein – was a way of reducing ‘hot’ blood, whilst blowing your nose or clearing your throat was a way of getting rid of too much ‘cold’ phlegm. Mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce and horseradish were used to balance wet, dry, hot and cold in diets. Other ‘cures’ included:
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population and in total, it may have reduced the world population from an estimated 475 million to 350–375 million in the 14th century. It took 200 years for Europe's population to recover to its previous level, and some regions (such as Florence) did not recover until the 19th century.
The precise effects of the Black Death are difficult to assess given the huge loss of life and subsequent inconsistent records. In some places there was even no-one left to bury the dead let alone record the effects. However, historians have suggested the Black Death had significant consequences.
The Black Death was likely to have had a huge influence on the way people thought about life. Some lived wild, immoral lives, others fell into deep despair, whilst many chose to accept their fate. Many people were angry and bitter, and blamed the Church – some historians think this helped the growth of the new 'Lollard' religion in the 15th century. Having faced and survived the plague, people at the bottom of society were more prepared to question their position in society. Indeed it has been argued that the Black Death encouraged the poor to hate their poverty and their 'betters' and that the resultant civil unrest, such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, helped end the feudal system in England.
Outbreaks of the plague would continue to occur until the early 20th century, including the Great Plague of London, which lasted from 1665 to 1666 and was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England. Today, an estimate of the case fatality rate for the modern bubonic plague, following the introduction of antibiotics, is 11%, although it may be higher in underdeveloped regions.
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