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An introduction and a brief history of bubonic plague

Visit Website The Black Death was terrifyingly, indiscriminately contagious: People who were perfectly healthy when they went to bed at night could be dead by morning.

  • Even the great and powerful, who were more capable of flight, were struck down;
  • An outbreak of the plague at Constantinople in the 6th century AD may have killed as many as half the population;
  • Understanding the Black Death Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis;
  • Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities.

Understanding the Black Death Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis. The French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered this germ at the end of the 19th century.

They know that the bacillus travels from person to person pneumonically, or through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats.

Both of these pests could be found almost everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds — which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another. Today, this grim sequence of events is terrifying but comprehensible. In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it.

  • The population of western Europe did not again reach its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the 16th century;
  • An outbreak of the plague at Constantinople in the 6th century AD may have killed as many as half the population;
  • Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not eliminated it.

No one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another, and no one knew how to prevent or treat it. Meanwhile, in a panic, healthy people did all they could to avoid the sick.

Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites; and shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people. In fact, so many sheep died that one of the consequences of the Black Death was a European wool shortage.

Origin and incidence

And many people, desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick and dying loved ones. Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment — retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness.

Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers — so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349.

  • This type occurred when the fleas infected humans by biting them;
  • Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls;
  • In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it;
  • Black DeathPlague victims during the Black Death, 14th century;
  • There had been plagues at various times for thousands of years, some of which may have been similar to the Black Death.

Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities. Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls.

Black Death

Flagellants Some upper-class men joined processions of flagellants that traveled from town to town and engaged in public displays of penance and punishment: They would beat themselves and one another with heavy leather straps studded with sharp pieces of metal while the townspeople looked on.

Then they would move on to the next town and begin the process over again. Though the flagellant movement did provide some comfort to people who felt powerless in the face of inexplicable tragedy, it soon began to worry the Pope, whose authority the flagellants had begun to usurp. In the face of this papal resistance, the movement disintegrated. The Black Death epidemic had run its course by the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared every few generations for centuries.

  1. There was also a general rise in wages for artisans and peasants.
  2. There were recurrences of the plague in 1361—63, 1369—71, 1374—75, 1390, and 1400.
  3. Understanding the Black Death Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis.

Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not eliminated it. Start your free trial today.