The Sanitation Problems of the Black Death The bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that is considered one of the most lethal in history. Recorded pandemics of the plague reach back to 541 A. D. and minor epidemics can still be found around the world (Plague). The plague consists of a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. This bacterium has the ability to mutate quickly and can easily destroy the immune system of the infected person, “it does this by injecting toxins into defense cells such as macrophages that are tasked with detecting bacterial infections.
Once these cells are knocked out, the bacteria can multiply unhindered. ” (Plague) The bubonic plague has a number of symptoms ranging from a headache to seizures. The most distinguishable symptom, however, is the swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin, under arm, and neck areas (Board). The swollen areas became dark and discoloured very quickly; these massive swollen black areas then became known as buboes. The disease was given the title The Black Death because of the colour change, during a massive pandemic occurring from 1348 to 1350 in Europe (The Black Death, 1348).
The bubonic plague struck Europe with an iron fist, leaving destruction and mayhem wherever it went. The disease was easily spread, and became catastrophic during The Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, Europe was struck by a massive wave of bubonic plague resulting in the death of nearly one third of the continent’s population (britanica encyclopedia). Many factors contributed to the Black Death pandemic; the bacterium travelled from Asia to Europe using rodents as the host, resulting in streets lined with plague. The poor living conditions and lack of proper waste disposal was a key contributor to the spreading of The Plague.
Medical techniques of the time were very limited and were based off obsolete medical ideology and little successful research was conducted to support new medical treatments. The lack of proper sanitation during The Black Death pandemic created a devastatingly high mortality rate. The Black Death catastrophe in Europe began in Caffa and was transported by ship to Sicily (The Black Death. Britain Express). The boat contained imported spices and other goods. The boats also contained rodents which acted as hosts to the bacterium. These rodents carried Y. pestis infected fleas (Plague).
The disease was Not only did these fleas find their way into the freshly imported luggage, but it expanded into the rest of Europe. The bubonic plague found its way into Italy, and catastrophe hit in major cities. Rodents in large cities carrying the infected reproduced quickly, which resulted in more hosts for the bubonic plague. The rodent hosts provided a perfect habitat for fleas to travel. Considering the small rats were not easily controlled or eliminated, the fleas carrying the Y. pestis bacteria were able to easily expand and infect humans at a rapid rate (Kugler).
The colder seasons in Europe allowed for the disease to travel quickly while not showing many signs of pandemic. The rodents would burrow in homes to keep warm, while consuming on any available food. As the weather warmed the rodents and fleas came out of hiding and the pandemic began. The warm weather was the perfect place for bacteria to multiply, before long the entire pantry of the peasants would be completely infested. The citizens would then ingest this highly infected food resulting in the beginning of a long struggle for safety.
The population of rodents could travel easily from city to city. This is how the bubonic plague was so easily spread across the continent. Rodents were capable of sneaking onto carriages traveling from one country to another and then on to boats. The speed of transportation allowed the Black Death to expand from Sicily to England in a matter of a year while killing millions in the process. The excessive rodents caused chaos around the cities; they dug in garbage and filth tracking filth into homes and fresh drinking water. The unsanitary rodent problem commenced the fatal Black Death.
The hosts travelled quickly; however, the fleas could travel quickly as well. Fleas would travel from one host to another breeding and expanding to all realms of Europe (The Black Death, a Bubonic Plague of Great Dimension) Sanitation was a serious problem within Europe and the lack of proper care escalated the rodent problem even farther. During the pandemic of bubonic plague sanitation was at an all-time low. Cities suffered the greatest, with the disease spreading quickly. The lack of a safe system for waste disposal in these areas allowed for the disease to spread rapidly.
The use of chamber pots was an example of the poor waste disposal. Chamber pots were small to medium sized bowls used for holding excretion. The contents of the chamber pots would then be tossed into the streets. Both sides of the streets were lined with trenches that would hold the human waste and other garbage; this became the perfect opportunity for disease to flourish. “Almost everyone used privies or chamber pots, which were emptied into open sewers that typically fed into streams, creeks, or adjacent rivers” (Streich).
Not only was the filth repulsive in smell, but it also carried other airborne diseases which weakened the immune system thus a more catastrophic impact on the peasants. By the second year of pandemic the plague had killed an estimated 25 million (Plague) of the peasantry, nobility, and clergy. Nobody was immune to the disease. The poor sanitation became a massive issue with the lack of burial space and the minimal space left was saved explicitly for nobility. Many deceased peasants were left in the open and much like garbage, the deceased were tossed into the streets and many would lay there rotting.
This would then have caused the spread of the plague to animals and in some cases the blood and rotting corpses would be exposed to fresh drinking water. The people of the fourteenth century had no concept of bacteria, the corpses carried the disease and many had been placed near streams heading towards the fresh water. This water was then full of Y. pestis bacteria, resulting in a very large population coming in contact with the disease (Streich). This lack of proper sanitation escalated the already devastating Black Plague.
Little knowledge of how disease worked was a disastrous problem for anyone living in Europe during The Middle Ages. No updated medical information was available and the archaic medical treatments would eventually be the biggest influence in the death of millions. Medical treatment became a priority once the plague became fatal. Medicine of the fourteenth century was very limited and the human body was a mostly undiscovered place. During this time an archaic idea of medicine was in place, these were called the four humours.
The four humours were the idea that the body consisted of four substances called humours: blood, phlegm, and yellow and black bile. The theory stated that if one of the fluids was out of balance you became ill. If someone was diagnosed with too much of one humour then the cure could be gruesome, including: vomiting, bleeding, or natural laxatives. Sometimes if a humour was diagnosed as too little herbs and other treatments were available. This system of medicine was unreliable and little medical research was ever conducted during the time.
The treatment of the humours in many instances may have caused more damage than good. Many patients may have suffered dehydration, or have been killed from loss of blood. With excessive vomiting or diarrhea the immune system was weakened especially within peasantry that were at constant victim to other diseases and bacteria. Medical professionals treated patients based on their unbalanced humour system. Many people were treated using bleeding. The theory was that by removing blood from the body the disease would be removed with it.
Bleeding was a popular treatment especially among royalty and nobility for centuries, however, during a time of disease bleeding was catastrophic. To conduct the treatment an incision would be cut into the arm, leg or other part of the body and blood would be removed onto a small dish for several minutes. For nobility bleeding could have happened regularly, this would have weakened the immune system and in turn could have easily been infected. The peasantry used this treatment as well; they would have had a very high chance of infection (Middle Ages Doctors). The incisions would be exposed to not only the Y. estis bacteria, but other excrements and filth during their daily life. Other methods including laxatives would have had a massive impact, this system would have dehydrated the body, and in turn the infected would be taking in more contaminated water. The plague was everywhere and it was very difficult to hide from. Doctors at the time had no understanding of where the buboes were coming from, many assumptions were made but almost all doctors agreed that rupturing the buboes would relieve pain and help remove the disease from the body. Modern medicine, however, would prove this theory wrong.
To puncture the buboes doctors would use a sharp metal instrument. This instrument would be used for several different patients thus creating a pool of bacteria on the utensil. The same unsanitary implement may then have been used on patients that had not been infected. These newly infected patients can then spread the disease to their household, thus creating a never ending cycle of transmission. The unsanitary utensils were not only the dangerous part, but the rupturing of the buboes, they were horribly painful and releasing the swollen lymph nodes would cause severe infections (Middle Ages Doctors).
Buboes were easily infected, especially for the peasantry, as they were constantly surrounded by garbage and rodents full of not only bubonic plague but many other bacteria. The horrifying attempts at curing the plague eventually lead to a more horrible and gruesome death. The lack of proper sanitation was the key aspect to the death of so many during the pandemic of the fourteenth century. The Black Death wiped out entire villages and entire blood lines. Nobody was immune to the disease and nobody was unaffected in some way.
The plague became worsened by the pure lack of sanitary knowledge. Unfortunately this made the disease worse, with a severe rodent problem carrying the plague, terrible street conditions resulting in contamination, and the poor medical sanitation which extended the spread of the disease to new heights. The plague is now curable, and thank to modern medicine and better sanitary living conditions it cannot flourish in the developed world. The Black Death was a time in history of destruction and chaos which will never be repeated.
Cite this Sanitation During the Black Death
Sanitation During the Black Death. (2016, Oct 29). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/sanitation-during-the-black-death/