Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has battled with the forces of nature in order to survive. One of the most terrifying of these forces is disease. Diseases can come in many different forms. They are caused by many things, such as viruses, bacteria, and some are even non-infectious and can be transmitted genetically. A select few of these ailments, called pandemics, are highly contagious and can afflict mass amounts of people in a short period of time.
One example of a pandemic is the Black Death. It swept through Europe in the 14th century, killing an estimated 75 million people and causing the collapse of the Feudal system. The Black Death is considered one of the deadliest pandemics in history because of the speed of its spread, the death toll, and the lasting effects it had on humanity. The speed at which the plague came about was a major factor in its lethality. The plague is believed to have originated in central Asia in the 1330’s (Edmonds). European traders were the first to hear about the plague because they traveled to the east on trade routes. By the time they realized the extent of this brutal disease, it was too late. They had no idea what they were up against. The plague moved along trade routes and on merchant ships. The sailors on these ships would, not knowing what was afflicting them, stop at ports to trade. Citizens of the cities would catch the disease, and desperately drive away the ships, but it didn’t matter. Once a few people contracted the disease, it spread like wildfire. In 1347, a town called Kaffa was attacked by the Tartar army (Edmonds). The Tartars, however, contracted the plague and began to die out. The people of the city had no idea what was destroying their enemies, but it didn’t matter to them as long as they were winning. They celebrated their good fortune, but this ended abruptly when the tartars began launching deceased plague victims over the walls of the city. The people tried to get rid of the corpses, but it was far too late. The disease was in the city. The Tartars retreated, and the Genoese boarded ships to Sicily.
As a result, the plague followed them to Europe. By spring 1348, the plague hit London, which at the time was a crowded city with a population of about 70,000 (Ibeji). Living conditions in the 1300’s were filthy, and nothing like they are today. Butchers would clean animals in front of their shops and leave the blood covering the ground. The people would empty their chamber pots (a bowl shaped container used as a toilet) out of their windows onto the streets. For these reasons, along with ships full of plague victims sailing through the city, the plague flourished. In 1349 The Scots heard of this English plague and believed the English were being punished by God (Ibeji). They gathered and prepared to invade England, but without warning, soldiers began to die out in ridiculous numbers. Before they could even launch the invasion, most of the army was dead. The remaining army decided to retreat back to their home country. Consequently, soon after they returned the plague was in full swing in Scotland. In just a few short years, it had spread all the way across Europe, and massive amounts of people were dying every day. People had never seen anything like this before and were terrified to walk out of their front door.Most people today think the Black Death was caused by the bubonic plague, but this is only partly true. There were three forms of the plague that all had different symptoms. The most common was the bubonic plague, followed by the pneumonic and septicemic plagues. Much of the fear came from just walking down the street. One would see the many victims of these horrific diseases, disfigured and in agonizing pain. The symptoms of the Bubonic plague were terrible. The lymph nodes would swell and turn black, hence ‘the Black Death’.
In addition, there was vomiting and muscular pains. On top of all this, the victim would be very tired and long for sleep. If they did, however, they would not wake up. The buboes weren’t just small welts either. ‘Tumors covered the body – some as big as an egg or an apple. A large neck tumor could permanently cock a person’s head in the opposite direction’ (Edmonds). This disease alone would be enough to cause mass hysteria, but it was only one third of the problem. The pneumonic plague was rarer and more deadly than the bubonic plague, and could be transmitted from human to human without rats or fleas through inhalation of the infection. The victims would first come down with fever and minor coughing. As time passed, severe pneumonia would ensue. Finally, there was bloody coughing, which meant the victim’s fate was sealed. The septicemic plague, the rarest and most deadly of the three plagues, was a blood infection. To exemplify the severity of this disease, if a person was infected, they died. It was contracted by rodent or flea bites, like the bubonic plague, but was also airborne. Symptoms began with abdominal pain and vomiting, and eventually organs were shut down. The only thing physicians could do for the infection was cut open the buboes and drain the blood. The blood that drained was disgusting and full of infection. When medieval people saw this they had no idea what to think. Physicians believed that an evil fog was the source of the plague. They advised lighting fires as well as carrying rosemary, amber, musk, and sweet smelling flowers to ward off the fog (Edmonds). This of course, had no effect whatsoever on the plague. It still continued its destruction of all life that crossed its path.
People resorted to boarding up their windows to block the wind from blowing the evil fog in. This also did nothing at all to slow the death that was all around. If a person living in an enclosed place caught the disease, most of the time everyone who shared the home would be dead before too long. There is one account where ‘of one hundred and forty Dominican friars at Montpelier, one man survived’ (Kreis). The terrifying plague killed virtually everyone that it came in contact with. To add to the paranoia, The King of England at the time, Edward III, had arranged a marriage for his favorite daughter Joan. She was to marry King Pedro of Castille, and the wedding was to be held in his kingdom. The plague was not near England at the time so the King had no problem sending her on her merry way. She departed from England but tragically, she managed to catch the disease and died shortly after. This goes to show that even though the lower class felt the brunt of it, the plague spared no one. The fact that those of the highest pedigree that were supposedly closest to God could be killed by the plague struck fear into the hearts of citizens. To them this meant that they were without God’s help on this one.Though the worst of the Black Death was over by 1351, it had many lasting effects on the people. ‘the workforce had been destroyed – farms were abandoned and the buildings crumbled’ (Edmonds). The loss of workers made the price of labor and goods go through the roof. The price of food stayed the same, because the population had decreased so drastically that there was a surplus. The lower class saw that the upper classes depended on them more and began to push the limits they previously had.
The upper classes saw this as a threat, so Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers. This restricted increasing wages of workers. This enraged workers. Enough was enough, and the lower class revolted. This gave citizens hope, because even though insane amounts of people were dead, The Feudal system was finally collapsing. The public was slowly recovering, but they felt as if during the plague God had turned his back on them. They responded by turning their backs on him (Edmonds). The people began living a life of sin. Some people held banquets and spent their money on expensive clothes instead of ties. Others, however, weren’t so celebratory. They gambled and hosted huge drinking parties. They were scarred by the horrific sights they’d seen. Watching their entire families suffer and slowly die changed something inside them. This was evident in drama, poetry, visual arts, and music of the time.
The danse macabre, or dance of death, was a symbolic dance between the living and the dead. This was meant to show that death could come for anyone at any time (Edmonds). Surprisingly, even though it’s been nearly 700 years, American children still sing ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. This seemingly innocent nursery rhyme is referencing the buboes, the posies that people would keep in their pockets to keep the smell of death away, and in the end, they all fall down. There were few good effects that came from the plague. The Black Death spurred the start of modern medicine and hygiene. Before the plague, there was no sanitation whatsoever. Not only were the streets disgusting and covered in human waste, but doctors often reused surgical tools without cleaning them. Today, it’s well known that bacteria stay on objects long after they come in contact with them. Furthermore, Diagnosis and treatment was nothing but superstition and guesswork. Physicians were fed up with this and began to actually practice medicine using physical science. If it wasn’t for the plague, humanity could still be in the same dark, disgusting place that it was the middle age.The Black Death was the worst pandemic in European history. It spread with grueling speed and decimated everyone in its path. Even after it was over the effects were still felt for years. However, not everything about the plague was bad. If it hadn’t have happened, we might still be just as filthy and medically uneducated as we were, and the tyrannical monarchies of Europe could still be in power. In the end mankind adapted to survive, just like we have since the beginning of time.