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The Black Death Was a Terrible Time

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    How did the nursery rhyme Ring around the Rosie come around? When the Black Death hit Europe in the 1300’s, the people had gotten rings on their skin and had flowers in their pockets so the smell of death wasn’t as noticeable. The Black Death was a terrible time for the people as most people couldn’t survive this bubonic plague. The origin of the Black Death resulted in different reactions from the church, the government, and the common population as they searched for a cure before it died out.

    How did this deathly plague even happen? A flea riding on the hide of a black rat entered the Italian port of Messina in 1347. This flea had a stomach full of bacillus Yersinia pestis.These Fleas could carry Several hundred thousands of bacilli in their intestines . If a rat were to stop gnawing its lower incisors would eventually grow as sometimes happens when a rat loses and opposing tooth – until the incisors push up into the rats brain, killing it. It would eat grain, fish, eggs, fowl and meat- lambs, piglets and the flesh of helpless infants and adults. If nothing else was available a rat would eat manure and drink urine. A fleas intestine happened to provide ideal breeding conditions for the bacillus, which will eventually multiply and block the gut of the flea entirely. Unable to feed or digest the flea will find another host, but as it sucks blood it spit out some and the rat then gets infected (Mee).

    The church explained the plague as God’s punishment of the people’s sins.The church called for people to pray, and it organized religious marches, pleading to God to stop the “pestilence” (Costly). There were too many people dying so they couldn’t just bury the bodies. A collector would go around the town pulling a cart to collect the bodies. There would be a pile of bodies that they would either dig a hole big enough to put the piles and piles of bodies in so they would be buried or they would simply pile the bodies up and set fire to them. Confidence in the power of shrines and talismans that had brought comfort for decades was shattered, and fearful priests who shirked their duties were held up as examples of the clergy’s failings as a whole. Cloistered communities were the perfect breeding ground for plague, with whole monasteries and abbeys being wiped out. It seemed the Church had no answers, but this did not stop vast amounts of local priests from doing all they could to give their parishioners spiritual solace as they faced their deaths (Cybulskie). For a long time people believed that the Catholic Church had fled from its duty to serve the people, but that could not be further from the truth. In recent discovery it was found that greater than 50 percent of clergy were killed during the Black Death. This was not because the clergy were running away; rather, the clergy stayed and helped the people in villages, knowing the likelihood they would survive would be slim throughout this epidemic. It is my goal in this paper to describe what was occurring during the Black Death and how the Catholic Church and its clergy reacted to the epidemic (The Effect).

    The Government tried to keep wages from rising. An English law in 1349 tried to force workers to accept the same wages they received in 1346. A similar law, the Statute of Laborers, was issued in 1351. The statute said that every healthy unemployed person under 60 years old must work for anyone who wanted to hire him. Workers who violated the Statute of Laborers were fi ned and were put in stocks as punishment for disobeying the statute. In 1360, punishments became worse. Workers who demanded higher wages could be sent to prison and if they escaped they were branded with the letter “F” on their foreheads (Council For Economic Education). When the Black Death spread through Italy in late 1347, some ports began turning away ships suspected of coming from infected areas. During March the following year, authorities in Venice became the first to formalise such protective actions against plague, closing the city’s waters to suspect vessels, and subjecting travellers and legitimate ships to 30 days’ isolation. This period was extended to 40 days some years later, hence the term quarantine. Further regulations established remote cemeteries for plague victims who in turn were collected, transported and buried in accordance with defined rules. But these measures were too little, too late. Plague took hold and Venetians died in their tens of thousands (The Black).

    Common people were urged to burn aromatic woods, but other scents would do as well, including rosemary, amber, musk and fragrant flowers. When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs. Some plague-proofed their homes by putting glazes over the southern windows to block the polluted southern wind. People were advised not to eat meat or figs and to avoid activities that would open the pores to a miasma, including bathing, exercising and physical intimacy. Stranger recommendations circulated as well, including not sleeping during the daytime and avoiding sad thoughts about death and disease (Reaction). Social effects of the plague were felt immediately after the worst outbreaks petered out. Those who survived benefited from an extreme labor shortage, so serfs once tied to the land now had a choice of whom to work for. Lords had to make conditions better and more attractive or risk leaving their land untended, leading to wage increases across the board. The taste of better living conditions for the poor would not be forgotten. A few decades later, when lords tried to revert back to the old ways, there were peasant revolts throughout Europe and the lower classes maintained their new freedoms and better pay (How).

    In the 1347 – 1350 outbreak, doctors were completely unable to prevent or 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 your diet! Rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake on the boils or cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body. Drinking vinegar, eating crushed minerals, arsenic, mercury or even ten-year-old treacle! Sitting close to a fire or in a sewer to drive out the fever, or fumigating the house with herbs to purify the air. People who believed God was punishing you for your sin, ‘flagellants’, went on processions whipping themselves. In the 1361 – 1364 outbreak, doctors learned how to help the patient recover by bursting the buboes. Doctors often tested urine for colour and health. Some even tasted it to test (BBC The Black Death). Plague doctors consequently resorted to some dubious, dangerous, and debilitating treatments. Plague doctors were largely unqualified, so they had less medical knowledge than “real” physicians who themselves subscribed to incorrect scientific theories. Treatments then ranged from the bizarre to the truly horrific. They practiced covering buboes, pus-filled cysts the size of an egg found on the neck, armpits, and groin.In human excrement which probably spread further infection. They also turned to bloodletting and lancing the buboes to drain the puss. Both practices could be quite painful, though the most painful must have been pouring mercury over the victim and placing them in an oven (Rennie). The most popular theory of how the plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.Improvements in personal hygiene are also thought to have begun to take place during the pandemic, alongside the practice of cremations rather than burials due to the sheer number of bodies. A common myth suggests that the plagues’ third epidemic was finally wiped out in London by the Great Fire of 1666. It’s a good story, but sadly not true, says the Museum of London. The number of people dying from the plague was already in decline before the fire, and people continued to die after it had been extinguished (What).

    During the Black Death a lot of chaos went on with how many deaths and with no cure for the disease. “Plague did not honor social class, and mortality among the nobility approximated that of the general population,” said Robert Steven Gottfried. The origin of the Black Death resulted in different reactions from the church, the government, and the common population as they searched for a cure before it died out. After the Black Death agriculture, religion, economics, and even social class were affected, contemporary accounts shed light on how medieval Britain was irreversibly changed.

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