The Black Death pandemic of 1349 is considered to be one of the major events in world history, and it is still the subject of medical, historical, and sociological analysis. The evidence of the plague is found in the broad swath it cut across North Africa, Asia, and Europe, its terrifying symptoms, and its impact on society.
History of the Disease
Ancient history includes vivid descriptions of epidemics that seized their victims suddenly and produced an agonizing death. One such episode occurred in Athens, Greece, in 430 B.C.E., and another occurred in Egypt, Persia, and Rome a century later. Some historians believe these lethal outbreaks were caused by the same disease responsible for the Black Death—the bubonic plague. Other historians, though, note some differences between the symptoms observed in the ancient episodes and those reported during the fourteenth century.
The growth of international trade and military invasions later provided the opportunity for diseases to spread rapidly from one population to another. Smallpox and measles came first, both causing high mortality within populations that had not previously been exposed. Bubonic plague arrived in force in the sixth century C.E., raging throughout most of Arabia, North Africa, Asia, and Europe. The death toll from what became known as "Justinian's Plague" was even greater than that of the previous epidemics. The powerful and still expanding Byzantine empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), was so devastated that its political and military power sharply declined.
The plague did not entirely disappear but entered a long phase of withdrawal with occasional local outbreaks, especially in central Asia. When it did return it was with a furious rush that created widespread panic in populations already beset with both natural and human-made disasters. The fourteenth century suffered an entire catalog of catastrophes, including earthquakes, fires, floods, freezing weather, nauseating mists, and crop failures—all of which did not even seem to slow down the incessant warfare and banditry. Social order was weakened under the stress, and a hungry and exhausted population became more vulnerable to influenza and other opportunistic diseases.
It was within this already precarious situation that the plague once again crossed into Europe. There had been rumors about a deadly new epidemic sweeping through the Middle East, probably starting in 1338. The plague had taken hold among the Tartars of Asia Minor. Somebody had to be blamed—in this case, the Christian minority. (Later, as the plague devastated Europe, Jews were not only blamed but burned alive.) The Tartars chased Genoese merchants to their fortified town (now Feodosiya, Ukraine, then Kaffa) on the Crimean coast. The besieging army soon was ravaged by the plague and decided to leave. As a parting shot, the Tartars used catapults to hurl plague-infected corpses over the city walls. Some residents died almost immediately; the others dashed for their galleys (a type of oar-propelled ship) and fled, taking the disease with them. Sicily and then the rest of Italy were the earliest European victims of the plague. It would spread through almost all of Europe, wiping out entire villages and decimating towns and cities.
It is estimated that a third of the European population perished during the Black Death. The death toll may have been as high or even higher in Asia and North Africa, though less information is available about these regions. The world was quickly divided between the dead and their frequently exhausted and destitute mourners.
The Disease and How It Spread
As for the disease itself the bacterial agent is Yersinia pestis. It is considered to have permanent reservoirs in central Asia, Siberia, the Yunan region of China, and areas of Iran, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa. Yersinia pestis infects rodents, producing blood poisoning. Fleas that feed on the dying rodents carry the highly toxic bacteria to the next victim—perhaps a human. Among the first symptoms in humans were swollen and painful lymph glands of the armpit, neck, and groin. These swellings were known as buboes, from the Greek word for "groin." Buboes became dreaded as signals of impending death. Occasionally these hard knobs would spontaneously burst, pus would drain away and the victim might then recover if not totally exhausted or attacked by other infections. More often, however, the buboes were soon accompanied by high fever and agony. Sometimes the victim died within just a few hours; others became disoriented and either comatose or wildly delirious. Another symptom— perhaps even more certain than the buboes—was the appearance of postules, or dark points on various parts of the body. These splotches were most often called lenticulae, from the Italian word for "freckles."
Medical historians believe that the plague can spread in several ways but that it was the pneumonic or respiratory form that accounted for most of the deaths, being easily spread through coughing and sneezing. An interesting alternative was suggested in 1984 by the zoologist Graham Twigg, who had studied rat populations in more recent outbreaks of the plague in Asia. He doubts that the bubonic plague could have spread so rapidly in the fourteenth-century population; instead he nominates anthrax as the killer. Anthrax can be borne on the wind; it is known as a threat to sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Both plague and anthrax, then, are primarily found in animal populations, with humans becoming "accidental" victims under certain conditions. Whatever its specific cause or causes, the Black Death killed until it ran out of large numbers of vulnerable people. There have been subsequent plague epidemics, some also with high death tolls, and public health authorities continue to monitor possible new occurrences.
Impact on Society
Historians often divide European history into periods before and after the plague. There are several persuasive reasons for doing so. First, the population declined sharply—and then rebounded. Both the loss and the replenishment of the population had significant effects on all aspects of society, from agriculture to family structure to military adventuring.
Second, influential writers, such as the English clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), would propose that overpopulation produces its own remedy through epidemic, famine, and other means. Some areas of Europe might have been considered ripe for mass death because agricultural production had not kept up with population growth. The overpopulation theory has been criticized as inadequate to explain the catastrophic effects of the Black Death. Nevertheless, concerns about overpopulation in more recent times were foreshadowed by analyses of the plague years.
Third, feudalism—the political and social structure then prevalent in Europe—may have been the underlying cause of the mass mortality. A few people had everything; most people had very little. Those born into the lower classes had little opportunity for advancement. This situation perpetuated a large underclass of mostly illiterate people with limited skills, thereby also limiting technological and cultural progress. Furthermore, the feudal system was showing signs of collapsing from within in the years preceding the Black Death. In his 1995 book The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy explained:
The basic unit of production was the small peasant farm, worked with an essentially stagnant technique. The only growth the system allowed was . . . the multiplication of farm units . . . subject to the law of diminishing returns. As cultivation extended onto poorer soils, so the returns to the average family farm necessarily diminished. . . . As peasant income diminished, they paid lower and lower rents. . . . The lords took to robbery and pillage . . . and also hired themselves out as mercenaries . . . and pressured their overlords, notably the king, to wage wars against their neighbors. (Herlihy 1995, p. 36)
The almost continuous wars of the Middle Ages were attempts by hard-pressed nobles to snatch wealth from each other as well as grab whatever the peasants had left. The decline and crisis of the feudal system, then, probably did much to make people especially vulnerable to the plague, while the aftereffects of the plague would make feudal society even more of a losing proposition.
Fourth, loosely organized and short-lived challenges to authority arose from shifting coalitions of peasants and merchants. People laboring in the fields started to make demands, as though they too—not just the high and mighty—had "rights." Heads of state would remember and remain nervous for centuries to come.
Finally, the devastating and immediate impact of the Black Death prepared the way for a reconstruction of society. Deserted towns and vacant church and governmental positions had to be filled with new people. At first the demand was specific: more physicians, more clergy, and—of special urgency—more gravediggers were needed. The demand for new people to move into key positions throughout society opened the door for many who had been trapped in the ancient feudal system. It was also a rare opportunity for women to be accepted in positions of responsibility outside of the home (e.g., as witnesses in court proceedings). People who lacked "social connections" now could find more attractive employment; merit had started to challenge social class membership. These developments fell far short of equality and human rights as understood today, but they did result in significant and enduring social change.
Long-term Influences of the Plague
The plague years enabled European society to shake off the feudal system and make progress on many fronts. Death, however, had seized the center of the human imagination and would not readily ease its grip. The imagination had much to
Fear of infection led many people to isolate themselves from others, thereby further contributing to social chaos and individual anxiety and depression. The fear for one's own life and the lives of loved ones was rational and perhaps useful under the circumstances. Rational fear, however, often became transformed into panic, and at times panic led to rage and the adoption of bizarre practices. Some extremists became flagellants, whipping their bodies bloody as they marched from town to town, proclaiming that the plague was a well-deserved punishment from God. Others took the lead in persecuting strangers and minorities as well as those unfortunates who were perceived as witches. As though there was not enough death ready at hand, innocent people were slaughtered because somebody had to be blamed. Medieval medicine was not equal to the challenge of preventing or curing the plague, so there was a ready market for magic and superstition.
A personified Death became almost a palpable presence. It was almost a relief to picture death as a person instead of having to deal only with its horrifying work. Personified Death appeared as the leader in the Danse Macabre (the Dance of Death), and as "poster boy" for the Ars Moriendi (the art of dying) movement. (The now-familiar skull-andcrossbones image was highly popular, showing up, for example, on rings adorning the fingers of both prostitutes and ladies of high social standing.) Portraying Death as an animated skeleton was not entirely new; there are surviving images from ancient Pompeii as well. Depictions of Death as skeleton, corpse, or hooded figure, however, had their heyday during the plague years. This connection is not difficult to understand when one considers that social disorganization under the stress of the Black Death had severely damaged the shield that had protected the living from too many raw encounters with the dead.
Did another tradition also receive its impetus from the plague years? Throughout the post-Black Death years there have been people who identify themselves with death. The Nazi and skinhead movements provide ready examples. One way of trying to cope with overwhelming aggression is to identify with the aggressor, so perhaps this is one of the more subtle heritages of the Black Death. Furthermore, the fear that death is necessarily agonizing and horrifying may also owe much to the plague years and may have played a role in the denial of death and the social stigma attached to dying.
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