Black Death

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

In this drawing, Saint Borromeo assists plague victims. In its most lethal periods, the ancient epidemic—whatever its cause—killed as many as four out of ten people in the areas affected. BETTMANN/CORBIS
In this drawing, Saint Borromeo assists plague victims. In its most lethal periods, the ancient epidemic—whatever its cause—killed as many as four out of ten people in the areas affected.
work on. Daily experience was saturated with dying, death, and grief. Religious belief and practice had given priority to helping the dying person leave this world in a state of grace and to providing a proper funeral with meaningful and comforting rituals. This tradition was overstressed by the reality of catastrophic death: too many people dying too quickly with too few available to comfort or even to bury them properly. Furthermore, the infectious nature of the disease and the often appalling condition of the corpses made it even more difficult to provide the services that even basic human decency required.

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.

See also: Ars Moriendi ; Christian Death Rites, History of ; Danse Macabre ; Death System ; Personifications of Death ; Public Health


Ariés, Phillipe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Calvi, Giulia. Histories of a Plague Year. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Cohen, Samuel K., Jr. The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death in Six Central Italian Cities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Geary, Patrick J. Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Herlihy, David. The Black Death and the Transformation of the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Twigg, Graham. The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal. London: Batsford, 1983.

Zeigler, Philip. The Black Death. London: Collins, 1969.


Also read article about Black Death from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

The black death was a horrible disease and it spread quickly and easilly. The symtoms for the black death were horrible and doctors didn't have any idea how to cure them.This disease could have been caught through breathing in the air and coughing and sneezing. Many people thought that the disease came of rats and the germs lived in the guts of there fleas. The fleas would then bite us giving people germs that would then cause the black death, when people caught the black death at the most they normaly had up to a week to live.
Tiana Freeman
I would like to get more information on the black death.
Although the Black Death was a horrific event in history, was its end product a plus for the survivors? With 1/2 the population gone, the survivors had room to grow...Serfs and peasants were freed from their duties and most survivors did end up richer, since now, there was a new way to get what you the use of money...
What was the path the Black Death took? I know it started in Asia, but that's all. When and where was it at what times? What order did it fly through Europe? (Mainly Europe, although I do need facts on it's beginning, though I know of the fact the Tartar's blamed the Genoese for the plague, as many Tartar's died, and the Genoese were traders from Genoa, they fortified themselves, but the Tartar's threw their dead over the walls, infecting the Genoese. Eventually, when in the fort the plague was done, the survivor's left and fled to Europe, Messina, Italy, on Siccily Island, and continued to spread through Europe.)
sophie nansey
What was the path the Black Death took? I know it started in Asia, but that's all. When and where was it at what times? What order did it fly through Europe? (Mainly Europe, although I do need facts on it's beginning, though I know of the fact the Tartar's blamed the Genoese for the plague, as many Tartar's died, and the Genoese were traders from Genoa, they fortified themselves, but the Tartar's threw their dead over the walls, infecting the Genoese. Eventually, when in the fort the plague was done, the survivor's left and fled to Europe, Messina, Italy, on Siccily Island, and continued to spread through Europe.)
The thing is, we know that the Black Death started from the east and the started spreading through the west ending up in Europe but in miles or kilometres, how fast was the Black Death approaching and what was the real reason for people fearing the black Death? I know that there was pain and death and that there were horrific consequences for the Black Death but was there something else that scared peopple about the Black Death?My other question was if you know why the black Death was called the Great Mortality and the black Death?
i really wanted to know how many people the black death killed and i also wanted to know who caught the disease how did the diease spread what were the treatments for the disease
i think there should be more things on the internet about the plague, i'm doing a write-up about it and i wanna know more.
This has given me a full insight on the black death. Seeing that i'm studing it in grade 9 sose. There is probalby any of finding this much information i books today. I found everything that i needed to forfilled the task that was set for us pupils in school. There is description and detail in the writing which makes it easy for you to find the information on the diease. Thank you very much for displaying enough information for me to continue.
The amount of people that died was about 200,000 people in the medieval europe.
The end was about after the rats died and people started to reliese that it was the public thriwing the poop and wee in the streets and stuff public santarition i hope that helps
Sarah Johnson
What was the Black Death's impact on the church, the kings, and the status of women?
The black death is a disease that can be caught from rats and the germs.Everyone can be caught by this disease because it spreads around... 25 million peolpe died in 2 years of this death
i think everyone should learn about the black death because it is a interesting and fun topic to talk about.....
this does not give information on my original question which was asked. How is the blackdeath spread? you should consider linking the different sights to the correct questions and all those possible to be asked.
The Black Death was spread by the flea to infected rats, and then to humans. The fleas would then, engorged with the Yersinia pestis bacteria, would hungrily search for a new host after the death of an infected rat. The Yersinia pestis would actually clot inside the flea, keeping it from digesting the blood and quenching the thirst. In order to remove said blockage, the flea would have to allow it's "pumping" mechanism to release when feeding, thus releasing the Y. pestis into the new victim.
uhh i'm writing a report for my school and I found this website very helpful.
I have been doind research and writing a paper on the Black Death, but I can't seem to get the same answer for how many people it killed in Europe during the medievel ages. Some have said 3 million, others 24 million. I na previous comment someone left on here, they said 200,000. It would be different if there was not such a gap between the numbers.
amanda hugand kiss
its really amazing what the black plague did.... i almost doed when i heard this happened... i am very amazed
This article really helped me w/ my historical project on the Black Death.
this was really helpful for me, i had to write a 5 page paper on AIDS vs. the Black Death, and this website was the best one i've found so far!!!
thanks so much!
What was the actual cause of death to those who got the Bubonic Plague? What were some conditions, other then horribly unsanitary conditions and high rat populations, that helped spread the disease?

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