The Black Death was a monumental epidemic that took millions of lives and spread its devastation throughout Europe and Afro-Eurasia countries. The Black Death is well-known in Europe for the record amount of people that suffered and died from the disease. This devastating event began in the 1330s and didn’t end up dying out until the mid-1350s. It was an infectious disease that affected a large part of Afro-Eurasia in the mid-fourteenth century with millions of people dying from the Black Death. This brought about a great change in many ways from culture to the general way of life in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Populations were left in shambles in countries that had been affected such as England, Italy, Spain, and France just to name a few. “The Great Mortality” by John Kelly discusses how the Black Death started and the impact it had upon the countries affected. It also addresses theories about the cause of the Black Death and how it may have begun. With this book, we are able to fully understand how devastating the Black Death came to be during the 1330s and 1350s. “King Death” by Colin Platt talks about the impact of the Black Death on England as well as addressing the impact on all classes of society in England. With this, we see how unprepared England was for such devastation and the amount of time it took to begin the road to recovery. “When the Plague Strikes” details background information on the Black Death and the devastation it left in its wake. The Black Death was not centered primarily in Europe. The countries surrounding Europe felt the effects and dealt with the consequences and the fragile state humanity was left in when the Black Death died out.
The Black Death was an epidemic that had a disastrous impact on millions of people and left lasting cultural and economic consequences in its wake by the end of the mid-1350s. It left its victims with swollen lymph glands called bubo, purplish splotches all over their bodies, and causing problems with their nervous system (Kelly 21). The first inkling the Black Death was starting was in the Ukraine in 1347. People did not understand what was happening, but there were some who tried to help those who were suffering. Others tried to run away from it, unknowingly bringing the disease with them, while others looked for someone or something to blame for everything that was happening. The victims in the Ukraine dealt with the symptoms such as headaches and swelling lymph nodes. Unfortunately, this spread quickly and soon hundreds of people had died from it. According to James Cross Giblin, the Black Death firstbegan its devastation in Sicily on October 1347 when crews had arrived from the east; however, harbormasters believed keeping the sick crew on board would help prevent the disease from reaching their people in the mainland. But the disease carriers had already slipped past without any notice. From Sicily, the disease was spread through the black rats from the mainland of Italy to France and western Europe (Giblin 13). It spread like wildfire throughout the countries, infecting those who were healthy as well as animals like pigs. It was also spread throughout clothing contact in which those who touched the clothing worn by those who were sick ended up getting the disease transferred to them. “Before the plague, historians estimate, Europe had a population of about 75 million. In 1351, after the disease seemed to run its course, Pope Clement’s agents calculated that 23,840,000 people had died of it – almost thirty-two percent of the population” (Giblin 39). The Black Death ended up taking a toll on Europe which resulted in lasting hardships that were hard to recover from. This estimation does not include the other countries impacted by the Black Death which means the amount of people killed by the Black Death reached millions upon millions. This shows just how deadly this disease was and how quickly it was spread throughout the countries and their mainland. The Black Death impacted class levels and societies and left a lasting impression in every aspect of society and humanity. It left behind a path of destruction in its wake in the form of economic hardships and a society that struggled to rebuild itself after the impact. “According to the Foster scale, a kind of Richter scale of human disaster, the medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record” (Kelly 11). With this, we see just how much of an impact the Black Death had on history and the vast devastation it caused to become the second greatest catastrophe. It also shows how quickly a disease can spread and how important sanitation is for the well-being of people. If the populations in these cities took the time to maintain cleanliness and proper sanitation, the Black Death would not have had been able to spread so quickly, resulting in less lives being lost. The cause of the Black Death is said to be from a bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. According to The Free Dictionary, this is defined as “a bacterial species causing plague in humans, rodents, and many other mammalian species and transmitted from rat to rat and from rat to humans by the rat flea, Xenopsylla” (Plague Bacillus 1). The direct cause behind the Black Death and how it started has sparked many theories, but with this we can understand one of the possible causes to how it started. The fact that it spread to humans so quickly and how quickly they were infected from this shows their bodies were not equipped with the necessary immunity to be able to resist the disease. This particular disease thrived among the fleas that the rats carried on them. It was transferred to other rats when the initial host would die. The fleas would transfer the disease to humans when they would come into contact with the rats. “Normally a rodent only carries a half dozen or so fleas, but in the midst of an epzootic, when hosts become rare, surviving rodents often become the equivalent of flea towns, carrying a hundred to two hundred insects – and sometimes flea cities” (Kelly 20). The fleas were desperate to keep living, so once their initial hosts died they would move onto other rats as we saw with the black rats, which in turn infected the rats enabling the disease to move quickly and spread more rapidly.
For some religious people, they saw the Black Death as the wrath of God and believed they had committed a sin of some sort to have this amount of devastation come upon them. There was frustration because people wanted their priests and religious leaders to have a solution, but the priests were just as confused as the people as to what was happening to them. They all wanted answers desperately that no one was able to give to them as to what was going on and why so many of their own were dying around them. This shows that faith was still attacked even during times of despair and destruction. The people wanted someone to blame for the misfortune and devastation they were experiencing which has been the standard case we have seen throughout history. The Jewish people, during the Black Death, were accused of poisoning the well water and people believed Christians who drank the water would be infected and die (Giblin 37). It is hard to fathom how people would turn on Jewish people to justify the chaos that was going on around them. These people were struggling just like everyone else and trying to survive, yet at the first sign of trouble they were accused and blamed just because they weren’t Christians. They were seen as the problem and were killed because of it, rather than people understanding they were not the cause of it. If we go back through history, we can see the Jewish people were often seen and treated as outcasts. We saw this with the Holocaust and now we see it happened as far back as the 1350s when the Black Death was occurring. Because of the Black Death, we see the persecution against the Jewish people occurring and how this event was just a small portion of the persecution they would face as they did during the Holocaust later on in history.
When the Black Death occurred, sanitation was extremely poor throughout towns across the country. It was so bad that “people in French and Italian cities were naming streets after human waste” (Kelly 17). It is hard to imagine living in a town where you have watch out for human waste. We see how the Black Death was easily spread in cities like these and how the death tolls quickly rose from poor sanitation and cleanliness. Those who were living in the city had to deal with garbage and human waste while those who lived in the countryside were worse off because their homes were more susceptible to be exposed to the black rats and the fleas they were carrying with them. The changes that were occurring in Afro-Eurasia was making it an unsanitary and unhealthy place to be living in which was how the infection thrived among the populations. When homes would be filthy or streets would contain trash and sewage, the black rat thrived off of this which, in turn, caused humans risk of obtaining the infection to be even greater and causing the disease to spread more rapidly among communities. The contact between humans and animals living together was often how the infection was spread. The environment during the Black Death was not a good place to be in which caused the sickness to spread quickly and thousands of lives were taken from it. The women and children died far more because their systems were weaker and the infection was able to spread much quicker throughout them than with men. This bacterium had a variety of factors that influenced how it impacted Afro-Eurasia and the effects it had. Some of these factors includes mobility for the rodents and fleas and environmental stress. John Kelly mentions these factors in detail in his book, “The Great Mortality” on page 13. “Rodents (and more to the point, their fleas) that once would have died a lonely, harmless death on a Gobi sand dune or Siberian prairie could now be transported to faraway places by caravans, marching soldiers, and riders of the Mongol express, who could travel up to a hundred miles a day on the featureless, windswept prairies of the northern steppe” (Kelly 13). When merchants from Mongol territory, they came in contact with the black rats which enabled the rats to transfer the disease internationally through travel as the soldiers and merchants traveled the roads. Instead of the disease being centralized in a certain area, this caused the fleas to become mobile causing more people to come into contact with the rats that carried the disease. As the Black Death continued its path of destruction, officials and leaders were working on ideas on how to treat and prevent this disease that was going around. In turn, these ideas helped make a way for health treatments throughout history. The New Galenism was introduced and it was “based on a reinterpretation and expansion of classical medicine by Arab physicians like Avicenna, Haly Abbas, and Rhazes” (Kelly 165). They were not relying solely on themselves to get through the Black Death and try to find a way to help people. Through expanding on what Arab physicians were already working on, they were able to introduce new ways to diagnose people and were able to explain different diseases as well. They developed plague tracts between 1348 and 1350 as the Black Death was occurring, so people had something to follow when it came to ways of protecting themselves. Some of these tracts included factors that they could work on such as their personal habits, not exposing themselves to infected air, and keeping a good diet. The diets helped improve people’s immune system which helped them build a stronger immunity. Once the Black Death ran its course in Europe, the population was able to slowly improve their immunity and the overall population was able to grow stronger and end up bouncing back from the devastation this caused.
The Black Death is a prime example of how devastating catastrophes can be and the lasting impact these events can have on the world. It shows how hard it is for families and society itself to get back on its feet after everything is stripped away from them. It is hard to fathom how such devastation can occur all because of a flea. I have always been intrigued by historical events such as the Holocaust or the Hundred Years War since I was in middle school and the Black Death has always been an event that has interested me. Even though this was a monumental event, it is still intriguing to see how far this disease got in Afro-Eurasia and the amount of instability this caused people to suffer when it died out. The Black Death brought a great variation in attitude, values, and general life in Europe. One of the greatest effects of the Black Death was in the levels of laboring classes and the direct impact upon the classes of society. The shortage of labor to work the land for landowners created an opportunity for those who were living in areas afar to work as farmers. People ended up moving to farming communities and were able to obtain better working conditions through negotiating and rebelling against landowners. The devastation from the Black Death left its mark on countries throughout Europe. All of these little factors tied into one big event that influenced how our history was shaped and how we remember the Black Death. We are able to see the impact on society and how it influenced history following the decline. We are also able to understand how this monumental event impacted lives economically and socially. The circumstances surrounding this event were not ideal, but eventually people learned how to grow and thrive even greater than before the Black Death came. Colin Platt’s information covered the different classes of society in England and what it was like for each class to live during this time; however, he barely touched on the actual impact of what the Black Death did to these levels in society. The effects among society and the economy were monumental during the Black Death and the lasting impact on areas of health and culture were grand.