The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague,
was a devastating pandemic that first struck Europe in
the mid-late-14th century (1347–1350), killing between a third and two-thirds
of Europe's population. Almost simultaneous
epidemics occurred across large portions of Asia and the Middle
East during the same period, indicating that the European outbreak was
actually part of a multi-regional pandemic. Including Middle Eastern lands,
India and China, the Black Death killed at least 75 million people. The same
disease is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying
degrees of intensity and fatality until the 1700s. Notable later
outbreaks include the Italian Plague of 1629-1631, the
Great Plague of London (1665–1666), the
Great Plague of Vienna (1679), the Great Plague of Marseilles in 1720–1722
and the 1771 plague in Moscow. There is some controversy over the identity of
the disease, but in its virulent form the disease appears to have disappeared
from Europe in the 18th century. Bubonic plague survives in other parts of
the world (Central and Oriental Africa, Madagascar, Asia, some parts of South
America) and was responsible for a pandemic in the early 20th century.
The Black Death had a drastic effect on Europe's population,
irrevocably changing Europe's social structure. It was a serious blow to
the Roman Catholic Church, Europe's predominant
religious institution at the time, and resulted in widespread persecution
of minorities such as Jews, Muslims, foreigners, beggars and lepers.
The uncertainty of daily survival created a general mood of morbidity
influencing people to live for the moment, as illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio in The
The initial fourteenth-century European event was called
the "Great Mortality" by contemporary writers and, with later outbreaks,
became known as the 'Black Death'. It has been popularly thought that the
name came from a striking symptom of the disease, called acral necrosis, in which sufferers' skin would
blacken due to subdermal haemorrhages. However, the term refers in fact to
the figurative sense of "black" (glum, lugubrious or dreadful).
Historical records have convinced most scientists that the Black Death was
an outbreak of bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium
Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas with the
help of animals like the black rat
(Rattus rattus), however, there are some scientists who question this.
Pattern of the pandemic
The plague disease, caused by Yersinia pestis, is endemic in populations
of ground rodents
in central Asia, but it is not entirely clear where the fourteenth-century
pandemic started. The most popular theory places the first cases in the steppes of
Central Asia, though some speculate that it originated
around northern India. From there, supposedly, it was carried east and
west by traders and Mongol armies along the Silk Road,
and was first exposed to Europe at the trading city of Caffa
in the Crimea from which it spread to Sicily and
on to the rest of Europe.
Whether or not this theory is accurate, it is clear
that several pre-existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed
to the severity of the Black Death. A devastating civil war in China between
the established Chinese population and the Mongol hordes raged between 1205
and 1353. This war disrupted farming and trading patterns, and led to episodes
of widespread famine. A so-called "Little Ice Age" had begun at the end of the thirteenth
century. The disastrous weather reached a peak in the first half of the fourteenth
century with severe results worldwide.
In the years 1315 to 1322 a catastrophic
famine, known as the Great Famine, struck all of Northern Europe. Food shortages and sky-rocketing
prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay and consequently
livestock were all in short supply; and their scarcity
resulted in hunger
and malnutrition. The result was a mounting human vulnerability
to disease due to weakened immune systems. The European economy entered a vicious circle in which hunger and chronic, low-level
debilitating disease reduced the productivity of labourers, and so the
suffered, causing the grain prices to increase. The famine was self-perpetuating,
impacting life in places like Flanders
as much as the Black Death was later to impact all of Europe.
A typhoid epidemic was to be a predictor of the coming
disaster. Many thousands died in populated urban centres, most significantly
Ypres. In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified
hit the animals of Europe. The disease targeted sheep and cattle, further
reducing the food supply and income of
and putting another strain on the economy. The increasingly international
nature of the European economies meant that the depression was felt across Europe. Due
to pestilence, the failure of England's
wool exports led to the destruction of the Flemish weaving
industry. Unemployment bred crime and poverty.
Asian scenario agrees with the first reports of outbreaks in China in
the early 1330s. The plague struck the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334.
During 1353–1354, more widespread disaster occurred. Chinese accounts of
this wave of the disease record a spread to eight distinct areas: Hubei,
Jiangxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan and Suiyuan (a historical
Chinese province that now forms part of Hebei and Inner Mongolia), throughout
the Mongol and Chinese empires. Historian William McNeill noted that voluminous Chinese
records on disease and social disruption survive from this period, but no
one has studied these sources in depth.
It is probable that the Mongols and merchant caravans
inadvertently brought the plague from central Asia to the Middle East and
Europe. The plague was reported in the trading cities of Constantinople and Trebizond
in 1347. In
that same year, the Genoese possession of Caffa,
a great trade emporium on the Crimean peninsula,
came under siege by an army of Mongol warriors
under the command of Janibeg, backed by Venetian forces. After a protracted siege
during which the Mongol army was reportedly withering from the disease, they
might have decided to use the infected corpses as a biological weapon. The corpses were catapulted
over the city walls, infecting the inhabitants.
The Genoese traders fled, transferring the plague via their ships into the
south of Europe, from whence it rapidly spread. According to accounts, so
many died in Caffa that the survivors had little time to bury them and bodies
were stacked like cords of firewood against the city walls.
The Black Death rapidly spread along the major European sea and land trade
In October 1347, a fleet of Genovese trading ships fleeing
Caffa reached the port of Messina. By the time the fleet reached Messina,
all the crew members were either infected or dead. It is presumed that the
ships also carried infected rats and/or fleas. Some ships were found grounded
on shorelines, with no one aboard remaining alive. Looting of these lost
ships also helped spread the disease. From there, the plague spread to Genoa
by the turn of 1347–1348.
From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking
France, Spain, Portugal
by June 1348,
then turned and spread east through Germany
and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350, and finally
to north-western Russia in 1351; however,
the plague largely spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Poland and parts of Belgium
and the Netherlands.
Middle Eastern outbreak
The plague struck various countries in the Middle East
during the pandemic, leading to serious depopulation and permanent change
in both economic and social structures. The disease first entered the region
from southern Russia. By autumn 1347, the plague
reached Alexandria in Egypt, probably
through the port's trade with Constantinople and ports on the Black Sea.
During 1348, the disease travelled eastward to Gaza, and north
along the eastern coast to cities in Lebanon,
Syria and Palestine, including Asqalan,
Homs, and Aleppo. In
1348–49, the disease reached Antioch.
The city's residents fled to the north, most of them dying during the journey,
but the infection had been spread to the people of Asia Minor.
Mecca became infected in 1349. During the
same year, records show the city of Mawsil (Mosul)
suffered a massive epidemic, and the city of Baghdad experienced a second
round of the disease. In 1351, Yemen experienced an outbreak of the plague. This
coincided with the return of King Mujahid of Yemen from imprisonment
His party may have brought the disease with them from Egypt.
The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the
Mediterranean throughout the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, and although
the bubonic plague still exists with isolated cases today, the Great Plague of London in 1665–1666 is generally
recognized as one of the last major outbreaks. The Great Fire of London in 1666 may have
killed off any remaining plague bearing rats and fleas, which led to a decline
in the plague. The destruction of black rats
in the Great Fire may also have contributed to the ascendancy of brown rats
in England. According to the bubonic plague theory, one possible explanation
for the disappearance of plague from Europe may be that the black rat
(Rattus rattus) infection reservoir and its disease vector was subsequently
displaced and succeeded by the bigger Norwegian,
or brown, rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is not as prone to transmit
the germ-bearing fleas to humans in large rat die-offs (see Appleby and Slack
Late outbreaks in central Europe include the Italian Plague of 1629-1631, which
is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years' War, and the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679, which
may have been due to a reintroduction of the plague from eastern trading
Bubonic plague theory
seen at 2000x magnification.
This bacterium, carried and spread by fleas, is generally thought to have
been the cause of millions of deaths.
Bubonic and septicaemic plague are transmitted by direct
contact with fleas.
The bacteria multiply inside a flea, blocking its stomach and causing it
to become very hungry. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues
to feed because it is unable to satisfy its hunger. During the feeding process,
infected blood carrying the plague bacteria flows from the fleas' stomachs
into the open wound. The plague bacteria then has a new host, and the flea
eventually dies from starvation.
The human pneumonic plague has a different form of transmission.
It is transmitted through bacteria in droplets of saliva coughed up by persons
with bloodstream infection (sepsis) or pneumonia, which may have started
as the bubonic form of disease. The airborne bacteria may be inhaled by a
nearby susceptible person, and a new infection starts directly in the lungs
or throat of the other, bypassing the bubonic form of disease.
The ecology of Yersinia pestis in soil, rodent and (possibly
& importantly) human ectoparasites are reviewed and summarized by Michel
Drancourt in a model of sporadic, limited and large plague outbreaks . Modelling
of epizootic plague observed in prairie dogs suggests that occasional reservoirs
of infection such as an infectious carcass, rather than 'blocked fleas' are
a better explanation for the observed epizootic behaviour of the disease
in nature .
An interesting hypothesis about the appearance, spread
and especially disappearance of plague from Europe is that the flea-bearing
rodent reservoir of disease was eventually succeeded by another species.
rat (Rattus rattus) was originally introduced from Asia to Europe
by trade, but was subsequently displaced and succeeded throughout Europe
by the bigger Norwegian or brown rat
(Rattus norvegicus). The brown rat was not as prone to transmit the
germ-bearing fleas to humans in large die-offs due to a different rat ecology
(see Appleby and Slack, secondary references below). The dynamic complexities
of rat ecology, herd immunity in that reservoir, interaction with
human ecology, secondary transmission routes between humans with or without
fleas, human herd immunity and changes in each might explain the eruption,
dissemination, and re-eruptions of plague that continued for centuries until
its (even more) unexplained disappearance.
Signs and symptoms
The three forms of plague brought an array of signs
and symptoms to those infected. Bubonic plague refers to the painful lymph
node swellings called buboes. The septicaemic plague is a form of blood poisoning,
and pneumonic plague is an airborne plague that forms a first attack on the
lungs. The classic sign of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in
the groin, the neck and armpits, which ooze pus and blood. Victims underwent
damage to the skin and underlying tissue until they were covered in dark
blotches. This symptom is called acral necrosis. Most victims died within
four to seven days after infection. When the plague reached Europe, it first
struck port cities and then followed the trade routes, both by sea and land.
The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form
during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of thirty to seventy-five percent
and symptoms including fever of 38 - 41 °C (101-105
aching joints, nausea and vomiting,
and a general feeling of malaise. The pneumonic plague was the second most
commonly seen form during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of ninety
to ninety-five percent. Symptoms included slimy sputum tinted
with blood. As the disease progressed, sputum became free flowing and bright
red. Septicaemic plague was the most rare of the three forms, with mortality
close to one hundred percent. Symptoms were high fevers and skin turning
deep shades of purple due to DIC (Disseminated intravascular
Recent scientific and historical investigations have
led some researchers to doubt the long-held belief that the Black Death was
an epidemic of bubonic plague. For example, in 2000, Gunnar Karlsson (Iceland's
1100 Years: The History of a Marginal Society) pointed out that the Black
Death killed between half and two-thirds of the population of Iceland,
although there were no rats in Iceland at this time. Rats were accidentally
introduced in the nineteenth century, and have never spread beyond a small
number of urban areas attached to seaports. In the fourteenth century there
were no urban settlements in Iceland. Iceland was unaffected by the later
plagues which are known to have been spread by rats.
In addition, it was previously argued that tooth pulp
tissue from a fourteenth-century plague cemetery
in Montpellier tested positive for molecules associated
with Y. pestis. However, such a finding was never confirmed
in any other cemetery, nor were any DNA samples recovered. In September 2003, a team of
researchers from Oxford University tested 121 teeth from
sixty-six skeletons found in fourteenth-century mass graves. The remains
showed no genetic trace of Y. pestis, and the researchers suspect
that the Montpellier study was flawed.
In 1984, Graham Twigg published The Black
Death: A Biological Reappraisal, where he argued that the climate and
ecology of Europe and particularly England made it nearly impossible for
rats and fleas to have transmitted bubonic plague. Combining information
on the biology of Rattus
rattus, Rattus norvegicus, and the common fleas
Xenopsylla cheopis and Pulex irritans with modern studies of plague
epidemiology, particularly in India, where the R. rattus is a native
species and conditions are nearly ideal for plague to be spread, Twigg concludes
that it would have been nearly impossible for Y. pestis to have been the causative agent
of the beginning of the plague, let alone its explosive spread across all
of Europe. Twigg also shows that the common theory of entirely pneumonic
spread does not hold up. He proposes, based on a re-examination of the evidence
and symptoms, that the Black Death may actually have been an epidemic of
caused by Bacillus anthracis.
In 2001, epidemiologists
Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University proposed the theory
that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like
virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale was
that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer
than other confirmed Yersinia pestis plagues. A longer period
of incubation will allow carriers of the infection to travel farther and
infect more people than a shorter one. When the primary vector is humans, as opposed to birds, this
is of great importance. Studies of English church records indicate an unusually
long incubation period in excess of thirty days, which could account for
the rapid spread, topping at 5 km/day. The plague also appeared in areas
of Europe where rats were uncommon like Iceland.
Epidemiological studies suggest the disease was transferred between humans
(which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis and very rarely for Bacillus
anthracis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are
much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world. Their research
and findings are thoroughly documented in Return of the Black Death: The
World's Greatest Serial Killer. More recently the researchers have published
computer modeling (Journal of Medical Genetics: March 2005) demonstrating
how the Black Death has made around 10% of Europeans resistant to HIV.
In a similar vein, historian Norman F. Cantor, in his 2001 book In
the Wake of the Plague, suggests the Black Death might have been a combination
of pandemics including a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain.
He cites many forms of evidence including: reported disease symptoms not
in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax
spores in a plague pit in Scotland,
and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in
many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague. It is notable
that the means of infection varied widely, from human-to-human contact as
in Iceland (rare for plague and cutaneous Bacillus anthracis) to infection
in the absence of living or recently-dead humans, as in Sicily (which speaks
against most viruses). Also, diseases with similar symptoms were generally
not distinguished between in that period (see murrain above), at least
not in the Christian world; Chinese and Muslim medical records can be expected
to yield better information which however only pertains to the specific disease(s)
which affected these areas. See ISBN 0-06-001434-2
The majority of historians support the theory that the
bubonic plague caused the black death. Nevertheless, counterarguments have
The uncharacteristically rapid spread of the plague
could be due to respiratory droplet transmission, and low levels of immunity
in the European population at that period. Historical examples of pandemics
of other diseases in populations without previous exposure, such as smallpox
and tuberculosis transmitted by aerosol amongst Native Americans, show that
the low levels of inherited adaptation to the disease cause the first epidemic
to spread faster and to be far more virulent than later epidemics among the
descendants of survivors. Moreover, the plague returned again and again and
was regarded as the same disease through succeeding centuries into modern
times when the Yersinia bacterium was identified.
See also: Medieval demography.
Information about the death
toll varies widely by area and from source to source.
Estimates of the demographic impact of the plague in
Asia are based on both population figures during this time and estimates
of the disease's toll on population centres. The initial outbreak of plague
in the Chinese
province of Hubei in 1334
claimed up to ninety percent of the population, an estimated five million
people. During 1353–54, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the
Mongol/Chinese empires may have caused the death
of two-thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of twenty-five
million deaths. Japan had no outbreak of plague most likely due to the lack
of host rodents.
Europe and Middle East
It is estimated that between one-third and two-thirds
of the European population died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350. Contemporary
observers estimated the toll to be one-third (e.g. Froissart), but modern estimates range from one-half
to two-thirds of the population.
As many as 25% of all villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities,
as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities .
The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard,
although rural areas (where 90% of the population lived)
were also significantly affected. A few rural areas, such as Eastern Poland
had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little
progress. Parts of Hungary and, in modern Belgium, the Brabant region, Hainaut
as well as Santiago de Compostella, were unaffected
for unknown reasons (some historians have assumed that the presence of sanguine
groups in the local population helped them resist the disease, although these
regions would be touched by the second plague burst in 1360-1363 and later
during the numerous resurgences of the plague).
Other areas which escaped the plague were isolated mountainous regions (e.g.
Larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living
quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were also strikingly filthy,
infested with lice, fleas and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition
and poor hygiene. According to journalist John Kelly, "[w]oefully inadequate
sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size
could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from
the countryside." (p. 68) The influx of new citizens facilitated the movement
of the plague between communities, and contributed to the longevity of the
plague within larger communities.
In Italy, Florence's
population passed from 110,000 or 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in
1351. Between 60 to 70% of Hamburg
or Bremen's population died. In Provence,
Dauphiné or Normandy,
historians observe a decrease of 60% of fiscal hearths. In some regions,
two thirds of the population was annihilated. In the town of Givry, in the
Bourgogne region in France, the
friar, who used to note 28 to 29 funerals a year, recorded 649 deaths in
1348, half of them in September. About half of Perpignan's
population died in several months (only two of the eight physicians survived
the plague). England lost 70% of its population, which passed from 7 million
to 2 million in 1400.
All social classes were affected, although the lower
classes, living together in unhealthy places, were most vulnerable. Alfonso XI of Castile was the only royal
victim of the plague, but Peter IV of Aragon lost his wife, his daughter
and a niece in six months. The Byzantine Emperor lost his son, while in the
kingdom of France, Joan of Navarre, daughter of Louis X le Hutin and of Margaret of Burgundy,
was killed by the plague, as well as Bonne of Luxembourg, the wife of the future
John II of France.
Furthermore, resurgences of the plague in later years
must also be counted: in 1360-62 (the "little mortality"), in 1366-1369,
1374-1375, 1400, 1407, etc. The plague was not eradicated until the 19th
The precise demographic impact of the disease in the
Middle East is very difficult to calculate. Mortality
was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine
Many surviving rural people fled, leaving their fields and crops, and entire
rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Surviving records
in some cities reveal a devastating number of deaths. The 1348 outbreak in
Gaza left an estimated 10,000 people dead, while Aleppo recorded
a death rate of 500 a day during the same year. In Damascus,
at the disease's peak in September and October 1348, a thousand deaths were
recorded every day, with overall mortality estimated at between twenty-five
and thirty-eight percent. Syria lost a total of 400,000 people by the time
the epidemic subsided in March 1349. In contrast to some higher mortality
estimates in Asia and Europe, scholars such as John Fields of Trinity College in Dublin believe the
mortality rate in the Middle East was less than one-third of the total population,
with higher rates in selected areas.
Monks, disfigured by the plague, being blessed by a priest. England, 1360
of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its
cause or how it spread. Most monarchs
instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black
market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large-scale
fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worst they contributed
to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, like England,
were unable to buy grain abroad: from France because of the prohibition,
and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures
from shortage of labour. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken
to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries,
most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury
and exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve
of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what
would become known as the Hundred Years' War, further depleting their
treasuries, population, and infrastructure. Malnutrition, poverty, disease
and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns
made Europe in the mid-fourteenth century ripe for tragedy.
The plague did more than just devastate the medieval
population; it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all
areas of the world. Economic historians like Fernand Braudel have concluded that Black Death
exacerbated a recession in the European economy that had been under
way since the beginning of the century. As a consequence, social and economic
change greatly accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The church's power was weakened, and in some cases, the social roles it had
played were replaced by secular ones. Also the plague led to peasant uprisings in
many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence),
and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).
Europe had been overpopulated before the plague, and
a reduction of 30% to 50% of the population could have resulted in higher
wages and more available land and food for peasants because of less competition
for resources. However, for reasons that are still debated, population levels
in fact continued to decline until around 1420 and did not begin to rise
again until 1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not entirely
provide a satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in
prosperity. See Medieval demography for a more complete
treatment of this issue and current theories on why improvements in living
standards took longer to evolve.
The great population loss brought economic changes based
on increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants'
already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In
Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labour provided an incentive
for landlords to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation
that, some argue, represents the roots of capitalism,
and the resulting social upheaval caused the Renaissance
and even Reformation. In many ways the Black Death improved
the situation of surviving peasants. In Western Europe, because of the shortage
of labour they were in more demand and had more power, and because of the
reduced population, there was more fertile land available; however, the benefits
would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall
population levels finally began to rise again.
Social mobility as result of the Black Death has been
postulated as most likely cause of the Great Vowel Shift, which is the principal
reason why the spelling system in English today no longer reflects its pronunciation.
In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency
of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than
ever before through serfdom. Sparsely populated Eastern Europe was less
affected by the Black Death and so peasant revolts were less common in the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not occurring in the east until the sixteenth
through nineteenth centuries. Since it is believed to have in part caused
the social upheavals of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Western Europe,
some see the Black Death as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation
in Western Europe. Therefore, historians have cited the smaller impact of
the plague as a contributing factor in Eastern Europe's failure to
experience either of these movements on a similar scale. Extrapolating from
this, the Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe's
considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances as well as in the
move to liberalise government by restricting the power of the monarch and
aristocracy. A common example is that England is seen to have effectively
by 1550 while
moving towards more representative government; meanwhile,
Russia did not abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed so
On top of all this, the plague's great population reduction
brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively
large increase in per capita income among the peasantry, if not immediately,
in the coming century. However, the upper class often attempted to stop these
changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully
in Eastern Europe, by instituting laws which barred the peasantry from certain
actions or material goods. A good example of this is the Sumptuary
laws which were passed throughout Europe which regulated what people (particularly
of the peasant class) could wear, so that nobles could ensure that peasants
did not begin to dress and act as a higher class member with their increased
wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could
not demand more with increasing value. This was met with varying success
depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the
causes of England's
1381 Peasants' Revolt.
Renewed religious fervour and fanaticism bloomed in
the wake of Black Death. This spelled trouble for minority populations of
all sorts, as Christians targeted "various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners,
beggars, pilgrims and Muslims",
thinking that they were somehow to blame for the crisis.
Lepers, and other individuals with skin diseases such
as acne or psoriasis,
were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe. Anyone with leprosy
was believed to show an outward sign of a defect of the soul.
Traditionally a lightning rod for Christian anger and
unease, Jews were charged with having provoked the Plague through their unbelief
and sinfulness. Differences in cultural and lifestyle practices between Jews
and Christians also led to persecution. Because Jews had a religious obligation
to be clean, they did not use water from public wells. Thus Jews were suspected
of causing the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Typically, comparatively
fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to rabbinical laws
that promoted habits that were generally cleaner than that of a typical medieval
villager. Jews were also socially isolated, often living in Jewish ghettos.
This isolation may have caused differences in mortality rates which raised
suspicions of people who had no concept of bacterial transmission.
Christian mobs attacked Jewish settlements across Europe;
by 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed,
and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred. This persecution reflected
more than religious hatred. In many places, attacking Jews was a way to criticize
the monarchs who protected them (Jews were under the protection of the king,
and often called the "royal treasure"), and monarchic fiscal policies, which
were often administered by Jews. An important legacy of the Black Death was
to cause the eastward movement of what was left of north European Jewry to
Poland and Russia, where it remained until the twentieth century.
Flagellants practiced self-flogging (whipping of oneself) to atone for sins.
The movement became popular after general disillusionment with the church's
reaction to the Black Death.
The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials
who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims and banishing
the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or accurately explain
the reasons for the plague outbreaks. One theory of transmission was that
it spread through air, and was referred to as miasma, or 'bad air'. This increased
doubt in the clergy's abilities. Extreme alienation with the Church
culminated in either support for different religious groups such as the flagellants,
which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death, or to
an increase in interest for more secular alternatives to problems facing
European society and an increase of secular politicians.
The Black Death hit the monasteries
very hard because of their close quarters with the sick, who had come to
the monasteries seeking aid, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy
after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of new clergy members,
most of whom did not share the life-long convictions and experiences of the
veterans they replaced. This resulted in abuses by the clergy in years afterwards
and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of
Inspired by Black Death, Danse
is an allegory on the universality of death and a common
painting motif in late-medieval periods.
After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid.
The general mood was one of pessimism, and the art turned dark with representations
of death. The Dies Irae was created in this period as was the
popular poem La Danse Macabre and the instructive and
popular Ars moriendi ("the art of dying"). See also
The practice of alchemy
previously considered the norm for most doctors, slowly began to wane as
the citizenry began to realize that it seldom affected the progress of the
epidemic and that some of the potions and "cures" used by many alchemists
only served to worsen the condition of the sick. Liquor (distilled
alcohol), originally made by alchemists, was commonly applied as a remedy
for the Black Death, and, as a result, the consumption of liquor in Europe
rose dramatically after the plague.
In 2006 a scientific study by Dr Thomas van Hoof of Utrecht University suggests that the Black
Death contributed to the Little Ice Age. Pollen and leaf data, collected
from lake-bed sediments in the southeast Netherlands,
supports the idea that millions of trees sprang up
on abandoned farmland soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
and thus cooling the planet. The line of research is new and there are questions
and further research is needed, but it does pose an interesting theory that
man-caused climate change is older than current theories suggest. 
A theory put forth by Stephen O'Brien says the Black
Death is likely responsible, through natural selection, for the high frequency
of the CCR5-Δ32
genetic defect in people of European descent. The gene affects T cell function
and provides protection against HIV, smallpox, and possibly plague ,
though for the latter, no explanation as to how it would do that exists.
Black Death in literature
The spectre of the Black Death dominated art and literature
throughout the generation that experienced it. Much of the most useful manifestations
of the Black Death in literature, to historians, comes from the accounts
of its chroniclers, often the only real way to get a sense of the horror
of living through a disaster on such a scale. A few were famous writers,
philosophers and rulers (like Boccaccio
but most were quite ordinary people who happened to work in a job requiring
literacy, a rare talent. For example, Agnolo di Tura, of Siena, records
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother
another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight.
And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship.
Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could,
without priest, without divine offices ... great pits were dug and piled
deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and
night... And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug ... And I,
Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands.
And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the
dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There
was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died
that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from
May] until September.
The scene Di Tura describes is repeated over and over
again all across Europe. In Sicily, Gabriele de'Mussi, a notary,
tells of the early spread from Crimea:
Alas! our ships enter the port, but of a thousand
sailors hardly ten are spared. We reach our homes; our kindred…come from
all parts to visit us. Woe to us for we cast at them the darts of death!
…Going back to their homes, they in turn soon infected their whole families,
who in three days succumbed, and were buried in one common grave. Priests
and doctors visiting…from their duties ill, and soon were…dead. O death! cruel,
bitter, impious death! …Lamenting our misery, we feared to fly, yet we dared
Henry Knighton tells of the plague’s coming to
Then the grievous plague came to the sea coasts from
Southampton, and came to Bristol, and it was as if all the strength of the
town had died, as if they had been hit with sudden death, for there were
few who stayed in their beds more than three days, or two days, or even one
half a day.
In addition to these personal accounts, many presentations
of the Black Death have entered the general consciousness as great literature.
For example, the major works of Boccaccio (The Decameron), Petrarch,
Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), and William Langland (Piers
Plowman), which all discuss the Black Death, are generally recognized
as some of the best works of their era.
Macabre, or the Dance of death, is an allegory
on the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time: that
no matter one's station in life, the dance of death united all. It consists
of the personified Death leading a row of dancing figures
from all walks of life to the grave — typically
with an emperor,
king, pope, monk, youngster, beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state.
They were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people
of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly
life. The earliest artistic example is from the frescoed cemetery
of the Church of the Holy Innocents
in Paris (1424). There are also works by Konrad
Witz in Basel
(1440), Bernt Notke in Lübeck
(1463) and woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538). Israil Bercovici claims that the Danse Macabre
originated among Sephardic Jews in fourteenth century Spain (Bercovici,
1992, p. 27).
Additionally see Aleksandr Pushkin's verse play, "Feast in the Time of
the Plague", and Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year
(1722)—some consider this possibly fictional because it was published nearly
fifty years after the event, others argue that books took a long time to
get to press in those days and he could have used a lot of firsthand source
material in its writing.
The poem "The Rattle Bag" by the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-1350 or 1340-1370) has
many elements that suggest that it was written as a reflection of the hardships
he endured during the Black Death. It also reflects his personal belief that
the Black Death was the end of humanity, the Apocalypse, as suggested by
his multiple biblical references, particularly the events described in Revelations.
The Black Death has been used as a subject or as a setting in modern literature and media. This
may be due to the era's resounding impact on ancient and modern history,
and its symbolism and connotations.
Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) is set in an unnamed country during
a fictional plague that bears strong resemblance to the Black Death.
Willis's Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel Doomsday Book (1993, ISBN 0-553-35167-2) imagines a future in which historians
do field work by travelling into the past as observers. The protagonist,
a historian, is sent to the wrong year, arriving in England just as the Black
Death is starting. Likewise, Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt (2002, ISBN 0-553-58007-8) presents a future dramatically
changed by the Black Death, in which Christian Europe was almost completely
destroyed and played no major role in future history. Also in Michael Crichton's book Timeline, a character is transported through
time to a city that is apparently affected by the Black Death.
It has been alleged (since 1961) that the Black Death
inspired one of the most enduring nursery
rhymes in the English language, Ring a Ring O'Roses, a pocket full of posies,
/ Ashes, ashes (or ah-tishoo ah-tishoo), we all fall down. However, this
seems to be a myth. There are no written records of the rhyme before the
late 19th century and not all of its many variants refer
to ashes, sneezing, falling down or anything else that could be connected
to the Black Death.
The relatively new medium of film has given writers
and film producers an opportunity to portray the plague with more visual realism.
One of the best known and most expansive depictions of the black plague as
art is the movie classic The Seventh Seal, a 1957 film directed
by Ingmar Bergman. The knight returns from the Crusades
and finds that his home country is ravaged by Black Death. To his dismay,
he discovers that Death has come for him too. The final scene of The Seventh
Seal depicts a kind of Danse Macabre. The 1988 science fiction film The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
portrayed a group of 14th-century English
villagers who dig a tunnel to 20th-century
New Zealand, with the aid of a boy's vision, to
escape the Black Death.
Black Metal band 1349
are named after the year Black Death spread through Norway.