It wasn’t an easy life living in Europe in 1348. You were probably poor, filthy, heavily taxed, screamed at by various religious fanatics, and probably couldn’t headbang for all the lice in your hair. You would have shared your hours with farm animals and rats (who clean up after themselves and actually might be quite decent flatmates). Earthquakes, floods, fires, bandits and crop failures have made you terrified of a dark and vengeful God. And then the Black Death arrived.
Plagues were nothing new – various purges have dwindled the populations of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia. But the Black Death was particularly frightening for the speed at which it spread.
It came from the East, where demons were believed to dwell, and, before dying out three years later, killed between 25-50% of the entire population of Europe. No one understood the pestilence and it could not be treated.
How did you know you had the Black Death?
“The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained.” – Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the plague as it ravaged Florence in 1348.
The Black Death incorporated three forms of plague – the most common, the bubonic plague, was named after the lumps (buboes) that formed on a victim’s neck, armpits or groin. These lumps might be the size of an egg, or a large apple. If you found one of these lumps, you could expect to live about a week.
The bubonic plague had a mortality rate of around 75%. If you got lucky, the lump would burst and all the pus would drain away and, if you weren’t too sick, you might actually recover. But most likely, you’d die in a delirious state of agony.
The pneumonic plague attached your respiratory system, causing you to cough bloody sputum, which flowed more freely as the disease progressed. It had a 95% mortality rate.
The septicemic plague caused blood poisoning, giving the victim dark patches on this skin. No one is thought to have survived this rarer form of the Black Death.
How did the plague spread?
The lumpy bubonic plague is now believed to be caused from a variety of bacteria – Yersinia pestis – which permanent hangs out in central Asia, Siberia, Iran, Libya, the Yunan region of China, and East Africa. It takes up residence in rates, giving them blood poisoning. Rats, as we already discussed, hung out in your living room, so the fleas hang out there too, then they bite you and it’s over, baby.
You could get the pneumonic plague simply from breathing the same air as a victim. In this way, whole villages would be wiped out in days.
Managing the Black Death
Like any modern zombie film, authorities set up quarantine areas to separate survivors from the infected. The word “Quarantine” derives from the Latin word for forty, as it was believed it took forty days for a virulent disease to run its course. Travellers could go into quarantine to wait out the forty days, but, as rats and fleas weren’t controlled, these quarantines soon became infected.
Mostly, people tried to avoid the sick, casting them aside of killing them. Those who tried to help often contracted the Black Death and passed it on.
Some people formed little “hippy” communes, locked themselves in houses, and abstained from all vices, believing wine and rich food and merriment and sexual licentiousness had caused the plague. Others adopted an “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’re covering in egg-sized lumps” philosophy.
With piles of bodies stacked on the roadside, family and friends dropping like … well, like plague victims, it’s no wonder people became a bit mad. Obsessed with giving people proper burials, and desperate to save their own lives and those of family members, people panicked. They took up bizarre rituals, like becoming flagellants – whipping their own bodies bloody and travelling from town to town proclaiming the plague a punishment from God (and probably spreading it while they were at it). Others searched for someone to blame – and this, of course, fell on Jews, on witches, on strangers and minorities.
Everywhere you went, you were confronted by death – both in the forms of plague victims and as Death Personified in paintings of the Danse Macabre. Some people even began to identify with Death himself – allying themselves with the eternal victor by dressing as Death, wearing symbols of Death on their clothes, and taking up bizarre death rituals.
Many people fell dead in the streets, or died in their homes, the rotting stench of their decaying bodies alerting their neighbours. So, every morning, people would “bring out their dead” and lay them in the doorways, where they would be collected and brought to the churches for burial. The quantity of bodies was so great there was not enough consecrated ground to bury them in, so they dug trenches anywhere they could and buried the bodies there. You can see other methods for storing plague victims in the catacombs of Paris, or the various bone churches throughout Europe.
With whole villagers disappearing, it’s no surprise many ambitious young folk with ideas to better themselves seized upon newly opened vacancies. Many earned their living as Gravediggers or untrained doctors selling cures for the Black Death.
Effects of the Black Death
Historians divide history of this period to “before-plague” and “after-plague”, because of its radical impact on society.
With at least one-third of the population goneburger, the peasant class – who’d been downtrodden and robbed by the feudal system – were suddenly in demand. The Feudal system, which was collapsing before the plague anyway, fell apart, and the post-plague era has been called the “beginnings of capitalism”. Good workers, as opposed to those in the right “class” or who had the right “friends” (most of these friends were dead), took jobs, and many people got the chance to improve their lives.
People became disillusioned with the Church, as they had no power to halt the Black Death. Saint or Sinner, none were spared. As many of the church authorities died and were replaced by rank amateurs, they couldn’t inspire the same faith they once could.
It took a long time for law and order to be restored, as many of the ministers and judges were dead, so people did as they pleased, and got rather used to it, too. Women had more rights and found themselves in trades usually closed for them.
Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere) (1930)
Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death. New York: Free Press, 1983.
Platt, Colin. King Death: The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Calvi, Giulia. Histories of a Plague Year. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.