The Black Death Was Not the End
DURING October of 1347, trading ships from the East entered the harbor of Messina, in Sicily. At the oars were diseased and dying men. On their bodies were dark, egg-size swellings that oozed blood and pus. The sailors suffered intense pain and died within several days of the appearance of the first symptoms.
Rats from the ships scurried to join the local rodent population. The rats carried fleas infected by a bacillus lethal to humans. Thus spread the epidemic disease known as plague, the Black Death, the worst pestilence in European history up to that time.
The plague took two forms. One form, passed on by the bite of an infected flea, spread through the bloodstream and caused swellings and internal bleeding. The other, passed to others by a cough or a sneeze, infected the lungs. Because both forms were present, the disease spread quickly and with terrible ferocity. In just three years, it cut down a fourth of the population of Europe; perhaps 25 million people died.
No one then knew how the disease passed from person to person. Some believed that the air was poisoned, possibly because of an earthquake or an unusual alignment of the planets. Others thought people became sick merely by looking at an infected person. Though opinions varied, clearly the disease was highly contagious. A French physician observed that it seemed as though one sick person “could infect the whole world.”
People knew no prevention and no cure. Many reflected on Biblical prophecies such as that recorded at Luke 21:11, which foretells pestilences during the time of the end. Though money poured into the churches, the plague raged on. Wrote an Italian at the time: “No bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death . . . people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.’”
However, it was not the end. By the close of the 14th century, that plague had played out. The world continued.
[Picture Credit Line on page 3]