The Black Death—Scourge of Medieval Europe
By Awake! correspondent in France
The year was 1347. The plague had already ravaged the Far East. Now it had arrived at the door of Europe’s eastern outskirts.
THE Mongols were besieging the fortified Genoese trading post of Kaffa, now called Feodosiya, in the Crimea. Decimated by the mysterious disease themselves, the Mongols called off their attack. But before withdrawing, they made a deadly parting shot. Using giant catapults, they hurled the still-warm bodies of plague victims over the city walls. When a few of the Genoese defenders later boarded their galleys to escape the now plague-ridden town, they spread the disease to every port they visited.
Within months the whole of Europe was riddled with death. Rapidly it spread to North Africa, Italy, Spain, England, France, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. In a little over two years, more than a fourth of the population of Europe, some 25 million souls, fell victim to what has been called “the most brutal demographic catastrophe humanity has ever known”—the Black Death.*
Setting the Stage for Disaster
The tragedy of the Black Death involved more than the disease itself. A number of factors worked to exacerbate this disaster, one of them being religious fervor. The doctrine of purgatory is one example. “By the end of the 13th century, purgatory was everywhere,” says French historian Jacques le Goff. Early in the 14th century, Dante produced his influential work The Divine Comedy, with its graphic descriptions of hell and purgatory. A religious climate thus developed where people were inclined to meet the plague with surprising apathy and resignation, viewing it as a punishment from God himself. As we will see, such a pessimistic mind-set actually fueled the spread of the disease. “Nothing could have provided more promising material on which a plague might feed,” notes the book The Black Death, by Philip Ziegler.
Then, too, there was the problem of repeated crop failures in Europe. As a result, the continent’s burgeoning population was malnourished—ill-equipped to resist illness.
The Plague Spreads
According to the personal physician of Pope Clement VI, Guy de Chauliac, two types of plague had invaded Europe: pneumonic and bubonic. He graphically described these ailments, writing: “The first lasted two months, with continuous fever and spitting of blood, and from this one died in three days. The second lasted for the rest of the period, also with continuous fever but with apostumes [abscesses] and carbuncles on the external parts, principally on the armpits and groin. From this one died in five days.” Doctors were helpless to halt the plague’s progress.
Many people fled in panic—leaving thousands of infected ones behind. Indeed, among the first to flee were wealthy noblemen and professionals. Although some clerics likewise fled, many religious orders hid in their abbeys, hoping to escape contamination.
In the midst of this panic, the pope declared 1350 to be a Holy Year. Pilgrims who made the trip to Rome would be granted direct access to paradise without having to pass through purgatory! Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims heeded the call—spreading the plague as they traveled.
Efforts to control the Black Death were in vain because no one really knew how it was transmitted. Most realized that contact with a sufferer—or even with his clothing—was dangerous. Some even feared an afflicted one’s stare! The residents of Florence, Italy, however, blamed the plague on its cats and dogs. They slaughtered these animals, little realizing that in doing so, they were giving free rein to a creature actually involved in spreading the contamination—the rat.
As deaths mounted, some turned to God for help. Men and women gave all they had to the church, hoping that God would shield them from illness—or at least reward them with heavenly life if they died. This put enormous wealth in the hands of the church. Lucky charms, images of Christ, and phylacteries were also popular antidotes. Others turned to superstition, magic, and pseudo medicine for cures. Perfumes, vinegar, and special potions were said to ward off the disease. Bloodletting was another favorite remedy. The learned medical faculty of the University of Paris even attributed the plague to the alignment of planets! Bogus explanations and “cures,” however, did nothing to halt the progress of this killer plague.
Within five years the Black Death finally seemed to have run its course. But before the end of the century, it would recur at least four times. The aftereffects of the Black Death have thus been compared to those of World War I. “There is virtually no disagreement amongst modern historians that the advent of endemic plague had profound consequences for both the economy and for society after 1348,” notes the 1996 book The Black Death in England. The plague wiped out a large portion of the population, and centuries passed before some areas recovered. With a diminished work force, the price of labor naturally rose. Once-wealthy landowners went broke, and the feudal system—a hallmark of the Middle Ages—collapsed in ruin.
The plague was, therefore, an impetus for political, religious, and social change. Prior to the plague, French was commonly spoken among the educated class in England. The death of numerous French teachers, however, helped the English language to gain ascendancy over French in Britain. Changes also came in the religious sphere. As French historian Jacqueline Brossollet notes, because of the shortage of candidates for the priesthood, “the Church too often recruited ignorant, apathetic individuals.” Brossollet asserts that “the decadence of [church] centers of learning and faith was one of the causes of the Reformation.”
The Black Death certainly left its mark on art, death becoming a common artistic theme. The famous danse macabre genre, commonly representing skeletons and corpses, became a popular allegory of the power of death. Unsure of the future, many survivors of the plague threw all restraint to the wind. Thus morals sank to shocking depths. As for the church, because of its failure to prevent the Black Death, “medieval man felt that his Church had let him down.” (The Black Death) Some historians also say that the social changes that followed in the wake of the Black Death fostered individualism and enterprise and increased social and economic mobility—the precursors of capitalism.
The Black Death also spurred governments to establish systems of sanitary control. After the plague subsided, Venice took measures to clean up its city streets. King John II of France, called the Good, likewise ordered street cleaning as a means of countering the threat of an epidemic. The king took this step after learning of an ancient Greek doctor who had saved Athens from a plague by cleaning and washing the streets. Many medieval streets, which had been open sewers, were finally cleaned up.
A Thing of the Past?
It was not until 1894, though, that French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin isolated the bacillus responsible for the Black Death. It was named Yersinia pestis after him. Four years later another Frenchman, Paul-Louis Simond, discovered the role of the flea (carried by rodents) in transmitting the disease. A vaccine was soon developed that enjoyed limited success.
Is the plague a thing of the past? Hardly. In the winter of 1910, some 50,000 people died from the plague in Manchuria. And each year the World Health Organization registers thousands of new cases—the number continues to rise. New strains of the disease have also been discovered—strains that are resistant to treatment. Yes, unless basic hygienic standards are adhered to, the plague remains a threat to mankind. The book Pourquoi la peste? Le rat, la puce et le bubon (Why the Plague? The Rat, the Flea, and the Bubo), edited by Jacqueline Brossollet and Henri Mollaret, thus concludes that “far from being a disease of old Europe in the Middle Ages, . . . sad to say, the plague is perhaps a disease of the future.”
People of that time called it the great pestilence or the epidemic.
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Men and women gave all they had to the church, hoping that God would shield them from illness
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The Sect of the Flagellants
Viewing the plague as a punishment from God, some sought to abate God’s anger through self-inflicted whipping, or flagellation. The Brotherhood of the Flagellants, a movement said to number up to 800,000, reached its peak of popularity during the Black Death. The sect’s rules forbade speaking with women, washing, or changing clothing. Public flagellation was practiced twice a day.
“Flagellation was one of the few outlets open to a fear-ridden population,” notes the book Medieval Heresy. Flagellants were also prominent in denouncing the hierarchy of the church and in undermining the church’s lucrative practice of granting absolution. Little wonder, then, that in 1349 the pope condemned the sect. In the end, though, the movement waned on its own after the Black Death passed.
The Flagellants sought to placate God
© Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Bruxelles
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The plague in Marseilles, France
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
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Alexandre Yersin isolated the bacillus causing the plague