The Black Death: A Short History

Viruses are fascinating. It is incredible how this singular piece of nature’s evil curiosity can so quickly turn the world upside down, decimate populations, and prompt fellow neighbors to turn against one another if murder stands as the only means of survival. Thus, in light of the recent Coronavirus outbreak, let us today recall one of history’s most devastating epidemics, The Black Death, for sometimes the deadliest of things can be found riveting.

In Summary

In the mid-1300s, the world came to know an epidemic of catastrophic proportions, which swept through Europe and Asia, executing some 50 million people. This epic monstrosity of nature commenced its reign of terror in the year 1347, when a collection of ships arrived at the Sicilian port of Messina. What the native population uncovered next was a most grisly portrait: a sickening mesh of blood, decaying flesh, and black boils––a true black death. But the screams of horror let out by the Siciliani worked to no avail, for the Black Death (or bubonic plague in formal speak), had already laid siege to the continent of Europe.

The Black Death

The Bubonic Plague (spread by a bacterium called Yersina pestis) first manifested itself in the Eastern realm, appearing throughout China, Persia, India, and the Middle East in the early 1340s. Word had spread to Europe about this grand plague as quickly as the replication mechanism of a virus. But for as much as the Europeans knew of the “Great Pestilence,” nothing could have prepared the continent for the blanket of death that had come to suffocate it.

A chronicle of the Black Death written at the cathedral priory of Rochester at the time of the plague’s arrival in the 1340s reads vividly:

A great mortality ... destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance. Alas, this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.

As remarked above, such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages. Instead, because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time for idleness, thieving and other outrages, and thus the poor and servile have been enriched and the rich impoverished. As a result, churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.

As far as the medieval populations knew, God had cast the Black Death upon them as a form of punishment. “Plague Doctors” or physicians that were specifically tasked with treating plague victims, would dress in fully-enraptured, horrifying costumes festooned with what can only be described as a crow’s beak––a device that served as a mask against the “bad air” (miasma). These scary mannequins could only pray that borderline witchcraft medical procedures would defeat the plague, and administered bizarre treatments to patients that included eating a spoonful of crushed emeralds, rubbing oneself with feces, and baths in urine. Ironically, such “precautionary” measures only exacerbated illness, leading to a speedier death.

Having finally escaped in the 1350s, the Black Death took with it the lives of 50 million people, obliterating 60% of Europe’s population.

I’ll leave you with a quote by the famed Renaissance poet Petrarch:

“All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried [...] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.”

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