The Black Death had a huge effect on Europe in the Middle Ages. Another name for the Black Death is the plague. This paper is meant to familiarize with the plague and also provide a general idea of what it was like. It will also show some changes that were made because of the plague. It will show how people had to adapt and some measures that were taken against it. Also theories will be shown of how the plague came about.
The Black Death was a very deadly disease. All in all the plague lasted from about 1347-1352. There are three different types of the plague that were thought to all work together in causing the Black Death. These three types are called: Bubonic plague, Septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague. Although they were all thought to work together, the Bubonic and Pneumonic were the worst of the three. (Smith 507)
The plague was contracted in a few ways. One way was from a host carrier. This is where a flea from an infected rat or other rodent would move to a human host, bite the human, and then regurgitate the infected liquid into the humans bloodstream. This was a very potent way of transportation. This way of transportation is most often associated with the Bubonic plague. Another way of contracting the disease was through airborne particles. The Pneumonic plague worked on the lungs, and was projected airborne by coughing or sneezing. An innocent bystander could then contract the disease by simply breathing. This was the most dangerous way of contraction because there is no way to stop the movement of airborne particle. (Nardo 10)
The Plague had many symptoms, which were severe and noticeable. Some of the symptoms are: high fever, rapid pulse, body aches, aching limbs, vomiting of blood, and swelling of lymph nodes in neck, armpits, and groin, which would cause blackish coloring on the skin. This is how the plague got its name the Black Death. The swellings would often burst and death would soon follow. Usually in about 3-4 days after the symptoms show is when death would occur. The symptoms would start to occur usually 1-6 days after infection. So anywhere from about 4-10 days after infection is when death would hit. This is why the plague was so horrible. (Smith 508)
The exact origin of the plague is unknown. It is theorized that it came from somewhere in the Gobi dessert in the late 1320’s. From there it moved along caravan routes and by ship. The earliest accounts of the plague were in Lake Balkhash, a Christian community in central Asia. (Knox 1)
The plague had profound effects on a lot of different things. The population was probably the one that was most affected. It killed about 1/3 of the entire population of Europe. Scholars theorize this to be a minimum of 25 million people. It also killed about 1/4 of the English population. This loss of people had an immediate affect on a lot of other things as well. Economic and Social institutions underwent many alterations. The Manorial system, which was used for years, was taken down. The landowners had too few workers and held little power because of that. The workers saw this and demanded changes. They eventually won the right to rent or lease the land they worked on. The government tried to institute laws that would keep peasants in their place. This just led to uprisings. By 1400 the entire system was gone. Financial business was disrupted. The debtors, creditors, and their families died. There was no one to collect from. Much construction that was going on had to be put on halt, or altogether stopped. This was mostly because of the lack of numbers of people to do the job. Farms and entire villages died. Universities and schools had to close. 16 out of the 40 professors at Cambridge died. (Knox 1)
The culture of Europe was changed. This was obvious because of the change in politics. The 100-year war had to be put on sabbatical. This was because there simply was not enough soldiers on either side to fight. As economic order changed, the value of land decreased. However, the standard of living rose because of some of the effects. A falling population caused higher wages, an oversupply of due to falling population caused the prices to fall, and thus the standard of living rose. This is one of the very few good things that did come out of the plague. (Nardo 15)
It is obvious that the art of Europe changed, or was at least affected some by the plague. The tombs of people that were buried are usually very joyous and celebrated the person’s life. They would have portraits of said person in their best clothes, in their best health, and in a position that shows power, usually with a sword and shield. During the plague however things changes. On tombs now were pictures of skeletons and of people decomposing. They were shown in ragged clothes, usually crawling on the ground, and worms coming out of them. This was a very gruesome site, but it reminds of the horror and the loss. Out of this time period though came a very different style of art. It was called Danse Macabre. This means dance of the dead. It would show pictures of skeletons interacting with the living. This form of art is still used today. (Knox 1)
There were many different theories at the time of how the plague got there. None of them though were correct. They were without the knowledge of germs and diseases yet and their theories show this. One of the theories is that Jews were poisoning the wells. They thought that it was a massive conspiracy of the Jews to eliminate all Christians. Another theory was that it was God’s wrath. It was said that it was, “To terrify men and drive out the sins”. Also there was a theory that it was an individuals fault. They thought there was corrupted air around a person with the plague, due to a person’s sins and wrongdoings. Lastly there was a theory that involved astronomy. People that believed this said that it was because the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the sign of Aquarius. This caused hot, moist conditions that forced the earth to exhale poisonous gas. It was mostly Professors that came up with this theory. (Nardo 20)
Along with the theories for the reason for the plague there was also many theories on how to treat it. They did realize that the plague was contagious. They ordered quarantines in some cases. The quarantines were ineffective though because the rats could still carry the disease. There were also certain sanitation ordinances that were embarked upon the people. In direct response to the theory that Jews were poisoning the wells, many Jews were murdered. The Jews who were accused of this action were burnt for it. Professors offered some advice to the public. They said that people shouldn’t eat poultry, waterfowl, pig, old beef, or fish. They also said not to sleep during the day, not to bath, not to get too much exercise, and not to cook in rainwater. People burnt incense, rang the church bells, fired cannons and experimented with charms and spells from the local talisman to try and rid the plague. Others tried to appeal to God. Groups of people called flagellants traveled from town to town whipping themselves. They would cry, “Spare us Jesus,” and “Forgive us Blessed Mary.” As it is none of these treatments worked. (Knox 1)
Europe experienced many changes as a result of the plague. The need for labor saving devices rose because of the lack of people. This caused the inventions of many instruments that are still used today. This time was a time of “sudden and impressive” advances in the field of technology. The printing press was invented during this time. Maritime transport need less crew workers and then had more room for cargo. Medicine increased out of necessity. There were better, smarter doctors. They started implementing hands on studies, which helped a lot. (Nardo 25)
The view of the church was changed at this time. Europeans believed priests and bishops were unable to intercede with God and stop the plague. Thus the Church suffered a lot. Many people started to believe they could have a personal relationship with God without the need of a priest. Good deeds increased at this time also. Charity was given to hospitals, monasteries and the poor. (Knox 1)
The plague finally started to die down in about 1351. It would recur a couple of times over the years in Europe and a few other continents. Never though with such force or magnitude. So for all intents and purposes the plague left just as it had come, mysteriously. Not quite as mysteriously though it left a lasting impression on Europe and the rest of the world. (Nardo 166)
Nardo, Don. The Black Death. San Diego, CA: Green Haven Press, Inc., 1999.