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A silent killer that appeared out of nowhere and wiped out over a third of Europe’s population with some place’s losing entire cities. The black death was an epidemic like no one had ever seen before and hopefully will never see again. So, with an event of such major proportions, what made the plague so deadly and how did society react to the plague?
The black plague was caused by a bacterium called by the scientific name Yersinia Pestis, a zoonotic bacterium carried by small mammals and fleas (cdc.gov). With an average of seven infections reported per year in the USA and one thousand to two thousand cases reported annually worldwide the plague is of no major concern with modern medicine if caught early enough.
Yersinia Pestis comes in three separate forms, each of which has its own distinctive symptoms and methods of being transmitted; Bubonic, Septicemic, and Pneumonic. The scary thing about each is that one can become the other: if you’re septicemic you can become bubonic or if you’re bubonic you could become septicemic.
Bubonic plague acquires its name from the large lymph nodes it produces called buboes. These buboes are large, red, swollen lymph nodes that develop near the region of the bite, typically in the groin and underarm regions, causing large black scabs, hence the name, black death (cdc.gov). After 2-6 days one who was infected would develop fever, headache, chills, and weakness. This is usually the result of a flea bite. Bubonic plague was 50% fatal (bbc.co.uk).
The other form, although less common, and more contagious was the pneumonic plague. The infected would develop fever, headache, weakness, and other pneumonia like symptoms. Pneumonic plague may develop from inhaling infected droplets. Another way of becoming pneumonic was from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague that spreads to the lungs. Pneumonic plague is considered to be the deadliest form of the infection since it is the only form of the plague that can be spread from one to another (cdc.gov). Pneumonic Plague was approximately 90% fatal.
After the plague developed in a person, the plague could become septicemic and travel throughout the bloodstream of an infected person and cause blood poisoning. Others still could become septicemic after encountering infected meat or blood (who.int). Symptoms of the septicemic infection included but are not limited to: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and extreme blood loss, which for many, was through coughing while others would suffer from internal bleeding or blood loss through urination causing many medieval doctors to use urine color as an indication of health (cdc.gov). Septicemic infection was nearly 100% fatal.
A commonly held belief was that the black death was caused by mirasma or “bad air.” As a result, many methods were developed to help keep the bad air away. These included burning aromatics, carrying around fragrant herbs, and avoiding anything that may open pores to mirasma such as bathing which helped spread the infections. Large fires would often be seen through cities in hopes that the smoke may repel the mirasma.
The plague was especially deadly given that many lived near one another and had no health practices such as the ones we do today. Due to the unhealthy environment, close living conditions, and the perfect habitat for those that carried the bacterium the disease was able to easily take hold and wipe out communities in a matter of days (brittanica.com). For many, it became a waiting game to see if the plague would take them.
As the plague spread indiscriminately a new job was opened to those who were willing; Plague Doctors. Even with doctor being in the name Plague Doctors were more likely to be tasked with keeping track of the casualties in cities and need not have any qualifications to become a so-called “doctor”.
Plague Doctors wore leather suits from head to toe that were coated in animal fats and wax to protect them from the bad air. A leather mask with a beak was also worn with aromatics being placed in the beak to combat mirasma (allthatsinteresting.com). Despite their fearful appearance plague doctors were held with high respects for their attempts to comfort the sufferings and would help with organizing the dispersal of the dead one’s properties; others would at times be taken hostage and held for ransom.
Plague Doctors, many of whom had no prior medical experience, would resort to anything that they felt may cure the disease resulting in innumerable so-called “cures.” Amongst some of the more bizarre treatments included rubbing human feces over the buboes, bloodletting, and coating mercury on an infected person. Many of these cures helped to hasten the infection rather than to cure it and may even have helped to spread the infection to others.
As a result of the infections many who were able chose to flee in hopes of outrunning this mysterious killer. Others still, such as those of Islamic faith, remained because of the belief that the plague was the will of God. Often though the only ones who could escape were the rich and wealthy, leaving those of little means at the hands of the infection.
Escape though, did not always promise one to remain in healthy conditions. With the bacterium taking a few days to show any symptoms many could have had the disease long before they fled.
Some areas attempted to limit the spread of disease by limiting travel through the country. Italy, for example, would turn away any ships that they believed came from an infected region. Further protective measures were put into place by quarantining anyone who wished to enter for 30-40 days.
The churches attempted to use their strong influences in the communities to help contain the spread of the disease. Some attempted to limit people from traveling to and from infected areas while another rule was made to keep people from coming into contact with the dead infected bodies by mandating; the deceased be left in place until they could be sealed in wooden caskets.
Clement VI, who was the pope from 1342 to1352, had declared that confessions could be made to anyone, even a woman, and still be forgiven. This at the time was a big deal since only those with authority in the church could perform these actions and caused many to question the church’s actions and showing how desperate many had become by abandoning their own strongly held traditions.
Due to the higher than average fatality rates of the clergy, large issues in the church-centered communities of medieval Europe arose. With many positions remaining unfilled the church resorted to bringing in anyone they could, even the uneducated. This created tension as many in the communities saw this as another failure of the church as a leading figure.
Due to the strong authority that the church had many turned to religion, believing that God had sent the plague as punishment for their sins which had two major outcomes; flagellants, which was the practice of whipping oneself or other forms of self-torture to appease God and persecuting the Jews.
Anti-Semitism was already on the rise in Europe during the dark ages, which was only heightened by the strongly held belief held by many that the Jews had poisoned the food and water supplies to kill the so-called ungodly Christians. As a result, Jews were either killed, banished, or quarantined which due to their rules on cleanliness helped keep Jewish deaths as a result of illness down (brittanica.com). The belief that the Jews were the origin of the pestilence stems largely from the fact the those of Jewish faith followed the Torah and had set rules for cleanliness and were at less of a risk of becoming infected.
Those who practice Flagellants would whip and beat themselves often in public and large gatherings to create a large public display (ivypanda.com). Many would even beg the plague doctors to beat them with their canes. This practice was held until it was dismissed by the pope when it seemed to come to an abrupt halt.
As a result of the rising death tolls, labor shortages became commonplace. Lands that were once overworked were left abandoned with no one to plow and harvest the fields. With labor being in high demand but in short supply landowners needed to pay higher wages and provide for improved working conditions.
Lands that were once overcrowded and overused had now become desolated creating an overabundance of housing and farmlands. This, in turn, caused lower food prices and housing prices, allowing the lower class of people to have improved lives. These events helped in bringing about an end to the feudal systemю
These new changes brought discomfort to those of authority. Many attempts were made to restore society to the way it was before the plague, yet these efforts were often met with violent riots. Many historians hold the belief that the black death may have been what helped push society out of the dark ages and into the Renaissance.
A mysterious killer that appeared out of nowhere Yersinia Pestis wiped out over a third of Europe’s population and, in some places, entire cities. Killing with no rhyme or reason; young and old, rich or poor, the black death brought about huge change in society while becoming an epidemic like no one had ever seen before and hopefully will never see again.
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