The black plague or bubonic plague, also known as the black death, was an infectious pandemic that spread through Asia and Europe throughout the fourteenth century, leaving numerous physical, social and administrative damages, since between 25 and 50% of the populations suffered from its effects.
This epidemic was transmitted through infected fleas that inhabited the bodies of animals, especially rats, since their tissues produced negative bacteria that were not tolerated by humans. From 1346 a zoonosis originated; that is, the bacilli were introduced as terminal hosts into the human immune system.
When someone was infected, the infectious agent was quickly transmitted from one organism to another due to direct contact with the infected person or by air, causing high fevers, inflammation and suppuration of the lymph nodes, delusions and skin hemorrhages that caused pustules in the skin.
The black plague generated horror and death. It was even characterized as a nameless evil, its diffusion mechanisms were unknown and its nature was considered to be a punishment from God. For this reason, the inhabitants of the affected regions accused each other of having sinned, a fact that – according to them – caused the disease.
During the time that it lasted (1346-1353), the pandemic manifested itself in three forms: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague. These diagnoses were not known until the 16th century when the historian Johan Isaksson Pontanus (1571-1639) gave a name to the tragedy that destroyed the relative stability prevailing in the late medieval period.
The bubonic manifestation was the most common and the one that evolved most rapidly. It began with swelling of the glands in the neck, groin and armpits, generating suppuration of the nodules that arose due to fever.
Symptoms were muscle pain, weakness, chills, and hallucinations. Life expectancy did not exceed three days.
It was called “bubonic” due to the inflammation of the glands that, in later years, were called “buboes” or “carbuncles”. The virus was transmitted when siphonaptera (popularly known as fleas) attacked the lower limbs of their victims.
It was generated when bacteria contaminated the blood system and prevented the intervention of buboes, causing the development of gangrenous lesions on the fingers, nose and ears. Those dark marks showed that the being had contracted the disease, even if it did not have chronic symptoms like those of bubonic disease.
However, infected individuals did not survive for more than two weeks. It is relevant to note that the gangrenous wounds were the ones that gave rise to the name “black death”, due to their appearance and the immediate advance of the malaise.
It manifested when infected bacteria reached the lungs through the blood or respiratory tract, causing the rapid and deadly progression of the virus.
This condition was considered mild when compared to bubonic or septicemic, but it caused constant expectorant coughs, a fundamental aspect because it favored interhuman contagion.
This contagion had to do with the outbreak of the epidemic through the air. It is estimated that the plague spread through particles of saliva that were in the environment.
Origin and history
Even today, the origin of the Black Death is a mystery, it is considered an event that does not present concrete evidence. However, there are two hypotheses that indicate that its expansion began on the Silk Road, an area located between Asia and Europe that was used to transport wheat and cloth from one continent to another.
The first fact that proves the outbreak of the pandemic is located in 1346, since in two Russian regions – Askatran and Saray – the first victims of the plague were found, who died instantly.
The second hypothesis was put forward by the traveler Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), who in his writings referred to some cases of the epidemic on the so-called Route of the species.
Through the files of this Arab explorer it is shown that during 1347 and 1348 the virus was in the State of India. However, it is important to highlight several events that contributed to the social devastation and, in one way or another, favored the spread of the epidemic.
Hundred Years War (1337-1453)
This warlike conflict between France and England, which lasted for about 116 years, was mainly motivated by territorial dominance. The English managed to establish their power in the French regions, which were recovered by their previous owners thanks to the strategy and intervention of Joan of Arc (1412-1431).
The armed struggle strengthened the outbreak of the plague because the agricultural fields of both countries were destroyed or usurped by enemy campaigns.
This harmed the economy and increased national emigration, as the inhabitants left for the cities seeking a better quality of life; However, the lack of income and inputs led to massification and social decline.
This occurred because low-income people lived precariously, increasing unhealthy conditions and coexistence with rodents, direct agents of the pandemic.
Another essential aspect of the war was the commercial factor. Both England and France were interested in the routes they used to transport wool and spices.
Trade routes were the ideal means for the disease to spread, since an infected individual could infect an entire nation through the pneumonic manifestation.
On the other hand, fleas – when their animal carrier died – traveled among wheat and grains in order to find a new body to survive on, contaminating food and healthy men.
The Avignon papacy
Under the protection of the French monarch Philip V (1292-1322) the center of the papacy was installed in the city of Avignon, the purpose of which was to transmit a message of faith and good management.
The faithful had to follow what was manifested by the popes, since they possessed the truth that God communicated to them. For this reason, the papacy – especially Gregory XI (1330-1378) – played a fundamental role.
In the Middle Ages it was believed that religion was the center of the world, individuals lived on what they considered good and evil. For this reason, when the plague spread, Pope Gregory XI declared that it was a divine punishment for the sins committed by humanity. In this way a conflict arose between the various religious doctrines.
The Christians expressed that the epidemic had arisen by the wrongs committed by the Muslims, while these censured the opinions of the Protestants. Finally, both Muslims and Christians attributed the damage to the Jews; but rational explanations were not enough.
For this reason, the idea spread that the attacks of the pandemic were caused by witches, who voluntarily poisoned people on Lucifer’s orders. This argument motivated the hunting and murder of female figures that were considered supernatural and harmful to social good.
Historians and chroniclers often state that the plague came from Central Asia in 1347, when the Tatar Khan, Djam Bek, tried to besiege the city of Caffa but his troops suffered from the traumas infused by the infection.
Even so, he asked his military to keep some of the infected bodies in order to spread the disease in Christian regions.
From that moment on, twelve ships – which came from the East and had a low crew as a result of the virus – tried to reach the Sicilian city of Messina, but permission to disembark was denied and they had to go from port to port.
In this way they polluted Sicily, the Greek islands and even Genoa, where they had been banned from entering.
In 1348 this crew managed to dock in Marseille, a place where the plague reached the interior of the country and spread throughout the rest of Europe, causing the death of most of the inhabitants.
According to archaeologists, this infectious epidemic was in the world since 1340. At that time it was perceived in the area of Lake Baikal, located in Russia, where a massive succession of deaths took place that were attributed to the Black Death.
There were three main causes of the plague. The first was light and direct contact with rats and fleas that were around the cities, a process that was generated due to wars and the decline in supplies, which increased unhealthy conditions.
Likewise, the trade and extraction of marmot tissues were decisive reasons for the development of the pandemic, since these rodents suffered a plague that placed them in danger of extinction.
The merchants seized the contaminated skins of the dead animals and sold them in Caffa, where the agents of the epidemic evolved and spread.
The lack of medicines and government control caused the plague to become massive, which is why its effects were harmful because it moved rapidly through the wind, water and food. That is, individuals could be infected by just breathing, hydrating or eating.
One of the consequences of the outbreak of the pandemic has to do with the demographic sphere, since the number of lives that were lost were not recovered until two centuries later. On the other hand, those who survived migrated to urban areas: the fields were depopulated, while the cities were revitalized.
The tragic effects of the plague caused a greater value to be given to health prevention, which is why numerous strategies for body and environmental care were developed. In this way, reverence for the body diminished, and it began to be studied from a more scientific perspective.
Individual reality was modernized through technological thinking, which is why machines began to be designed to speed up production. Paper was also given greater prominence to create the printing press: the objective was to keep informed citizens informed.
How was the plague controlled?
While it is true that the plague caused pain and countless deaths, it also caused the collapse of medieval society and medicine, because no way was found to reduce or prevent contagion. Knowledge about the infection was precarious, as it was not known that it was caused by a bacterium transmitted by rats.
On the other hand, the doctors did not have the necessary instruments to examine the few patients who were entitled to a medical examination. However, the recommendations given back then were as follows:
– Wash food very well before eating it.
– Purify the air and clean contaminated areas.
– Make infusions based on aromatic herbs and ground stones.
– Clean the lymph nodes with natural substances to remove the supposed poison of the infection.
The Black Death represented destruction for both the Asian and European continents, the latter being the most affected because it not only transformed its social structure – which went from feudalism to capitalism – but also its cultural belief, because man was displacing the veneration of a be superior to praise individuality.
The deadly advance of the plague caused the devastation of all countries, causing both physical and psychological damage. Among the states that suffered the most desolation were Germany and England.
The epidemic harmed the German territories from 1349, at which time there were more than 10,000 deaths.
In the city of Lübeck not even 5% of the population survived, and in just four years 200 villages disappeared. This implied a profound transformation of the region.
The pneumonic plague appeared in the English regions in the winter of 1348, when more than half of the population died.
This event upset the few survivors that remained, since their dead no longer entered the cemeteries. This meant that they had to be thrown outside the city walls.
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