The Black Death

The Black Death

by Sean Martin

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Explore the history behind the bubonic plague that left Europe reeling from one of the greatest losses in history

The Black Death is the name most commonly given to the pandemic of bubonic plague that ravaged the medieval world in the late 1340s. From Central Asia, the plague swept through Europe, leaving millions of dead in its wake. Between a quarter and a third of Europe's population died, and in England the population fell from nearly six million to just over three million. Sean Martin looks at the origins of the disease and traces its terrible march through Europe from the Italian cities to the far-flung corners of Scandinavia. He describes contemporary responses to the plague and makes clear how helpless the medicine of the day was in the face of it. He examines the renewed persecution of the Jews, blamed by many Christians for the spread of the disease, and highlights the bizarre attempts by such groups as the Flagellants to ward off what they saw as the wrath of God.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843446040
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sean Martin is the author of several other Pocket Essentials titles, including Alchemy and Alchemists, Andrei Tarkovsky, The Cathars, The Gnostics, and The Knights Templar.

Read an Excerpt

The Black Death

By Sean Martin

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2007 Sean Martin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-553-3


King Death

In early October 1347, twelve Genoese galleys put in at the port of Messina in Sicily. The town was one of the principal stopping-off points on the lucrative trade route from the East that brought silks and spices along the Old Silk Road, through the Crimea, across the Black Sea and into Europe. On this occasion, however, no silks or spices were to be unloaded from the vessels, which had probably come from the trading stations Genoa maintained at Tana and Kaffa on the north coast of the Black Sea. The port authorities found, to their horror, that scarcely anyone onboard the twelve galleys was left alive, and those who were exhibited a pronounced lethargy and a strange sickness 'that seemed to cling to their very bones'. They suffered from black boils and everything that came out of their bodies — breath, blood, pus — smelled awful. The presence of the galleys was deemed a public health emergency of the first order and, within a day or so, the galleys were driven from the port, so afraid were the Messinese of what they found on board the Genoese vessels. Although the measures were understandably protective, it was too late: the sickness the Genoese crewmen were suffering from took hold of the town within a few days. The doomed galleys drifted on, infecting all who came into contact with them. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.

This was not the first time the plague had struck. The town elders and physicians in Messina may well have known — after either hearing eyewitness reports or venturing, almost certainly suicidally, onto the Genoese boats — what the sailors were dying from. There had been outbreaks of plague for generations, usually sporadic and confined to localised areas, lasting a few months, but deadly nonetheless. It had at tacked Frederick Barbarossa's army outside Rome in 1167, before it became rife in the city itself, where it recurred in 1230. It had also attacked Florence in 1244, and the south of France and Spain in 1320 and 1333.

This time, however, it would be different. This time the plague would not be confined to one or two towns, but would spread unpredictably and, at times it seemed, uncontrollably, across the whole continent, taking rich and poor to their graves in the worst single epidemic in history. But in October 1347, as the Messinese died screaming in their homes and in the streets from what seemed like a Divine punishment, the wider world must have been the last thing on their minds.

Plagues before The Black Death

The earliest recorded plagues are those of the Old Testament. Exodus recounts, in chapter 7, how the Lord, displeased with the Pharaoh's detention of the Israelites in Egypt, sent plagues to the land as a punishment. However, it should be noted that the term 'plague' may not necessarily denote plague in its medical sense and may, in fact, be simply a generic term for things going rather badly: consider for a moment that the Seven Plagues of Egypt were famously non-bubonic, being successive afflictions of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, the deaths of the Egyptians' animals, boils, hail and locusts rounded off with darkness over the land and the deaths of the first-born.

In 1 Samuel Chapter 5, it is the turn of the Philistines. After capturing the Ark of the Covenant and taking it to the city of Ashdod, they discovered the Lord's displeasure: 'The Lord's hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumours.' (Verse 6) The Septuagint and Vulgate versions of the Bible make it clear what this plague is, by adding: 'And rats appeared in their land, and death and destruction were throughout the city.' A few verses later, 'the Lord's hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumours.' Once again, the Septuagint is more explicit, by replacing 'tumours' with 'tumours in the groin'.

That connection between rats and tumours is reinforced in Chapter 6 where, to placate the wrath of the Almighty, the Philistines have to make gold replicas of five rats and five tumours, as there were five Philistine rulers 'because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers'.

Another celebrated outbreak of what could be plague in the medical sense occurred in Athens in the fifth century BC. Thucydides gives a graphic account of the epidemic in his History of the Peloponnesian War:

The plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the vicinity of Lemnos and else where; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any use, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves in great numbers, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

He goes onto describe the symptoms, which included a terrible fever, livid patches on the skin and severe diarrhoea. People were afraid to visit the sick, and the dead were buried without proper funeral rites. So heavy was the mortality that an air of lawlessness began to prevail, with debauchery and crimes proliferating:

Fear of the gods or the law of man did not restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been al ready passed upon them all and hung over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Whether the Athenian plague really was plague is still a matter for debate, although the symptoms, and the reactions of the Athenians, are remarkably similar to the Black Death. Eighteen hundred years later, Boccaccio would record the same reactions among the Florentines.

The First Pandemic

The Black Death was the Second Pandemic of plague. The First Pandemic is sometimes known as the Plague of Justinian, as it occurred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian (527 — 565). It seems to have come into Egypt at the port of Pelusium in the autumn of 541, from where it travelled West to Alexandria, and from there to the rest of Egypt. It also made its way East into Palestine and Syria: Evagrius Scholasticus, in his Ecclesiastical History, describes the plague in his hometown of Antioch in the following year, and says that he believes that the plague originated in Ethiopia (Thucydides believed the same of the Athenian plague).

Another chronicler of the Plague of Justinian is Procopius, whose History of the Wars contains the earliest eyewitness account of plague. He describes how the plague started in Egypt, and spread to the rest of the Byzantine Empire, Europe, Persia and the 'barbarian hinterland'. Egypt and Asia Minor (modern-day Anatolian Turkey) were particularly badly affected. The plague even reached England, where it was known as the Plague of Cadwallader's Time, before moving on to Ireland and Scandinavia. Byzantium was weakened by the pandemic, and it left its frontiers vulnerable to successful resurgences of barbarians: the Balkans and Greece experienced Slavic migrations, the Lombards invaded Italy and the Berbers made in roads into Byzantine North Africa.

Unlike the Black Death, the Justinian plague probably came from East Africa. The Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocattes (who continued Procopius's History for the Emperor Maurice) writes that an embassy of Turks visited the Emperor in 598, and told him that in Mogholistan (near lake Issyk-Kul in modern day Kyrgyzstan) they had not experienced contagious disease since the times of the ancients, and that earthquakes were rare. This would seem to rule out an Asian transmission for the first pandemic, and confirm the belief shared by Evagrius and the Arab doctor Ali ibn Rabban at-Tabari, who wrote a medical compendium in the ninth century, that the Justinian plague travelled North along the trade routes from Ethiopia and the Sudan. Ironically, although Issyk-Kul escaped the first pandemic, it would be one of the first places to be affected in the second pandemic, that of the Black Death.

The Three Types of Plague

The Black Death has traditionally been thought to have been a mixture of bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic plague. (Current research suggests that another, unknown, factor may have also been at work, making the Black Death particularly virulent. This is a topic we shall return to later.) Plague is a disease that afflicts rodents and is endemic to a number of regions of the world, including parts of Africa (the probable cradle of the First Pandemic), Central Asia (the cradle of the Second and Third, the latter starting in China in the mid-nineteenth century), parts of South America and the more temperate regions of the North. It is possibly also endemic in Europe, but on a vastly lesser scale.

The plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis, lives in the bloodstream of small rodents such as rats, marmots, squirrels or mice. Originally a harmless bacteria in their stomachs, the bacillus evolved genetically over time, enabling it to enter the animals' bloodstream. Once it had done this, it became lethal. The main vector — or way in which the disease is spread — is through the fleas that live on the animal. When a flea, usually the rodent's familiar, Xenopsylla cheopsis, feeds on an infected host, the plague bacillus will multiply inside the flea's body, blocking its oesophagus and making it chronically thirsty. Its compulsion then is to bite continually to slake its thirst. When the rodent it has been feeding on dies, it will look for another host to drink from, but, because its foregut is full of undigested, infected blood, it will pass the plague bacillus into the bloodstream of whatever animal it tries to feed on next. The flea effectively becomes a syringe, administering potentially lethal doses of Y. pestis to each new host, and with the number of potential hosts diminished due to a plague outbreak, large numbers of fleas would end up living on the same animal; a single rat could have hundreds of plague-infested fleas living on it. With such large numbers of fleas feeding from the same animal, it would hasten the end of the unfortunate host far quicker than if normal numbers of fleas were present, and X. cheopsis would be forced to go further afield to seek sustenance. That it's also a hardy insect, able to survive for up to six weeks without a host, would have been a significant factor in the spread of the Black Death, and would help to explain why the disease could traverse such huge distances and still remain lethally effective.

X. cheopsis does not particularly like human blood but, in the absence of any other host, it will bite. Bubonic plague attacks the lymphatic system, and produces boils or buboes in the groin (the word derives from the Greek word for groin, boubon), armpits or neck, usually depending on where the victim was bit ten. Bites on the leg would result in buboes in the groin, upper body bites in the armpit or neck, often resulting in the victim developing a limp, a raised arm or a head permanently cocked away from the bubo. Regardless of where they develop, the buboes can vary in size, from that of an almond to that of an or ange, are extremely painful and sometimes noisy, being known to make strange gurgling sounds. Most victims will only develop one bubo, appearing between two and six days after the initial infection; if more develop, they will normally be on the same chain of lymph glands. If the buboes suppurate within a week, the victim will usually recover. If not, as happened in the majority of cases, the victim will die. Modern research has found that, untreated, bubonic plague has a mortality rate of around 60%.

Although buboes are the most well-known symptom of plague, the victim will likely first become apathetic, quickly developing a high fever, with vomiting, extreme headaches, giddiness, intolerance to light, pains in the abdomen, back and limbs, sleeplessness and acute diarrhoea being not long in following. Contemporary chroniclers also recorded three other symptoms: bruise-like blotches on the skin (possibly caused by subcutaneous haemorrhages) which were termed 'God's Tokens'; severe delirium, which often led to episodes of manic shouting and laughing or, if the victim was still able to stand, dancing or walking aimlessly around in a trance until they collapsed; and, finally, an all -pervasive malodorousness that affected everything the victim's body produced, from breath, sweat and blood to faeces, urine and pus.

Pneumonic, or pulmonary, plague occurs when the bacillus fails to locate in the lymphatic system, and in stead develops in the lungs, its most obvious symptom being the coughing up of blood. It is also more infectious than bubonic plague as, every time the victim coughs, they will expel plague bacilli as well as blood, causing airborne transmission. The victim will also be feverish, as with bubonic plague, and will experience difficult and rapid breathing. Whereas with bubonic plague, there is some chance of survival if the buboes suppurate, the mortality rate for untreated pneumonic plague is between 95% and 100%, with victims usually dying between one and three days after initial infection. Pneumonic plague tends to be more active in the colder months, while bubonic tends to be the more dominant form of the disease in spring and summer.

Septicaemic plague occurs when the bacillus can not locate in the lymphatic system or the lungs, and instead infects the bloodstream. The bacillus will multiply profusely, causing the blood to become so quickly and totally infected that it can be transmitted by the human flea, Pulex irritans. (Normally the human flea would not be able to drink enough blood to be able to transmit a fatal dose. The victim would be dead and buried long before the bloodstream became infected enough for a flea to be able to do so. Or, if not buried, then piled up in the street awaiting burial in the common pit, and fleas do not feed on corpses.) Although the rarest form of the main three types of plague, septicaemic is perhaps the most frightening: because it develops so quickly, buboes do not have time to form. Instead, the hands and the feet turn black and harden. Stories of people going to bed seemingly well in the evening and being found dead in bed the next morning would sound like the work of plague in its septicaemic form. It is also the most lethal of the three variants: untreated, the mortality rate is 100%.

Why endemic diseases such as plague become epidemics and pandemics is still a matter for research. Usually, a variety of factors will cause the host to leave its native habitat and seek new territories. In the case of the Black Death, those factors seemed to have occurred in the years immediately before 1347. In abundance.

The Origins of the Black Death

The Arab historian Ibn al-Wardi, who witnessed the Black Death at Aleppo and died of it himself in 1349, believed that the pestilence had originated some fifteen years earlier in the 'land of darkness', by which he probably meant Mongolia. If this were the case, then it would mean that the plague was raging in Central Asia in the early 1330s. Another Arab writer, Al-Maqrizi, described the plague as striking an area that lay six months' journey from Tabriz; again, this could well mean Mongolia or Northern China. He writes that 300 tribes were wiped out, including 16 princes all succumbing within three months of each other.

Although Al-Maqrizi's chronicle was not contemporaneous, Chinese records from the period provide information that may corroborate his thesis that the plague was raging in Mongolia in the early 1330s: the Great Mongol Khan Jijaghatu Toq-Temür died on 2 October 1332, aged 28, and his sons followed him in rapid succession. The Khan's predecessor, Yesün Temur, had also died suddenly of an unknown illness on 15 August 1328; if he was a victim of plague, then he would be the Black Death's earliest recorded victim.

The Chinese chronicles report these deaths amid repeated stories of natural disasters and cataclysms that were afflicting China at the time with alarming — one might be tempted to say almost Old Testament — frequency. In 1333, famine followed the drought that had parched the area between the Kiang and Hoai Rivers. Following the drought, there was a deluge; 400,000 are said to have died. Tsincheou Mountain partially collapsed, causing huge faults to appear in the landscape. The following year, 1334, was no better: Houkouang and Honan provinces experienced drought, followed by a famine attended by clouds of locusts; an earthquake in the Ki-Ming-Chan Mountains brought floods that were so bad they created a new lake; in Tche the dead were said to amount to more than five million. If this wasn't bad enough, the earthquakes that had presumably caused Mount Tsincheou to cave in continued up until 1345, along with further floods and crop -destroying locusts.


Excerpted from The Black Death by Sean Martin. Copyright © 2007 Sean Martin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 - King Death,
2 - Mortal Pestilences and Other Calamities,
3 - Here Death is Chalking Doors with Crosses,
4 - Satan Triumphant,
5 - The Year of the Annihilation,
6 - The Pestilence Tyme,
7 - The Triumph of Death,
Appendix: Selective Chronology of Plague Outbreaks,
Suggestions for Further Reading,

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