In 1347 a.D., the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, spread through Europe with vengeful speed, causing massive death tolls, panic, and hysteria throughout most cities. Caused by oriental rat fleas carried through the trade routes by infected rats, the disease killed over one third of the total population of Europe by its end in 1369 (Courie, 7). While the disease was horrifying in its destruction, the plague also vastly impacted Europe in terms of social, economic, and religious change, as well as had a drastic impact on the artistic community of Europe. The impacts of the disease were felt for centuries to come (Cartwright, 42).
The Black Death began in 1334 in the Chinese province of Hopei, where it quickly killed 90% of the population, or over 500,000 people. As a trade center, Hopei was a bustle of activity, and as traders visited the area and returned to their home countries, the rats and fleas that carried the disease were transported. The plague quickly spread through China, India, Syria, and Mespotamia (Marks, 47).
In 1346, the plague reached Kaffa, a Genoese cathedral city. The Tartar forces were attempting to overtake the city in an effort to secure Europe’s eastern edge, and the Italians were helpless against their military power. But in 1347, the Tartar army began to rapidly perish, overcome by the plague. The Tartar army, foreseeing their demise, used catapults to launch plague infested corpses into the city. While the Italians quickly dumped the bodies into the sea, the disease, assisted by the desolate conditions of the city following the battle, had quickly taken hold. Hoping to escape the plague, four Italian ships left Kaffa, believing they were untainted, and carried the disease to the rest of Europe (Marks, 47).
While it is now known that the cause of the plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, transmitted to humans by fleas that had bitten infected rats, the causes at the time were thought to be far less scientific (Getz, 262). In a document called the Paris Consilim, prepared by forty medical masters at the University of Paris on behalf of King Philip IV in 1348, the causes ranged from celestial to terrestrial. The celestial cause was believed to be a result of the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, and as Aristotle had noted, such a conjunction caused disaster. They also cited Albert the Great, who noted the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars would bring the plague (Getz, 263). Terrestrial causes were believed to be poisonous air from noxious gas released during earthquakes. This gas was then carried to humans through rain and wind. When these gases entered the body, the heart, believed at the time to be the organ used for breathing, was contaminated, and this contamination spread, causing the organs to rot (Getz, 264).
For religious leaders of the age, the plague was simply proof that the Bible was accurate. In his tractate to the common people in 1348, James of Agramont quoted Deuteronomy 24, which states that God will bring plague to those who do not keep his commandments. He claimed the plague was a punishment for sin (Getz, 265). Other religious leaders blamed humanity for its sinful behavior, noting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the riders of pestilence and death, while others and fraudulent Jews (Getz, 266).
To complicate the issue of the causes, the plague appeared in three forms. The first, bubonic plague, was seen most often. The effects of the bubonic plague on the human body are varied, but mortality rates were between 60 and 70%. The symptoms included enlarged lymph nodes, headache, nausea, aches, high fever, vomiting, and general malaise. Symptoms took between one to seven days to appear. The enlarged lymph nodes developed buboes, which hemorrhaged, and began to ooze pus, blood, and bacteria into the bloodstream. These individuals began to bleed internally, resulting in the black spots which gave the disease its name (Courie, 10).
Additionally, the pneumonic plague, with mortality rates of 95%, hit Europe as a result of the same bacteria. This plague infected the lungs, causing bleeding and severe destruction of the breathing passage, causing death. Finally, the septicemic plague, the most rare form of the disease, struck, killing nearly 100% of those afflicted. High fevers and a deep purple skin color due to disseminated intravascular coagulation were characteristic of those infected. These individuals died rapidly, within a day of showing symptoms.
The death toll from the plague is, to this day, nearly unbelievable. Some areas of Europe lost nearly all inhabitants. In Venice, nearly three fourths of the population was destroyed. In Pisa, seven tenths of the inhabitants perished, and in Siena, nearly 80,000 perished within seven months. In China and India, over 25 million people are estimated to have perished from the plague. Venice, Hamburg, Bremen, Avignon, and Florence lost over 60% of their population. In total, estimates report a total loss in Europe, China, and India of over 20 million people (Gottfried, 44).
The effects of the plague on Europe were widespread. First, economic changes were inevitable, due to the death of much of the working class. Peasants found themselves in demand, and no longer tied to one master, but instead, able to work nearly anywhere. Their wages were increased in an effort to keep them in a single area and their standard of living was quickly raised. Society was restructured to give poor laborers more say. For the serf who was battled on higher wages, many simply left their lands to find new employment. The unattended crops quickly perished, as did the unattended animals. Lawlessness quickly broke out as thieves became to pillage farms, murdering inhabitants and stealing most possessions. As the peasants found their power, they revolted when those in power resisted these economic changes (Courie, 105).
In addition, the entire foundation of wealth changed with the Black Death. Prior to the plague, most of the wealth was land-based. As peasants found their skills desired, portable wealth in the form of money and skills emerged. Small towns and cities grew as peasants sought higher wages in cities, and the large farming estates went to ruin (Courie, 105).
Further economic change was seen in the nearly instantaneous inflation in Europe. Trading was seen as dangerous, and thus, prices began to skyrocket. As a result, social distinctions began to sharpen as nobility began to feel pressured to show their now diminishing social standings. Fashion became extravagant, and revolts were widespread (Courie, 106).
In addition to these economic changes, there were also drastic changes in religious faith. During the plague, many had sought religion as a means to combat the disease. Through prayer and redemption, millions looked to the clergy and their religious beliefs to protect them and their families. The Church promised cure and treatment, but failed to deliver. The clergy died in large numbers, and those who did not fled to avoid illness. After the plague, many realized the prayers had not prevented death and illness, and began to revolt against the church (Gottfried, 72).
Even child rearing practices changed following the plague. Both physically and mentally, children were drastically affected by the plague, in that the children were exposed to rapid, painful death, insanity, hysteria, and public burning of corpses at an early age. Many were left as orphans following the death of their families, and in some cases, left as orphans as their families abandoned the sick. Female children were often left to die, since they would not carry on the family name. Many families stopped bearing children altogether, and the . It would take nearly four hundred years for population rates to (Gottfried, 107).
The area in which the effects of the plague can still be seen are is in the artistic representation of the era. As a result of the death in the church, written language suffered greatly. Carvings, previously mostly of religious scenes or icons, began to reflect the death of the time. Coffin lids were carved with representations of the deceased within. Sculptures reflected the rotting disease, and the consumption of the dead by insects. Paintings reflected the death through depictions of people socializing with skeletons. Previous to the plague, art was upbeat and religious, but following the massive death, most artists lost interest in religious icons, and began to explore the macabre and darker subjects. Music, previously happy and joyous, took on darker undertones with the use of minor chords and haunting instruments (Courie, 134).
There can be no question that the Black Death, or the plague, was a devastating disease that halted progress and took the lives of millions of individuals in the mid-1300’s. However, the plague had a far more lasting change than simply on the populations of Europe. Feudalism was toppled, social status and class altered drastically, and the entire basis for wealth was changed. Religion became a symbol for deceit, and lost considerable respect. Beliefs on childbearing would change for hundreds of years, resulting in a smaller population and fewer taxes, further altering the economic situation. Art, still examined today, became a symbol for the dead and dying, and the images forever moved from religion to a variety of topics, including death, decay, and misery. In short, one tiny infected insect, the , helped to change the course of history and development for an entire continent.
Cartwright, Frederick F. Disease and History. New York: Dorset Press, 1991.
Courie, Leonard W. The Black Death and Peasant’s Revolt. New York: Wayland Publishers, 1972.
Getz, Faye M. “Black Death and the Silver Lining.” Journal of the History of Biology 24.2 (1998): 265-289.
Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster. New York: Simon and Schuester, 1985.
Marks, Geoffrey. The Medieval Plague: The Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York: Doubleday, 1971.