History of the Black Plague


In the mid-1300s, there was a global epidemic involving a devastating bubonic plague that struck Asia and Europe in the middle of the 1300s. In October 1347, the plague was believed to arrive in Europe after a dozen ships from the Black Sea docked at Messina’s Sicilian port. 

The people that had gathered on the docks met a terrifying surprise. 

A lot of the sailors aboard the ships were no longer alive. There were those that were gravely sick, who were covered in black boils which oozed a lot of pus and blood. The Sicilian authorities immediately ordered for all of the “death ships” to get outside the harbor, but it was too late. In the following half decade, the Black Death ended up killing an excess of 20 million human beings in Europe. This was then almost a third of the population of this continent.

What Happened at the Beginning of The Black Plague?

plague doctor mask 

Prior to the arrival of the “death ships” at the port of Messina, a lot of Europeans had already heard of rumors regarding a “Great Pestilence” that was able to carve a dangerous path all over trade routes in the Far and Near East. In the early 1340s, the disease eventually struck Egypt, Syria, China, India, and Persia.

It is believed that the plague started in Asia more than two thousand years in the past. There is an increased likelihood that it spread because of trading ships. However, according to recent research, the pathogen that created the Black Death may have already been existing in Europe since 3000 B.C.

The Black Plague’s Symptoms

black plague doctor

Europeans were not well equipped to face the Black Death’s terrible reality. According to the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, at the start of the malady there were specific swellings in both men and women which are found on the underarms or the groin. Some swellings or boils were similar to the size of a common apple, while the others had a size similar to an egg. These were eventually named plague-boils.

These strange swellings had pus and blood seeping out, while a host of other unpleasant symptoms followed. These involved terrible pains and aches, diarrhea, vomiting, chills, and high fever which eventually led to death.

Also called the Bubonic Plague, this sickness was able to attack a person’s lymphatic system and caused the lymph nodes to swell. A failure to treat this infection could lead to its spread to the lungs and eventually the bloodstream.

How Was The Black Death Able To Spread?

The spread of black death

The Black Death became indiscriminately and terrifyingly contagious, as it could spread just through a mere touching of clothes. Aside from that, the disease also became unbelievably fast and merciless. People that were perfectly healthy when they went to sleep were found dead in the morning.

In fact, the nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosy” was written regarding the Black Death’s symptoms. You can find more interesting facts by reading the history of plagues and pestilence

An Understanding of the Black Death

Nowadays, scientists are aware that the Black Death, which was previously called the plague, got spread because of the bacillus known as Yersina pestis. It got its name from Alexandre Yersin, a French biologist who discovered this germ before the beginning of the 20th century.

People eventually became aware that the bacillus is able to travel from one person to another through the air as well as the bite of infected rats and fleas. These pests could be seen almost anywhere in Europe during the medieval times. However, they were particularly found aboard any kind of ship, which is why the deadly plague eventually made its way from one port city in Europe to another.

After it struck on Messina, the Black Death eventually spread to North Africa’s port of Tunis and France’s port of Marseilles. It eventually reached Florence and Rome, which were at the center of a detailed trade route network. In the first half of the year 1348, the Black Death eventually affected people in London, Lyon, Bordeaux, and Paris. 

Nowadays, this bleak sequence of events may be incomprehensible but still scary. By the middle of the 14th century, people did not have any rational explanation for this plague.

People have been unaware of how the Black Death got transmitted from a patient to another. They also did not have any knowledge on how to prevent it or have it treated. According to one of the physicians, it involved an instantaneous death that occurred when the aerial spirit escaped from the sick man’s eyes. This could then strike a person who is standing nearby and taking a look at the sick.

How Was the Black Death Treated?

black plague doctor

The doctors became dependent on unsophisticated and crude techniques, including boil-lancing and bloodletting. They also utilized practices that were superstitious, such as bathing in vinegar or rosewater and the burning of aromatic herbs. However, these practices have now been deemed as unsanitary and dangerous.

As people panicked, the ones that were healthy did everything they can to avoid the people who were sick. The doctors did not want to see any of the patients; the shopkeepers had their stores closed, and the priests ended up refusing to administer last rites. A lot of people went out of the cities to stay in the countryside, but they were still not able to escape this disease, as it eventually affected the chickens, pigs, goats, and cows.

Since a lot of sheep died because of the Black Death, Europe ended up with a shortage of wool. People became desperate to save themselves, so they also abandoned their dying and sick loved ones. Due of this plague, everyone aimed to secure their own safety.

The Black Plague As a Punishment from God

Since people back then were unaware of the disease and its biology, many ended up believing that the Black Death was a type of punishment by God or retribution of the people’s sins against God. These included worldliness, fornication, heresy, greed, and blasphemy.

With this logic, people considered that winning the forgiveness of God was the only way they could overcome this plague. There were a few people who believed that they can accomplish this by having their communities purged of the troublemakers and heretics. This made them massacre thousands of Jewish people from 1348 to 1349. Thousands of others ended up fleeing to Eastern Europe’s sparsely populated regions, as they could be safer from the cities’ rampaging mobs there.

Flagellants and Their Processions

Flagellants and Their Processions

There were a few men in the upper-class that joined the flagellants’ processions and traveled from one town to another. They engaged in punishment and penance that were displayed in public. This was done through beating each other with leather straps that were heavy and studded with sharp pieces of metal. They did this for more than a month, several times a day, eventually moving to another town to continue this process.

Even if the flagellant movement was able to provide people who felt they were powerless with some comfort, the Pope eventually became worried as the flagellants’ authority started to usurp that of the Church. The movement eventually got disintegrated because of the papal resistance.

What Happened at The End of The Black Death?

Since the plague didn’t really end, it came back with a vengeance after several years. However, the officials in Ragusa’s port city (which was controlled by the Venetians) allowed the spread to slow down through isolating the arriving sailors until it became clear that they did not carry the disease. This eventually led to social distancing, which became reliant on isolation in order to allow the disease and its spread to slow down. 

In the beginning, the sailors got help for thirty days on their ship which eventually got increased to forty days. People called this‘quarantine’, which is a practice still in use today for controlling the spread of contagious diseases. 

Could the Black Plague Still Exist?

Burying plague victims

After running its course in the early 1350s, the Black Death continuously reappeared after every several generations for centuries. Despite that, modern practices in public health and sanitation were able to greatly mitigate the disease and its impact. However, even these practices were not able to eliminate this problem completely. Even now, when we have antibiotics available for the treatment of the Black Death, around a thousand to three thousand cases still reappear every year. This could be because of the mutation of the bacterium as well as the result of poor hygiene practice in certain areas. 

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