Throughout history, the world has endured huge death rates caused by
plagues, and the most notorious was arguably the bubonic plague. Named
the Black Death in Medieval Europe, it wiped out one-third of the
population of Europe, with the majority of deaths occurring between 1348
The bubonic plague is present in today's world. Throughout recorded
history, there have been many outbreaks and mini-outbreaks; however, the
plague has largely been dormant, appearing only in isolated regions with
limited effects on overall world populations.
The global epidemic, or "Black Death," that most associate with
medieval Europe actually began in central Asia in the early 14th
century, probably near China's Gobi Desert. It then spread through
China, killing approximately 35 million people. For reasons unknown
(perhaps global cooling allowed it to thrive), the plague began a
massive outbreak in all directions that eventually affected most of the
world. It spread along Chinese trade routes and reached Europe in
October 1347 when a fleet of Genoese merchant ships from Caffa landed in
Once the plague reached Sicily, the most remote corners of Europe
were infected in less than three years. During that period, one-third of
Europe's population perished, everyone lived in terror of becoming the
Black Death's next victim and all knew someone who had succumbed to the
plague. No one knew how to prevent or cure it.
After the plague first struck in Sicily in October 1347, the disease
1348 Cities Infected
January Genoa , Marseilles
August Dublin, York
June Hamburg , Stockholm
Fleas were the primary carriers of the bubonic plague and initially
rats serves as their hosts. Rats. however, were as susceptible to the
disease as humans - or any other animal. As rats began to die from the
plague, fleas sought new hosts from which to feed. Eventually, fleas
found new human hosts who were in turn infected by the plague.
picture of flea
Once infected, death was inevitable and occurred swiftly - within
three or four days. The first signs of infection appeared within two
days of exposure and included dark, almost black buboes, or boils, that
appeared in the infected person's armpits and groin area. It was for
these dark buboes that the Black Death was named. A sudden high fever
and severe pain throughout the body, especially in the joints,
accompanied the buboes. As symptoms progressed, victims were unable to
sleep, went into convulsions and had severe headaches that led to
delirium. Their eyes went bloodshot and tongues swelled horrifically,
went dry and even grew fur! Many of those infected vomited blood
virtually nonstop for what remained of their pathetic lives.
The diagram below shows the process of fleas passing the disease to
Forms of the Plague
Three varieties of the plague have infected humankind throughout
time: First (an most notorious) is the bubonic plague, followed by the
septicaemic plague and thirdly, the pneumonic plague.
Bubonic Plague - This strain attacks the lymph nodes, found in the
human neck, armpit and groin. When infected with the plague, these areas
become very swollen and turn dark blue or nearly black in color.
Discoloration in these areas led people to dub the disease the "Black
Death." This is the least deadly of the three plagues because it cannot
be transmitted between humans without a carrier (such as a flea).
Sample of "blackened" skin
Septicaemic Plague - This strain attacks the blood and brain, and is
the most deadly form of the disease - with death often occurring within
Pneumonic Plague - This form attacks the lungs and can be transmitted
easily via common air. Death usually occurs within 3-4 days. Today, a
treatment of antibiotics, if taken early at the onset of the disease,
can spare humans the terrible death that would have surely occurred had
they lived in the Middle Ages. While there is a chance that a person
infected with bubonic plague could survive, the septicaemic and
pneumonic forms of the plague are almost always fatal without treatment.
To account for the world's extremely high death rate during the 1300s,
researchers believe the Black Death was probably a combination of
bubonic and one of the plague's other forms. A combination of these
diseases could account for the horrendous and swift deaths of the Middle
The 200-250 million people died, with a death rate of 33%, may seem
staggering, actual death rates for certain cities were even greater. A
33% death rate was the average throughout Europe; because cities hold
the greatest concentrations of people, they were hit hardest. The
average death rate in European cities, estimated at 50%, meant that so
many died, there were not enough people left alive to bury the dead.
Today, an infected person is easily treated with antibiotics (if the
infection is detected early). During the era of the Black Death, science
had not sufficiently progressed to where doctors could understand the
plague, its origins or how it spread. Consequently, people resorted to a
variety of treatments and preventative measures. Because the stench of
decaying bodies from those who had succumbed to the plague was so
noxious, many thought that the plague was spread via the atmosphere and
so used pungent scents hoping to keep it away. Scents such as pine,
rosemary were burned like incense or processed into oils in which
handkerchief were dipped and placed over the mouth and nose.Church bells
were chimed in a futile bid to ward off the plague. Merchants sold
charms and spells to ward off the plague. Rumors that claimed a person
had done or worn something particular to survive led to the newest fad
to prevent or cure the disease.Perhaps the most widespread belief of the
plague's origins blamed an act of god, which showed his displeasure over
humankind's transgressions. Kings built magnificent cathedrals and
monuments dedicated to god's glory, hoping he would allow the plague to
pass over their city.In central Europe, commoners who could not make
such grand and expensive promises often did penance for their sins by
beating themselves. Known as flagellants, they walked in succession
through towns bare backed, whipping themselves and those who accompanied
them. Leather whips featured knots or small metal spikes attached at the
end that drew blood with virtually every strike as they viciously
flogged themselves. As they marched, flagellants sang and prayed from
mercy, believing that if they demonstrated to god that they were truly
repentant, he would spare their lives.
The plague had a devastating effect on every aspect of life and it
would take Europe's population over 150 years to return to the
pre-plague levels. Besides a massive decline in population, economic,
social, and cultural effects continued to disrupt and influence European
life throughout the next century.
Economic - The immediate economic effect of the plague was that the
huge death toll created a serious labor shortage that affected all
aspects of the economy. In agriculture, if the plague struck a town in
summer, there were not enough laborers to harvest crops in the fall. If
it struck in the winter, there were not enough laborers to plant in the
Eventually, small farming villages and towns disappeared from the map
because there was no one left to farm the land. The few who survived
moved to other lands.
As the plague spread throughout Europ0e, building projects were left
incomplete. Many artisans died and their shops remained empty. Church
parishes had no priests to conduct services, lords did not have enough
servants to meet their needs, and many private homes were abandoned. So
severe was the labor shortage and so afraid of the plague were Europeans
that there remained no one to bury the dead.
The plague was the ruin of many landlords and credit lenders.
Landlords often borrowed large sums of money and, when serfs died or
demanded higher wages, landlords could not raise money to repay
creditors. If the landlord succumbed to the plague, there was no way for
creditors to recover lost money.
Widespread labor shortages led to a rise in labor prices. This
occurred in all aspects of the economy but was especially evident in the
agricultural sector. Serfs who for centuries had worked the land for
little or not pay, suddenly began to demand higher wages and,
increasingly, revolted against a nobility that sought to work them for
lower wages of the past.
Social Effects - The greatest social impact of the plague was that
the rigid feudal system, in place in Europe for a thousand years, was
dismantled. Feudalism was based on the nobility controlling land and the
peasants who worked it. With immense labor shortages, serfs were free to
leave the lands of the lords to seek higher wages.
Additionally, land that had traditionally been the primary source of
wealth was now worthless. Entire estates, abandoned as families fell to
the plague or fled in a futile bid to escape its wrath, were there for
As economies evolved away from relying on land as a primary source of
wealth and toward money economies, an emerging middle class claimed more
and more wealth and prestige - as the nobility began to lose both.
Another social effect of the plague on European society was
anti-Semitism. In an attempt to explain the cause of the plague,
ignorant Europeans in search of a scapegoat suspected and accused many
different groups. Witches, lepers and Jews were all targets of
accusations and aggression by scared Europeans. Throughout central
Europe, the flagellants convincingly charged the Jews. In Strasbourg
alone, over 8,000 Jews were killed - 200 in one day.
Political Effects - As was the case socially, the breakdown of the
feudal system had a lasting impact in Europe. Many nobles and vassals
were killed by the plague, opening the door for kings who claimed power
and established strong, aristocratic nation-states that governed Europe
through the Renaissance
So great was the death toll and fear of the plague that many courts
and legislative bodies, on both the local and provincial levels, were
abandoned. Even the art of waging war was affected by the plague: In
1348, the Hundred Years' War was postponed due to the high
plague-related death toll among soldiers.
Cultural Effects - The plague's awesome impact on the arts is evident
in paintings, sculpture and architecture. The medieval artistic world
began to focus on death. As mentioned earlier, kings and wealthy
nobility commissioned monuments, sculptures and cathedrals in response
to the plague. Many were built to thank god for passing over a city or
region; others were built as a reminder of the plague's devastation.
Both sculptors and painters began to portray the dead and dying, as
well as images of death and the grim reaper. The style Danse Macabre, or
dance of death, frequently portrayed scenes from everyday life, complete
with images of the dead and/or skeletons. Skeletons were often depicted
dancing, leading the living to their deaths or participating in a scene
as though still alive. In some instances, art took on such extreme
realism that partially decomposed bodies were included.
The Plague Today
Although the plague is today easily treatable with antibiotics, it
has not yet been fully eradicated - nearly impossible since countless
fleas and rodents still carry the disease. The plague can be found
throughout most of the world today, especially in the western United
States, Africa and southern Asia. As many as 3,00 cases are reported to
the World Health Organization annually.
The map below shows a recent illustration of the bubonic plague in
the modern world.