The Black Death
The globe has seen quite a number of unpleasant events. In fact, the history of the entire globe was carved and continues to be carved by unpleasant events. Some of these are manmade while others are natural, with some of them remaining unresolved for a long time. In most cases, manmade calamities such as wars and acts of terror steal the show, alongside natural calamities such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and others. Of course, natural calamities pique a lot of interest thanks to the fact that there remain quite a lot of hidden details. While there are variations in the magnitude and the interest that different calamities pique, plagues have been among the topmost both in magnitude and interest piqued. The human society has seen quite a number of plagues, none of which can match the magnitude of The Black Death plague.
The Black Death was a term given to arguably the largest pandemics to occur in Europe’s (and human) history in the mid-1300s. The plague peaked between 1348 and 1350 in Europe, leaving between 75 and 100 million people dead (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The Black Death was responsible for about 1.5 million deaths in Medieval England between 1348 and 1350. While there exist varied theories pertaining to the Black Death’s etiology, modern science has shown that the plague was mainly caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacterium (Byrne, 2004).
The Arrival and Spread of the Plague
The Black Death, according to varied accounts, had its origin as Central Asia or China. The disease then reached Crimea in 1346, travelling through Silk Road. Black rats are credited with its spread from Crimea to Europe and the Mediterranean as they were regularly found in merchant ships. These rats were infested with Oriental Rat fleas.
Historians note that the plague, carried by 12 Genoese ships into Sicily where it reached in October 1347 and spread all over the island. Venice and Genoa experienced the outbreak in January 1348, introduced by ships from Caffa. However, the key point of entry into Northern Italy was Pisa. Italy seems to have been the key spreading ground as it was from here that it spread northwest throughout Europe into Spain, England, Portugal and France by mid 1348. It then spread into Scandinavia and Germany in 1348, with Norway feeling the pinch in 1349 through its Askov port (Byrne, 2004). The plague then swept through Bjorgvin before finally sweeping through northwestern Russia around 1351. While a large part of Europe was affected, the plague did not touch certain parts such as the Kingdom of Poland, as well as some parts of Netherlands and Belgium.
England had the first outbreak between 1348-49, with the disease seeming to travel into the south in form of bubonic nodes in the summer months of 1348. On the onset of winter, the disease mutated into a significantly frightening pneumonic form, hitting London in 1348 and sweeping across East Anglia in the New Year. Midlands and Wales were already experiencing its pinch by spring 1349 (Byrne, 2004).
Causes of the plague and Human factors that enhanced the spread of the Black Death Plague
The Black Death resulted from fleas carried by the oriental black rats that were so common in cities and towns. The common fleas, which went by the botanical name Xenopsylla cheopis, carries the Yersinia pestis bacteria. Eventually, the bacteria in these fleas kills the rats, in which case the fleas will have to seek new hosts and homes, which more often than not is in humans. Once the humans were bitten by the fleas, bacteria would be directly transmitted into their bloodstream, from where it would spread throughout the blood stream and the human body.
Scholars note that, in about a fifth of the victims, the disease would spread into the lungs of the patient, resulting into a pneumonic plague. There were variations in the time taken for the victims to succumb to the disease, varying from 2 to seven days. However, the pneumonic plague comes as the most dangerous and highly infectious category of plague, with the bacteria being spread through the air (Byrne, 2004).
Nevertheless, there were varied human activities or conditions that may have resulted in the spread of the disease especially in Medieval England.
First, it is noted that the conditions of living in cities and towns were far from the best. People lived extremely close to each other with not much attention being given to sanitation. In fact, most people were not very particular about their sanitation until the 19th century. These unsanitary conditions created fair grounds for overpopulation of rats carrying the fleas. While the rats may not have caused the disease, they were responsible for its fast spread, aided by the filth littering the streets (Byrne, 2004).
In an attempt to cure their sores, the people would also cut up the buboes and lance them so as to draw out the noxious poisons. In such cases, the buboes would release a spray of puss, which often escalated the spread of the plague. Even in instances where the patients got over the treatment, they became increasingly vulnerable to contracting other infections thank to the open sores (Byrne, 2006). While the treatment may have temporarily aided in relieving pain thanks to the release of puss, it worsened things for doctors, patients and those people around them.
In addition, the human society at this time was deficient of medical knowledge in which case they tried numerous techniques to escape the disease. Unfortunately, some of these techniques aided in the spread. An incredible example is the flagellants, who thought that the plague had resulted from God’s punishment, in which case they whipped themselves to show repentance. On the same note, they believed that the disease was in their blood, in which case they could eliminate it by bleeding (Byrne, 2006). They also though that the demons resided in their bodies causing the plague, in which case whipping themselves was a way of beating the demons. Unfortunately, the open sores only aggravated the spread of the disease.
Moreover, the people in this society believed that cats and dogs were aiding in the spread of the disease. In this case, they killed the dogs and cats, with the animals’ blood being used to make some concoctions thought to eliminate the plague (Byrne, 2006). Unfortunately, this had the contrary effects especially considering that cats and dogs are natural predators of rats, in which case their elimination resulted in multiplication of the flea-infested rats and the spread of the plague.
The limited knowledge led to the enactment of varied rules. The people were forbidden from eating pig and poultry meat or even fat meat as these categories of meat were thought to spread the plague. In addition, they were forbidden from bathing as this was thought to weaken people’s hearts, while exercising was thought to attract the plague’s evil spirit (Byrne, 2006). These were real academic opinions emanating from the pope, but had the exact opposite as the people simply became dirty, hungry and weak thereby worsening the plague.
Impacts and Implications of the Black Death
The Black Death had far-reaching implications on the medieval English society, stretching from their economic aspects to their political and social lives.
On the economic aspect, the plague rendered the people incapable of ploughing their fields, especially considering that the men who usually carried these duties were victims. In addition, bringing in the harvests was virtually impossible, while animals got lost as there was no one to tend them. In essence, the entire villages faced starvations. The cities and towns had food shortages simply because the surrounding villages did not have sufficient food supplies. This also resulted in inflation of food prices, which in some cases went as much as four times. On the same note, most lords resorted to sheep farming after losing their manpower to the plague as sheep farming needed considerably less labor (Byrne, 2004). Needless to say, basic foodstuffs became scarce in cities and towns as the popularity of grain faming reduced considerably.
One of the most significant effects of the plague was on the social-political arena, especially with regard to the Peasants Revolt in 1381. Individuals who survived the plague believed that they had done it through God’s protection in which case there was something distinctive and unique about them. In essence, they exploited the opportunity that the disease had provided to enhance the quality of their lifestyle. Scholars note that the peasants were required by the feudal law to only leave their villages if they had the permission of their lord. (Scott & Duncan, 2008) While it was previously difficult for the lords to grant their permission, the disease had introduced an incredible shortage of labor, in which case the lords had no option but to not only allow the villagers to leave their villages but also encourage them to come and work for them so as to fill the gap. Once the peasants left their villages and signed up for the work, the lords would restrict them from returning to their villages. Peasants were privy to the lords’ desperation in getting their harvests in, in which case they demanded higher wages for their labor (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The massive loss in population resulted in economic changes founded on increased social mobility with the depopulation reducing the peasants weakened obligations to stick to their conventional holdings (Zahler, 2009). In essence, the government was faced with the paradox as peasants could leave their lords and look for better and more enticing deals, something that upset the fundamentals of the Feudal System introduced with the sole aim of tying peasants to the land. It is worth noting that the lords were encouraging this movement, which was ironic as the Feudal System was bound to benefit them more (Zahler, 2009). The government tried to counter the constant movement of peasants looking for better pay by introducing the 1351 Statute of Laborers. This Statute limited the amount of wages offered to peasants to the same amount as that paid in 1346, with lords or masters being prohibited from exceeding this amount. On the same note, peasants were prohibited from leaving the village to which they belonged (Zahler, 2009). Any disobedience of this statute could have resulted in serious punishments for the peasants, but some chose to ignore it. However, the statute led to vast amounts of anger among peasants, resulting in the 1381 Peasant Revolt. This provides a causal link between the Black Death plague and the 1381 Peasant Revolt in England.
The Black Plague was also credited with the Renaissance, as well as the Reformation. This is because of the sudden decrease in cheap labor, which provided landlords with incentives to compete for laborers. They would use varied enticements such as freedom and increased wages, an innovation that is argued to have formed the basis for capitalism while the subsequent social upheaval resulted in the Reformation and the Renaissance. Apart from the increased ability to demand for better remuneration, workers in Western Europe started moving away from the yearly contracts, opting instead for successive temporary jobs as they offered better remuneration (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The plague also gave peasants the capacity to move to other areas that they previously could not go to in search of better opportunities.
In conclusion, the Black Death was arguably one of the most devastating plagues in written human history. It is thought to have emanated from Central Asia through cruise ships into Europe. Of course, there were varied entry points, but the disease was spread not only by the ships but also through the air. Varied human activities aggravated the situation, especially with regard to cleanliness and the techniques used to eliminate the disease. Most of these techniques were based on ignorance as not much was known about the disease’s etiology. Nevertheless, the disease had far-reaching social, economic and political implications. It is thought to have a bearing on the 1381 Peasants Revolt, as well as the Renaissance and Reformation. In addition, it reduced cheap labor, thereby allowing peasants to move to other areas seeking better opportunities.
Byrne, J. P. (2004). The black death. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Byrne, J. P. (2006). Daily life during the Black Death. Westport (Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Scott, S & Duncan, C (2008). Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer. New York: John Wiley & Sons
Zahler, D. (2009). The Black Death. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books.