There had been several outbreaks of diseases throughout history such as Plague of Justinian (541-542), Antonine Plague (165AD), Third Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860), etc. The Black Death had been one of the most castastrophic pandemics in human history. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75-200 million people in Eurasia between 1346 and 1353. The cause of this plague is believed to be the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The Black Plague changed the world by creating a series of religious, social and economic upheavals which have long-lasting effects on European History.
Researchers revealed that the Black Death originated in or around China, and made its way across the world via the different routes, such as into West Asia through the Silk Road and Africa between 1409 and 1433 by Chinese travellers and merchants. The Black Death was transmitted to Asia, Europe and Africa from 1347 to 1351. It is thought to have reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to 350-375 million in the 14th century. Half of China’s population, a third of Europe’s and an eight of Africa’s population perished.
Although the Black Death was caused by a bacterium, many people in the 14th century did not know the cause of the plague. The three main beliefs were divine, natural and human. Firstly, people thought the plague was a punishment from god. Secondly, they thought that the movements of the stars and planets or miasmas were the cause. On the other hand, some believed the plague was manufactured and caused by poison. The plague is best known as the Black Death or the bubonic plague nowadays but the medieval people called it “the blue sickness”, La pest (the Pestilence), and the Great Mortality. The disease was called the Black Death because of the dark blotches on the skin caused by internal bleeding. The plague also causes fever and a painful swelling of lymph glands called buboes, which is how the Bubonic Plague got its name.
Early treatments of the plague included lancing the buboes, drawing blood out of veins, and bathing in vinegar and water. Arsenic and mercury were also thought to be able to cure the plague. The most bizarre treatment was to place a live hen next to the buboes to draw out the pestilence out of the body and drinking a glass of urine twice a day to aid the recovery. Although antibodies such as streptomycin, gentamicin, doxycycline or ciprofloxacin are used to treat the Black Death today, if treatment is not received within 24 hours after the first symptoms, death may occur.
Protective actions against the plague began to grow as the plague occurred regularly after the 1350s. Patients were isolated from the general population. Some ports began turning away ships coming from infected areas. Venice began closing city’s water to suspected vessels, and placing travellers and ships to 30- 40 days isolation. Unfortunately, these measures were too little and too late. Venetians died in tens of thousands because of the plague.
Within a week of exposure, symptoms such as fever, headache, chills, pain in the back and limbs, vomiting and a white coating on the tongue developed on the victim. The most common symptom of the Black Death was the buboes (painful swelling of the lymph nodes) in armpit, legs, neck, and groin regions. The buboes would then spread throughout the body from those regions and began to appear randomly. These buboes were a sign for the victims that they were definitely going to die. Another symptom is the appearance of black blood under the skin after death. The skin appears balck because of the several hemorrhages that takes place under it after death. This is where the Black Death received its name. The nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ roses” is related to the Black Death. “Ring a-round the rosie” refers to the rosy circular rash which was one of the symptoms of the plague. The posies refer to the different herbs and flowers people used to protect themselves from the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes” would refer to the burning of the infected bodies. “We all fall down” would mean death directly. There are two methods of transmission. One is through an infected rat with fleas which then transmitted the plague to humans. The living conditions in towns which were dirty and the garbage became a habitat to those infected rats and fleas which made the diseases spread even more. Many people thought it was the end of the world, thus leaving towns to go to the country which in turn spread the Black Death even further.
The Black Death was also transmitted through the coughs, sneezes and the breaths of the infected victims. This means the Black Death was an airborne disease. Geography also played a major role in the spreading of the disease. People traveled to trade and they unknowingly carried and spread the plague to new places. A ship from the East would have brought trade goods and rats with fleas to Europe.
The instantaneous impact of the Black Death was the death of 25 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1351, a course of 4 years. This sudden drop in population caused sweeping changes in Europe. In most places, the manor system fell apart completely. There was no one left to work in the fields of the nobles. The surviving peasants and serfs who knew their skills were in high demand demanded money for their labour. Once they had enough money, they abandoned the manors to work instead in Europe’s growing cities. While the plague killed, it also motivated people to move out villages in fear. There was no one to look after the villages. In some villages, nearly everyone died or fled. In England alone, about 1000 villages were abandoned. Most of Europe’s important doctors, scholars and philosophers died during the plague.
Medieval medicine failed in the face of the Black Plague. This massive failure marked the beginning of the professionalization of medicine, one of the most far reaching consequences of the Black Plague. (Platt 177).