The fourteenth century proved to be one of the worst centuries ever for the people of Europe. The population was the largest it had ever been—or would be again for hundreds of years. The density placed a strain on the land and created bitter competition for work. Furthermore, poor agricultural techniques, poor climatic conditions, and poor harvests early in the century combined to disastrous effect. Because the common person’s immune system was weakened by a poor diet, many, many people fell victim to sickness, fatigue, malnutrition, or starvation.
The timing hardly could have been worse. In October 1347, traders from Genoa arrived in Italy with an unexpected stowaway: the bubonic plague.
Fleas and Rats
The plague originated with rodents, specifically black rats. In fourteenth-century Europe, sanitation was, in a word, nonexistent. City streets flowed with sewage. Garbage and waste were not disposed of properly. Where there was garbage there were rats. Where there were rats there were fleas.
Rats couldn’t transmit the disease to humans, but fleas could. In a Europe where people rarely bathed, rarely wore clean clothes, and often shared beds with several other people, fleas were part of everyday life. If a flea bit an infected black rat and then bit a human, the human would almost certainly contract the disease. An infected human could then spread the disease by coughing and sneezing or by touch.
Sicily First, Then All of Europe
In the 1330s, China suffered from an outbreak of the plague. Unfortunately for Europe, one of the most lucrative trade routes for Italian merchants went through the Black Sea region to China. The traders from Genoa who unwittingly brought the plague to Italy more than likely contracted the disease in the Black Sea from traders who carried it there from China. When the ships arrived in Sicily, the plague already had a death grip on many of the travelers. It didn’t take long for the disease to spread throughout Sicily. The Sicilians ran the traders out of town, but the damage had been done. Within days the disease spread into the countryside.
By August of 1348, the plague had moved across Europe and reached into England. The disease spread so quickly that by the time a town realized it had fallen victim to the disease, it was too late. People frequently traveled through one town, contracted the disease, then unknowingly carried the disease to the next town. Eventually towns grew wary of any travelers, but even cautious towns and cities couldn’t prevent the plague from preying on their inhabitants.
The Black Death
Never before had Europe experienced anything like the plague—the Black Death, as it came to be known. Approximately two thirds of all who contracted the disease died. Victims suffered excruciating deaths, with awful black sores on their skin and swollen glands in the neck, armpit, and groin. The only good news was that victims usually suffered only briefly. The author Boccaccio commented that victims of the Black Death “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”
People lived in constant fear of the dreaded disease. Medicine had no answer for it. Doctors of the day had relatively no understanding of infectious diseases, so they could do little to combat the spread of the plague and even less to treat the victims. Europe felt helpless.
The Black Death left millions of dead in its wake. Within five years, an estimated one third of Europe’s population disappeared. Population estimates vary, but commonly accepted numbers range from 25 million to 33 million dead. Death tolls were generally lower in the countryside, but many cities lost as much as 50 percent of their population. The epidemic subsided after several years, but the threat of the plague lingered for centuries as outbreaks continued to strike Europe.
After the Plague
Few would argue that the loss of so many lives was a tragedy of epic proportions, but there was actually a silver lining. Before the Black Death struck Europe, the continent was overpopulated, underfed, and underpaid. After the plague ran its course and the population leveled off, there actually was a shortage of labor. This meant that workers enjoyed an increase in wages, and the once-underfed population now had plenty of food. Ironically, the health and the economic status of Europeans improved.
There were, however, negative consequences. As the disease raged out of control, people needed an explanation for the tragedy. Many claimed that the disease was the wrath of God being visited upon a wicked continent. The Church instructed people to pray hard for relief, but the relief never came. Many lost faith in God and in the power of the Church. Some who didn’t subscribe to the “wrath of God” theory pointed their fingers at the Jews. Conspiracy theorists proposed that the Jews poisoned the wells in an attempt to destroy Christendom. This led to much violence against Jews all over Europe. Many Europeans were left bitter and jaded regardless of why they thought the disease struck.
Define Your Terms
Bubonic is taken from the word bubo, the name for the large, swollen lymph nodes that caused great pain and discomfort for victims of the plague.