Black Death

From New World Encyclopedia

Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).

The Black Death, also known as the Black Plague, was a devastating pandemic that first struck Europe in the mid-late-fourteenth century (1347–1351), killing between one-third and two-thirds of Europe's population. Almost simultaneous epidemics occurred across large portions of Asia and the Middle East, indicating that the European outbreak was actually part of a multi-regional pandemic. Including Middle Eastern lands, India, and China the Black Death killed at least 75 million people. The same disease is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying degrees of intensity and fatality until the 1700s.

Notable later outbreaks include the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), the Great Plague of Vienna (1679), the Great Plague of Marseille (1720–1722), and the 1771 plague in Moscow. The disease was completely eradicated in Europe only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but survives in other parts of the world such as Central and Oriental Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and the Americas— including the United States. The initial fourteenth century European event was called the "Great Mortality" by contemporary writers and, with later outbreaks, became known as the "Black Death." It has been popularly thought that the name came from a striking symptom of the disease, called acral necrosis, in which sufferers' skin would blacken due to subdermal hemorrhages. However, the term in fact refers to the figurative sense of "black" (glum, lugubrious, or dreadful).[1] Historical records have convinced most scientists that the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus), but there are some scientists who debate this.

In addition to its drastic effect on Europe's population, the Black Death irrevocably changed Europe's social structure, was a serious blow to Europe's predominant religious institution (the Roman Catholic Church), resulted in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews and lepers who were accused of starting the plague, and created a general mood of morbidity that influenced people who were uncertain of their daily survival to live for the moment, illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353). Peasant revolts broke out in some areas, which have even been identified as the birth of the class struggle so central to a Marxist view of history and of human progress. In this respect, the Black Death had an impact on the psychology of the age. Human thought responds to such calamities as pandemics and natural disasters over which the human race has no, or very little, control as well as to changes, inventions, initiatives, and ideas that are generated or initiated by humans themselves. Human progress often follows traumatic events. A cause and effect relationship between the Renaissance and the Black Death has been suggested. In this view, the questioning of divine oversight that was prompted by the Black Death led to a rethinking of humanity's place in the cosmos.[2]

Pattern of the pandemic

The plague disease, caused by Yersinia pestis, is endemic in populations of ground rodents in central Asia, but it is not entirely clear where the fourteenth century pandemic started. The most popular theory places the first cases in the steppes of central Asia, though some speculate that it originated around northern India. From there, supposedly, it was carried east and west by traders and Mongol armies along the Silk Road, and was first exposed to Europe at trading ports in Sicily.

Whether or not this theory is accurate, it is clear that several pre-existing conditions such as war, famine, and weather contributed to the severity of the Black Death. A devastating civil war in China between the established Chinese population and the Mongols raged between 1205 and 1353. This war disrupted farming and trading patterns, and led to episodes of widespread famine. A so-called "Little Ice Age" had begun at the end of the thirteenth century. The disastrous weather reached a peak in the first half of the fourteenth century with severe results worldwide.

In the years 1315 to 1322, a catastrophic famine, known as the Great Famine, struck all of Northern Europe. Food shortages and sky-rocketing prices were a fact of life for as much as a century before the plague. Wheat, oats, hay, and consequently livestock were all in short supply and their scarcity resulted in hunger and malnutrition. The result was a mounting human vulnerability to disease due to weakened immune systems. The European economy entered a vicious circle in which hunger and chronic, low-level debilitating diseases reduced the productivity of laborers so the grain output suffered, causing the grain prices to increase. The famine was self-perpetuating, impacting life in places like Flanders and Burgundy as much as the Black Death was later to impact all of Europe.

A typhoid epidemic was to be a predictor of the coming disaster. Many thousands died in populated urban centers, most significantly Ypres. In 1318 a pestilence of unknown origin, sometimes identified as anthrax, hit the animals of Europe. The disease targeted Domestic sheep and cattle, further reducing the food supply and income of the peasantry and putting another strain on the economy. The increasingly international nature of the European economies meant that the depression was felt across Europe. Due to pestilence, the failure of England's wool exports led to the destruction of the Flemish weaving industry. Unemployment bred crime and poverty.

Asian outbreak

The Central Asian scenario agrees with the first reports of outbreaks in China in the early 1330s. The plague struck the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334. During 1353–1354, more widespread disaster occurred. Chinese accounts of this wave of the disease record a spread to eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol and Chinese empires: Hubei, Jiangxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan, and Suiyuan (a historical Chinese province that now forms part of Hebei and Inner Mongolia). Historian William McNeill noted that voluminous Chinese records on disease and social disruption survive from this period, but no one has studied these sources in depth.

It is probable that the Mongols and merchant caravans inadvertently brought the plague from central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. The plague was reported in the trading cities of Constantinople and Trebizond in 1347. In that same year, Genoese possession of Theodosia (Caffa), a great trade emporium on the Crimean peninsula, came under siege by an army of Mongol warriors under the command of Janibeg, backed by Venetian forces. After a protracted siege during which the Mongol army was reportedly withering from the disease, they might have decided to use the infected corpses as a biological weapon. The corpses were catapulted over the city walls, infecting the inhabitants.[3] The Genoese traders fled, transferring the plague via their ships into the south of Europe, from whence it rapidly spread. According to accounts, so many died in Caffa that the survivors had little time to bury them and bodies were stacked like cords of firewood against the city walls.

European outbreak

The Black Death rapidly spread along the major European sea and land trade routes.

In October 1347 a fleet of Genovese trading ships fleeing Caffa reached the port of Messina, Italy. By the time the fleet reached Messina, all the crew members were either infected or dead. It is presumed that the ships also carried infected rats or fleas. Some ships were found grounded on shorelines, with no one aboard remaining alive. Looting of these lost ships also helped spread the disease. From there, the plague spread to Genoa and Venice by the turn of 1347–1348.

From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, Portugal, and England by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350, and finally to north-western Russia in 1351. However, the plague largely spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Later Piasts (1295–1370) (Poland) and parts of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Middle Eastern outbreak

The plague struck various countries in the Middle East during the pandemic, leading to serious depopulation and permanent change in both economic and social structures. The disease first entered the region from southern Russia. By autumn 1347 the plague reached Alexandria in Egypt, probably through the port's trade with Constantinople and ports on the Black Sea. During 1348, the disease traveled eastward to Gaza and north along the eastern coast to cities in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, including Asqalan, Acre, Jerusalem, Sidon, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. In 1348–1349 the disease reached Antioch. The city's residents fled to the north, most of them dying during the journey, but the infection had been spread to the people of Asia Minor.

Mecca became infected in 1349. The people of Mecca blamed the disease on non-believers entering the city, but it is more likely to have arrived with Muslim pilgrims from surrounding infected areas. During the same year, records show that the city of Mawsil (Mosul) suffered a massive epidemic, and the city of Baghdad experienced a second round of the disease. In 1351 Yemen experienced an outbreak of the plague. This coincided with the return of King Mujahid of Yemen from imprisonment in Cairo. His party may have brought the disease with them from Egypt.


The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, and although the bubonic plague still exists with isolated cases today, the Great Plague of London in 1665–1666 is generally recognized as one of the last major outbreaks. The Great Fire of London in 1666 may have killed off any remaining plague bearing rats and fleas, which led to a decline in the plague. The destruction of black rats in the Great Fire may also have contributed to the ascendancy of brown rats in England. According to the bubonic plague theory, one possible explanation for the disappearance of plague from Europe may be that the black rat (Rattus rattus) infection reservoir and its disease vector was subsequently displaced and succeeded by the bigger Norwegian, or brown, rat (Rattus norvegicus), which is not as prone to transmit the germ-bearing fleas to humans in large rat die-offs (Appleby, 1980; Slack, 1981).

Late outbreaks in central Europe include the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, which is associated with troop movements during the Thirty Years' War, and the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679, which may have been due to a reintroduction of the plague from eastern trading ports.


Bubonic plague theory

Yersinia pestis seen at 2000x magnification. This bacterium, carried and spread by fleas, is generally thought to have been the cause of millions of deaths.

Bubonic and septicaemic plagues are transmitted by direct contact with fleas. The bacteria multiply inside a flea, blocking its stomach and causing it to become very hungry. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues to feed because it is unable to satisfy its hunger. During the feeding process, infected blood carrying the plague bacteria flows into the wound. The plague bacterium then has a new host, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.

The human pneumonic plague has a different form of transmission. It is transmitted through bacteria in droplets of saliva coughed up by persons with bloodstream infection (sepsis) or pneumonia, which may have started as the bubonic form of disease. The airborne bacteria may be inhaled by a nearby susceptible person, and a new infection starts directly in the lungs or throat of the other, bypassing the bubonic form of disease.

The ecology of Yersinia pestis in soil, rodent, and, possibly and importantly, human ectoparasites are reviewed and summarized by Michel Drancourt in a model of sporadic, limited, and large plague outbreaks.[4] Modeling of epizootic plague observed in prairie dogs suggests that occasional reservoirs of infection such as an infectious carcass, rather than “blocked fleas” are a better explanation for the observed epizootic behavior of the disease in nature.[5]

An interesting hypothesis about the appearance, spread, and especially disappearance of the plague from Europe is that the flea-bearing rodent reservoir of disease was eventually succeeded by another species. The black rat (Rattus rattus) was originally introduced from Asia to Europe by trade, but was subsequently displaced and succeeded throughout Europe by the bigger Norwegian rat, or brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). The brown rat was not as prone to transmit the germ-bearing fleas to humans in large die-offs due to different rat ecology (Appleby, 1980; Slack, 1981). The dynamic complexities of rat ecology, herd immunity in that reservoir, interaction with human ecology, secondary transmission routes between humans with or without fleas, human herd immunity, and changes in each might explain the eruption, dissemination, and re-eruptions of the plague that continued for centuries until its even more unexplained disappearance.

Signs and symptoms

The three forms of plague brought an array of signs and symptoms to those infected. Bubonic plague refers to the painful lymph node swellings called buboes, septicaemic plague is a form of blood poisoning, and pneumonic plague is an airborne plague that forms a first attack on the lungs. The classic sign of bubonic plague was the appearance of buboes in the groin and armpits, which ooze pus and blood. Victims underwent damage to the skin and underlying tissue until they were covered in dark blotches. This symptom is called acral necrosis. Most victims died within four to seven days after infection. When the plague reached Europe, it first struck port cities and then followed the trade routes, both by sea and land.

The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of 30 to 75 percent and symptoms including fever of 101-105° F, headaches, aching joints, nausea and vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. The pneumonic plague was the second most commonly seen form during the Black Death, with a mortality rate of 90 to 95 percent. Symptoms included slimy sputum tinted with blood. As the disease progressed, sputum became free flowing and bright red. Septicaemic plague was the most rare of the three forms, with mortality close to one hundred percent. Symptoms were high fevers and skin discoloration to deep shades of purple due to DIC (Disseminated intravascular coagulation).

Alternative explanations

Recent scientific and historical investigations have led some researchers to doubt the long-held belief that the Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague. For example, in 2000, Gunnar Karlsson pointed out that the Black Death killed between half and two-thirds of the population of Iceland, although there were no rats in Iceland at this time. Rats were accidentally introduced in the nineteenth century, and have never spread beyond a small number of urban areas attached to seaports. In the fourteenth century there were no urban settlements in Iceland. Iceland was unaffected by the later plagues which are known to have been spread by rats.

In addition, it was previously argued that tooth pulp tissue from a fourteenth century plague cemetery in Montpellier tested positive for molecules associated with Yersinia pestis. However, such a finding was never confirmed in any other cemetery, nor were any DNA samples recovered. In September 2003 a team of researchers from Oxford University tested 121 teeth from 66 skeletons found in fourteenth century mass graves. The remains showed no genetic trace of Yersinia pestis, and the researchers suspect that the Montpellier study was flawed.

In 1984, Graham Twigg published The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, in which he argued that the climate and ecology of Europe and particularly England made it nearly impossible for rats and fleas to have transmitted bubonic plague. Combining information on the biology of Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus, and the common fleas Xenopsylla cheopis and Pulex irritans with modern studies of plague epidemiology, particularly in India, where the Rattus rattus is a native species and conditions are nearly ideal for plague to be spread, Twigg concludes that it would have been nearly impossible for Yersinia pestis to have been the causative agent of the beginning of the plague, let alone its explosive spread across all of Europe. Twigg also shows that the common theory of entirely pneumonic spread does not hold up. He proposes, based on a re-examination of the evidence and symptoms, that the Black Death may actually have been an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax caused by Bacillus anthracis.

In 2001, epidemiologists Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University proposed the theory that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale was that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer than other confirmed Yersinia pestis plagues. A longer period of incubation will allow carriers of the infection to travel farther and infect more people than a shorter one. When the primary vector is humans, as opposed to birds, this is of great importance. Studies of English church records indicate an unusually long incubation period in excess of 30 days, which could account for the rapid spread, topping at about 3 miles per day. The plague also appeared in areas of Europe where rats were uncommon, such as Iceland. Epidemiological studies suggest the disease was transferred between humans (which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis and very rarely for Bacillus anthracis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world. Their research and findings are thoroughly documented in Return of the Black Death: The World's Greatest Serial Killer. More recently the researchers have published computer modeling (Journal of Medical Genetics, March 2005) demonstrating how the Black Death has made around 10 percent of Europeans resistant to HIV.

In a similar vein, historian Norman F. Cantor suggests, in his 2001 book In the Wake of the Plague, that the Black Death might have been a combination of pandemics including a form of anthrax, a cattle murrain. He cites many forms of evidence including reported disease symptoms not in keeping with the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the fact that meat from infected cattle was known to have been sold in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague. It is notable that the means of infection varied widely, from human-to-human contact as in Iceland (rare for plague and cutaneous Bacillus anthracis) to infection in the absence of living or recently-dead humans (which speaks against most viruses), as in Sicily. Also, diseases with similar symptoms were generally not distinguished between in that period, at least not in the Christian world; Chinese and Muslim medical records can be expected to yield better information which, however, only pertains to the specific diseases which affected these areas.


Still, the majority of historians support the theory that the bubonic plague caused the black death, so counterarguments have been developed.

The uncharacteristically rapid spread of the plague could be due to respiratory droplet transmission, and low levels of immunity in that period's European population. Historical examples of pandemics of other diseases in populations without previous exposure, such as smallpox and tuberculosis transmitted by aerosol amongst indigenous peoples of the Americas, show that the low levels of inherited adaptation to the disease cause the first epidemic to spread faster and to be far more virulent than later epidemics among the descendants of survivors. Also, the plague returned again and again and was regarded as the same disease through succeeding centuries into modern times when the Yersinia pestis bacterium was identified.



Information about the death toll varies widely by area and from source to source. Approximately 25 million deaths occurred in Europe alone, with many others occurring in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.


Estimates of the demographic impact of the plague in Asia are based on both population figures during this time and estimates of the disease's toll on population centers. The initial outbreak of plague in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334 claimed up to 90 percent of the population, an estimated 5 million people. During 1353–1354, outbreaks in eight distinct areas throughout the Mongol-Chinese empires may have caused the death of two-thirds of China's population, often yielding an estimate of 25 million deaths.

Europe and Middle East

It is estimated that between one-third and two-thirds of the European population died from the outbreak between 1348 and 1350. Contemporary observers estimated the toll to be one-third (e.g. Jean Froissart), but modern estimates range from one-half to two-thirds of the population.[6]. As many as 25 percent of all villages were depopulated, mostly the smaller communities, as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities. The Black Death hit the culture of towns and cities disproportionately hard, although rural areas (where 90 percent of the population lived) were also significantly affected. A few rural areas, such as Eastern Poland and Lithuania, had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Parts of Hungary and the Brabant region (in modern Belgium), Hainaut, Limbourg, and Santiago de Compostella, were unaffected for unknown reasons. Some historians have assumed that the presence of sanguine groups in the local population helped them resist the disease, although these regions would be touched by the second plague burst in 1360–1363 and later during the numerous resurgences of the plague. Other areas that escaped the plague were isolated mountainous regions (e.g. the Pyrenees). Larger cities were the worst off, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Cities were also strikingly filthy, infested with lice, fleas, and rats, and subject to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. According to journalist John Kelly, "(w)oefully inadequate sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside" (Kelly, 2005). The influx of new citizens facilitated the movement of the plague between communities and contributed to the longevity of the plague within larger communities.

In Italy, Florence's population decreased from 110,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. Between 60 and 70 percent of Hamburg’s population died. In Provence, Dauphiné (or Normandy), historians observe a decrease of 60 percent of fiscal hearths. In some regions, two-thirds of the population was annihilated. In the town of Givry, in the Bourgogne region in France, the friar, who used to note 28 to 29 funerals a year, recorded 649 deaths in 1348, half of them in September. About half of Perpignan's population died within several months (only two of the eight physicians survived the plague). England lost 70 percent of its population, which passed from 7 million to 2 million in 1400.

All social classes were affected, although the lower classes, living together in unhealthy places, were most vulnerable. Alfonso XI of Castile was the only royal victim of the plague, but Peter IV of Aragon lost his wife, his daughter, and a niece in six months. The Byzantine Emperor lost his son, while in the kingdom of France, Joan II of Navarre, daughter of Louis X and of Margaret of Burgundy, Queen of Navarre, was killed by the plague, as well as Bonne of Luxembourg, the wife of the future John II of France.

Furthermore, resurgences of the plague in later years must also be counted: in 1360–1362 (the "little mortality"), in 1366–1369, 1374–1375, 1400, 1407, etc. The plague was not eradicated until the nineteenth century.

The precise demographic impact of the disease in the Middle East is very difficult to calculate. Mortality was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine and Syria. Many surviving rural people fled, leaving their fields and crops, and entire rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Surviving records in some cities reveal a devastating number of deaths. The 1348 outbreak in Gaza left an estimated ten thousand people dead, while Aleppo recorded a death rate of five hundred a day during the same year. In Damascus, at the disease's peak in September and October 1348, one thousand deaths were recorded every day, with overall mortality estimated at between 25 and 38 percent. Syria lost a total of four hundred thousand people by the time the epidemic subsided in March 1349. In contrast to some higher mortality estimates in Asia and Europe, scholars believe the mortality rate in the Middle East was less than one-third of the total population, with higher rates in selected areas.

Socio-economic effects

The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. Most monarchs instituted measures that prohibited exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market speculators, set price controls on grain, and outlawed large-scale fishing. At best, they proved mostly unenforceable, and at worst they contributed to a continent-wide downward spiral. The hardest hit lands, among them England, were unable to buy grain abroad—from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labor. Any grain that could be shipped was eventually taken by pirates or looters to be sold on the black market. Meanwhile, many of the largest countries, most notably England and Scotland, had been at war, using up much of their treasury and exacerbating inflation. In 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War, further depleting their treasuries, population, and infrastructure. Malnutrition, poverty, disease, and hunger, coupled with war, growing inflation, and other economic concerns made mid-fourteenth century Europe ripe for tragedy.

The plague did more than just devastate the medieval population; it caused a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians such as Fernand Braudel have concluded that the Black Death exacerbated a recession in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century. As a consequence, social and economic change greatly accelerated during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The church's power was weakened, and in some cases, the social roles it had played were replaced by secular ones. Also, the plague led to popular revolt in many parts of Europe, such as France (the Jacquerie rebellion), Italy (the Ciompi rebellion, which swept the city of Florence), and in England (the English Peasant Revolt).

Europe had been overpopulated before the plague, and a reduction of 30 to 50 percent of the population could have resulted in higher wages and more available land and food for peasants because of less competition for resources. However, for reasons that are still debated, population levels in fact continued to decline until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until 1470, so the initial Black Death event on its own does not entirely provide a satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity.

The great population loss brought economic changes based on increased social mobility as depopulation further eroded the peasants' already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. In Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labor provided an incentive for landlords to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation that, some argue, represents the roots of capitalism, and the resulting social upheaval “caused” the Renaissance and even Reformation. In many ways the Black Death improved the situation of surviving peasants. In Western Europe, because of the shortage of labor, peasants were in higher demand and had more power, and because of the reduced population, there was more fertile land available. However, the benefits would not be fully realized until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, renewed stringency of laws tied the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. Sparsely populated Eastern Europe was less affected by the Black Death and so peasant revolts were less common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not occurring in the east until the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Since it is believed to have caused, in part, the social upheavals of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Western Europe, some see the Black Death as a factor in the Renaissance and even the Reformation in Western Europe. Therefore, historians have cited the smaller impact of the plague as a contributing factor in Eastern Europe's “failure” to experience either of these movements on a similar scale. Extrapolating from this, the Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe's considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances as well as in the move to liberalize government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. A common example is the end of serfdom in England by 1550 while the country moved toward more representative government. Meanwhile, Russia did not abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed in 1861.

On top of all this, the plague's great population reduction brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry in the coming century, if not immediately. However, the upper class often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting laws which barred the peasantry from certain actions or material goods. A good example of this is the Sumptuary Laws that were passed throughout Europe. They regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as a higher class member with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired. Such a law was one of the causes of England's 1381 Peasants' Revolt.


As with other natural and man-made social disasters, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in the wake of Black Death, targeting "various groups such as Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, and Muslims," as well as lepers.[7]

Because Jews had a religious obligation to be clean, they did not use water from public wells. Thus Jews were suspected of causing the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Typically, comparatively fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to Kashrut (rabbinical laws) that called for a lifestyle that was, in general, cleaner than that of a typical medieval villager, and because of isolation in Jewish ghettos. This difference in mortality rate raised the suspicion of people who at that time had no concept of bacterial transmission. Jews were sometimes believed to have invoked the anger of God and it was believed that their sins were the main reason for the plague. Fierce pogroms frequently resulted in the death or banishment of most of the Jews in a town or city. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been exterminated, and more than 350 separate massacres had occurred. This persecution was often not merely out of religious hatred, but also as a way of attacking the kings or Church who protected the Jews (Jews were often called the king's property) and as a way of lashing out at the institutions that had failed them. An important legacy of the Black Death was to cause the eastward movement of what was left of north European Jewry to Poland and Russia, where it remained until the twentieth century.

Lepers were also singled out and persecuted, even exterminated, throughout Europe. Anyone with a skin disease such as acne or psoriasis was thought to be a leper, and leprosy was believed to be an outward sign of an inner defect of the soul. In essence, Jews and lepers were persecuted because they became scapegoats for the disasters of society.[8]


Flagellants practiced self-flogging (whipping of oneself) to atone for sins. The movement became popular after general disillusionment with the church's reaction to the Black Death.

The Black Death led to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease. No one, the Church included, was able to cure or even explain the plague. In fact, most thought it spread somehow through air, calling it miasma. This increased doubt in the clergy's abilities. Extreme alienation of the church culminated in either support for different religious groups, such as the flagellants, which grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death, or to an increase in interest for more secular alternatives to problems facing European society and an increase of secular politicians.

The Black Death hit the monasteries very hard because of their close quarters and their kindness in helping the sick, so that there was a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic cycle. This resulted in a mass influx of new clergy members, most of whom did not share the life-long convictions and experiences of the veterans they replaced. This resulted in abuses by the clergy in years afterwards and a further deterioration of the position of the Church in the eyes of the people.

Other effects

Inspired by the Black Death, Danse Macabre is an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motif in late-medieval periods.

After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The general mood was one of pessimism, and the art turned dark with representations of death. The Dies Irae was created in this period as was the popular poem La Danse Macabre and the instructive and popular Ars moriendi ("the art of dying").

The practice of alchemy as medicine, previously considered the norm for most doctors, slowly began to wane as the citizenry began to realize that it seldom affected the progress of the epidemic and that some of the potions and "cures" used by many alchemists only helped to worsen the condition of the sick. Liquor (distilled alcohol), originally made by alchemists, was commonly applied as a remedy for the Black Death, and, as a result, the consumption of liquor in Europe rose dramatically after the plague.

In 2006 a scientific study by Dr. Thomas van Hoof (Utrecht University) suggests the Black Death contributed to the Little Ice Age. Pollen and leaf data, collected from lake-bed sediments in the southeast Netherlands, supports the idea that millions of trees sprang up on abandoned farmland soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus cooling the planet. The line of research is new and further research is needed, but it does pose an interesting theory that man-caused climate change is older than current theories suggest.[9]

A theory put forth by Stephen O'Brien says the Black Death is likely responsible, through natural selection, for the high frequency of the CCR5-D32 genetic defect in people of European descent. The gene affects T cell function and provides protection against plague, smallpox, and HIV.[10]

Black Death in literature


The specter of the Black Death dominated art and literature throughout the generation that experienced it. For historians, much of the most useful manifestations of the Black Death in literature come from the accounts of its chroniclers, often the only real way to get a sense of the horror of living through a disaster on such a scale. A few were famous writers, philosophers, and rulers (like Boccaccio and Petrarch), but most were quite ordinary people who happened to work in a job requiring literacy, a rare talent. For example, Agnolo di Tura of Siena, records his experience:

Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices…great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night... And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September.

The scene Di Tura describes is repeated over and over again all across Europe. In Sicily, Gabriele de'Mussi, a notary, tells of the early spread from Crimea:

Alas! our ships enter the port, but of a thousand sailors hardly ten are spared. We reach our homes; our kindred…come from all parts to visit us. Woe to us for we cast at them the darts of death! …Going back to their homes, they in turn soon infected their whole families, who in three days succumbed, and were buried in one common grave. Priests and doctors visiting…from their duties ill, and soon were…dead. O death! cruel, bitter, impious death! Lamenting our misery, we feared to fly, yet we dared not remain.

Henry Knighton tells of the plague’s coming to England:

Then the grievous plague came to the sea coasts from Southampton, and came to Bristol, and it was as if all the strength of the town had died, as if they had been hit with sudden death, for there were few who stayed in their beds more than three days, or two days, or even one half a day.

In addition to these personal accounts, many presentations of the Black Death have entered the general consciousness as great literature. For example, the major works of Boccaccio (The Decameron), Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), and William Langland (Piers Plowman), which all discuss the Black Death, are generally recognized as some of the best works of their era.

La Danse Macabre, or the Dance of death, is an allegory on the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time: that no matter one's station in life, the dance of death united all. It consists of personified Death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, and beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. They were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life. The earliest artistic example is from the frescoed cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424). There are also works by Konrad Witz in Basel (1440), Bernt Notke in Lübeck (1463), and woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538). Israil Bercovici claims that the Danse Macabre originated among Sephardic Jews in fourteenth century Spain (Bercovici, 1992).

The poem "The Rattle Bag" by the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315–1350 or 1340–1370) has many elements that suggest that it was written as a reflection of the hardships he endured during the Black Death. It also reflects his personal belief that the Black Death was the end of humanity, the Apocalypse, as suggested by his multiple biblical references, particularly the events described in Revelations.


The Black Death has been used as a subject or as a setting in modern literature and media. This may be due to the era's resounding impact on ancient and modern history, and its symbolism and connotations.

Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) is set in an unnamed country during a fictional plague that bears strong resemblance to the Black Death.

Connie Willis's Hugo Award winning science fiction novel Doomsday Book (1993) imagines a future in which historians do field work by traveling into the past as observers.[11] The protagonist, a historian, is sent to the wrong year, arriving in England just as the Black Death is starting. Likewise, Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) presents a future dramatically changed by the Black Death, in which Christian Europe was almost completely destroyed and played no major role in future history.[12] Also, in Michael Crichton's book Timeline, a character is transported through time to a city that is apparently affected by the Black Death.[13]

It has been alleged since 1961 that the Black Death inspired one of the most enduring nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies, / Ashes, ashes (or ah-tishoo ah-tishoo), we all fall down. However, this seems to be a myth. There are no written records of the rhyme before the late nineteenth century and not all of its many variants refer to ashes, sneezing, falling down or anything else that could be connected to the Black Death.[14]

Mark Halter's The Book of Abraham (1986) has a chapter on the Black Death and its impact on the Jewish community of Strasbourg, who found themselves expelled from the city for having caused the epidemic, even though it had been “just as deadly to Jews as it was to Christians.” The rumor was that Jews had “invented a poison made of toads' feet, snake's heads, women's hair, and wolves' semen.”[15]

The relatively new medium of film has given writers and film producers an opportunity to portray the plague with more visual realism. One of the best known and most expansive depictions of the Black Plague as art is the movie classic The Seventh Seal, a 1957 film directed by Ingmar Bergman. A knight returns from the Crusades and finds that his home country is ravaged by the Black Death. To his dismay, he discovers that Death has come for him too. The final scene of The Seventh Seal depicts a kind of Danse Macabre. The 1988 science fiction film The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey portrays a group of fourteenth century English villagers who dig a tunnel to twentieth century New Zealand, with the aid of a boy's vision, to escape the Black Death.


  1. Barry, Stéphane and Gualde, Norbert, “La plus grande épidémie de l'histoire.” ("The Biggest Epidemics of History.") L'Histoire. (June 2006), pp.38-49.
  2. Burch, Greg, Progress, Counter Progress, and Counter-Counter Progress.
  3. Soucek, Svat, A History of Inner Asia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000), p. 116. ISBN 0521657040
  4. Drancourt, Michel, Yersinia pestis as a Telluric, Human Ectoparasite-borne Organism. Retrieved June 12, 2007.
  5. PNAS, Classic Flea-borne Transmission Does Not Drive Plague Epizootics in Prairie Dogs. Retrieved June 12, 2007.
  6. Barry, Stéphane, and Gualde, N, “La plus grande épidémie de l'histoire.” ("The Biggest Epidemics of History.") L'Histoire (June 2006), pp.45-46.
  7. Nirenberg, David, Communities of Violence. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1998) ISBN 069105889X
  8. Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society. (Oxford: Oxford University, 1987) ISBN 0631171452; Nirenberg, David, Communities of Violence. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1998) ISBN 069105889X
  9. Ravilious, Kate, Europe’s Chill Linked to Disease. Retrieved June 13, 2007.
  10. Jefferys, Richard, and d’Adesky, Anne-christine, Designer Genes. Retrieved June 13, 2007.
  11. Willis, Connie, Doomsday Book. (NY: Spectra, 1993) ISBN 0553562738
  12. Robinson, Kim Stanley, The Years of Rice and Salt. (NY: Spectra, 2002) ISBN 0553580078
  13. Crichton, Michael, Timeline. (NY: Ballantine Books, 2000) ISBN 0345417623
  14. Urban Legend Reference Pages, Ring around the Rosie. Retrieved June 13, 2007.
  15. Halter, Mark, The Book of Abraham. (New Milford, CT: The Toby, 1986) ISBN 1592640397

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