Black Death

Bubonic Plague

- killer of immense proportions

The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague is an epidemic disease that ravaged Europe and Asia in the mid-14th century, so called because it turns the skin of its victims black.

The rod-shaped bacteria Yersinia pestis (Pasteurella pestis) infests rats or other rodents and transfers to humans by fleas and then passes from person to person by mucus droplets spread from coughing and sneezing. An infected person will become ill within a few hours to a few days. As the bacteria spread through the body, causing an overwhelming infection, they cause high fever, swollen lymph nodes, rash, and changes in blood pressure. When untreated, victims die within a few days. Medication with antibiotics such as tetracycline and streptomycin as soon as plague is suspected can be effective. People can be immunised before travelling to plague endemic areas. Management of plague requires reducing the population of wild rodents and personal application of insect repellents to reduce fleabites.

Plague epidemics occurred in Rome during AD 250-65 and in Constantinople in 542, killing huge numbers, but the 14th-century saw the worst and deadliest outbreak of all time. The 14th century Black Death arose in China and India and apparently reached Europe by way of returning sailors in 1346. In 1347 the Golden Horde(1) army deliberately contaminated a Genoese trading post in the Crimea during a siege by catapulting infected cadavers into the town. Unchecked the plague rapidly spread to Sicily and North Africa, thence to southern Italy and took hold in the rest of Europe by 1348.

The disease affected all social strata, killing peasants, nobility, the learned, and the pious with equal speed. Its origins, transmission vectors and hence its prevention were a complete mystery. By 1351 it had largely run its course, although smaller outbreaks continued for some time afterwards. The limiting factor in the epidemic was the destruction of the communities that supported the rats. The Black Death had killed one-third of the population in Europe, although the east was less affected. Asian populations were similarly cut down.

Many of the socio-economic improvements that occurred after the plague had been started beforehand, but the devastation accelerated them. Acute labour shortages helped to liberate agricultural workers from the bonds of serfdom. Divisions between classes became less rigid for a time, and a new, moneyed class of entrepreneurs began to replace the old nobility. The effects on the way of thinking from such widespread human devastation of an unknown cause lead to a morbid and dark tone to literature and art, and a general shift away from religious values toward more secular pursuits.

A later epidemic struck London in 1665, and the quaint remedies and controls seem laughable today. Knowing that his highborn status would not protect him, King Charles II and his court decamped the capital to leafy Oxford.  Those who could, sent their families away from London, but the poor had no alternative but to stay. Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary that the streets of London were empty, as all who could have fled in an attempt to escape the pestilence did so.

The epidemic began in the poor, overcrowded parish of St. Giles-in-the-Field.  It started slowly at first but by May of 1665, 43 had died.  In June the toll was 6,137, July saw 17,036 die, and at its peak in August, 31,159 people died.  In all, 15% of the population perished during that terrible summer.

The Mayor of London, thought that domestic animals were to blame, and ordered that all cats and dogs must be destroyed. Of course, this had the opposite effect, as the rats flourished without their predators and so the fleas spread the plague even further. Some people invented fantastical remedies that the desperate were willing to try. Some of these remedies used all sorts of strange and magical ingredients. Unscrupulous apothecaries attempted to make a profit from the misery. That would not happen today, would it?

People believed that a posy of flowers held to the noise kept the plague away and to this day judges are still given a nosegay to carry on ceremonial occasions as a protection against the plague. A well-known children's rhyme is thought to have arisen from this epidemic.

Ring a ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Atishoo! Atishoo!
All fall down

The ring of roses describes the first sign on the skin of the infection. The protective posies of flowers are tried, but the sneezing, spreading the infection further, and a terminal sign of the disease precedes the inevitable falling down dead.

The cold winter of 1665 slowed the disease as the fleas were unable to reproduce, and in the following year a devastating fire, starting in a Pudding Lane bakery, destroyed the rat infested city and riverside areas.

Other parts of Britain were infected to a lesser extent and bodies were often collected and buried beyond the boundaries of the habitation area in deep plague pits. To this day building development or disturbing the ground is forbidden in these areas.

Later Black Plague epidemics struck Naples in 1672, and the Holy Roman Empire in 1711. The last major outbreak of plague occurred in India and China during 1910-13, killing millions.

(1) Golden Horde,  (Kipchak Khanate) Mongol khanate formed by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan and conqueror of the western Russian territories it embraced. Formed in the mid-13th century, it included Kiev, Moscow, and Novgorod. Russian rulers were kept in power as vassals and were forced to pay heavy taxes to the khans. The khans adopted the Muslim religion and remained in power until 1395, when Tamerlane conquered the region. The empire subsequently broke up into the khanates of Crimea, Kazan, and Astrakhan.

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Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom.

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