Guest post by Juliana Cummings
As we come to what appears to be the end of the global pandemic, I’ve often thought about those who were alive during another pandemic-one that was almost 700 years ago. While Covid 19 was a scary and uncertain time for us all, we could at least rest assured that we had the knowledge and experience of doctors and scientists who understood the virology. We relied on the millions of brave first responders who cared for the sick and dying, knowing they would never admit defeat. And we had modern-day technology and social media to spread the word of updated protocols and the promise of a vaccine.
However, if we look back at the course of human history, the Black Death remains one of the most devastating pandemics of all time. As it ripped its way through Europe, it would cause complete religious, social, and economic upheaval that would forever change the world.
The Black Death was responsible for an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths between 1347 and 1351. That number accounts for close to half Europe’s population at the time. Compared to the number of patients who died from the Coronavirus worldwide (close to 3.5 million), the thought is unmanageable.
Historians believe the plague had been ravaging in Asia since 1331, arriving on merchant ships docking on the shores of Italy in 1347. While the northern part of the country was bustling with trade, people were oblivious to the devastation lurking on the ships coming into port. Italian cities were on the brink of destruction in what was the most extraordinary human catastrophe the world has ever seen.
The plague came in two different forms, pneumonic and bubonic. Both caused fever and vomiting and a general feeling of malaise. But it was bubo that became the telltale sign of the disease. Swollen lymph nodes would develop from the size of an egg to a small apple. Internal hemorrhaging under the skin produced black blotches over the skin as the lungs began to flood. The Black Death had been given its name due to the necrosis of the skin cells on the body. Some victims even watched their own skin decompose as they were still alive. If infected, you were lucky to last a week.
Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who lived through the plague, wrote detailed accounts of the disease in his book, The Decameron. He gave a graphic description of what he saw in Italy:
“The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time, these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this, the symptoms changed, and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained.”
Within two to three months, 20% of the population of northern Italy was dead, and doctors had no idea how to stop it from continuing. Gentile da Foligno (1280-1348), chief physician at the University of Perugia, said it was worse than anything he had ever seen. Fear gripped the country as people watched the plague take down people of every rank and creed.
Caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis, the Black Death was believed to come from bad air. This belief, the Miasma Theory, was an archaic medical theory that suggested diseases like the Black Death or cholera were literally caused by pollution or something terrible in the air. But the bacteria was spread through the bites of plague-infected fleas. Rats were common in medieval Europe and were frequent hitchhikers on merchant ships. When the vessels docked at Italy’s ports, they were loaded with flea-infested rats, and these fleas happily jumped from host to host, spreading destruction.
As the plague tore through the seaside towns of Italy and moved inland, it wreaked absolute havoc on the country. Highly contagious, the disease killed in as little as two to three days. The sick would spread it to anyone who came near them. Even to touch the clothes of the sick or anything else they came in contact with would almost guarantee you would become unwell. The medical profession felt they were helpless and offered little relief for the symptoms. They couldn’t be sure if one became infected by the air, food, touch, or all of the above.
As the disease progressed, everything the body excreted came with an overpowering smell. Whether it was sweat, feces, or even a person’s breath, everything smelled of rot. Bodies, some not even dead yet, would be carried away by coffin bearers. Several were left in the streets if the family was too poor to afford a funeral. The dead would then be thrown in a communal pit. Bodies were also brought to churches by the hour for burial. Because there was just not enough land, they were buried in trenches by the thousands. People saw this devastation as the wrath of God and believed they were being punished for their sins.
Patients had put their faith in God and in their doctors, who sometimes refused to visit. And although da Foligno stood out as going to great lengths to help his patients, he too fell victim to the plague on 18 June 1348.
By this time, death in Italian cities had skyrocketed. Venice had lost over 90,000, and Florence, over half its population. In Sienna, victims were tossed over the city walls into pits, left to pile on top of each other. Houses were ordered to be locked in Milan, and infected people were left to die.
The plague arrived in Dorset, England, in early May 1348. The first major city to be struck was Bristol, and by late September, it had reached London. The devastation throughout the city was horrific. The transmission of the plague thrived on the busy, dirty streets with overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Authorities struggled to keep up disposal of the corpses but found that the street cleaners were quickly dissipating faster than they could be employed.
The burial grounds of London were overflowing, and new ones were carelessly dug. In Southwark alone, an estimated 200 bodies were disposed of daily. Bodies were thoughtlessly piled on top of one another in an attempt to save space. Or worse, older bodies were dug up and moved to make room for the newly deceased. With such immense pressure put on graveyard workers, speed was the only factor. There was hardly time for prayer or the blessings of a priest.
By March 1349, the plague began its descent onto southern England, spreading into rural villages by spring. Entire families were wiped out, and death was imminent. The epidemic ripped through communities, and many lost almost 80% of their population, paralyzing their way of life.
In Paris, the disease took nearly 800 people a day. All over Europe, the plague caused a complete breakdown of society. Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote:
“One citizen avoided another; hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs.”
People looked for any way to fight the disease. Citizens of London began to wall themselves in the city in the hopes of keeping the epidemic at bay. But this only caused it to spread more, for it thrived on an atmosphere of close contact and filth. Venice had issued a quarantine for all ships arriving into its ports, but it was already too late for them as well. Milan had just about shut everyone out of the city entirely.
To find a way to cover up the stench of rotting corpses, people doused themselves in heavy perfume. They believed that if the cause were bad air, they would be able to keep from getting sick if they didn’t breathe in the stench. People kept their windows shut and changed their diets, anything they thought worthy of helping to protect them. The attitude soon became that if you were going to die, why not do it with a smile on your face. Folks unashamedly abandoned their morals. Cities became full of drunkenness and illicit sex. Homes were pillaged and goods taken without asking. The Black Death had torn through the bonds of faith and trust between people and their communities.
Priests, too, grew scared to visit the sick and with good reason. In Piacenza, the plague devastated a religious order where over fifty priests died. It was estimated that the mortality rate for priests during the Black Death was over 40%. The Pope affirmed that it was prayer that would lead people to salvation. He was wrong. The Avignon Papacy lost one-third of its cardinals and half of its population. Many felt, in a time of great peril, that the Catholic Church was failing them.
In response to the disgruntlement with the Church, a group of religious zealots began to make an appearance. This religious sect called themselves the Flagellants and stepped up to challenge the authority of the Pope. They believed they would receive atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public. They journeyed through Europe thirty-three days at a time, one day for each year that Christ walked the earth. Processions through the streets of major cities were led by both men and women, barefoot and covered in ashes. They chanted and performed bizarre rituals. Wearing hoods with red crosses, they repeated litany as they beat themselves with whips, marching from town to town. They saw themselves as representatives of Jesus suffering on the cross and drew in large crowds of people.
In response to this, Christian tolerance began to crumble throughout Europe. Neighbor turned on neighbor looking for someone to blame. Vicious rumors were starting to spread that the Jews were responsible, and Catholics retaliated. The Jews were accused of plots to destroy Christendom, and flagellants dragged them from their homes and burned them at the stake in their continued need for a scapegoat.
The plague of 1348 left as mysteriously as it had come, and while it did make more appearances in the next few hundred years, it would never be as devastating as it was in the fourteenth century. The Black Plague indeed was a time where the world was without any hope. People thought God had abandoned them and that judgment day had arrived. From Italy to Ireland, millions upon millions were left for dead in the wake of a disaster that strained every part of European society.
The Black Plague was and remains the worst catastrophe in the history of Europe, but it’s also interesting to ponder how the epidemic may have changed it for the better. So many of Europe’s cities were overcrowded, filthy, and lacking in morals and structure. With half of their population gone, there remained a resilience among the people to rebuild. With a smaller population, the people could finally get a hold on the filth that had nourished the plague from its beginning. Urban recovery had become possible with better land suitability and trade. While not all cities would recover at the same rate, many became more productive through the promise of a more dynamic world. There was more demand for workers and the peasants who had survived. People were able to ask for better wages and cleaner working conditions. This improved standard of living gave people more power over their lives and would change Europe’s future forever.