The Black Death or “The Great Pestilence”

Europeans were introduced to The Black Death, or “The Great Pestilence” (by sea) in 1347 when twelve trade ships docked at a Sicilian port. Most on board were dead and those who were alive were gravely ill – they would soon die as well. On board were men covered with black boils that oozed blood and pus – it was eventually given the name, “Black Death.”

The Black Death knew no status – when a person became infected with this plague they would die within a few days. It would begin with a persistent fever, followed by blisters and boils on the legs, arm and neck that would weaken the victim due to the immense pain – so much pain they became fatigued and bedridden. The boils would grow and increase in size until they were the size of an egg, oozing and seeping infectious fluids. Within days they would be dead. Very few people actually survived the plague.

The Black Death terrified people so much that they often abandoned family members and loved ones to save themselves from becoming infected.

Many died unseen. So they remained in their beds until they stank. And the neighbors, if there were any, having smelled the stench, placed them in a shroud and sent them for burial. The house remained open and yet there was no one daring enough to touch anything because it seemed that things remained poisoned and that whoever used them picked up the illness.

What is the Black Death and how did it spread?

The bacteria that causes this plague lives in rats – some rats have developed an immunity to it, and the fleas that feed on their blood cannot swallow it – in turn, when the flea jumps to its human victim, it bites the human and leaves behind the unswallowed rat blood in the bite. The human is now infected.

There are three types of this plague:

  1. Pneumonic plague - The virus settles in the victim’s lungs and after four to five days their lungs essentially become liquefied. The victim coughs up their liquefied lungs and dies. Symptoms include: fever, headache, weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain and cough.
  2. Septicemic plague - The virus inhibits the body’s ability to clot – so the outcome is bleeding to death from multiple places at the same time. Symptoms include: fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and bleeding underneath the skin or other organs.
  3. Bubonic plague - The virus attacks the lymph nodes and makes them swell and blacken and their skin decomposes while they’re still alive.

The Black Death, or plague, arrived in England in the Summer of 1348 and by August/September it arrived in London and took hold of the city with brutal force.

The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints [1st Nov] and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemass and Easter [2nd Feb-12th April] more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield, and this was in addition to the bodies buried in other graveyards in the city.

Danse macabre
Danse macabre

In England, the Black Death would claim 1.5 million people out of an estimated 4 million between 1348 and 1350 – almost half of the population. It spared no one. Small villages in England were completely wiped out. When a family member became infected, the rest weren’t far behind. There was no way to stop it. When residents fled their infected villages they were one of the very reasons the plague spread throughout the country so quickly — taking the Black Death with them and not even realizing it. Either they were already infected (and didn’t know it) or they were carrying the infected fleas on their clothing.

The Black Death had a huge impact on society. Fields went unploughed as the men who usually did this were victims of the disease. Harvests would not have been brought in as the manpower did not exist. Animals would have been lost as the people in a village would not have been around to tend them.” 

The Black Death had a huge impact on England and it’s food supply. During the plague there was a huge surplus of food that spoiled because there was no one available to harvest the fields. Those people who either sick, dead or had fled their home. After the plague, many faced starvation because not enough crop had been planted due to dismal labor numbers. Another after effect of the food shortage was inflation, which created even more hardship for the poor. The normal price of items increased four times their normal rate – leaving it nearly impossible for some to eat.

Near the end of 1350 the plague had subsided, but didn’t really die-out in England for a few centuries. Outbreaks occurred in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, and throughout the first half of the 15th century. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that England became largely free of serious plague outbreaks.

Did You Know?

  • Many scholars believe the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosy” was written about the Black Death (See video below)
  • King Edward III was the ruling monarch during the outbreak — his daughter, Joan of England died from the plague on 1 July 1348.

Lyrics to Ring Around the Rosy:

Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
“Ashes, Ashes”
We all fall down



Robert Zenner - Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (Atlas of World History)
Robert Zenner – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (Atlas of World History)

Sources & References:

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer – Pages 21,29,34,36,50,51,97,191,201-4,210,252-53, 295
History of Britain & Ireland  - Pages 102-103
Forham University traces the plague and how it relates to the Jews in the 14th Century.
The Black Death – Worst plague in history
The Black Death – Worst plague in history – part II


6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Is there any chance you can fix up that chart? Bubonic Plague is one of the forms of Plague one can get. It isn’t the disease in its entirety. As a studying microbiologist, the name ‘Bubonic Plague’ is very irksome in articles that discuss Plague and the history of the disease.
    I really liked this article. Thank you for writing it!

    • Hello, thank you for your comment! Are you referring to the chart by: Robert Zenner – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (Atlas of World History) that I inserted into the post?

  2. Closed captions on the ‘ring a ring’ video are atrocious and meaningless. Inaccessible to the Deaf Community. Please provide a link to a transcript?

    • You are right, the captioning is atrocious. I’m not sure how to go about finding a transcript for it. When I have some free time I’ll try to transcribe myself and post it here for you.

  3. Interesting article. However, you seem to use indiscriminately “bacteria” and “virus” (specifically when you describe the different type of plague). These are fundamentally different and in this specific example (Yersinia pestis) you should only “bacteria” (which is the plural of: “bacterium”).


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