Our age is the age of health. Though humanity still battles such terminal diseases as AIDS, cancer, and ever-mutating strains of exotic types of flu, in general, people live longer and healthier than even a hundred years ago. And perhaps it is even fair to say that throughout the recent centuries, humanity has never been taken to the brink of extinction by any kind of sickness—smallpox, cholera, typhus, or any other. Even though the body count of some of the diseases that ravaged the world not so long ago was terrifying (for instance, cholera pandemic in Russia, in the 19th century, killed more than one million people; or, the infamous Spanish flu virus, which took the lives of about 75 million people all over the world in the beginning of the 20th century), humanity always managed to find a way to withstand and survive. However, once upon a time, there was a disease that could be called God’s wrath; a disease that could have erased (and almost did) entire nations once and for all. Its name is still well-known, and even though nowadays the danger of its repeated outbreak are null—at least in developed countries—its ghost is still able to scare historians, medics, and all the enthusiasts digging up facts about it. The name of this disaster is the Black Death.
To start with, it is not exactly the plague, as many people tend to believe. The name of this disease in Latin is Yersinia Pestis, and it can manifest itself in a number of symptoms when infecting humans. The three main forms Yersinia Pestis takes are pneumonia, bubonic plague, and septicemic plague. It is a coccobacillus commonly carried by fleas living in rat fur, and is typically transmitted to humans through flea bites. Usually, an infected person develops pneumonia, and thus transmits the disease further; urban environments can be especially vulnerable to this way of contamination. As scary as it may sound, the World Health Organization registers thousands of cases of Yersinia Pestis infection worldwide, so this disease is not something left far behind. However, considering the modern ways of treatment and the overall level of hygiene, nowadays being infected with this bacillus does not automatically mean a death sentence, and the prognosis for patients are generally optimistic (Wikipedia).
The Black Death terrorized Eurasia long ago; if we take a look at the modern European Union, we will expectedly discover high standards of living, developed medicine, an educated population, and advanced hygiene and sanitary conditions almost everywhere. However, in the 14th century, Europe was almost completely opposite to what it is today. Due to poverty, a lack of education, and all kinds of superstitions, many people washed their hands and bodies so seldom that it was a hothouse, so to say, for not just the Black Death, but for other serious diseases as well.
Even kings and rich people were unaware of the importance of keeping their bodies and environments clean. Perhaps, everyone knows how and why perfumes were invented: to mask the unpleasant smell of King Louis XIV; even though he lived long after the Black Death took its death toll, he still shared the superstitions of Medieval people about bathing (The Perfume Society).
There are objective reasons explaining why ancient Europeans avoided water, but it is not relevant to the subject at hand; what is important now is that sanitary conditions in Europe of the 14th century were morbid. Besides, European cities and villages swarmed with pests—rats, in particular. Supposedly, rats were so common that no one paid attention to them. As we can see, considering the ways Yersinia Pestis infects its hosts, Medieval Europe provided all the commodities for it to flourish. And it did.
It all started in 1334, in China; through major trade routes, the Black Death traveled to Constantinople (most likely on merchant ships), from which it quickly spread across Europe. Historians claim that the European “part” of its death harvest started in 1346 and lasted until 1350—four years of the pandemic took the lives of more than 200 million people in Europe, Asia, and even North Africa. It is often stated that the Black Death eradicated up to one-third of the European population, although the truth is that it is difficult to estimate this number correctly. Indeed, in some areas, rural and urban, the disease eliminated approximately 70 percent of population—for example, in Cambridgeshire, or supposedly in Florence. However, there were places which the plague omitted completely, such as the northern German-speaking lands. Considering the unsatisfactory preservation of a number of historical records drawn up at that time, it is difficult to state how many European died exactly (History Extra).
Still, regardless of this, the pandemic was no doubt horrible. A Florentine chronicler wrote that,
“All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried […] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.” Another chronicler, Agnolo di Tura ‘the Fat,’ who lived in Tuscany, described how the dead were buried: “… in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead […] 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” (History Today). There was no cure for the plague in the 14th century, and medicinal research could not be conducted, since the Church did not approve of it; so, all people could do was to bury and burn the bodies of the dead.
Omitting all the grim details, the plague came to its end in approximately 1350-1352. It is possible for a contagious disease to kill all of its hosts quicker than it manages to find new ones, and in this case, the sickness “burns out,” metaphorically speaking. Perhaps, this is what happened to the Black Death, because there was no cure for it at that time. It would be tempting to say that never again did it raise its ugly head, but this would not be true: history shows several other outbreaks of Yersinia Pestis—not so severe and wide-scale, but deadly nonetheless. For now, humanity has other enemies to fight, and hopefully the Black Death will never enter their lists once again.
“Yersinia Pestis.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yersinia_pestis.
“Louis XIV: ‘The Sweetest-Smelling King of All.”’ The Perfume Society, perfumesociety.org/discover-perfume/an-introduction/history/louis-xiv-the-sweetest-smelling-king-of-all/.
“10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know about the Black Death.” History Extra, www.historyextra.com/article/international-history/10-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-black-death.
“The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever.” History Today, www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever.