The Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, remains one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. It was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and some estimates are that it killed between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia during the 14th century.
The disease was spread through fleas and infected rats. At the time, these animals were common in densely populated urban areas. When the fleas bit an infected rat, they would ingest the bacterium and then transmit it to humans through their bites.
The symptoms included fever, chills, vomiting, and appearance of painful and pus-filled buboes in the lymph nodes. In most cases, the disease was fatal with mortality rate of 50%.
Nowadays, we know that the Black Death had a profound impact on European society causing panic and social upheaval. It wiped out entire communities and contributed to a shortage of labor.
How did it begin?
The exact origin of the Black Death remains debatable between historians and scientists. Yet, the main theory is that it begin in Central Asia, in the region that is now modern-day China. The bacterium originated in rodents, and from there, the disease likely spread along trade routes carried by infected rodents and fleas.
Because of the Silk Road, and other trade routes, it spread to Europe and Middle East. It arrived in Europe in 1347, when a Genoese trading ship arrived in Sicily with infected crew members. And from there, it spread to the rest of Europe. The Black Death reached as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as the Mediterranean.
What was the background?
We have to talk about how Europe was not prepared to face such a pandemic in the 14th century. Let’s talk about the situational context of why Europe was not able to fight off the pandemic easily.
There were many factors, including environmental, social, and economic. While Europe was experiencing a period of growth and prosperity, the 14th century was also characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitation, and outbreaks of diseases.
For starters, the medical knowledge at the time was limited. There was little to no understanding of how diseases were transmitted or how to effectively treat them. Because of that, healthcare workers couldn’t contain the spread or provide positive and effective treatment. We have to remember, medical practices were based on superstition and folklore, not scientific evidence.
Another factor is that the outbreak occurred during a time of political and social turmoil. There was widespread unrest and conflict between different groups and classes. People traveled and migrated searching for safety and security.
The next factor is the public health measures were inadequate to control the spread. Europe had poor sanitation, with major cities lacking proper waste disposal system or clean water source. It was an ideal environment for rodents and fleas to thrive and spread the disease. Quarantine as we know today was ineffective because of the limited understanding of the transmission of the disease.
Last, but not least, people were living in poverty and social unrest. People in the 14th century lived in unsanitary conditions that weakened their immune system. It made citizens of Europe more vulnerable to the disease.
Were there any benefits to the black death plague?
It might be strange to think that a global pandemic like the Black Death could have any benefits to the society. But the reality is that the plague had a profound impact on European society. While it caused panic and wiped out entire communities, the disease had transformative effect on the society. It led to the rise of modern medicine and development of political and economic organizations.
One of the most significant benefits was a shift in the balance between the lords and serfs in Europe. Before the pandemic, there was a surplus of labor due to population growth. This gave the lords power over the laborers. Yet, once the pandemic ended, the demand for labor increased, giving peasants greater bargaining power and allowing them demand better working conditions.
The other big benefit was the development of modern medicine. In the aftermath of the Black Death, there was a demand for medical knowledge and practitioners. This led to the growth of universities and medical schools. After the pandemic, medical science became one of the most popular areas of study.
The next benefit is the role it played in the development of public health systems. Governments began to implement measures that helped contain and prevent diseases. For starters, that was quarantine. But governments also improved public hygiene, implementing measures that laid the foundation for modern public health systems.
Besides public health systems, there was also growth of hospitals and medical institutions. The demand for medical care led to the establishment of new hospitals that played a critical role in treating the sick and injured.
Last, but not least, it prompted the development of new medical technologies, including the use of protective clothing and pestilence masks that prevented the spread of the disease.
The Pandemic influencing art
The Black Death pandemic had a profound impact on art and culture. In the aftermath of it, the preoccupation with death and mortality emerged. It influenced artists and literary movements.
Some of the famous artists influenced by the pandemic include Pieter Bruegel, a Flemish Painter who painted the Triumph of Death, Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch Painter who painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hans Holbein who painted The Dance of Death, and many more.
The Black Death and Jews
The pandemic had a significant impact on Jews around the world. It led to discrimination, persecution, and even violence against the Jewish community. During the pandemic, Jews were often accused of spreading the disease by poisoning wells and other water sources. Of course, the accusations were based on unfounded rumors and superstitions, not on real proof.
In many European cities, Jews were massacred or subjected to pogroms because of the accusations of spreading the disease. For example, the entire Jewish community in Basel, Switzerland, was burned at the stake.
Jews were even forced to convert to Christianity as a way of avoiding persecution. The practice, otherwise known as forced baptism, was used heavily in some European countries.
Simply put, the impact on the Jewish community was far-reaching and long-lasting. It reinforced existing prejudices and superstitions against the community, leading to further discrimination in many centuries that followed.
While you cannot say, for example, that it influenced Hitler and his hatred towards Jews, you can say the aftermath of the pandemic played a role in shaping the cultural and social attitude towards Jews. There was a rise of anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes that made it easier for Hitler to discriminate Jews.
How Europe contained the pandemic?
Europe was not able to fully contain the pandemic during the 14th century. It spread rapidly and caused devastation all over the continent. Yet, over time, thanks to advances in medical knowledge and public health measures, Europe could control and eventually eradicate the disease.
The key factor was the development of quarantine measures, isolating infected individuals and restricting travel and trade.
But more importantly, the advances in medical knowledge. We have to note, the pandemic officially ended in the mid-14th century. Yet, there were subsequent outbreaks of the disease in the centuries that followed.
There is no exact end date of the pandemic. By the mid-14th century, the worst of the pandemic was subsided in Europe.
But there were outbreaks in London in the 17th and 18th centuries, and China in the 19th and 20th century.