Black Death

Black Death
   Pandemic disease that swept through most of Europe and the Middle East between 1347 and 1350. First recorded in the Crimea in 1347, the epidemic was carried westward to Italy and then swept northwest into France, the Netherlands, England, Germany, Poland, and Russia, with 1348 being the peak year in Italy and the mainland of western Europe. The plague also devastated Egypt and the rest of Muslim North Africa. Contemporary descriptions and modern medical history agree that the principal disease involved was bubonic plague, so called from the buboes, or swollen lymph glands, that appeared in the groin or under the armpits of victims and then turned black. The course of the disease was rapid. Some patients recovered, but for the great majority, infection ended in death after only a few days.
   Bubonic plague is caused by an organism, Yersinia pestis, that does not spread directly from person to person but involves a trilateral passage from infected rat to flea to human victim. Being spread by rats and fleas, the epidemic was primarily a phenomenon of the summer and waned or disappeared in cold weather. Well-documented instances in which plague spread actively during the winter suggest that a second illness, pneumonic plague, was concurrent with the bubonic plague, so that the total epidemic may have involved both diseases. Cities seem to have been harder hit than rural districts, though this impression may be a function of better record-keeping in cities. There is considerable evidence that communities of people living together in crowded quarters, such as in cathedral chapters and monasteries, suffered especially heavy losses. Some monasteries lost virtually every member.
   The plague came suddenly and unexpectedly, and as news of it spread, panic ran through society, especially since medical treatment proved useless and no one understood the mechanisms of transmission. There are contemporary accounts of children abandoning infected parents and parents abandoning infected children. The mortality described by contemporary writers like Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio (his Decameron is set in the plague year of 1348) is so great that historians long regarded it as grossly exaggerated. But recent demographic studies not only confirm the horror but even suggest that it may have been worse than the most lurid contemporary descriptions claim. Not all parts of Europe were affected. The city of Milan, most of the Netherlands, and the kingdom of Bohemia suffered lightly, while neighboring regions were devastated. Where sources permit careful demographic study, the conclusions are that between 20 and 60 percent of the adult inhabitants of affected communities died during the few days or weeks when the infection raged locally. Figures for Europe as a whole are little more than guesses, but it is probable that between 25 and 30 percent of the total population of Western Europe perished.
   Something so horrible clearly seemed to be a judgment of God, and people sought through prayers and processions the safety they could not find through medicine. City governments and other political authorities tried to guard against the plague by shutting their gates to travellers from outside, not realizing that their city walls offered no protection from the movements of the infected rats and fleas that were the agents of contagion. In some places, panic-stricken populations accused local Jews ("the usual suspects" in any medieval disaster) of poisoning the local wells and massacred them. In many regions, European population had already begun a sharp decline from the high populations of the 13th century, the result of the great famines of the early 14th century and also of the economic depression that was evident by the early 1340s. But the Black Death greatly accelerated the decline, and many cities suffered remarkable and long-term declines in population. Florence, for example, had grown from a small town to a metropolis of perhaps 120,000 by the end of the 13th century; after the Black Death, its population may have shrunk to 40,000. Its population rebounded, but the city remained much smaller than its medieval peak throughout the Renaissance.
   Although the great epidemic of 1347-1350, "the Black Death" of history and legend, was the greatest demographic disaster in European history, unmatched even by the wars and massacres of the 20th century, bubonic plague became endemic in European populations and seems to have recurred about once in every generation, striking particularly hard at that part of the population born since the last outbreak. There was a second wave of plague in Italy in the 1360s, another about 1400. In England, there were serious recurrences in 1360-1361, 1368-1369, and 1374. Mortality in these later plagues was still high: at Florence in 1400 as much as 28 percent of the population may have perished. Periodic epidemics of bubonic plague became a regular feature of European life throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, and while the authorities eventually perfected techniques of isolation and quarantine that may have helped to limit the spread of plague, neither those techniques nor the efforts of physicians achieved true control.
   Gradually, plague disappeared from western Europe after 1660. The great London plague of 1665 was the final outbreak there. The disease persisted in eastern Europe until the 18th century, and there have been localized outbreaks in Asia and Africa in recent years. The causes of the disappearance of the disease in Europe are debated just as hotly as the causes of the initial epidemic. What remains beyond dispute, however, is that the initial onset of bubonic plague in 1347-1350 was a shattering blow to both the population and the psychological self-confidence of Europe at the very outset of the Renaissance.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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