Between the years of 1347 and 1350, terror raced across Europe as family members and loved ones died in considerable numbers from a painful and fatal disease. This gruesome plague became known as the Black Death and carried itself throughout all of Europe to make its presence known. Before this great tragedy, Europe had been secure with its mighty feudal kingdoms; cities had thick walls to protect people from invaders and any dangers they faced.
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The Churches were thriving and monumental Cathedrals were built everywhere. The economy was rising, and life in Europe was progressing as time marched on. This was all until the plague arrived. Before it was over, 25 to 40 million people died in Europe alone, and one out of every three people who contracted the disease died. In some cities, half of the population was destroyed, often leaving no one to bury the dead. Burial jobs were done quickly and poorly, which often resulted in wild animals digging up the corpses. In some towns, relatives had to carry dead family members out of their homes and stack them on carts, so the bodies could be hauled away and buried in mass graves. Today, people call the plague the Black Death because of the blackened skin of those who were infected. In the years that the disease was active, it was called the Great Mortality, or simply, the end of the world.
There were three different types of the plague, even though they are often lumped together and called the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague was the most common, and the most survivable, of the three types, as about 30 percent of those who got the bubonic type died. The bubonic plague was named after a symptom called buboes, which were blackened swellings on the neck, armpits, and other areas. The second type was called pneumonic plague. The pneumonic plague infected the lungs and was very contagious when victims coughed, and victims coughed continuously when infected, making it difficult not to get infected. The third type was called the septicemic plague, which is when blood is poisoned by bacteria or toxins they produce. The septicemic plague was less common but had a very high fatality rate all the same. Infection in all forms can be fatal unless treated immediately with antibiotics, such as streptomycin. According to PBS, mortality rates for treated individuals range from 1 percent to 15 percent for bubonic plague to 40 percent for the septicemic plague. In untreated victims, the rates rise to about 50 percent for bubonic and 100 percent for septicemia. The mortality rate for untreated pneumonic plague is 100 percent; death occurs within 24 hours.
The cause of the Black Plague was finally discovered in 1899, and it was an extremely harmful bacteria called Yersinia pestis. It lived in the digestive system of fleas, who lived on rats that rummaged through the cities. When the rats died, the fleas went looking for more food, almost always finding human life. When the fleas bit people, the bacteria were injected into their bloodstream. Shortly after, victims infected others by coughing near them or even breathing. It is believed by many that the plague entered Europe by infectious people that traveled by boat into either Constantinople, Genoa, and the Island of Sicily. From there, the disease rapidly spread through the cities and the countrysides. All it took was breathing in the wrong air for people to be instantly infected. According to author Jim Ollhoff, there is also rumor that an infected boat that floated onto the shore of Norway, with only one living passenger. That one man managed to infect and spread the disease through all of Norway.
Many other factors made people more susceptible to the plague. There was a small climate change in the early 1300s, causing many more droughts and floods. This resulted in poor farming conditions and weak harvests. The resulting shortage of food left many people malnourished. When people are malnourished, they are more susceptible to disease. Further, the shortage of food may have forced rats to move closer to humans, where there is more food. Since the rats were carrying the fleas with the plague, more people got sick. Another factor was that cities were overpopulating. This meant more people had to eat, therefore, there were more slaughterhouses where cattle and other animals were butchered for their meat. Large amounts of animal entrails were left lying around city streets and alleys. This also attracted rats, bringing them closer to humans. With the growth of cities came an increase in human waste everywhere. This was especially troublesome because there were no sewers or flush toilets, and in many communities, the only law about human sewage was to shout, Look out below! before throwing a pot of human sewage into the streets. This again was an attraction to rats, and thus made humans closer to the fleas that lived on the rats. In rural areas, many homes were made out of thatch and mud bricks. Farm animals often lived in the same house as the people. This made easy access for rats and fleas. Bathing was uncommon, which meant lots of dirt, fleas, and lice. During the plague years, ships coming into harbors were often quarantined for 40 days, meaning that no one was allowed to leave the ship to prevent sick people from bringing disease into the port city. People knew that the disease spread from person to person, so the quarantines might have worked a little.
However, overlooked at the time was the rats that could easily make it to shore on the ropes that moored the ships. Since the rats spread the disease, even just having a ship docked nearby could mean an infection in the city. After years of horror, the Black Death finally stopped, but not because of any cures devised by the people. At the end of the year 1350, and the beginning of 1351, the plague ultimately just came to a stopping point. Its final toll was devastating, as it wiped out millions and destroyed the economy. It had cut like a knife through Europe for three years, killing between 25 and 40 million people. Many changes in society made the plague less infectious and dangerous over the many years to come. There were fewer people after the plague, and that meant less crowding, so there was less chance of sharing the disease. Better nutrition may have helped people stave off the plague as well. People began to bathe more consistently, and wear higher-quality clothes, which meant fewer fleas. The concept of washing hands grew more and was considered one of the most significant health developments of the period. The shipping industry became better at quarantining ships that came from diseased areas as well, to prevent the spreading of the disease. Another excellent development was the rise in better and stronger construction of homes across Europe. In many places, tiles began to replace thatched roofs, which made homes safer from a fire and also making it less likely that fleas would drop in from the roof. Perhaps the biggest reason for the plague’s demise was that it ran out of fuel”it just ran out of people to kill. Of the people to survive the plague, it’s likely that their immune systems grew stronger from being around the disease, making it much more difficult to get infected.
The Black Death was gone, but it left behind a very different world, and it changed the future of Europe. As the plague began to wane, it left behind many problems, aside from grief and suffering. One-third of the workers were gone, which left a chronic shortage of people to work on farms, run the mills, and help manufacture materials. The shortage caused a slump in construction and trade, weakening the economy and money flow. Wars were scaled down or stopped altogether because of the lack of energy and soldiers. With the drastic shortage of workers, there was less farming which in turn led to food shortages. According to Ollhoff, before the Black Death, workers called serfs sometimes worked for little or no pay, however, with fewer workers available, they became precious. They demanded better pay, and if landowners wouldn’t pay higher wages, workers could walk to the next town”or even the next farm”and get a better-paying job. Serfs often could even walk off the job and find cheap land for sale, becoming farmers themselves. The plague also caused an oversupply of products, because there were fewer people to purchase goods, and because of this prices went down even as wages increased. This was good for the average worker. On the other hand, landowners saw their wealth evaporate because of high labor costs and lower food prices. The rich lost wealth and the poor gained it. Financial businesses were disrupted and many destroyed. People who lent money often had no one to collect from since whole families had been wiped out.
Many people who owed money had no one to pay it back to since many creditors also died. As cities got back on their feet, they created better sanitation, burial practices, and hospitals. Medical schools emphasized the physical sciences, which helped prepare society for the scientific method”proposing a theory and testing it by observable facts. Higher education became a prevalent topic afterward as well, in hopes of finding the causes and coming up with ways to prevent a recurrence. Many schools were built and education became much more important. Medicine also had a significant surge during this time, with many significant developments and a lot of people that were pushed into medicine after seeing the effects of the plague. Modern medicine and hospital management made significant changes to adapt to whatever circumstances they may face. There was a lot of anger and resentment at the church’s inability to stop the plague, setting the stage for the Reformation, where many cases of abuse and superstitions were primarily swept out of the church. Many people lost their faith, causing Church funds to decrease at an alarming rate. There was also a steep drop in numbers of people wanting to join the seminary, and people interested in having leadership roles in the Church. Not to mention, the plague wiped out many current leaders and members of the Church, which had a significant impact on the state of the Church.
The Black Death had many causes as to why and how it spread, whether that be on the backs of rats and fleas or through the coughs of victims. The most significant cause and spread of the disease having the major effect it did was overpopulation. Overpopulation caused rats and fleas to have more reasons to be in the streets of big cities, as well as making it easier for the disease to spread from person to person. Ironically, the biggest reason the diseases reign ended is that of the low populations, as a result of the effects of the disease. As time continued on the disease had less and fewer people to spread to, and most that lived had built up an immunity to it. While the disease wiped out a third of the world’s population, there are good things that come out of all tragedies. The Black Death is well known for being the cause of advancements in architecture, education, and medicine. Governments and hospital management were also able to implement many safety strategies and infection prevention strategies in case of another emergency.
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