The Black Death: Human History’s Biggest Catastrophe?

Plague did not honor social class, and mortality among the nobility approximated that of the general population, Robert Steven Gottfried said about the Black Death. The Black Death ravaged Europe and other areas of the world from 1347-1351, killing around 25 million in Europe alone and between 75 and 100 million worldwide. Though the Black Death did not choose its victims based on social class, it was not completely a universal killer. The Black Death targeted those that were previously frail, susceptible to disease, and had developmental stress markers; in the centuries following the Black Death mortality rates decreased, standards of living improved, and numbers of people with developmental stress markers decreased.

To understand the way the Black Death killed so many while mainly killing the weak, one must understand what types of things were occurring in Europe before the disease took hold. In the years before the Black Death, England was ravaged by famine and biological disaster (DeWitte, S., & Slavin, P. 2013). Many scholars believe these were factors leading up to the Black Death that caused a prevalence of humans that were more prone to frailty than in earlier populations. The Great Famine occurred from 1315 to 1317 in England and northern Europe, caused mainly by torrential rains that fell from the fall of 1314 to the spring of 1317. During this time the prices of crops skyrocketed, with the price of wheat rising by 250 percent from 1315 to 1316. Masses of people starved, and evidence from manorial court rolls shows that England and Wales lost 10-15 percent of their populations during the famine. The famine ended with a plentiful harvest in 1318. Just a year later came the Great Bovine Pestilence, which affected nearly all the local cattle populations. Evidence shows England and Wales lost about 60 percent of their total cattle populations. This meant that there was a heavy loss of protein and calcium resources, as well as the inability for many to plow fields with the loss of oxen. It took years for the populations to replenish, and there is no evidence that humans sought out other sources of calcium and protein. This would have resulted in severe malnutrition in the masses (DeWitte, S., & Slavin, P. 2013:47-51). With both the famine and pestilence leaving lasting marks on the human population, it is likely that those born after these were more likely to develop developmental stress markers and be more prone to frailty.

In fact, in samples from a late pre-Black Death cemetery, 71.8% had linear enamel hypoplasia, a defect in tooth enamel that happens when enamel formation is disrupted due to things like infection and famine (DeWitte, Sharon N. 2017:3.1). In addition to a large number of people with LEH, there was also evidence that stature played a role in one’s likelihood of dying from the Black Death. Nearly 20% of those buried in Black Death graveyards were considered to be of short stature (DeWitte, S. N., & Hughes-Morey, G. 2012:Results). Because an adult’s stature can be a reflection of poor health or infection during development, those that were of short stature and died of the Black Death were likely more frail than others during that period and more susceptible to the plague. Also, there was a much lower survival rate in general before the Black Death. People died at young ages more commonly than they survived to be old men and women. In one study, only around 22 percent of the pre-Black Death samples were 40 years or older while the remaining 78 percent died at less than 40 years old (DeWitte, Sharon N. 2014:Results) With the already low survival rates and both LEH and short stature increasing in humans during the period just before the Black Death arrived, the stage was set for the disease to take the lives of millions in the coming years.

The Black Death, an pandemic of the bubonic plague, was one of history’s most catastrophic disease events. The bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium that finds its reservoir in rodents. Once a human is infected, symptoms show in swollen lymph nodes often in the groin, thigh, armpit, or neck. Those infected can also experience symptoms common to other infections such as fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. Nearly 70 percent of those infected died. Those who didn’t experienced spontaneous recoveries after their fever broke. The Black Death was spread, most scholars agree, from Asian marmots to black rats, and from the infected rat to the fleas feeding on them and lastly to humans when the infected rat population dies and the fleas had to find a new blood meal. Those who were frail more readily died from the infection than those who had stronger immune systems and fewer developmental stress markers (Benedictow, Ole J., 2005).

An example of this is the fact that following the Black Death’s reign the presence of LEH decreased from 71.8 percent before the Black Death to 57.7 percent after the Black Death. In addition to this decrease, male stature increased between the pre-Black Death and post-Black Death periods. This is likely because the Black Death targeted those who were physically weak, such as someone who had LEH or was of short stature and was a form of natural selection by killing off those who were weak and more susceptible to disease and infection. Though there was an increase in stature in males, there was a decrease of stature in females following the Black Death (DeWitte, Sharon N., 2017). However, another study shows that the Black Death not only disproportionately affected those with developmental stress markers, but females as well. Between the years 1349-1450 in Hainut, Belgium, the ratio of male to female mortality is 1.07:1, which means that more males than females died. Also, in the years that plague was not seen, the ratio raised to 1.18:1. During just plague years, the ratio changed to .94:1 and during just Black Death years, the ratio dropped again to .89:1. This means that plague, especially the Black Death, killed more females than males, which is not something that was common at the time Curtis DR, Roosen J, 2017). This could have played a role in the fact that female stature decreased; with the Black Death killing more females than males, it likely more easily killed women of tall stature than it did males of tall stature. This would have brought down the average stature in women following the Black Death. In another study on skeletal stress markers in post-Black Death populations, results showed an increase in periosteal lesions after the Black Death. While at first glance this seems as though health was deteriorating following the pandemic, there is a positive relationship between periosteal lesions and age (DeWitte, S. N., 2014:Discussion). With the knowledge that people were living longer after the Black Death, it is safe to assume that the increase in periosteal lesions simply had to do with the fact that older people have lived long enough to develop those markers.

After the Black Death, survival rates increased. In a study previously mentioned, over 25 percent of post Black-Death samples were 70 years or older with another 20 percent between 40 and 60 years old, a huge leap from the previous 22 percent between 40 and 70 (DeWitte, Sharon N., 2014). Though the bubonic plague had not been eradicated and would ravage Europe again and again over the next three hundred years, mortality rates were lower in each outbreak after the Black Death (DeWitte, S.N., 2014). In 1361 came the pestis secunda, the first outbreak of plague after the Black Death. While the Black Death killed more than a quarter of the European population, the pestis secunda only killed about 10 percent of Europe’s already dwindled population (Frith, John, The social impacts of the Black Death in Europe during the 14th century). The Black Death also helped people to understand a little more about infectious diseases. Though the common theories at the time were that the Black Death was the wrath of God on sinful people or from breathing bad air (the miasma theory), in 1374 Venice began the practice we now call quarantine. Isolation of the infected from the healthy occurred, and they also established ways to prevent infected ships from docking. In 1403 they began isolating travelers suspected to be infected in a hospital for 40 days, calling it the quarantena or quaranta giorni, which is where we got the term quarantine. Many countries followed Venice’s lead and established quarantine measures to prevent the spread of infection (Frith, John, Quarantine). One of the last outbreaks in the time period was The Great Plague of London, which killed 100,000 of London’s population. Not one of the outbreaks in the few centuries following the Black Death were as virulent or deadly (Frith, John, The Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666). This likely was because those who were most susceptible to the disease were killed between 1347-1351.

With millions wiped out, the survivors and their descendants were less frail than the pre-Black Death population. Because the Black Death killed those who were frail, the surviving population was less likely to die of an assortment of causes. Along with this factor playing into decreased mortality, there is also evidence that standards of living improved after the pandemic. With such a massive loss of human life, there was a lack of workers. This caused employers to raise wages to incentivize people to work for them. Wages increased at the end of the 1300s to their medieval peak. Employers even increased payments in kind, which are payments in goods such as food or extra clothing, or services. Not only was there a redistribution of wealth and people getting paid more than they ever had, there was also a drop in the prices of food, goods, and housing. People had the money to buy better food and to eat it fresh. This more than likely caused post-Black Death populations to increasingly become healthier and less prone to frailty (DeWitte, S.N., 2014).

The Black Death is an example of how diseases with widespread, catastrophic fatality can leave a lasting mark not only on the history books but in the way humans see and understand disease, how we physically react to them, and how so many deaths can improve survivorship in future generations. Though the Black Death was a horror to those living at the time, and even for those of us living now to even think about, because it happened humans began to understand infection slowly and began to take safety measures to prevent further infection.

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The Black Death: Human history's biggest catastrophe?. (2019, Jul 08). Retrieved June 25, 2021 , from
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