Throughout the early 1300s, Europe was thriving and progressing forward each day. The economy was on the rise, security was getting stronger, and Churches were building mile-high Cathedrals every which way you looked. Europe was on its way to hosting world powers even potentially until death swept across the entire continent taking the lives of millions.
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Between the years of 1347 and 1351, an unfamiliar plague killed a third of the world’s entire population, an estimate of 25-40 million people. In 1899, French biologist Alexandre Yersin came to the discovery of the bacteria that was the cause of this disease- Yersinia pestis. While this disease was deadly, the causes of the spread of the disease may have been even been more fatal. The world changed drastically due to this horrific event in many ways, with some even having positive results.
In today’s society, we now know the deadly disease as The Black Death, a nickname coming from one of the effects of the disease. Victims would have large black boils swell upon their bodies, typically around their necks and armpits, that would release puss and blood. Other symptoms consisted of fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and painsand then, in short order, death. We also now know that there were three different types of the plague- bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The bubonic plague was the most common type, hence the reasoning for all three types often being categorized under just bubonic. It’s named bubonic after it’s symptom bubobes, the earlier mentioned black swellings on the body. The second type, the pneumonic plague, infected the lungs and was very contagious when victims coughed. Due to the disease primarily attacking the lungs, the infected often coughed often and would infect the air by doing so. 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 third type was called the septicemic plague, which consisted of the blood being poisoned by bacteria or toxins they produce, which could be a result of either the bubonic or pneumonic plague. The septicemic plague was less common but had a very high fatality rate all the same. According to Author Diane Williamson, the fatality rate of the septicemic plague fell between 20-40%, with a 100% rate for those untreated, which was often the case.
The bacteria Yersinia pestis is carried by rodent fleas, living in their digestive season. These fleas would often infect humans and animals by biting into their skin. Humans can also be infected by handling or being with or around infected animals. The most common animal to carry the disease, especially during the 1300s, were rats. Rats were everywhere in big cities during this time mainly in part of the vast overpopulation of cities. Overpopulation had many positive effects on things such as growth and the economy but also caused negative impacts, specifically on sanitation. The terrible sanitation in the cities was the primary cause for the surge in numbers of rats in cities, providing great living environments for said rats. For example, the growth of the cities brought in more slaughterhouses to feed all the people needed, leading to animal entrails and carcasses lying around streets for rabid animals to help decompose. Also, there was not enough sewage and rarely any plumbing in the cities, leading to human waste being everywhere in alleys, often just falling from windows in buildings above. Buildings during this time were built very poorly as well, giving easy access to rats and fleas. It’s also worth noting that bathing was not common at all yet, causing a lot of filth. With people dying left and right at the time, the dead were stacked in ditches or other places, almost always together as there weren’t enough people with the will to take care of the dead and infected bodies. Even when bodies were buried, a lot of time it wasn’t deep enough and wild animals would come along to dig up the corpses. All of these were significant attractions for fleas and the rats carrying them to come to the big cities.
Rural areas were also very vulnerable to the disease for many reasons. During the years leading up to the plague, there were many droughts throughout Europe resulting in reduced growth of crops. This ultimately caused awful harvests, which had many problems that came along with it. For one, without strong crops people became less malnourished, making them much more susceptible to the disease. A smaller amount of crops also led to the large population of fleas and rats making their way into cities. The droughts also contributed to the overpopulation of cities, as many families had to give up their farms and move to look for better income. Homes in rural areas were built poorly as well, the majority of them being made up of just mud bricks and any resources that could be found, creating effortless access for rats and fleas.
During the plague years, the disease spread very quickly in large part to ships and their transportation of the disease. 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 as the rest had passed due to their symptoms. The last living member of the boat then managed to infect and spread the disease through all of Norway. 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.
Towards the end of 1350 and the beginning of 1351, the quick and vast widespread of the Black Death finally stopped. There were no significant cures found or particular reasons as to why, it merely just ceased. The final toll the disease had was excruciating, as it obliterated a third of the world’s population and hurt the economy desperately. While the population was a significant reason for the spread of the disease, it may have also contributed a lot to the end of it. Due to the elimination of a lot of the population, there was a much small number of people that could catch the disease and pass it along. Less crowding also meant fewer attractions for disease-carrying beings such as trash and waste. It’s also likely that the survivors of the disease had built an immunity to the disease during the years that it had its strongest pursuance. The disease had many effects on the world, and while it was a major gut punch to the growth of Europe, would just stall the process.
A significant effect of the disease was the much-needed increase in sanitation in cities and homes of people everywhere. People began to bathe on a much more regular basis, and much more thoroughly. This also led to the unbelievable, but real medical advances of washing hands. It was very uncommon for people to wash their hands during this time, but because of the impact, the disease made an immediate change was made in that department. Cities also made attempts at trying to clean the streets and rid of all types of waste to keep areas clean. Cities began finding places for trash and sewage outside of cities, to try and keep cleaner and safer living environments. Another innovative advancement in sanitation was the establishment of more secure and private burial practices, providing better security to the bodies of the dead and cleaner areas in the city.
Another impactful advancement during the time came in the fields of education and medicine. After the devastation that was the Black Death, people needed to know many things, but mainly how it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. A large number of schools were built as education became more important, and the study of medicine became much more popular. People searched for ways to stop the epidemic from happening again and trying to come up with many prevention methods. People looked into treatments as well, for emergency reasons. Along with better schools, better hospitals were built and more people joined the field.
The Black Death was chaotic and terrifying for all, and it impacted the beliefs of many. People began to lose faith in God and their Churches, as they looked to place blame for what had happened, and questioned why they hadn’t been saved. The Church lost a lot of leaders to the plague, and the number of people interested in joining the Church decreased substantially. Most of the clergy that had not fled their posts contracted the deadly disease when taking care of its victims. With fewer priests but more and quicker deaths, Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the Black Death and allowed confession to one another. The new priests after the epidemic were often less educated and more inexperienced than their predecessors, which led to a worse reputation of the church. Ultimately, the poor reputation of the Church during this time had a tremendous impact on the enlightenment.
The economy was another area that took a deep hit from the Black Death, and economy that was previously thriving. The economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation very quickly. Due to the fact that it was so difficult, but mainly dangerous, to receive goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from elsewhere skyrocketed. Also, due to the illness and death of many, workers became exceedingly scarce. Even peasants felt the effects of the new rise in wages. The demand for people to work farms was so high that it threatened the success and rebuild of cities. Serfs were no longer tied to one employer; if one left the land, another farmer would instantly hire them because of the vast need for workers. Many farmers and landowners had to make changes to make the situation more profitable for the peasants and to keep them on their land. In general, wages outpaced prices and the standard of living was subsequently raised.
During the Black Death, governments across Europe were confused and were forced to handle situations they didn’t know how to. At this time the Church was much more powerful than governments and the Pope was the highest authority. When large amounts of people lost faith in the Church and its leaders, many turned to the government for answers. The government was lost during this time and made few decisions, and the only advice they had to give to people was to lock themselves away. When the government had no solutions or funds to help, the people turned their backs on them as well, due to the part that the government was a total wreck and just as lost as everyone else.
A very compelling area that was impacted dramatically by the Black Death was architecture. Due to the loss of many high-level masons, artists, and architects, the field required a new wave of workers to come in and handle the workload. With them, the new professionals brought new inspirations, motivation, and ideas that shaped that the new future and design of Europe. After seeing the effects the disease had, architects were able to figure out how to build stronger buildings and homes, making it more difficult for fleas and rats to gain access to.
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. However, 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 after the fact. Like nearly all tragedies, the Black Death came out of nowhere full of devastation, followed by change and hope.
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