According to scholars at the University of Paris, the Black Death is created on March 20, 1345, from what they call “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius, occurring on the 20th of March 1345″. The Black Death, also known as the Plague, swept across Europe, the Middle East and Asia during the 14th century, leaving an estimated 25 million dead in its wake.
READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History: Timeline
Despite what these 14th-century scholars claimed the most common ailment known as the Black Death is caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. The plague was carried by fleas that usually traveled on rats, but jumped off to other mammals when the rat died. It most likely first appeared in humans in Mongolia around 1320—although recent research suggests it may have existed thousands of years earlier in Europe. Usually, people who came down with the plague first complained of headaches, fever and chills. Their tongues often appeared a whitish color before there was severe swelling of the lymph nodes. Finally, black and purple spots appeared on the skin of the afflicted; death could follow within a week. Later, a pneumonic form of the plague developed that was less common but killed 95 percent of the people who contracted it.
After the nomadic tribes of Mongolia were devastated by the plague, it moved south and east to China and India. Wherever it went, the death toll was high. It is thought that the disease made its way to Europe in 1346. In one famous incident, the Tatars, a group of Turks, were battling Italians from Genoa in the Middle East when the Tatars were suddenly stuck down by the plague. Reportedly, they began catapulting dead bodies over the Genoans’ walls toward their enemy, who fled back to Italy with the disease. Although this account may not be true, it is certain that rats carrying the plague hitched rides on ships from Asia and the Middle East to Europe. In port cities everywhere, the Black Death began to strike. In Venice, 100,000 people died in total, with as many as 600 dying every day at the peak of the outbreak.
READ MORE: Rats Didn't Spread the Black Death—It Was Humans
In 1347, the disease worked its way to France and Paris lost an estimated 50,000 people. The following year, Britain fell victim. Typically, countries would believe themselves to be superior and immune to infection when their neighbors came down with the plague, but soon found they were mistaken as the Black Death traveled across Eurasia, spreading devastation in its wake. By the time the worst was over in 1352, one third of the continent’s population was dead.
Devastation on this scale brought out the worst in people. Often, it was not the movement of stars that was blamed for the disease, but the minorities in the community. Witches and gypsies were frequent targets. Jewish people were tortured and burned to death by the thousands for supposedly causing the Black Death. Preachers claimed that the disease was God’s punishment for immorality. Many turned to prayer and those that did survive ascribed their good luck to their devotion, resulting in the rise of splinter religions and cults in the aftermath of the plague’s destruction. Alternatively, some resorted to useless home cures to try to avoid the disease, bathing in urine or menstrual blood in an attempt to deter it.
The plague popped up periodically until the 1700s, but never again reached epidemic proportions after the 14th century.
READ MORE: How 5 of History's Worst Pandemics Finally Ended
The Black Death: The Worst Event in European History
The Black Death was an epidemic which spread across almost all of Europe in the years 1346-53. The plague killed over a third of the entire population. It has been described as the worst natural disaster in European history and is responsible for changing the course of that history to a great degree.
There is no dispute that the Black Death, otherwise known as the “Great Mortality, ” or simply “The Plague,” was a trans-continental disease which swept Europe and killed millions during the fourteenth century. However, there is now argument over exactly what this epidemic was. The traditional and most widely accepted answer is the bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, which scientists found in samples taken from French plague pits where bodies were buried.
Black Death is created, allegedly - HISTORY
In the fourteenth century, Europe suffered numerous catastrophes that would go down in history as "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" a reference to the book of Revelation in which four great ordeals which Earth had to endure in its final days before judgement. The Black Death stands out as the most dramatic and lifestyle changing event during this century. This was a widespread epidemic of the Bubonic Plague that passed from Asia and through Europe in the mid fourteenth century. The first signs of the Black Plague in Europe were present around the fall of 1347. In the span of three years, the Black Death killed one third of all the people in Europe. This traumatic population change coming into the Late Middle Ages caused great changes in European culture and lifestyle.
The Black Death was one of many catastrophes to occur following an increase in population during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300). The population of Europe grew from 38 million to 74 million in this time. Prior to the onset of the fourteenth century turmoil, Europe seemed to be in a state of growth in both agriculture and structure in society. Cities began to rise with artisans, farmers, and other crafts people specializing in their own field of work. The daily life contact between European people in the cities and surrounding villages facilitated the spread of this disease, as people did not possess sufficient medical knowledge to prevent the spread of the disease with any great success. The conditions in the cities also set the stage for disease. Waste accumulated in the streets for lack of sewer systems. Houses were crowded next to each other. One could not use the rivers for drinking water due to pollution. With all of these conditions arising from the High Middle Ages, it was only a matter of time before the population was curbed by disaster. The Black Death marks the barrier between the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages, and the difference in Europe before and after the Black Death is clear.
The origins of the Black Death can be traced back to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia in the 1320s. The cause of this sudden eruption of the plague is not exactly known. From the desert, it spread out in all directions. Of most importance was the spread eastward to China. China suffered an emergence of bubonic plague during the early 1330s. During the expansion of trade during the Early and High Middle ages, trade routes with China were strengthened and ventured greatly. European traders, particularly those from the Italian city states, traveled the Black Sea region regularly. Surviving documents show that one group of traders from Genoa arrived in Sicily In October of 1347, fresh from a voyage to China. This was most likely the introduction of the plague to European lands. Along with the Chinese goods on board, the traders carried the bacterium yersinia pestis in the rats on board as well as in some of the sailors themselves. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.
From Sicily, the plague spread at an alarming rate. The speed at which it spread and killed, as well as the horror which accompanied the diseased, caused a panic in the Italian population. Families were forced to abandon members who were sick. Lawyers refused to form wills for the dying. Entire monasteries were wiped out when they attempted to care for the dying, which caused great fear in charitable organizations. Other European countries looked toward Italians as being the cause of the plague, and there were many incidences of healthy Italian travelers and traders being exiled from villages or even killed out of fear of the plague spreading outside Italy. These measures proved futile, and the plague spread farther and farther north. Wherever trade routes existed, normally the plague would follow, radiating out from Italy. The Plague reached France shortly after Italy. Marseilles felt the effects in January of 1348 and Paris was infected in summer of the same year. England felt the effects in September of 1348. 1348 Europe suffered the most. By the end of 1348, Germany, France, England, Italy, and the low countries had all felt the plague. Norway was infected in 1349, and Eastern European countries began to fall victim during the early 1350s. Russia felt the effects later in 1351. By the end of this circular path around Europe, one third of all people in the infected areas had perished.
The people of Europe did not know that such a calamity was the result of a microscopic bacillus bacterium. This organism was not new to the world in the fourteenth century, it had existed for millions of years prior. Europe actually had already felt a blow from the same plague earlier in the 6th century. The emergence at this particular time has unknown causes, yet some speculate that the "mini ice age", a climatic change felt in Europe prior to the Black Death, may have served in the process. Rodents are very susceptible to infection from the bacteria, especially common rats. These rats are also host to parasitic fleas, which live off of the blood of other animals. The flea is not affected by the bacterium, yet still carries it in the blood extracted from the rat host in its digestive tract. The flea's ability to carry the disease without death makes it a perfect conduit of transfer from organism to organism. When these rats inhabit urban areas or boats in order to live off of stored food supplies, they bring the fleas with them. Fleas leave the rat, which also dies shortly from the disease, and moves on to a new host humans.
Once the flea bites a human, infected blood from the rat is introduced to the healthy blood of the human, and the bacteria spreads. Death occurs in less than a week for humans. A high fever, aching limbs, and fatigue mark the early stages of infection. Eventually, the lymph nodes of the neck, groin, and armpit areas swell and turn black. Those black swellings on victims are what give the Black Death its name. The victim begins to vomit blood and in some instances suffer hysteria from fever and terror. Exposure to any body fluids means exposure to the bacterium, and thus spreading the disease is very easy through coughing victims. The victim dies shortly after the lymph nodes swell until bursting within the body. Within a European village, by the time the initial carrier of the disease had perished, the disease would have already taken early stages in several other individuals, making prevention extreamly difficult.
The cycles of the seasons corresponded to cycles of infection. As winter approached, colder temperatures killed fleas and caused rats to seek dormancy. This gave the false appearance of an "all clear" in areas that had been ravaged by plague the previous summer. The disease was not gone, it was simply dormant for a few months. Europe was then taken by surprise with new outbreaks in new areas as temperatures again made for a hospitable environment for flea and rat populations.
The idea that the Black Death was solely caused by the bubonic strain of plague has been questioned. The bubonic plague is actually the weakest strain of known plagues. The other two strains are the septicaemic plague, which infects the circulatory system in victims, and the pneumonic plague, which infects the respiratory system. The fact that accounts from the time indicate that the Black Death killed virtually all infected people raises doubt. The bubonic plague is not as fatal compared to the other two strains (which have mortality rates close to 100%). The consideration to make is that malnutrition plays a major role in the furthering of the consequences of infection. Those groups most ravaged by the Black Death had already suffered from famine earlier in the fourteenth century as storms and drought caused crop failures. These malnourished peasants fell victim with little resistance from their weak immune systems.
Most first hand written accounts that are present today read like this one from the site of the first plague cases in Italy, Messina: "Here not only the "burn blisters" appeared, but there developed gland boils on the groin, the thighs, the arms, or on the neck. At first these were of the size of a hazel nut, and developed accompanied by violent shivering fits, which soon rendered those attacked so weak that they could not stand up, but were forced to lie in their beds consumed by violent fever. Soon the boils grew to the size of a walnut, then to that of a hen's egg or a goose's egg, and they were exceedingly painful, and irritated the body, causing the sufferer to vomit blood. The sickness lasted three days, and on the fourth, at the latest, the patient succumbed". The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote graphically about the Black Death in The Decameron. He describes how "More wretched still were the circumstances of the common people and , for a great part, of the middle class, for, confined to their homes either by hope of safety or by poverty, and restricted to their own sections, they fell sick daily by thousands. There, devoid of help, or care, they dies almost without redemption. A great many breathed their last in the public streets, day and night a large number perished in their homes, and it was only by the stench of their decaying bodies that they proclaimed their death to their neighbors. Everywhere the city was teeming with corpses. "
When the plague first entered an area, mourners of the deceased still prepared coffins and conducted ceremonies for their loved ones. Within weeks, in response to desperation to control the sickness as well as sheer volume of the dead, officials had to resort to mass graves. There was not nearly enough consecrated ground for each victim to have an individual plot, and so enormous trenches were dug into which layer upon layer of dead bodies were lain. The trench was topped off with a small layer of soil, and the morbid process continued. Pope Clement VI even consecrated the entire Rhone river so that corpses could be thrown into it for lack of earth. Those in the peasant class who saw horrors such as these could not accept that a loving God could inflict such a plague upon His people, and considered it to be a punishment from an angry God. Some peasants resorted to magic spells, charms, and talismans. Some people burned incense or other herbs as they believed that they overpowering smell of the dead victims was the source of the disease. Some people even tried to "drive the disease away" with sound from church bells and canon fire. Jews were easy targets for people to blame, and numerous instances of Jew persecution and execution occured. Churchmen, and public officials considered the disease to be just that a disease. They took measures to quarantine the infection by walling up homes that had members with disease. In Venice and Milan, ships coming in from areas in which disease had been rampant were diverted to separate islands. This action had limited success, but still prevented the disease more than in other areas which did not enforce this type of quarantine. The wealthy were able to leave infected areas and established residence afar. A rather ingenious method of prevention was taken up by pople Clement VI who sat between two large fires at his home in Avignon. Because excess heat destroys bacterium, he was taking the safest, though slightly ludicrous, measures. In the long run, the only "cure" for this epidemic was time, and it seemed, the shortage of new hosts for the disease.
When the Black Death had finally passed out of Western Europe in 1350, the populations of different regions had been reduced greatly. Some villages of Germany were completely wiped out, while other areas of Germany remained virtually untouched. Italy had been hit the hardest by the plague because of the dense population of merchants and active lifestyle within the city states. For example, the city state of Florence was reduced by 1/3 in population within the first six months of infection. By the end, as much as 75% of the population had perished, which left the economy in shambles. Widespread death was not limited to the lower classes. In Avignon, 1/3 of the cardinals were dead. Overall, 25 million people died in just under five years between 1347 and 1352. It is important to realize that the plague had not entirely vanished, only the primary epidemic. Recurrences of bubonic plague occurred every so often and had a traumatic effect on population even then. The plague did not entire vanish as we know it until the late fifteenth century, which allowed for populations to finally begin to rise to the heights that they were at before the Horseman of Death came to Europe.
The Black Death brought about great change in attitude, culture, and general lifestyle in Europe. A group of individuals known as the Flagellants traveled from town to town beating themselves and inflicting any other punishment that they believed would help atone for the wrongs that they believed had brought about God's wrath. This group was condemned by Pope Clement VI in 1349 and was crushed soon after. The general morbid attitude of the people following the disaster was shown in Tomb engravings. Instead of the traditional engravings of the enclosed being dressed in armor or fine outfits, now carved images of decaying bodies were present. Paintings of the later fourteenth century also demonstrate morbid obsessions of those who had endured the time of the plague. One of the greatest effects of the Black Death was in the realm of laboring classes. The shortage of labor to work land for landowners created opportunity for those living in areas afar as subsistence farmers. They moved to farming communities and along with already present farming peasants, were able to win better working conditions through negotiating and rebelling against landowners. This set Western Europe along the path of diverging classes. The main theme that one can derive from the Black Death is that mortality is ever present, and humanity is fragile, attitudes that are ever present in Western Nations.
Marks, Geoffrey J. The Medieval Plague the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Doubleday, New York 1971.
Oleksy, Walter G.The Black Plague New Yoirk, F. Watts 1982.
Dunn, John M.Life During the Black Death Lucent books inc. 2000.
Rowling, Marjorie. Life in Medieval Times Perigee, New York 1979.
Tuchman, Barbara W. A Distant Mirror the Calamitous 14th Century Random House, New York, 1978
The Black Death: How Rats, Fleas and Germs Almost Wiped Out Europe
More than six centuries ago, disaster struck the people of Europe. A deadly plague, traveling west along trade routes from Central Asia, struck the continent with such force it wiped out entire villages and killed as many as twenty-five million people. The “Black Death,” as it was called, not only depopulated Europe but set the stage for profound societal change.
The disease that was later called the “Black Death” is thought to have originated on the steppes of Central Asia, gradually brought westward along trade routes. The first appearance of the plague in Europe was at Genoa in October 1347. One hypothesis is that Italian traders caught the plague during the Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Caffa, where the attackers allegedly hurled the bodies of plague victims over the city walls. The traders fled the city, returning to Genoa with the disease. Within months, 60 percent of the city population was dead.
The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio lived through the first wave of plague that swept through nearby Florence in 1348. The city made extensive preparations to avoid the disease, including refusing to let the plague-stricken enter the city. Regardless, the disease manifested itself that spring, almost certainly due to the warmer weather, and increasing rat and flea activity.
Boccaccio described a world where ignorance about the plague and how to combat it spread death and paranoia. People thought that merely touching the clothing of the deceased was enough to contract plague, and shunned contact with even friends and family to avoid even the chance of contracting it. City dwellers walked through the streets sniffing perfumes to avoid the smell of the dead and the dying. The plague killed the infected so fast they died in the streets, while other died at home, unnoticed, until the smell of their decaying corpses alerted their neighbors.
From Italy the plague swept across Europe, replicating the tragedy of Genoa over and over again. The plague crossed the continent in waves and from multiple points of entry, not just Genoa, but typically through trading routes. By August 1348, it had reached southern England, and by 1350 had breached Scandinavia. By 1353, it had reached Moscow. Overall, the Black Death is thought to have killed one-third of Europe’s people, or twenty-five million people. In England, it killed half the population.
What was the plague? Scientists believe it was the bubonic plague, also known as the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Yersinia pestis typically infects the Oriental rat flea, which in turn infects small rodents such as mice, rodents and squirrels. As their rodent hosts die, infected fleas seek and bite humans. Alternately, bubonic plague can be transferred from human to human via bacterium in the infected person’s cough, although this is rare and requires extremely close contact.
A person infected with plague develops symptoms within two to six days, while a person exposed via cough can develop it within one to three days. The mortality rate for plague in the United States before antibiotic treatments were discovered was approximately 66 percent. There is no vaccine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Patients develop sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes (called buboes). This form is usually the result of an infected flea bite. The bacteria multiply in the lymph node closest to where the bacteria entered the human body. If the patient is not treated with appropriate antibiotics, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body.” Left untreated, bubonic plague can turn into septicemic plague, as the plague bacteria multiply and cause fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock, internal bleeding and organ death.
A lack of medical knowledge, or even basic scientific awareness, helped spread the plague. The people of the Middle Ages certainly did not believe or even conceive of microscopic organisms capable of causing disease in human beings. As a result the entire epidemiological chain, from Yersinia pestis to Oriental rat fleas to rats and finally to humans, was incomprehensible. Humans instead blamed other sources, including miasma (bad air), foreigners, minority groups such as Jews and gypsies, and society’s general wickedness being punished by God.
The plague profoundly altered society. Society buckled as people at all levels, from nobles to peasants, died in large numbers. Renters died and were not replaced, weakening the power of the landed gentry. Peasant revolts took place in England, France, Belgium and Italy. Entire villages were wiped out. In many places, the plague killed healthy adults in largely agrarian communities, creating a shortage of food. People in plague-stricken zones avoided others, weakening the socioeconomic fabric of villages and communities.
Ironically, the plague did have some benefit. Plague survivors enjoyed a higher standard of living, due to a sudden overabundance of land and goods. Rigid societies became more flexible as deaths at the top encouraged upward mobility. A attitude of questioning authority and existing dogmas came into being, as a result of the church and state’s inability to contain the outbreaks. The plague is even credited for changing attitudes towards life and death, with the result that the wealthy became patrons of artists, writers and architects—the foundation of the Renaissance.
Outbreaks of the plague continued for the next three hundred years, including the Great Plague of London in 1665, which killed a quarter of the city’s population. Yet as widespread and deadly as it was, the plague never became a permanent resident of Europe. This and other factors, such as the unusual speed at which it spread and the lack of recorded rat die-offs, suggest to some scientists an Ebola-like hemorrhagic disease was actually responsible.
The Black Death was a tremendous tragedy for Europe, but it was also the impetus for societal upheaval. The Europe that emerged was traumatized but more dynamic than ever, set on a slow path of philosophical, scientific and geographic discovery that eventually spread worldwide. In a way, the survivors of the plague inoculated humanity against the future outbreaks of disease through the spread of science.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: Peter Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain
Origins Of The Black Death Traced Back To China, Gene Sequencing Has Revealed
Gene sequencing, from which scientists can gather hereditary data of organisms, has revealed that the Black Death, often referred to as The Plague, which reduced the world&rsquos total population by about 100 million, originated from China over 2000 years ago, scientists from several countries wrote in the medical journal Nature Genetics. Genome sequencing has allowed the researchers to reconstruct plague pandemics from the Black Death to the late 1800s.
Black Death and The Plague &ndash the plague is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The Black Death is one huge plague event (pandemic) in history.
The Black Death is known as one of the deadliest and widespread pandemics in history. It peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350 and is thought to have been a bubonic plague outbreak caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium. It reached the Crimea in 1346 and most likely spread via fleas on black rats that travelled on merchant ships. It soon spread through the Mediterranean and Europe. The Black Death is thought have destroyed 30% to 60% of Europe&rsquos population &ndash experts say it took 150 years for Europe to recover its population size. The plague came back several times until the 19th century, when it left Europe for good. Most victims died with two to seven days of becoming infected.
The authors in this new study say the plague evolved around the area of China over 2000 years ago and spread globally several times as deadly pandemics. They compared 17 complete plague genome sequences as well as 933 variable DNA sites on a unique worldwide collection of bacterial strains (plague isolates), allowing them to follow pandemics that took place in history around the world, and to work out the age of different waves of them.
The majority of pandemics were associated with known major historical events, such as the Black Death. As none of the collections of isolates from individual scientific institutions were globally representative, the scientists explained that in order to understand the historical sources of plagues, all the institutions would have to work together.
In order to prevent bioterrorism, access to Yersinia pestis &ndash the bacterium known to be the cause of the plagues &ndash is seriously restricted therefore, assembling a comprehensive collection of them is impossible. An international team of scientists from the UK, USA, Ireland, Germany, Madagascar, China and France had to collaborate for a decentralized analysis of DNA samples.
Their findings reveal a detailed history of the pandemic spread of a bacterial disease in a way never seen before.
Pandemic infectious diseases have affected humans ever since we set foot on this planet, the authors explain. They have shaped the form of civilizations.
The researchers reveal that the plague bacillus developed near or in China, and via multiple epidemics was transmitted through several different routes, such as into West Asia through the Silk Road and Africa between 1409 and 1433 by Chinese travelers under explorer Zheng He. The Black Death made its way through Asia, Europe and Africa from 1347 to 1351, and probably brought the world&rsquos then 450 million population down to 350 million. Approximately 50% of China&rsquos population perished, while Europe&rsquos went down by a third and Africa by an eighth.
University of Cork communiqué writes:
The last plague pandemic of 1894 spread to India and radiated to many parts of the globe, including the USA, which was infected by a single radiation still persisting today in wild rodents. Detailed analyses within the USA and Madagascar showed that subsequent country-specific evolution could be tracked by unique mutations that have accumulated in their genomes, which should prove useful to trace future disease outbreaks.
Project leader, Professor Mark Achtman, Department of Microbiology, based in the Environmental Research Institute in University College Cork, Ireland, said:
What I felt was so amazing about the results is that we could link the genetic information so accurately to major historical events.
&ldquoRoutes of transmission of the plague from Hong Kong since 1894.&rdquo ( Map)
&ldquoYersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity&rdquo
Giovanna Morelli, Yajun Song, Camila J Mazzoni, Mark Eppinger, Philippe Roumagnac, David M Wagner, Mirjam Feldkamp, Barica Kusecek, Amy J Vogler, Yanjun Li, Yujun Cui, Nicholas R Thomson, Thibaut Jombart, Raphael Leblois, Peter Lichtner, Lila Rahalison, Jeannine M Petersen, Francois Balloux, Paul Keim, Thierry Wirth, Jacques Ravel, Ruifu Yang, Elisabeth Carniel & Mark Achtman
Published online: 31 October 2010 | doi:10.1038/ng.705
How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History
E ven before the Black Death, aka the plague, Europe had fallen on tough times: The 14th century began with a mini ice age and torrential rain, ruining crops and spreading starvation among tens of millions of serfs working hereditary land for nobles in a centuries-old feudal system overseen by the pope. Then came the plague, killing half the people across the continent.
By the time the plague wound down in t h e latter part of the century, the world had utterly changed: The wages of ordinary farmers and craftsmen had doubled and tripled, and nobles were knocked down a notch in social status. The church’s hold on society was damaged, and Western Europe’s feudal system was on its way out — an inflection point that opened the way to the Reformation and the even greater worker gains of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did?
Since Covid-19 broke out three months ago, experts and politicians have said that it’s unprecedented or, when pushed, compared it with SARS and MERS, the most recent coronavirus pandemics. Many have cited lessons of the Great Influenza, the 1918 flu that killed about 50 million people around the world, about 2% of the population. But the plague was by far the deadliest pandemic of the past thousand years, killing a much higher percentage of the population with a far greater mortality rate than any other major pandemic. And while it was categorically grim, it was also a catalyst for the brighter, centuries-long history that followed, right up to today.
A primary worry about the coronavirus is whether it will leave permanent marks when it is finally beaten, and if so, what sort. Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way that 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did? It’s too early to say with any certainty, but there are clues of a changed reality to come in the United States and abroad, socially and economically.
T he plague struck in 1347, traveling with the fleas on black rats aboard a galley from Crimea to Sicily. From there, the disease went on other ships to Venice and Marseilles. It was in England by 1348 and reached Scotland and Scandinavia the following year. At the time, Europe was already miserable. Like now, a change in climate was a contributor in this case, not warming, but cold — the Little Ice Age, a centuries-long plunge in temperatures across the planet that wrecked the grain crops, leaving millions with nothing to eat, and stirred some to murderous attacks on the nobles. Layered on top, the Hundred Years War between France and England caused general upheaval. When the plague arrived, European society, already on its back, all but disintegrated.
In 1352, the Black Death petered out, having killed a third of Europe. But the pestilence was not finished. It returned five times before the end of the century, ultimately killing at least half the continent’s pre-plague population of 80 million people—in some places, virtually everyone.
The waves were the most insidious thing. You thought you were past the worst, until you weren’t. Take the Tuscan city of Pistoia, ravaged by pestilences in 1339, 1347, 1348, 1357, 1389, 1393, and 1399. By then, the population had plunged from 40,000 to 14,000, a 65% decline, writes David Hackett Fischer in The Great Wave. But then the disease struck again in 1410, 1418, 1423, 1436, and 1457. The eruptions across Europe, though less frequent, continued through the 17th century and until the 1850s in the Middle East.
One consequence was a desertion of the countryside. Survivors abandoned inferior, outlying lands and moved to the city, attracted by fixed infrastructure near rivers and coastlines and the newly unoccupied houses of the well-to-do, which peasants now moved into. They dined using silver utensils and claimed the deceased families’ livestock, tools, and sometimes machinery, writes Barbara Tuchman in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
For these peasants, there was a new living standard and social standing that no one could have expected. In a 2007 paper, Sevket Pamuk, an economic historian at the London School of Economics, wrote that the plague pushed up the whole structure of wages and set the stage for the tumultuous labor wars of the Industrial Revolution. In England and France, textile workers and artisans won shorter hours and double and triple their pre-plague pay. The landed rich in both countries passed laws to keep the peasants in line, but in the face of the new economic reality, the statutes were ignored. “In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary,” Tuchman wrote.
Attitudes toward the Church changed as well. The relentless rains and famine in the early part of the century had already shaken people’s faith in the pope. Now came “the end of an age of submission,” Tuchman wrote. “To that extent, the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world had become more interconnected than it had ever been. Never was there the volume and scale of commerce and people among nations. That age closed with the two world wars but resumed on steroids over the past three decades — a period of massive globalization in which manufacturing parts seem to come from everywhere and undergo assembly anywhere.
Now, in a new lurch back, the world of Covid-19, far more suspicious of dependence on supply chains, seems likely to be a new turning point, a trigger of fateful social and economic change that we can only ponder. One thing that seems certain is that the virus will accelerate forces already in play.
Even before Covid-19, the U.S. and Chinese economies had been decoupling, driven by the Trump-instigated trade war. There was resistance: Members of the intellectual and corporate classes argued that while globalization had eliminated swaths of U.S. jobs, it had also lifted hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty and created vast wealth. It seemed mindless and immoral to throw out the whole system when tinkering could relieve inadvertent inequities. But the post-virus United States seems likely to shun such ambivalence and favor self-reliant production located within reach. “We start breaking back into little pieces,” Paul Saffo, a futurist at Stanford University, told me.
This does not mean that China’s footprint will shrink. Rather, the post-coronavirus world seems likely to feature a taller China, convinced of its superior resilience. Behind it is likely to be Europe, resentfully let down by a go-it-alone United States that, unlike in prior global crises, has pulled in and not led the world response. Regardless of who follows Trump to power, Europeans will not want to subject themselves again to that geopolitical vulnerability. Already, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, the virus has transformed China into a “softpower superpower.” Sam Brennan, director of the risks and foresight group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adds, “This really could be a decline-of-the-West moment.”
As an unexpected catalyst for geopolitical change, the transformation would unfold over many generations. Branko Milanovic, a professor at the City University of New York, told me that it took two centuries for the Western Roman Empire to disintegrate into feudalism, “and that was under the pressure of war, plus two plagues.”
In the bigger social picture, the past two centuries have been all about a dramatic economic shift in which people largely stopped crafting and growing goods at home and instead congregated for work in factories and offices. In the 1810s, when weavers were automated out of their jobs, they arose in what became known as the Luddite rebellion. Britain put down the uprising by hanging some of its members and shipping off others to Australia.
The coronavirus is vastly speeding up the latest wave of automation. Robotization is going ahead faster in restaurants, factories, warehouses, and other businesses, all in a frenzy to reduce risk and save labor costs, the Brookings Institution said in a report last week. All of that is postindustrial. But we are also experiencing a shift back to the pre–Industrial Age, with large parts of the economy based in homes — and vehicles. Both workers and their employers are becoming accustomed to the work-from-home movement, and much has already been said about how this jump seems permanent. What has been discussed less is the coming reverberation in cities, built up over centuries into metropolises of gigantic office and residential buildings whose valuations could change dramatically. It is hard to imagine a repeat of the age of the plague, when the answer was that poor people from the countryside moved in. But new uses will have to emerge for lesser-occupied if not abandoned office buildings.
With the return to the home, we are asked to acquiesce to a different kind of intrusion: software that allows companies to monitor who is actually working. That is no accident. The post-virus world is likely to be ever more Orwellian. For the first time in history, governments can actively surveil and respond to everyone and punish those who defy public ordinances — such as health orders. Just as people have come to expect cameras recording their movements on the street since 9/11, Americans in the post-Covid-19 world may see nothing unusual about more intimate measures like public monitoring of their temperature and blood pressure.
Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English diarist, wrote of a London epidemic in 1665, “The plague makes us cruel, as dogs, one to another.”
Public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, writing in the Financial Times, pushes back on this coming world of heightened surveillance. We would achieve control of pandemics, he argues, but also empower governments to know too much. In places like North Korea, for instance, police could monitor public attitudes to a speech by leader Kim Jong Un. If you are boiling over with rage, he writes, “you are done for.” What is to prevent so-inclined future American leaders from abusing the system to gauge and respond to their own public resonance?
“Revolution sucks,” Stanford’s Saffo told me, and a number of thinkers say the transformation we are living through won’t be different. During the plague, Jews were massacred across Europe, falsely accused of poisoning wells. In an outbreak of disease in 4th-century BC Athens, people “became contemptuous of everything, both sacred and profane,” wrote the historian Thucydides, quoted by Charles Mann in his book 1491. Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century English diarist, wrote of a London epidemic in 1665, “The plague makes us cruel, as dogs, one to another.”
Today, says Noel Johnson, an economics professor at George Mason and co-author of a paper last year on the Black Death, loathsome behavior lives on in the scapegoating and attacking of Asians and immigrants. He predicts that pogroms could follow in the virus and post-virus era, running “the gamut from expulsions to overt violence that is either implicitly or explicitly sanctioned by governments. I would expect the persecution to be more prevalent in places with a history of anti-Semitism or anti-immigrant behavior. I would also expect it to be worse in places with weaker state capacity — though I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to see it in places like the U.S. or Western Europe.”
But plenty will also happen peaceably. The expansion of the homebound gig economy is already spurring a din of minimum-wage workers demanding sick pay and safety. This could broaden into a new labor movement that insists on restoring gains lost over the past several decades, including far higher salaries for nurses and elder-care workers, newly grasped as central to virus-era survival. The at-once palpable, life-or-death demand for robust public medical care could put fresh bipartisan propulsion behind national health legislation.
During the plague, what changed was the seemingly unchangeable, especially for people who until then had been largely invisible. What had been fixed in place was, all at once, not. As we try to discern the shape of the future, this phase of history is increasingly looking like that one.
5. Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898
Arnold Böcklin, Plague, 1898, Kunstmuseum Basel.
Plague exemplified Arnold Böcklin’s obsession with nightmares of war, pestilence, and death. Böcklin was a Symbolist and here his personification of Death rides on a winged creature, flying through the street of a medieval town. According to art historians he took inspiration from news about the plague appearing in Bombay in 1898. Although there is no straightforward, visible evidence of Indian inspiration (Symbolists always used as ambiguous and universal symbols as possible) Böcklin created a scene that the creators of the Game of Thrones would not be ashamed of.
Black Death quarantine: how did we try to contain the most deadly disease in history?
People across the globe are self-isolating to help stop the spread of coronavirus. But, says historian Helen Carr, the practice of quarantine is nothing new. Here she explores how it was used alongside other measures in the 14th century to curb the disease that became known as the Black Death…
This competition is now closed
Published: March 30, 2020 at 10:15 am
In the autumn of 1348 a ship glided into the port of Southampton in England, carrying a disease from the east that had already ravaged the western world. It had killed men, women and children in their thousands quickly and mercilessly. This was the bubonic plague, identified by the blackening ‘buboes’ that formed within the joint area of an infected person – the groin or armpit were the most common places. These were accompanied by bodily aches, cold, lethargy and a high fever. When the infection got into the blood stream it effectively poisoned the blood, leading to probable death. Some survived the infection but most people died within days, sometimes hours. This wave of bubonic plague became known then as the Pestilence – or later, the Black Death.
By November 1348 the disease had reached London, and by New Year’s Day 1349 around 200 bodies a day were being piled into mass graves outside the city. Henry Knighton, an Augustinian monk, witnessed the devastation of the Black Death in England: “there was a general mortality throughout the world… sheep and oxen strayed through the fields and among the crops and there was none to drive them off or collect them, but they perished in uncounted numbers… for lack of shepherds… After the Pestilence many buildings fell into total ruin for lack of inhabitants similarly many small villages and hamlets became desolate and no homes were left in them, for all those who had dwelt anthem (sic) were dead.”
The countryside went to ruin, with crops, livestock and produce dying for lack of people to tend to them. Towns were abandoned, left only with the dead to occupy them, and war with France – the first part of the later-named Hundred Years’ War – was put on hold. England and the rest of Europe was forced to come to terms with an epidemic of an apocalyptic nature that drastically changed the landscape of society.
In a bid to take control of the epidemic, Edward III, king of England as the time, was forced to turn his attention to domestic matters. Before the outbreak in England, his daughter Princess Joan had contracted plague after her ship docked in Bordeaux. She was on her way to marry Peter of Castile as part of a diplomatic marriage alliance between the two kingdoms. She never reached Castile and, upon discovery that the plague had taken hold of Bordeaux, she took refuge in a small village called Loremo, where she died alongside a large part of her entourage.
The king was devastated by the news and acted quickly and decisively to try to curb the outbreak in England. The 1349 January parliament was postponed until Easter (however, when spring came parliament was still empty.) Officials fled to their homes in the country and sheriffs refused to conduct their business for fear of their lives. The country was in lockdown and the people looked to the king to support them in the crisis.
Edward’s response was rational: he suspected that poor public hygiene was responsible for the epidemic. In a bid to tackle the spread of infection, he opposed the idea of digging a burial pit for the plague victims in East Smithfield – it being in close proximity to the Tower of London and surrounding residential areas. Pits were dug further away, the largest one in Smithfield. In 1349 Edward III wrote to the Mayor of London directing him to have the streets thoroughly cleaned, for they were “foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisioned (sic) to the great danger of men passing, especially in this time of infectious disease”.
Overseas, further precautions were taken. In Italy in 1347, almost a year before the plague reached England, ports began to turn away ships, fearful that they carried the deadly disease. By March 1348, these protective measures were formalised and Venice became the first city to close its ports to incoming vessels. Those they did admit were subjected to 30 days of isolation, later raised to 40, which eventually lead to the birth of the term ‘quarantine’, for ships were forced to wait in the middle of the Venetian lagoon before they were permitted to disembark. Remote cemeteries were dug and in a later outbreak, the Venetians even went as far as establishing a quarantine island on Lazzaretto Vecchio, a small island in the Venetian Lagoon. An excavation in 2007 revealed more than 1,500 skeletons, all supposedly victims of bubonic plague. Thousands more are believed to remain below ground on the island.
However, these measures were too little too late. Plague still took hold in Venice – as it did globally – killing an estimated 100,000 people, a catastrophic proportion of the Venetian population.
Which parts of England were affected by plague?
England shared the same fate. In 1300 the population had reached around five million, and by 1377 this was reduced to 2.5 million. Plague had claimed half of the population, wiping out entire families, villages and even towns such as Bristol. The measures that were taken to hinder the spread of the first Black Death epidemic were powerless, but there were contingency plans for future outbreaks later in history.
In 1563, when plague struck again (as the disease did most years, although some outbreaks were more severe than others), the lord mayor ordered that blue crosses should be attached to doors of houses that held anyone infected with plague over the past week. Inhabitants were to stay indoors for one month after the death or infection of anyone in the building. Only one uninfected person was allowed out of the house, in order to buy provisions for the sick or healing. To mark their health they were meant to carry a white rod, which if they forgot would incur a fine or even imprisonment. In 1539 plague struck London again and houses were to be incarcerated for 40 days – the typical quarantine period stipulated in 14th-century Venice. By 1580 shipping was heavily monitored, and crews and passengers were quarantined either on board their vessels or in the port where they had disembarked. Merchants were kept at the port of Rye and were prohibited from entering the city, and all goods were to be aired in order not to transport infection. Movement was also monitored within the country – travellers into London from outside counties were prohibited if there was known to be plague in their area.
Outbreaks of plague continued into the 17th century, the most savage and famous being the 1665–56 epidemic. In 1630, quarantine measures were taken in London, with the Privy Council ordering that again houses were shut up when those inside were infected. However, to enforce the order, guards were to be stationed outside the infected house. This was soon replaced with the order that the people inside were to be sent to the Pest House (an enclosed hospital for those suffering from the plague) while the house was closed up. More famously, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire bravely imposed a self-quarantine in order to prevent the spread of infection into other villages, losing 260 villagers in the process.
Over four centuries, plague devastated the lives of millions, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, there was little to be done in order to control the spread of such virulent infection. People blamed themselves, usually in the belief that they were being punished by God for their sins – some even believed that the epidemic was an apocalypse.
Although today plague has generally ceased to exist, there was an outbreak in the US in 1924, and in India as late as 1994, killing 52 people and causing mass panic as people fled out of fear of infection. However, we do not tend to experience the rate of mortality seen in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. With the advancement of modern medicine and practical contingency, we hope that bio-medical disaster remains as history.
Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer
Like their counterparts at the University of Alberta, scientists at the State University of New York have created a deadly artificial virus by buying DNA pieces via mail order. This time, it is polio, and it is as potent as the natural one. Mice exposed to the artificial polio got sick just as they would have if exposed to natural polio.
The laboratory-created polio was controversial among scientists. The researchers who produced it had taken its code from databases available to almost anybody. Other researchers fear that people with ulterior motives could develop their own artificial polio, which is much easier to make than other dangerous viruses like smallpox.
Smallpox&rsquos genetic code is 185,000 letters long while polio&rsquos is just 7,741 letters long. Although we are already at the brink of eradicating polio, scientists fear that we will still need to be vaccinated against the disease because it could be recreated. 
Black Death grave © On average, between 30-45% of the general populace died in the Black Death of 1348-50. But in some villages, 80% or 90% of the population died (and in Kilkenny at least, it seems likely that the death-rate was 100%!). A death-rate of 30% is higher than the total British losses in World War I.
Nor was 1350 the end of it. Plague recurred! It came back in 1361-64, 1368, 1371, 1373-75, 1390, 1405 and continued into the fifteenth century. Death rates in the later epidemics may have been lower than the Black Death, but the sources reveal a new horror:
In 1361 a general mortality oppressed the people. It was called the second pestilence and both rich and poor died, but especially young people and children. (Henry Knighton)
In AD 1361 there was a mortality of men, especially adolescents and boys, and as a result it was commonly called the pestilence of boys. (Chronicle of Louth Park Abbey)
In 1361 there was a second pestilence within England, which was called the mortality of children. Several people of high birth and a great number of children died.
In 1369 there was a third pestilence in England and in several other countries. It was great beyond measure, lasted a long time and was particularly fatal to children.
In 1374 the fourth pestilence began in England. In the following year, a large number of Londoners from among the wealthier and more eminent citizens died in the pestilence.
In 1378 the fourth pestilence reached York and was particularly fatal to children. (Anonimalle Chronicle)
In 1390 a great plague ravaged the country. It especially attacked adolescents and boys, who died in incredible numbers in towns and villages everywhere. (Thomas Walsingham)
The message is clear: the plague was hitting the population of England where it hurt most, in its young. Modern research shows that it was entirely possible for the plague to have become both age and gender specific by the 1360s, with profound consequences for the reproductive cycle of the population. By the 1370s, the population of England had been halved and it was not recovering.
References and Further Reading:
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Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348—1350, a Brief History with Documents . Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.
Aston, T. H. and C. H. E. Philpin, eds. The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre—Industrial Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Bailey, Mark D. “Demographic Decline in Late Medieval England: Some Thoughts on Recent Research.” Economic History Review 49 (1996): 1—19.
Bailey, Mark D. A Marginal Economy? East Anglian Breckland in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Benedictow, Ole J. The Black Death, 1346—1353: The Complete History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004.
Bleukx, Koenraad. “Was the Black Death (1348—49) a Real Plague Epidemic? England as a Case Study.” In Serta Devota in Memoriam Guillelmi Lourdaux. Pars Posterior: Cultura Medievalis, edited by W. Verbeke, M. Haverals, R. de Keyser, and J. Goossens, 64—113. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1995.
Blockmans, Willem P. “The Social and Economic Effects of Plague in the Low Countries, 1349—1500.” Revue Belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 58 (1980): 833—63.
Bolton, Jim L. “‘The World Upside Down’: Plague as an Agent of Economic and Social Change.” In The Black Death in England, edited by M. Ormrod and P. Lindley. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1996.
Bowsky, William M. “The Impact of the Black Death upon Sienese Government and Society.” Speculum 38 (1964): 1—34.
Campbell, Bruce M. S. “Agricultural Progress in Medieval England: Some Evidence from Eastern Norfolk.” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 26—46.
Campbell, Bruce M. S., ed. Before the Black Death: Studies in the ‘Crisis’ of the Early Fourteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000—1700, Third edition. New York: Norton, 1994.
Cohn, Samuel K. The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe. London: Edward Arnold, 2002.
Cohn, Sameul K. “After the Black Death: Labour Legislation and Attitudes toward Labour in Late—Medieval Western Europe.” Economic History Review 60 (2007): 457—85.
Davis, David E. “The Scarcity of Rats and the Black Death.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16 (1986): 455—70.
Davis, R. A. “The Effect of the Black Death on the Parish Priests of the Medieval Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 62 (1989): 85—90.
Drancourt, Michel, Gerard Aboudharam, Michel Signoli, Olivier Detour, and Didier Raoult. “Detection of 400—Year—Old Yersinia Pestis DNA in Human Dental Pulp: An Approach to the Diagnosis of Ancient Septicemia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States 95 (1998): 12637—40.
Dyer, Christopher. Standards of Living in the Middle Ages: Social Change in England, c. 1200—1520. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Emery, Richard W. “The Black Death of 1348 in Perpignan.” Speculum 42 (1967): 611—23.
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Hatcher, John. Plague, Population, and the English Economy 1348—1530. London and Basingstoke: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977.
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Horrox, Rosemary, transl. and ed. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.
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