The Black Death, formerly known as the Bubonic Plague, is by far one of the most horrifying and yet the most fascinating subjects toed to the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is both the ferocity of the disease and the gruesome nature in which patients would die that captivates our morbid fascination with this killer disease.
Overview of the Black Death
The Black Death was first seen in Europe in 1328 and it lasted until 1351; although occasional outbreaks did occur for the next sixty years. The Black Death was able to reach even the most distant corners of the globe as it followed trade routes. It is estimated that up to 200 million people died in Europe alone, and the 1328 outbreak in China wiped out 35 million people in their population.
The Black Death only troubled Britain for three years, but in that short period it wreaked havoc across the country. The Black Death was particularly frightening because it killed indiscriminately. It didn’t seem to matter whether a person was young or old, rich or poor, employee or employer. Once infected, the patient had a very limited period of life left, and that period would be unpleasant to say the least.
Symptoms of the Black Death
The Black Death earned its well known nickname through it’s very visual symptoms.
Once infected, a patient would notice the following symptoms:
Painful swellings (known as buboes) in the lymph nodes (found in the neck, armpits, groin and legs).
The bubo would become inflamed and would at first be a deep red in colour, but as time passed the bubo would change from red to purple and finally to black.
Patients would also suffer with a particularly high fever which would trigger a state of delirium and mental disorientation.
Patients would also suffer from vomiting, muscular pain and bleeding in the lungs.
Neither the physicians nor the people had any idea about what was causing the Black Death to spread so rapidly. They also had no idea how to treat the patients or cure the disease. They did what anyone would do in this situation and they executed their best educated guess.
Treatments were for the symptoms caused by the Black Death. They included:
Rose, lavender, sage and bay were used to treat the headaches experienced during the illness.
Wormwood, mint and balm were used to treat nausea and sickness.
Comfrey and liquorice were used to treat problems related to the lung.
Vinegar was used as a cleansing agent, and it was believed that it would kill the bacteria.
One of the most common treatments was bloodletting – the process of letting blood pour from the body. Another was the lancing of the buboes followed by the application of a mixture of warm butter, garlic and onion.
The Black Death Lands in Europe
Rumours of a pestilence and plague in the Far East had already spread to Europe in the early 1340’s, but no amount of rumours or hearsay could have prepared the Europeans for what would happen in 1347.
In October 1347, twelve Genoese trading ships docked at Messina, a Sicilian port, after a long journey which took the sailors, ironically, across the Black Sea. Crowds gathered at docks ready to greet the sailors, but what they saw when the ships were docked was not what they were expecting.
Most of the sailors aboard the twelve ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. All of the sailors seemed to be suffering with the same symptoms, they were feverish, delirious and clearly in pain. Most worryingly, the sailors all had mysterious black boils that oozed nasty looking pus mixed with blood, and it was this element of the illness that helped contribute to the disease’s well known nick name, “Black Death.”
The Sicilian authorities ordered the fleet to leave the harbour, but their reaction was too late. The plague had landed and would begin to infect Europe. Over the next five years, more than 20 million people in Europe (almost a third of the continent’s population) would succumb to the horrifying yet quick death that came with the bubonic plague.
The Black Death Takes over Britain
The same rumours that had been whispered about the Far East across Europe had transformed into whispers about Europe that were floating around England. The Black Death reached England in 1348, and it created the same sense of panic and fear as it did in Sicily.
In the summer of 1348 Bristol was hit with the bubonic plague. At the time, Bristol was an important European port, and it was the second largest city in England. It is estimated that 10,000 citizens were living and working in Bristol at the time when the plague hit. These people were living in cramped and unsanitary conditions that would have only have served to help the spread of the plague. It is generally believed that the Black Death reached Bristol in the summer months of June and August, and by the 1st November 1348 the Black Death was upon England’s capital city of London.
Like Bristol, London was a crowded, bustling city but with a much bigger population count. Instead of 10,000 souls living in cramped, squalid conditions, it was a population of around 70,000 citizens living in these conditions. The sanitation in London was extremely poor and living conditions were almost unbearable. The city was rife with rats, which helped to carry the plague through infected fleas.
The River Thames, as a popular trade route, saw ships enter and depart from London, helping to spread the transmission of the plague from one place to another. There’s no doubt that the crowded, dirty and unsanitary living conditions that English citizens lived in contributed to the rapid spread of the Black Death.
The Black Death was not limited to big cities either. It seemed wherever there was trade, there was plague. Smaller communities and villages were hit just as hard as those in the big cities, and in some locations up to 80% of the community died as a result of the Black Death.
Between 1348 and 1350 it is estimated that the Black Death killed around 30 - 40% of the population of England, which is believed to have been roughly five to six million people. It is estimated that more than 20,000 citizens living in London succumbed to the effects of the Black Death during this time, with many of the deaths occurring in communities across the country.
There is no doubt that the bad habits of the local populations, that included throwing human waste into the streets, sharing polluted water and the freedom of pigs and livestock to graze in the city, all contributed to an environment that provided the perfect breeding ground for a disease. Had communities, towns and cities been better maintained the plague may not have had such an apocalyptic effect.
It is difficult to imagine the scenes that would have been in England during the dreadful years of the plague. Red crosses were placed on front doors to let any passersby know that the plague had been detected in a particular property. Each night brave souls would walk the streets with a cart, collecting the bodies of the dead. Many people, once they had passed, were thrown into open communal pits, the bodies burnt in mass graves. At the time, it was the only way that the living could dispose of the dead to reduce the spread of the disease and to prevent further diseases from spreading. While the Black Death killed indiscriminately it was often the oldest, youngest, weakest and poorest who died first.
The Black Death had a dramatic effect on the population count, and the remaining citizens that survived the horrors of those three years were going to become key players in the changes to their society that would occur in the near future, from a change in the perception and the power of the church to changes in the working conditions, rights and responsibilities of the peasants.
Religion and the Black Death
Many people are unaware at just how much religion and the Black Death are connected. Religion had a massive part to play in England before, during and after the Black Death.
Some thought that the devastating plague had been sent by the Almighty as a divine punishment for their sins. The only solution, some claimed, was to rid the world of the blasphemers, and to once again win the approval of the Almighty. Thousands of citizens were slain in the late 1340’s in order to appease God and win back his approval.
However, as the Black Death progress through England and Europe the religious connotations and sentiments began to change. The huge numbers that were dying made it very difficult for the church to ensure that every citizen was given their last rites and had the chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant the remission of the sins of any person who had died as a result of the Black Death. Victims were given permission to confess their sins to one another. The church could not explain why the plague was killing so many, and it tested the beliefs of individuals, families and entire communities.
Once the majority of the plague outbreak had passed in Britain, many of the surviving peasants felt that they had been saved for some divine purpose. This had a dramatic impact on the mindset of the peasant, which contributed to great changes for the peasants later in the 1380’s.
Consequences of the Bubonic Plague Outbreak in Britain
The bubonic plague dramatically reduced the population count in cities and towns across England, which in turn created an immediate and ongoing shortage of employees. Lords and land owners had crops that needed to be harvested, fields that needed to be tended to and properties that needed to be maintained.
The Feudal System that had once kept both the landlords and the peasant’s in check suddenly disappeared, and peasants were demanding more pay from their employers, or choosing to work elsewhere where the pay was better.
Parliament tried desperate to reduce the amount of movement of peasants, and attempted to enforce a law that would prevent landlords from paying more wages and would prevent the peasants from travelling to find a better offer. However, this did not work, and for a few decades peasants enjoyed better pay.
The people of this time felt emboldened by the plague, and they were convinced that they had a divine blessing that went far above anything that the Parliament could say or do. With this feeling came the confidence to demand more from their day to day lives.
However, in the 1381, with the rise of taxes and the fear that the world would once again no longer favour the rights of the peasant, the peasants rose against the government, and started the Peasant’s Revolt.
The Peasant’s Revolt is directly linked to the employment shortage created by the horrifying mortality rates of Black Death, and had it have not been for the plague and for the feeling that the plague was directly linked to the Almighty then the peasants may never have fought for their rights and freedoms.
To summarise, the effects of the Black Death had a dramatic impact on the society, including:
Both prices of resources and peasant wages increased.
Greater value was placed on labour
Land that had been used for farming was acquired for the purpose of pasturing, which was much less labour intensive
This dramatic change in the farming processes led to increased production of wool and cloth
Peasants from villages migrated to towns and cities, leading to the downfall of the Feudal System
Peasants became disillusioned with the church, and the church’s power to lead and influence was undermined, creating the opportunity for the English reformation