A Chronicle of The Black Death
The Bubonic plague or “Black Death” originate in China and spread throughout Europe killing hundreds of thousands of people in its wake. It was one of the most devastating diseases in human history. The plague killed more than half of Europe’s population before it disappeared in the 14th century. The plague left several marks on European society by creating religious occults and causing several economic upheavals which changed the course of European history. The Catholic Church was also greatly affected as many looked for the church to help and to heal those stricken with the disease. Also, there was widespread persecution of Jews and foreign minorities, as they were blamed for the cause of the disease throughout Europe. It took over a century for the European population to recover from the Bubonic Plague both socially and economically. The Plague also highlighted many medical shortcomings of medical science, it did however, help change how the human body was studied and helped in the advancement of medical treatment for other diseases.
The “Black Death”, which ancient DNA test have shown, started in China, and made its way into Europe along the trade routes across the Mediterranean Sea. It made the journey on passenger and merchant ships and into port cites by carriers of infested rats, fleas and other ground animals. The plague was first introduced into Europe at the port city “Caffa” in 1347, in which a Mongol siege of the city took place. During the siege the Plague stricken Mongol army would throw dead bodies, which had been riddled with the Bubonic Plague, over the city walls in hope of infecting the inhabitants of “Caffa”. Traders who fled the city during the attacks took the disease with them, and into the port cities of the South of Europe, where it later spread north. There were several points where the plague was introduced into Europe including Spain, France, Portugal and England. However, several other conditions such as war, weather and famine helped to contribute to the severity of the “Black Plague”. During the 13th century harsh winters in Europe reduced food harvest that created food shortages and quickly inflated food prices. The scarcity of wheat, oat and consequently livestock resulted in a widespread malnutrition among Europeans making them susceptible to infections brought on by a weak immune system.
The disease, caused by “Yersinia pestis”, presents with common symptoms such as “Boboes” in the neck, armpits and the groin area. These “Boboes” can grow to the size of “apples by some accounts or to the size of common eggs”, would ooze pus and blood from the victims of the disease and then they would began to spread over the bodies. Secondly would be the development of gangrene in the extremities of the body including the fingers and toes, this was also associated with a high fever and body rash. Third would be an infection of the lungs which led to respiratory problems or failure. All of this would be followed by high fever and vomiting of blood, which would continue without intermission for three days, causing the infected person to die due to the blood loss. No doctor’s advice or medicine could overcome or alleviate the disease, and as a result these symptoms were a sign of certain death to come.
Medical knowledge had not developed an understanding of how disease actually worked at the onset of the Black Plague. This caused many false accounts and explanations for the result of such widespread disease and death caused by the “Black Death”. One such explanation came from a medical faculty located in Paris, France; it blamed the disease on the heavens and a “conjunction of three planets” which caused a pestilence in the air. Another cause for the plague was accredited to an Earthquake in 1348 which had corrupted the air with foul odors. In either case people were warned by the church to avoid foggy times of day and to stay in their homes in order to avoid the polluted air as much as possible, to help with this people were told to burn aromatic scents such as rosemary, amber and fragrant flowers. Doctors who tried to treat victims of the plague practiced bloodletting, which releases the infection through a controlled bleeding of the body. But the recommended treatment was a good diet and relocating to a non-infested area or environment. Moving helped the most throughout Europe as public sanitation was not an importance during the time of the plague. Doctors were hired by city officials to fight the plague, known as “Plague doctors”, they were often second rate doctors who were not professionally trained or had any experience as physicians or surgeons. And often times were responsible for spreading the dieses instead of curing them. As there was no real cure for the sick often times a doctors duties were to limited to visiting the victims to verify whether they had been stricken or not.
For the healthy leaving the areas was the best response, and those who could afford to leave, left for the countryside. Families abandoned their houses and left their relatives and went abroad, living entirely separate from everyone else. Those that stayed and remained in their homes often fell sick and received no or little care and attention, almost all of the people that stayed in an infected area died. With the healthy living in enclosed places like churches, monasteries and private house, often times once one person became infected the usually the infection quickly spread throughout killing all inside. Many, whom died, were only know to be dead because the neighbors smelled the decaying bodies. To cope with the numbers of dead, churches dug huge trenches, as mass burial plots. With the accumulating dead and dying increasing each day, many people were buried without having their last rights read. This act terrified victims of the disease since there was nothing worse, in a time controlled by the Catholic Church, then to be improperly buried.
For everyone the plague was a sign of “God” and his divine punishment for the sins of mankind, and the Pope agreed. The widespread acceptance of this idea created a sense of guilt among the people of Europe. Many turned to the Church and religious officials in hopes of curing the plague and banishing the disease. When the church failed to fulfill their promises many alienated the Church while other looked for an escape goat to account for the sins of mankind, in hopes of ending the horrible disease. To keep the population of Europe united behind the Catholic Church; the Church blamed the Jews who they said had rejected Jesus as their lord and savior, therefore they were the soul cause of “God’s” punishment. In 1348 the mass extermination of Jews began in France as they were drug out of their homes and thrown into mass fires. Trials were held against the European Jews, where their property was confiscated and confessions by torture were obtained as well as several Jews were burnt at the stake for their crimes against “God”. Others accused the Jews of poising the drinking water of wells, and causing the rampant spread of the “Black Death”. Because many of the European Jews lived separately from other Christian communities their survival rate against the Black Plague was much higher than other Europeans. Vengeful Christians attacked and destroyed entire towns and communities of European Jews. In order to save themselves from the angry mobs of Christians, many Jews converted to Christianity or set their own homes on fire and escaped to other parts of Europe.
The people who did survive the “Black Death” or black plague, they considered themselves special and took the opportunity provided to them by the “Black Death” to try and improve their lives. With the declining European population, due to the affect of the plague, cultivated with many people moving out of the cities and towns into unaffected areas, had a huge impact on European society. As the working population in Europe was declining the production owners had to find new ways to produce their goods with less manpower. This helped to create labor saving machinery and sparked a small industrial revolution with many technological innovations across Europe. Many farmers looking to abandon their lifestyle in search of better paying jobs moved into the city looking to find work in the growing industrial economy. In the country agricultural prices were driven up because agricultural laborers were scarce, and they demanded higher wages from the landlords. The land holders tried to increase their incomes by increasing rents to the tenant farmers, and by finding a crop which yielded higher returns. For many this quick cash crop was raising sheep, as the sheep had little over head and was not a labor intensive investment, many landlords converted traditional crop cultivating land into pasture land and removed the peasants from their farms. The nobility petitioned the European governments to intervene, and in 1350 prices of goods and wages for workers stated to become fixed. These actions by the government paved the way for peasant uprising later in the 14th century as the revolts fought against oppression by the nobility of the European nations.
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