Mid 14th century Europe was debilitated by years of war, the cruel winters of the ‘Little Ice Age’, poor harvests, and diseases which struck man and beast. In 1347 the Black Death arrived in Sicily via trade routes with the East and by 1348 had spread to England.
The ‘Great Pestilence’ or ‘Great Mortality’, as it was called at the time, was incredibly virulent, taking hold within hours and killing within days. It has recently been suggested that the Black Death may have been some sort of contagious human-to-human infection, but it is more usually thought to have been one or more sorts of plague, spread by black rats carrying infected fleas.
To the people of medieval Europe the plague was an inexplicable and unstoppable nightmare. When doctors, priests and prayers all proved equally ineffectual, terrified people tried everything from imbibing herbal remedies to ringing church bells. The plague was thought to be a punishment from God and bands of flagellants took to roaming from town to town whipping themselves in penance. People fled from their homes, abandoning their dying families, and whole villages were evacuated leaving starving animals to stray through the untended fields. In some parts of Europe, Jews bore the brunt of people’s terror – in many places they were tortured and burned, leaving their communities shattered.
Around half the population of Europe died within four years and for the next two centuries outbreaks of plague continued to wreak havoc on society. People started to question the infallibility of the pope while the drastic decrease in the peasant population meant there was a shortage of manual workers, increasing the worth of both labourer and artisan. The Black Death completely disrupted the social and economic order and was a major factor in bringing about the end of the feudal system.
When was the Black Death: Peaked 1348-1359
Where was the Black Death: Europe
What was the Black Death death toll: An estimated 25 million.
You should know: Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease manifests itself in one of three ways: bubonic – infecting the lymph nodes with gangrenous swellings (buboes) in the groin, armpits and neck; septicemic – infecting the bloodstream, causing blood poisoning; pneumonic – infecting the lungs. Only the pneumonic variety could be passed from one person to the next – in the droplets that went into the air when a victim coughed; otherwise it was transmitted by flea bites.