Though Nobel Laureate Albert Camus immortalized it as a metaphor of the evil that lies dormant everywhere, in the fiction, The Plague, and Robert Downey, Meg Ryan and Hugh Grant made more than a passing reference to it in the movie, Restoration, Black Death or Black Plague seems to have slipped down from people’s memory of past horrors. This pandemic of the 14th century surpassed the loss of life in a catastrophe for all time to come. It is generally thought to be caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis (Bubonic plague) but recent findings point to other diseases as well. It is believed to have started first in Central Asia, from where it spread to Europe around 1340. Decimating a total of about 75 million people in the contemporary world, it brought about a loss of 50 million lives (or nearly 60 percent of population) in Europe. Changing medieval demography, it is thought to have reduced world population from an estimated 450 million to 375 million in 1400.

The plague continued with its visits to Europe till the end of the 18th century but its spread and death toll varied. There were about 100 plague outbreaks during this period, among which the London plague of 1603 finished 38,000. Other killer epidemics were Italian (1629-31), Seville (1647-52), London (1665-66), Vienna (1679), Marseille (1720) and Moscow (1771). The origins of such virulent forms of the disease are debated but from the 19th century on it seemed to have been absent in Europe. The looming threat of death at all times affected the society and the Roman Catholic faith to a great extent and gave rise to intolerance of minorities like Jews, foreigners, beggars and lepers. In 1833, the term black death was first used, derived from the symptoms like blackening of skin and gangrene of limb extremities. There was also the bubonic type, in which glands swelled in armpits and other parts of the body leading to formation of buboes. The buboes filled with pus and burst open subsequently. Patients usually died within 3-5 days after the appearance of the buboes and disease spread through flies sitting on the dead. It was believed earlier that the epidemic was spread by black rats and flies, but recent research suggests that it is always present and is only lying dormant.


Though populations of ground rodents in Central Asia are common carriers of the disease, it is not clear how the 14th century outbreak started. The popular belief is that it began in the steppes of Central Asia while some think that North India was the place of origin. Yet another view is that considering the historical evidence of Mediterranean epidemics (plague of Justinian and so on) it probably began in Africa and found among the rodents of Central Asia a suitable vector and then travelled to Mongolia via the Silk Route. The trading city of Caffa in Crimea was besieged by the Mongols under Janibeg in 1347. When his soldiers died of the disease, the Mongol chief catapulted dead bodies over the city walls in order to infect the citizens. Genoese traders living in the city fled by ships and brought the disease to Sicily, from where it spread to Europe. Though it is merely a hypothesis, it points to several factors like war, weather and famine as contributing to the spread. Mongol invasion of China in the !4th century severely affected agriculture and trade, brought famines and reduced the Chinese population by nearly 60 million. Then came the plague killing a further 20 million.

Europe had unusually warm periods intermittently throughout the !4th century, at the end of which there were harsh winters leading to reduced harvests. Before that time, in the centuries preceding, European population had been increasing steadily, and a stage was reached when the agricultural output was barely sufficient. When a famine started in North Western Europe in 1315, it quickly assumed catastrophic dimensions. Innovative farming practices like heavy plows and three-field system introduced in the mediterranean for bringing in virgin lands under cultivation were not successful in North Europe because of the clayey soil there. Consequently, high prices were prevailing even a century before the plague, everything was scarce and hunger and malnutrition was rampant. People became vulnerable to diseases due to feeble immune systems. Compounding the situation further, the ruling classes of England and France, afraid that their lifestyles would go down, raised taxes. With diets getting limited by the day, the poor suffered terribly, and their health conditions became increasingly bad. Then it began to rain heavily in late 1314, several years of bitingly cold winters followed, the already reduced harvests went down further and the seven-year famine began killing about 10 percent of the population. Such was the economic and social condition when portends of the calamity in waiting appeared. The first was a typhoid outbreak in which many thousands perished in congested urban areas like Ypres. The second was a disease of unknown origin (presumably anthrax) killing in 1318 a large number of animals in Europe and affecting food source and income of people.


Probable conditions which had caused the plague to break out in Central Asia were similar to those recorded during the first reports of the disease in the Chinese province of Hubei in 1334. Thereafter, following the catastrophe in Europe, the plague appeared in Jiangxi, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong and Suiyuan in China in 1353-54. There are extensive records of the pestilence and social disruption of the times in Chinese, but no one seems to have studied them properly. In 1347, the plague struck the trading cities of Constantinople and Trebizond and then spread among the soldiers of Mongol chief Janibeg laying a siege on the Genoese commercial enclave of Caffa in Crimea. Probably the first in history to wage a biological warfare, Janibeg catapulted the dead bodies of his soldiers over the city walls to infect the citizens. The strategy worked and Genoese traders left the city. The ships sailed into the Sicilian port of Messina in October 1347 carrying infected crews and rats, some were ghost ships with everyone on board dead from the disease, while some more ran aground to be looted by people living by the shores. There was thus no dearth of carriers or vectors of the disease, which spread to Genoa, then Venice and next to most of Italy. Onto France, Spain, Portugal and England by June 1348, when it turned and ravaged Germany and Scandinavia between 1348 and 50. Skipping Poland and some remote areas of Belgium and Holland, the vectors finally travelled to North Western Russia in 1351. As regards the horrors experienced by people, a resident of Siena in Tuscany, Italy wrote:

“They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in … ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands … And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”


The plague spread in the countries in the Middle East after reaching the port city of Alexandria in Egypt in the autumn of 1347 presumably through trading connections of the city with Constantinople and ports on the Black Sea. Next year, it travelled to Gaza in east and then to north to eastern coastal cities of Lebanon, Ashkelon, Acre, Israel, Jerusalem, Sidon, Damascus and Aleppo. Antioch came under its attack in 1348-49, when most of the residents deserted the city to go to north and died during the journey. The spread of infection, however, did not stop and struck the people of Asia Minor. Makkah fell to the disease in 1349 and so did Mawsil (modern Mosul) where records show a large number of deaths due to the pandemic. In Baghdad, it struck twice. King Mujahid of Yemen released from imprisonment in Cairo returned to his kingdom in 1351 and apparently brought the disease with his party.


Without any census figures to depend on, historians usually estimate the population of England between 4 to 7 million in 1300 and as low as 2 million after the plague. It was absent from 1350 but never really extinct in England. In the next few centuries, it returned time and again, notably at Norwich (1579) and Newcastle (1636) killing nearly 40 percent of people there. Actually, 8 major outbreaks in Tudor and Stuart England coincided with those in Germany, Belgium and Holland in the years 1498 to 1636. Europe and the Mediterranean were under its attack repeatedly from the 14th to 17th century, and there are isolated instances of bubonic plague even today. The Great Plague of London (1665-66) is regarded as one of the last major outbreaks, others being Italian Plague (due to army movements in war, 1629-31), Vienna (1679), Moscow (2 lakkhs dead, 1654-56), Oslo (1654), Naples (1.5 lakh, 1656), Amsterdam (1665) and Helsinki & Stockholm (1710).


Michel Drancourt prepared models of sporadic, limited and large plague outbreaks by reviewing the ecology of Yersinia pestis in soil and in rodents along with a study of human ectoparasites. It is found that plague among prairie dogs are more due to occasional reservoirs of infection like an infectious carcass than the conventional “blocked fleas” theory. It was also observed that epidemiology, appearance, spread and eventual disappearance of plague from Europe was due to the succession by another species of the flea-bearing rodent reservoir of disease. Originally introduced by trade from Asia to Europe, the black rat was subsequently displaced by the bigger brown rat in Europe. That specis was not as prone to transmit germ-bearing fleas to humans as the black rat in large die-offs due to a different rat ecology. The dynamic complexities of rat ecology, herd immunity of the specis in that particular reservoir, interaction with human ecology, secondary transmission routes between humans with or without fleas, human herd immunity and changes in each of the above are possible causes of the eruption, dissemination and recurrence of the plague for centuries in Europe. It probably also holds true for the plague’s so far unexplained disappearance from the continent.


Actually, there are two more forms of plague besides the bubonic, each with its different signs and symptoms. Blood poisoning is the consequence of septicaemic plague while pneumonic type attacks the lungs first through aspirated air and then other parts of the body. Bubonic causes buboes, resulting from internal bleeding, to appear in the neck, groin and armpits. The damages to the skin and tissue beneath turn the body black, pus and blood ooze out from the swellings and the patient dies within seven days of the infection. Black Death in Europe came in the bubonic form mostly, first in the port cities and then to countrysides. Its mortality rate was over 80 percent and symptoms included fever, aching joints, nausea and vomitting. The pneumonic form was second most common witha mortality rate of about 90 percent. The
signs were fever, cough and bloody sputum, which became more and more red as the disease took hold. Septicaemic plague was not quite common. It came with high fever and purple patches on the body and had a hundred percent mortality. According to David Herlihy, a further symptom of the disease was freckle like spots and rashes in the body. Unlike buboes, these were darkish points or pustules covering large parts of the body.


The long-held belief that the Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague has been challenged by recent historic and scientific findings. Gunnar Karlsson in 2000 pointed out that the Black Death killed between half and two-thirds of the population of Iceland, although there were no rats in Iceland at that time. Rats were accidentally Introduced accidentally only in the nineteenth century, rats have never spread beyond a small number of urban areas attached to seaports. In the fourteenth century there were no urban settlements in Iceland had no urban settlements the 14th century, and was unaffected by the later plagues known to have been spread by rats. Nonetheless, in the absence of a rodent reservoir, it is possible for pneumonic plague to spread from human to human by respiratory transmission, and likewise bubonic plague by human-biting fleas. Although a study carried out on tooth pulp tissue from a 14th century plague cemetery in Montpellier showed molecules associated with Y pestis, other similar studies yielded different results. A team of researchers from Oxford University conducted tests on 121 teeth from 66 skeletons from a 14th century mass grave in 2003, and did not find any genetic trace of Y. pestis.

Samuel K. Cohn in a controversial article, “The Black Death: End of the Paradigm” (2002) says that the medieval and modern plagues are two distinct diseases having different signs, symptoms and epidemiologies. He argues that the agent causing the bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, “was first cultured at Hong Kong in 1894.” So, the medieval European plague was not the bubonic plague carried by fleas on rats as conventionally held by both scientists and historians. Supporting his argument that medieval plague was not rat-based, Cohn further states that the modern and medieval plagues hit in different seasons, had unparalleled cycles of recurrence, and varied in the manner in which immunity was acquired. As fleas on rats thrive in temperatures below 26 degrees C with high humidity, modern plague reaches its peak in seasons with that kind of weather. As opposed to this, Black Death is recorded as breaking out in periods when rats’ fleas could not survive, seasons having weather conditions similar to hot Mediterranean summers with temperatures above 26 degrees C. As regards return period, the Black Death generally did not come back in an area 5 to 15 years after the event, while modern plagues often hit an affected area after an interval of eight to forty years. Cohn also presents evidence that individuals acquired immunity against the Black Death during the 14th century, unlike the modern plague. It seems that in 1348 two-thirds of those suffering from plague died as compared to one-twentieth in 1382. Current statistical figures also support the notion that immunity to the modern plague has not been acquired so far.

Arguing further, Cohn points out that in the latter part of the nineteenth century buboes appeared mostly on an infected person’s groin, while medieval primary sources indicate that the Black Death caused buboes to appear on necks, armpits, and groins. According to Cohn, this difference corresponds to the fact that fleas caused the modern plague and not the Black Death. As fleas do not usually bite in the areas covered by the dress (down to a person’s ankles in colder climes), in modern period the groin is the nearest lymph node that could be infected. Considering that the neck and the armpit were often infected during the medieval plague, those infections did not appear to have been caused by fleas on rats.

About two decades before (1984) Cohn, Graham Twigg published The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal, and stated that the climate and ecology of Europe and specially England are such that its very difficult if not impossible for fleas and rats to spread the bubonic plague. Studying the biology of black and brown rats as also of common fleas he cross checked the details with modern findings of plague epidemiology, particularly in India, where the black rat is a native species and conditions are always favourable for plague to be spread. His conclusion is that it would have been nearly impossible for Yersinia pestis to start the plague, and propagating its explosive spread across Europe is out of question. According to him, the common theory of entirely pneumonic plague is not quite correct. He puts forward, after a re-examination of the evidence and symptoms, the theory that the Black Death may actually have been an epidemic of pulmonary anthrax.


Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan of Liverpool University in 2001 suggested that the outbreak of Black Death is probably due to an Ebola-like virus and not a bacterium. In support of their theory, they pointed out that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer than other confirmed Y.Pestis-caused plagues.Viruses with a longer period of incubation would allow vectors to travel farther and infect more people than did one with a shorter period. As the primary vectors are humans, and not birds, this aspect becomes significant. This is corroborated in English church records showing an unusually long incubation period in excess of thirty days, which accounted for the rapid spread, reaching a speed of 5 km/day. In places in Europe, such as Iceland, where rats are not common, the plague struck as well. It would appear from epidemiological studies that the disease was transferred between humans-an extremely rare happening with Yersinia pestis and yet more unusual for anthrax bacilli. Also, there are some genes found widely in Europe, which contribute significantly to the development of immunity to anthrax bacilli. Such genes are not so common in other parts of the world. Publishing their research and findings in Biology of Plagues, the researchers recently brought out computer models showing how the Black Death immunised about 10 percent Europeans against HIV.


Likewise, historian Norman Cantor in his book In the Wake of the Plague, says that the Black Death could be a combination of pandemics along with a form of anthrax known as cattle murrain. His evidences include reported disease symptoms unlike the known effects of either bubonic or pneumonic plague, the discovery of anthrax spores in a plague pit in Scotland, and the reported sale of meat from infected cattle in many rural English areas prior to the onset of the plague. The point to note is that the means of infection varied widely, from human-to-human contact as in Iceland (rare for plague and skin-related anthrax bacilli) to infection in the absence of living or recently-dead humans, as was seen in Sicily. Actually, the Sicilian example is generally against most viruses. Then, diseases with similar symptoms were generally not differentiated in that period because disease identification, at least in the Christian world, was not that detailed. It is possible that Chinese and Muslim medical records of the period may give better information pertaining to the specific diseases, which affected those areas.


Supporters of bubonic plague based theory of Black Death argue that the very rapid spread of the plague could be due to respiratory droplet transmission coupled with low levels of immunity in the European population at that time. In populations without previous exposure, historical examples (like transmission of smallpox and tuberculosis by aerosols amongst indigenous people of the Americas) show that the first instance of an epidemic spreads faster and is far more virulent than later instances among the descendants of survivors, for whom natural selection by then has produced characteristics protective against the disease.

A historian belonging to the above group, Michael McCormick cites archaeological research confirming that the black or “ship” rat was indeed present in Roman and medieval Europe. Moreover, the DNA of Y. pestis has been found in the teeth of the human victims, the DNA widely believed to have come from infected rodents. Not disputing the point that there was a pneumonic type of Y. pestis transmitted by human-to-human contact, he states that this does not spread as easily as imagined earlier. According to him, the rat is the only plausible agent of transmission capable of such a wide and quick spread of the plague. It is so because rats tend to live near humans and their blood has the ability to withstand very large concentrations of the bacilli. The fleas infected with bacterial blood of dead rats found new hosts in humans and animals. Gradual disappearance of Black Death in the eighteenth century has its explanation in a rat-based theory of transmission, according to McCormick. Black Death killed a lot of peole making the cities desolate. Consequently, more and more people were isolated, and geography combining with demography did not allow rats to have as much contact with Europeans as before. Communications were few and far between and transportation was curtailed. There were drastic reductions in the number of people in the cities and replenishment of decimated rat colonies did not occur.


Historians also attribute social, agricultural, and sometimes economic causes to the Black Death. The term Malthusian Limit is often used by scholars to describe certain tragedies throughout history. Malthus in his 1798 essay work on In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Poulation averred that in time to come humans would reproduce so greatly that they would go beyond the limits of food supplies. When this stage is reached, some sort of “adjustment” was inevitable. The Black Death with its devastation appeared to be an “adjustment” of this sort. Nonetheless, it was an external, unpredictable factor and therefore did not fit into the Malthusian theory. David Herlihy in his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West examines whether or not plague was an inevitable crisis brought upon on humanity so as to control the population and human resources. In another book The Black Death; A Turning Point in History? (edited by William Bowsky) he writes that the Black Death’s pivotal role in late medieval society was now being challenged and that arguing on the basis of a neo-Malthusian economics, revisionist historians recast the Black Death as a necessary and long overdue corrective to an overpopulated Europe.

Detailing the arguments against the Malthusian crisis, Herlihy writes, “if the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier” because population was growing at a fast pace years before the outbreak of the Black Death. Herlihy also brings up other, biological factors that argue against the plague as an “adjustment” by stating that “the role of famines in affecting population movements is also problematic. The many famines preceding the Black Death, even the ‘great hunger’ of 1314 to 1317, did not result in any appreciable reduction in population levels”. Continuing, Herlihy says that “the medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period” and that the phenomenon should be referred to as more of a deadlock, rather than a crisis, to describe Europe before the epidemics.


The numbers of people killed vary widely by area and from source to source as new materials come to light. The estimated death is 75-200 million people in the 14th century while medieval historian Philip Daileader stated in 2007 that “The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45% to 50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe and Italy, the South of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 80% to 75% of the population. In Germany and England . . . it was probably closer to 20%.”

Jean Froissart, a contemporary observer, estimated the toll to be one-third-less an accurate assessment than an allusion to the Book of Revelation considered to be a pointer to the ravages of the plague. Rural villages, mostly the smaller communities, suffered the most as the few survivors fled to larger towns and cities. Towns and cities were not spared either. Some rural areas, like Eastern Poland and Lithuania, had such low populations and were so isolated that the plague made little progress. Parts of Hungary and Belgium remained unaffected during the first attack but were affected by the second plague outbreak in 1360-1363 and later during the numerous resurgences. Other such areas were isolated mountainous regions like the Pyrennes. Larger cities fared badly, as population densities and close living quarters made disease transmission easier. Due to infestation with lice, fleas and rats along with mounds of filth, the residents there were exposed to diseases related to malnutrition and poor hygiene. A medieval Europe urban commentator, John Kelly says, “Woefully inadequate sanitation made medieval urban Europe so disease-ridden, no city of any size could maintain its population without a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside.” This influx of new citizensin turn helped the movement of the disease between communities, and contributed to its longevity within larger communities.

Florence lost nearly half of its citizens; Bremen, Hamburg and Normandy more than that. Historians observe a decline of 60% of fiscal hearths, and in some regions annihilation of two thirds of the population. The friar of the town of Givry in France, who used to conduct 28 to 29 funerals a year, recorded 649 deaths in 1348, half of them in September. Only two of the eight physicians there survived the plague. All social classes in Europe were affected, while the lower orders living together in unhealthy places suffered most. Alfonso XI of Castille was the only European king to die of the plague while Peter IV of Aragon lost his wife, his daughter and a niece in six months. A 13 year old daughter of the English king Edward III died on her way to marry Alfonso’s son Pedro.The plague came back to haunt Europe again in 1360-62, 1366-1369, 1374-1375, 1400, 1407, and so on until the 19th century.

Deaths in Asia are based on both population figures at that time and estimates of the disease’s toll on population centers. The first outbreak of plague in Hubei province of China in 1334 claimed up to ninety percent of the population, an estimated five million people. Then followed the attack in eight distinct areas in 1353-54 of Mongol-Chinese empires killing possibly two-thirds of population, an estimate of twenty-five million. There were several epidemics and famines in China from 1200 to around1350 reducing its population from an estimated 125 million to 65 million in the late 14th century. It seems Japan has no recorded outbreak of plague.

Like other places, mortality in the Middle East was particularly high in rural areas, including significant areas of Palestine and Syria. The survivors in rural areas fled, leaving their fields and crops, and entire rural provinces are recorded as being totally depopulated. Syria’s total loss was about half a million by the time in 1349 the disease subsided. Gaza city recorded 10,000 deaths in1348, Aleppo recorded a death rate of 500 a day during the same year and Damascus at the disease’s peak in September and October 1348 a thousand deaths every day. However, John Fields of Trinity College, Dublin is of the view that as opposed to the high mortality rate in Europe, it was less than one-third of the total population in the Middle East, with higher rates in selected areas.


There was no apparent response to the crisis from the governments of Europe because no one knew its cause or how it spread. Nearly a third of the European population had already perished in 1348 before the state could do anything about it. It was not uncommon in crowded cities for as much as fifty percent of the population to die. Though people living in isolated areas suffered less, monasteries and priests were particularly hit hard because they cared for the Black Death’s victims. Healers and physicians of fourteenth century were at a loss to explain the cause. So, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s outbreak. It did not occur to anyone at that time that rat control could be a way to ward off the plague, and people veered to the belief that only God’s anger produced such horrific displays. Jews were held responsible for the calamity and punished severely. In February 1349, Christians murdered two thousand Jews in Strasbourg followed by decimation of the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne in August. All the affected monarchies instituted measures prohibiting exports of foodstuffs, condemned black market profiteering, set price controls on grain and outlawed large-scale fishing. Such belated efforts, to say the least, were mostly ineffective, and at worst contributed to a continent-wide downward economic spiral. England, desperately needing grain, was unable to buy it from France because of the prohibition, and from most of the rest of the grain producers because of crop failures from shortage of labour. Grain procured somehow was looted for sale in the black market. As if that was not enough, many of the countries, most notably England and Scotland went to war using up much of their resources and exacerbating inflation. Just before the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in 1337 in what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Malnutrition, poverty, disease and hunger, joined hands with war, growing inflation and other economic concerns making Europe in the mid-fourteenth century a haven for tragedy.

While reducing heavily the medieval population, the plague brought about a substantial change in economy and society in all areas of the world. Economic historians like Ferdinand Braudel are of the opinion that Black Death accelarated a downslide in the European economy that had been under way since the beginning of the century. Consequently, social and economic conditions changed radically during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the church’s hold was weakened, and in some instances, the social roles it had played were taken over by secular groups. The plague also brought about peasant rebellions in many parts of Europe, like the Jacquerie in France, the Ciompi in Italy and the one in England.


Before the plague, Europe was overpopulated, and therefore a reduction of 30% to 50% of population should have resulted in higher wages and more available land and food for peasants because of less competition for resources. However, for reasons that are still unclear, population levels declined after the Black Death’s first outbreak until around 1420 and did not begin to rise again until 1470. It seems the happening on its own does not entirely provide a satisfactory explanation to this extended period of decline in prosperity and why improvements in living standards took longer to evolve. The great population loss, bringing economic changes, gave rise to increased social mobility, which in turn further eroded the peasants’ already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. To stop this process, authorities in Western Europe worked to maintain social order through instituting wage controls. Such governmental measures were meant to ensure that workers received the same salary post-plague as they had before the onslaught of the Black Death. In England, the Ordinance of Labourers, created in 1349, and the Statute of Labourers, created in 1351, restricted both wage increases and the relocation of workers. Workers attempting to leave their current posts were liable to be stopped and imprisoned by their employers under the law The Statute was strictly enforced in areas like Essex county, where more than 7,000 people were fined for not obeying the Statute in 1352. Anyway, despite examples such as this, the Statute quickly proved to be difficult to enforce due to the scarcity of labour. Landlords in Western Europe, due to the sudden shortage of cheap labour, began to compete for peasants with wages and freedoms, an innovation, which, according to some, is at the roots of capitalism. The ensuing social upheaval brought about the Renaiissance as also the Reformation.

By the end of the 15th century, the Black Death and its aftermath improved the situation of surviving peasants in several ways. Labourers gained more power and were more in demand because of the shortage of labour in Western Europe. While they gained more power, workers in the period following the Black Death often moved away from annual contracts in favour of taking on successive temporary jobs offering higher wages. Even domestic servants had the option to leave their current employment to seek better-paying, more attractive positions in areas previous off limits to them. One more positive development of the period was that there was more fertile land available to the population. Anyway, these benefits would not be fully available until 1470, nearly 120 years later, when overall population levels finally began to rise again.

Laws in Eastern Europe at that time were made more stringent, thus binding the remaining peasant population more tightly to the land than ever before through serfdom. Anyway, population of Eastern Europe was much less than that of its western part, and consequently it was less affected by the Black Death. Thus peasant revolts there were less common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and did not occur until the sixteenth century. As social upheavals of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century in Western Europe resulting from the Black Death are seen by some as influencing factors in the Renaissance and the Reformation, historians have cited the smaller impact of the plague as the reason for Eastern Europe’s inability to experience either of these movements on a similar scale. Extending the argument further, the Black Death may be seen as partly responsible for Eastern Europe’s considerable lag in scientific and philosophical advances as also in the move to liberalise government by restricting the power of the monarch and aristocracy. For example, England abolished serfdom by 1550 and introduced a more representative government while Russia did not abolish serfdom until an autocratic tsar decreed so in 1861.

Substantial reduction in population due to the plague led to cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant and a relatively large increase in per capita income among the peasantry, if not immediately, in the coming century. As the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, these were made available for pasture which in turn put more meat on the market. So, meat and dairy products were consumed more and export of beef and butter from the Low Countries, Scandinavia and northern Germany increased. The upper classes often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by enacting sumptuary laws. Such laws regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear, so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as a higher class member with their increased wealth. One more tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more by increasing the value of their services and products. The success of this measure depended on its compliance by the people involved, which was not always there. In fact, such a law was one of the causes of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt in England.
Social mobility resulting from the Black Death and rebellions such as this are regarded as the most likely cause of the Great Vowel Shift, the principal reason why the spelling system in English today no longer reflects its pronunciation.


One of the plague’s sociocultural impacts was renewed religious fervor and fanaticism blooming in its wake. It was an additional catastrophe for minority populations of all sorts, with Christians attacking Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims gypsies, thinking that they were responsible for the crisis. Equally unfortunate were lepers and other individuals with skin diseases such as acne or psoriasis, who were singled out and exterminated throughout Europe. The lepers were believed to show an outward sign of a defect of the soul while differences in cultural and lifestyle practices between Jews and Christians were regarded by some by some as having provoked the plague. The Jews due to their religious obligation to be clean did not use water from public wells and were therefore suspected of causing the plague by deliberately poisoning wells. Furthermore, comparatively fewer Jews died from the Black Death, in part due to their religious laws promoting habits generally cleaner than that of a typical medieval villager. As a socially isolated group, they usually lived in Jewish ghettos which were less infected than other settlements. The consequent differences in mortality rates between Jews and non-Jews led to raised suspicions in people who had no concept of bacterial transmission. Marauding
Christian mobs attacked Jewish settlements across Europe, and by 1351 destroyed sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities in addition to more than 350 separate massacres. It was more than a manifestation of ethnic hatred; it was also a criticism of monarchical policy of protecting the Jews, who were often called the royal treasure, and the fiscal set up usually administered by them. This persecution led to the eastward movement of what was left of north European Jewry to Poland and Russia, where it remained until the 20th century.

Muslim women in Cairo faced persecution during the Black Death, writes Joseph P. Byrne in his book, The Black Plague. They became scapegoats when the plague struck because in 1438 sultan of Cairo was informed by his religious lawyers that the arrival of the plague was Allah’s punishment for the sin of fornication. In accordance with this theory, a law was enacted stating that women were not allowed to make public appearances as they may tempt men into sin.The law was only lifted after “the wealthy complained that their female servants could not shop for foods.”


A pervasive cynicism towards religious officials who could not keep their promises of curing plague victims and banishing the disease was a legacy of the Black Death. As no body, including Church personnel, was able to cure or accurately explain the reasons for the plague, one theory of transmission was that it spread through air, and was referred to as miasma or ‘bad air’. This belief increased the doubt in the clergy’s divine powers. The bitter alienation with the Church culminated in either support for different religious groups like the flagellants, which from their late 13th century beginnings grew tremendously during the opening years of the Black Death. Later on, a pursuit of pleasure and hedonism took hold. A common belief of the time was that the plague was due to God’s wrath, a punishment for the sinful ways of the mankind. To propitiate God, flagellants travelled from town to town, whipping themselves in an effort to mimic the sufferings of Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Beginning in Germany, several miraculous tales emerged from their efforts, such as a child being revived from the dead, and a talking cow. Rumours like this strengthened the belief that the flagellants were more effective than church leaders. Possibly, the flagellant’s later involvement in hedonism was an effort to accelerate or absorb God’s wrath, so as to shorten the time with which others suffered. It is also probable that the popularity of their cause resulted in a conviction that the world itself was ending, and that the actions of an individual were of no consequence.

It is, however, another matter that the flagellants may have actually contributed to the spread of the disease, rather than its cure. Presumably, there were towns which the flagellants visited or passed through, and such places were largely unaffected by the plague until that time, only to be infected by fleas carried either by the flagellant’s followers, or the flagellants themselves. It was a tragically common theme of the time, how individuals dealt with the plague. In most of the instances, the methods employed to defend against the plague often encouraged its spread.
Monasteries were hard hit during The Black Death because of their close proximity with the sick, who sought refuge there. It resulted in a severe shortage of clergy after the epidemic. A mass influx of hastily-trained and inexperienced clergy members ensued, many of whom knew little of the discipline and rigour of the veterans they replaced. Abuses by the clergy became common thereafter and the position of the Church in the eyes of the people further went down.
Looking back, it appears everything the people thought to do at the time simply made the problem worse. An example of such misplaced zeal is the contemporary belief that the plague was God’s wrath against sin. Now, cats were often regarded by many to be in league with the Devil. Those zealots began a wholesale slaughter of cats to assuage God, little realising that if the cats were not annihilated, local rodent populations could have been under check thereby lessening the spread of plague-infected fleas from host to host.


Alchemy, considered as medicine at that time, was used by most of the physicians for treating ailments. Its practice, however, slowly began to wane as the citizens realized that it rarely checked the spread of the epidemic and that some of the potions and cures used by many alchemists only made the condition of the sick worse. Liquor made by alchemists was liberally prescribed as a remedy for the Black Death, leading to a steep rise in the consumption of liquor in Europe after the plague. The Church also tried to meet the medical needs of the victims. The duties of doctors attending plague victims consisted mostly of visits to victims to verify whether they had been afflicted or not. Existing records of contracts drawn up between cities and plague doctors show that they enjoyed considerable freedom of action plus heavy financial compensation, having regard to the risk of death to which they exposed themselves. Most of them were volunteers, because trained physicians by then had already fled, realising that they could do nothing for the relief of the victims. The attire of the plague doctor resmbled somewhat the protective suit of personnel trained in handling hazardous materials nowadays and consisted of:

A black hat with wide brim placed tightly over the head. It was a partial shield from infection and identified the wearer as a doctor.

A sort of gas mask in the shape of a bird’s beak because birds were believed to be carriers of plague. It was believed that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. Red glass eyepieces in the mask were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil while the beak of the mask was filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasma or bad air thought to be carrying the plague. It also served the dual purpose of dulling the smell of unburied corpses, sputum and ruptured buboes in plague victims.

A long black overcoat, which was tucked in behind the beak mask at the neckline to minimize skin exposure. Hanging down to the feet, the overcoat was coated from head to toe in solid fat (suet) or wax with the thought that the plague could be drawn away from the flesh of the infected victim and either trapped by the suet, or repelled by the wax. The coating also made this outer cover moistureproof (blood, pus, sputum and so on).

A cane, probably to be used as a pointer. Precise use was not known.

Leather breeches used for wading into water. The leather breeches were worn beneath the cloak to protect the legs and groin from infection. As the plague usually manifested itself first in the lymph nodes, particular attention was paid to protecting the armpits, neck, and groin. A secondary use of the attire was to intentionally frighten and warn onlookers, to communicate that something very, very wrong was nearby, and that they too might become infected. It is not known how many plague doctors were there and how effective they were in treatment of the disease. The attire, while offering some protection to the wearer, may have actually contributed more to the spreading of the disease, with the plague doctor unknowingly serving as a vector for infected fleas to move from host to host.

The far and wide spread of the Black Death was mostly due to the deficiencies of medical science in the medieval era, but the lacuna also led to positive changes in the field of medicine. David Herlihy says in The Black Death and the Transformation of the West that more emphasis was placed on “anatomical investigations” following the Black Death. There was a marked change in the manner of studies concerning human body in varied states of sickness and health. Moreover, the importance of surgeons in matters of healing became more evident. Stephen O’Brien suggests that the Black Death is probably responsible through natural selection for the high frequency of the CCR5-?32 genetic defect in people of European origin. This gene influences T cell function and provides protection against HIV, smallpox, and possibly plague.. The possibility, however, appears doubtful because CCR5-?32 gene has been found to be just as common in Bronze Age samples of tissues.


Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death and a common painting motif in late-medieval periods, happens to be the direct outcome of the terror experienced by people during the Black Death. It is somewhat similar to the Nataraja in Hindu mythology, dancing over life and death. Nataraja’s dance, however, is joyous unlike the morbid pessimism prevailing during the march of the Black Death. From 1350, European culture became acutely morbid, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. Under the influence of the Black Death, European architecture moved in two different directions – there was a revival of Greco-Roman styles, which, in stone and paint, expressed Petrarch’s love of antiquity, and there was a refurbishing of the Gothic style.Churches built in this era emphasised verticality, where one’s eye is drawn up towards the high ceiling for a religious experience bordering on the mystical. As regards the Gothic style, it was brightened with elaborate decoration in this late medieval period while sculptors in Italian city-states emulated the work of their Roman forefathers. Their counterparts in northern Europe, no doubt shaken by the devastation they had gone through, brought forth a heightened expression of emotion and an emphasis on individual differences. In architecture, in literature and in painting, a tough realism shone through, and images of intense sorrow, decaying corpses, and individuals with faults as well as virtues were put forward. The Flemish school of Jan Van Eyck (circa 1385-1440) reproduced the natural world in precise and meticulous details bordering on photography.


The generation suffering from Black Death recorded the experience of their frightful, borderline existence between life and death in arts and literature. Such chronicles are very useful to historians of the period, giving (as they do) a feel of how it was to live through those terrible times with horror unfolding in an unimaginable scale. Philosopher rulers like Petrarch and famous writers like Giovanni Boccacio were among the narrators, even though their works remained unknown to a majority of the contemporary European population. Genrally, merchants and wealthy nobles of Italian city states read Petrarch’s works composed of hundreds of letters and vernacular poetry of great distinction as also a revised interpretation of courtly love. Giovanni Boccacio, known for his magnum opus Decameron, narrated (c. 1350-53) tales under the shadow of the Black Death, in which Church and religious belief become the satirical source of comedy throughout. Contrastingly, there was Peire Montech writing romantic poetry in the out of fashion lyric style during the height of the plague in Toulouse. Anyway, romances were still written then but such courtly tradition began to face increasing competition from other writers who produced gritty realist literature based on their fearful precarious experience of the Black Death. It was possible because of popularity of vernacular education and literature, as also of the study of Latin and classical antiquity. All these changes helped in making the written word accessible during the fourteenth century, and the grim scenario of devastation was a common theme of literature. Thus, Gabriele de’Mussi, a Sicilian Notary writes of the early spread from Crimea:

Alas! our ships enter the port, but of a thousand sailors hardly ten are spared. We reach our homes; our kindred…come from all parts to visit us. Woe to us for we cast at them the darts of death! …Going back to their homes, they in turn soon infected their whole families, who in three days succumbed, and were buried in one common grave. Priests and doctors visiting…from their duties ill, and soon were…dead. O death! cruel, bitter, impious death! …Lamenting our misery, we feared to fly, yet we dared not remain.

In England, Henry Knighton informs:

Then the grievous plague came to the sea coasts from Southampton, and came to Bristol, and it was as if all the strength of the town had died, as if they had been hit with sudden death, for there were few who stayed in their beds more than three days, or two days, or even one half a day.

Friar John Clyn recorded its effects in Leinster after its spread to Ireland in August 1348:

That disease entirely stripped vills, cities, castles and towns of inhabitaints of men, so that scarcely anyone would be able to live in them. The plague was so contagious that those touching the dead or even the sick were immediately infected and died, and the one confessing and the confessor were together led to the grave … many died from carbuncles and from ulcers and pustles that could be seen on shins and under the armpits; some died, as if in a frenzy, from pain of the head, others from spitting blood … In the convent of Minors of Drogheda, twenty five, and in Dublin in the same order, twenty three died … These cities of Dublin and Drogheda were almost destroyed and wasted of inhabitants and men so that in Dublin alone, from the beginning of August right up to Christmas, fourteen thousand men died … The pestilence gathered strength in Kilkenny during Lent, for between Christmas day and 6 March, eight Friars and Preachers died. There was scarcely a house in which only one died but commonly man and wife with their children and family going one way, namely, crossing to death…

Besides these personal accounts and in addition to Decameron, many presentations of the Black Death have entered the general consciousness as great literature, such as The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer), Piers Plowman (William Langland) and so on. Danse Macabre or the Dance of Death, with its theme of the universality of death, expressed the common wisdom of the time, that no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death united all. It consists of Death personified and leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave – emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, beautiful girl – all in skeleton-state. Black Death, in a sense its creator, reminded people of how fragile their lives were and how vain the glories of earthly life. Its apparently first expression in an art form is the frescoed cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424). In Basel, there are the works of Konrad Witz (1440); Bernt Notke (1463) in Lubeck; and woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538). According to Israil Bercovici the Danse Macabre was conceptualised by Sephardic Jews in 14th century Spain.

In his poem, The Rattle Bag, the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (who died young at the age of 30 or 35) recounts the hardships he endured during the Black Death. Stating his personal belief that the Black Death was the end of humanity, the Apocalypse, he shores up his argument by numerous biblical references, particularly the events described in the Book of Revelation. Thomas Nashe ran away from London to save himself from the plague and wrote a sonnet, A Litany in Time of Plague in his work Summers last will and Testament (1592):

Adieu, farewell earths blisse, This world uncertaine is, Fond are lifes lustful joyes, Death proves them all but toyes, None from his darts can flye; I am sick, I must dye: Lord, have mercy on us.

Much later, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote the verse play, “Feast in the Time of the Plague”.

In many European countries, Black Death quickly became folklore and was personified as an old, bent woman covered and hooded in black, carrying a broom and a rake. It appears the Norwegians believed that if she used the rake, some of the population involved might survive, escaping through the teeth of the rake. If, however, she used the broom, then the entire population in the area were doomed. The painter Theodor Kittelson created a vivid picture of the apparition called the Plague-hag or Pesta.

The growing popularity of venacular literature during and after the Black Death also benefited women because a broader cultural forum became available to them which had previously been restricted to men by the Latin church. They began to write and helped others like them by supporting women’s writings and translations of others. Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) of France became the first woman in Europe to support herself by writing. Her writings were in many different literary forms, like autobiography and books of moral advice for men and women, along with poetry on a wide range of topics. To Jean de Meun’s anti-feminist diatribe in the concluding part of his Romance of the Rose, she gave an effective reply in her composition The Letter to the God Of Love. This rebuttal is significant because it marks the first instance in European history when a woman raised a voice against the slanders women in general had long endured. The ensuing debate among de Meun and Pizan supporters continued upto the sixteenth century.


In view of its major impact on ancient and modern history, and its sybolism and connotations, Black death has often figured in modern lierature and media. While Camus’ novel The Plague describes the coming of a plague to Algeria, Herman Hesse in Narcissus and Goldmund
narrates the story of rwo monks living during the Black Death, one of whom leaves the monastery to wander around the country, seeing the epidemic’s devastations firsthand. Roger Zelzany talks about the abduction of the protagonist of the novel Nine Princes in Amber from his land of birth to plague-infested England where his life comes to an end. The locale of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) is an unnamed country during a fictional plague that bears strong resemblance to the Black Death. Poe added a sinister touch by staging the climax of the story in a black room.

Norwegian Nobel laureate Sigrid Undst deals with the outbreak of plague in his country in the 14th century in the novel Kirstin Lavransdatter. In her unusual book Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks chronicles the impact of the plague upon the residents of an isolated mountain village in England of 1666, who choose to quarantine themselves rather than contribute to the spread of the disease. The book went on to be declared as a notable fiction by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Doomsday Book, Connie Willis’ Hugo Award winning science fiction novel imagines a future in which historians do field work by travelling into the past as observers. Due to a mistake, the historian hero arrives in England when the plague is just setting in to unleash havoc. Michael Crichton’s Timeline is als a journey to the past to a village that is apparently affected by the Black Death. Alternate History presenting a “if – then” scenario (if Babar had lost the Battle of Panipat, then what would have happened) is the basis of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Years of Rice and Salt. It is imagined that Black Death with a virtually 100% mortality rate depopulates Medieval Europe, utterly destroys Western Christendom civilization and Europe no longer plays a major role in world history.
Three novels by Ann Benson play on Parallels between the Black Death and emerging diseases in the modern world are the themes Ann Benson’s three novels – The Plague Tales (1998), Burning Road (2000), The Physician’s Tale (2007). Weaving in allusions to many of the contemporary sources like Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, Benson shifts back and forth between the fourteenth century and a world in the near future that has been devastated by an antibiotic-resistant bacterium. Melanie Rawn fantasizes in her book Dragon Prince that the plague affects people of so-called high birth less than the commoners. Other fictional works of this kind are – Eifelheim (Michael Flynn), World Without End (Ken Follett), Temple of the Winds (Terry Goodkind) and so on. Since 1961, it is thought that Black Death has inspired one of the long lasting nursery rhymes in the English language, Ring a Ring o’roses, a pocket full of posies…It is, however, not clear how ashes, sneezing and falling down referred to in the rhyme are connected to Black Death.

In cinema, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic The Seventh Seal lifted Black Death to a dream like mythical level. A knight-crusader returns home to find that his home and country is ravaged by the Black Death. He is dismayed but not surprised when he discovers that Death has come for him as well. The climactic final scene comes with a sort of Danse Macabre. A science fiction film of 1988, The Navigator : A Medieval Odyssey portrays a group of 14th-century English villagers who, with the aid of a boy’s clairvoyant visions, dig a tunnel to 20th-century New Zealand to escape the Black Death. Elia Kazan directed a black and white, 96-minute film, Panic in the Streets which was released in 1950 by 20th Century Fox. A semidocumentary shot exclusively on location in New Orleans, Louisiana and featuring numerous New Orleans citizens in speaking and non-speaking roles, it tells the story of Clinton Reed, an officer of the U.S. Public Health Service played by Richard Widmark. Reed and a police captain (Paul Douglas) have only a day or two in which to prevent an epidemic of pneumonic plague after Reed determines a waterfront homicide victim is an index case. The film marked the debut of Jack Palance And Zero Mostel.

In music, The Black Metal band !349 named itself after the year the Black Death spread through Norway.

The player in the Neverwinter Nights videogame is first taken to a city which suffers from a fictitious, epidemic disease called the “Howling Death”, which bears some resemblance to the Black Death.

From Wikipedia and other sources.


About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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  3. chepeyja says:

    I could not see the pingback from crazy vector. I welcome and approve all comments and criticisms and request you to post them then and there upon receipt. Incidentally, on clicking crazy vector, I got this:

    Posted on August 18, 2010 by chepeyja

    Though Nobel Laureate Albert Camus immortalized it as a metaphor of the evil that lies dormant everywhere, in the fiction, The Plague, and Robert Downey, Meg Ryan and Hugh Grant … and so on to the end of the article. Other than expressing thanks for reproducing the article, I have nothing more to add. Thanks!

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    Thank you for your pingback……Bye……



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