The Black Death: Europe's Most Notorious Plague
In the mid-14th century, Europe enjoyed robust trade with the Near East and the Far East. By the 1340s, sea trade routes had been established with faraway countries such as Syria, Egypt, Persia, China, and India (history.com, internet). Due to their trading interconnectedness, European port cities such as Messina (Sicily), Rome, Florence, Marseilles, and even the north African port of Tunis, were struck by what soon became known as "The Black Death" -- the plague (history.com, internet). Because of the confluence of factors that caused the rapid spread of The Black Death throughout an entire continent, and its high death toll, the pandemic is one of the most interesting -- and tragic -- events of human history.
Unlike many plagues before and after the infamous Black Death, its spread throughout Europe had a distinct starting point. In October of 1347, after a long voyage on the Black Sea, a dozen Genoese merchant ships docked at Messina, a Sicilian port city. Throngs of people met the trading ships at the docks. However, they were treated to a gruesome sight (history.com, internet). "Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill" (history.com, internet). Those who were alive were very feverishly ill -- vomiting and in serious pain (history.com, internet). The Black Death earned its infamous name because of the strange black boils that oozed pus and blood from its victims' bodies. Although Sicilian authorities ordered that the ships leave the harbor immediately, the disease nonetheless spread. One-third of Europe's population -- about 20 million people -- died within the next five years (history.com, internet).
The notorious Black Death was a highly-contagious illness carried by infected rats and fleas (history.com, internet). The bacillus's namesake, Yersina pestis, originated from the French biologist, Alexandre Yersin, who discovered the germ near the end of the 19th century. The Black Death -- and all subsequent plagues -- were spread pneumonically (via the air), or from the bites of rats and fleas. "Both of these pests could be found almost everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds–which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another" (history.com, internet). Thus, the elaborate network of trade routes that the Europeans had established at home and abroad quickened the spread of The Black Death.
Other animals, such as camels, chipmunks, mice, prairie dogs, rabbits, and squirrels, also transmit the disease, but urban rats pose the most danger to humans, as the disease is usually transmitted by the rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis (nationalgeographic.com, internet). The most common form of the plague is bubonic plague, which is characterized by its buboes -- swollen, painful lymph nodes around the armpit, neck, and groin. Septicemic plague spreads through the bloodstream, and is transmitted via fleas or infectious body matter (nationalgeographic.com, internet). However, pneumonic plague is the most infectious type of plague, killing one out of every two victims. Considered an advanced type of bubonic plague, pneumonic plague is transmitted directly -- from person to person -- via airborne droplets (nationalgeographic.com, internet).
However, what makes Yersina pestis especially deadly -- even when it is compared to similar bacteria -- is its status as a mutant variety (nationalgeographic.com, internet). As a mutant, Y. pestis cannot survive outside infected animals, and it is also unable to "penetrate and hide" in the body cell of its host (nationalgeographic.com, internet). Therefore, Y. pestis utilizes its extraordinary numbers to its advantage, as well as its ability to disable and cripple its host's immune system. Y. pestis uses toxins that it injects into the macrophages (immune system defense cells), which then allows the bacterium to multiply quickly (nationalgeographic.com, internet). Victims are basically poisoned to death, as the skin is filled with clotted, infectious bacteria. Moreover, a flea that happens by may pick up the disease. Another unsavory aspect of the disease is that many of its victims may have lungs that dissolve, gangrene, and/or glands that erupt with pus (nationalgeographic.com, internet).
Thus, even on a microscopic level, the stage was set for the most serious pandemic since the era of Justinian (Byzantine emperor who ruled during the late 500s) -- when the plague struck eastern Europe, killing 10,000 people per day in Constantinople alone, at one point. By the 700s, nearly half of Europe's population died from the plague (nationalgeographic.com, internet). The Black Death is currently thought to have killed about 25 million during its five-year reign of terror. Although The Black Death struck with ferocity for five years, it lingered for several centuries, even causing The Great Plague of London which lasted from 1665-1666, killing one out of every five people (nationalgeographic.com, internet).
Nevertheless, The Black Death is the plague that strikes a more familiar chord with most people, as well as taking more lives -- sparing only a lucky few. But, The Black Death was more than just a deadly, highly-contagious bacteria that could kill a person in only a few hours. It was also a social phenomenon in which religious beliefs played a large part. For example, from 1348 to 1349, thousands of Jews were massacred in an effort on the part of Christians to purge their communities of "heretics" and "miscreants". These actions were motivated by the belief that The Black Death was God's judgment -- and subsequent punishment -- for misdeeds of a Biblical nature, such as heresy, greed, blasphemy, worldliness, and fornication. Of course, the reasoning that followed was to re-gain God's favor, at the expense of minorities such as Jews. Many Jews -- those who did not succumb to The Black Death or were not killed by angry mobs -- fled to eastern Europe (history.com, internet).
Those who did not scapegoat religious groups such as the Jews often held their own souls in perpetual judgment. Flagellants roamed from village to village, whipping themselves and each other with studded leather straps, publicly showing both penance and punishment (history.com, internet). They repeated this rite three times a day for 33 1/2 days, and then moved on to the next village or town, repeating the strange ritual to more devotees (history.com, internet). Soon, the flagellants -- with a medieval "rock star" appeal challenged the authority of the Pope in many ways. The Pope's authority, however, prevailed (history.com, internet). Still, people continued to die, and those left behind felt a growing sense of fear and hopelessness.
The Black Death also instilled fear in those who dealt with death as part of their job description. Many doctors refused to attend to the needs of the sick, and many priests refused to offer last rites to those who had succumbed to the deadly affliction that engulfed Europe (history.com, internet). Nevertheless, It is also estimated that 90% of priests and 75% of physicians died during the epidemic because of their willingness to minister and serve during the worst of the plague" (Berry, internet). Tradesman, such as shopkeepers, closed up shop. Many farmers lost their livestock, as the disease infected cows, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs -- just as easily as humans. There were few, if any, places to which to flee.
In short, it was a bleak time, and the phrase, the Dark Ages, is loosely equated with the disease that ravaged Europe for five full years -- The Black Death. Ironically, out of the stench of death and sickness grew a child's game, " 'Ring Around A Rosie". Although the child's game traces back to the London Plague of 1665-1666, the game nonetheless refers to the plague -- Yersina pestis. "Ring-a-ring of roses/A pocketful of posies/At-choo at-choo/We all fall down!" The ring of roses refers to the red buboes around a sufferer's neck, while posies were a type of folkloric remedy for the illness. "At-choo at-choo" signifies the deadly sneezing of a plague victim, and "we all fall down" refers to the usual outcome of any plague -- death (Berry, internet).
Albeit caused by a microorganism, The Black Death changed the course of European history. Mistakenly thought by many to be the one and only "plague", it was the most severe in a series of plagues that overcame the overpopulated continent, one that was often beleaguered by septic problems. As sanitation practices have become more sanitized, plagues have become less frequent (nationalgeographic.com, internet).
The Black Death slowed down European trade with other nations, and threatened to kill off all Europeans -- as well as their food supply. However, not everyone died from the illness, and afterwards, life returned somewhat to "normal". But, whenever one hears the children's rhyme, " 'Ring Around a Rosie", one's mind may now hark back to a time when things were not so rosy, and a mere cough could transmit a nearly-certain death.
Berry, Gail. (2012). "Ring Around a Rosie A Brief History of the Bubonic Plague". Retrieved on 27 Apr 2015 from http://healthdecide.orcahealth.com/2012/08/21/ring- around-a- rosie/#.VT8jTJMYErU
Black Death. (2015). (n.p.). Retrieved on 27 Apr 2015 from www.history.com/topics/black-
Plague. (2015). (n.p.). Retrieved on 27 Apr 2015 from http://science.nationalgeographic.com graphi /science/health-and-human-body/human-diseases/plague-article/