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The Black Plague

Much of history is a record of the disasters men bring upon themselves. But some of the worst misfortunes of mankind–floods, earthquakes, famines, and plagues–seem to be inherent in the natural scheme of things or acts of God. The most terrible of these of which we have knowledge of was the Black Plague, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century (Cohen 106). The Bubonic Plague, which is a disease that has troubled the world for many years, is thought of by many as just an event that happened for only a few years, a long time ago.

It is also thought that this disease, while deadly, did not take a very big toll on the people and communities of Europe. This is not the case. The Bubonic Plague was, and still is a very deadly and devastating disease that had a huge effect on Europe from 1346 to about 1700. What is the Bubonic Plague? There are many names for it. It has been called the Black Plague, Black Death, the Pest Plague, and the Oriental Plague. There are three different types of the Bubonic Plague, all having different scientific names. First there is Pastuerella pestis, then Bacillus pestis, and lastly Versinius pestis (Black Death).

Even though these are all a little different from each other, they still have many similar characteristics, and can manifest themselves in two different ways-In the bloodstream, or in the lungs, the latter being much deadlier (Harrison 2). When the bloodstream is infected from the bite of a flea, the lymph nodes in the body swell to the size of an apple or golf ball, and ooze blood and pus (Harrison 2). Since the flea usually bites on the legs, the sores will most likely appear in the groin area and armpits, making it painful to even walk (Rice 1).

Also, black blotches appear on the skin from internal bleeding, and there is a white coat on the tongue (Harrison 2). When the lungs are infected, other symptoms include heavy sweating, intolerance to light, spitting of blood and continuous fever until death, which is in just one to three days(Harrison 2). All of these symptoms are very painful, and after a couple days of having this disease, death is a welcome relief. Black Death spreads in two ways. First, it starts in unsanitary conditions where it can be spread by fleas, who are carriers of the disease.

It starts when they bite an infected rat. The bacteria then blocks their digestive system, making them regurgitate the infected blood into a human when they bite (Black Death). Second, in crowded, unsanitary urban areas where the disease is widespread, it can be passed from man to man through microscopic drops of saliva when a person coughs or sneezes. This leads to the before mentioned lung infection (Black Death). When people think of the Bubonic Plague, they usually think of the plague which devastated Europe in the mid 1300s, but the history of the plague goes much further back than that.

There were accounts of the plague in the Old Testament, and then again in Athens in 430B. C. (Plague). The plague was dormant for many years, but then reappeared in China in the 1330s (Plague). It finally hit Europe in 1347 when Genose trading ships whose sailors were infected, landed in, and infected, almost every major port in Europe (Cohen 2). It stayed in Europe and swept through for many years until it finally reached England in 1664 and caused what is known as the Great Plague of London (Plague).

Europe had heard of the plague, but didnt know how bad it really was until it got there, and when it did, it had huge effects on the economy and the communities of Europe. The effects that the Bubonic Plague had on the economy are these. Since there was a greater number of deaths in the city than in the country because of the crowded conditions, there was a labor shortage, and many people moved into the city to find work (Harrison 2). However, the number of workers were limited to help drive up salaries, and this made a vast number of the people who came into the city unemployed (Harrison 2).

Guilds had regulated memberships, and once a person was in a guild, he found it very hard to move up because the guilds were very protective of their members (Harrison 2). In the country, however there was a very small farmer population because of the plague, which drove the grain prices up and lessened competition (Harrison 2). This made for a very good grains market (Harrison 3). What this meant was that if a peasant wanted to go into the farming business for himself by hiring other workers, he found that he could make a very profitable living (Harrison 3).

Overall, however, the plague brought in its wake a recession from which Europe did not recover until the fifteenth century (Harrison 3). The effect of the plague on communities was devastating. Families and friends were set against each other–the well rejecting the sick (Rice 1). Some people withdrew from all contact with others, hoping to avoid getting the dreaded disease (Chilton 24). As the disease became more and more widespread, many people wanted to have a final confession or write up their last will and testament, but the priests and lawyers would not even get close enough for them to do it (Chilton 24).

The death of many judges and administrators from the plague made it so that law and order hardly even existed in some areas. The reason was that there simply were not enough people to catch lawbreakers. If one was caught, however, there was little chance of him going to trial, because there were no judges to oversee the case, and no lawyers, either to prosecute, or to defend. (Rice 1). Also, there were cases of the sick breaking into houses and threatening to contaminate the people within unless they were paid a bribe to leave (Rice 1). It was the end of the world (Chilton 25).

People were wandering around, almost zombie-like from fright and hopelessness (Chilton 25). They abandoned their homes and left their jobs (Chilton 25). The plague also had an effect on the hygiene of communities. The dead were piled in shallow mass graves, or they were simply dumped into the street (Rice 1). This obviously did not help to quell the spread of the disease. In the years that the plague was most active, it had taken its toll in almost every major city in Europe. In the orient, it killed over twenty three million people (Harrison 2).

In Paris, over one half of the people died (Harrison 2). Bremen and Hamburg fared even worse, with over one half of their populations being wiped out, and finally, in Florence, three fourths of the people lay dead. It killed 70,000 out of the 460,000 people living in England, and this number is probably underestimated, since it is likely that many of the 6432 deaths attributed to spotted fever were really caused by the plague (Black Death). When the death counts were finally totaled, over twenty five million people had been slain in Europe by the Bubonic Plague (Black Death).

This comes out to be about on third of the total population. Where were the doctors, and what were they doing to try to curb the plague? During this time, the doctors were dying just like anybody else, and most of the healthy doctors did not dare visit the sick for fear of catching the disease themselves (Cohen 108). The few doctors who were brave or courageous enough to venture into a sick persons house used many different, but ineffective cures, one of the most popular being a bath in urine.

Other cures included the burning of aromatic woods and herbs, special diets to starve the plague out, courses of bleeding to try to get rid of the infected blood, and new, different postures for sleeping (Rice 1). For the rich, there were potions made from molten gold or from powdered pearls and jewels (Rice 1). Although the doctors in the Middle Ages were not very successful in their attempts to heal the sick, there are ways to stop the disease from spreading and infecting people. First of all, sanitary measures should be taken against pests to make sure that there are no rats or fleas in the living quarters.

If this is done the disease would be nipped in the bud because there would be no carriers to spread it to humans (Black Death). If the rats do happen to infect some individuals, those people should be quarantined to make sure that they do not spread the disease to others (Black Death). Also, there was an extremely helpful vaccine developed in the nineteen forties to help the victim regain health (Black Death). Use of this along with antibiotics can usually help the individual recover from the disease.

Although the Bubonic plague was a terrible time for mankind, we can be sure that a huge scale outbreak, like the one in Europe, will never happen again due to the medical and technological advances we have made. One can only wonder what would have happened if the people of Europe had access to the vaccines and antibiotics we have now. Perhaps the plague happened for the best, slowing the growth of population so that the world would not become too overcrowded. Even in light of this, the Bubonic Plague was still a terrible and deadly time for Europe and the rest of the world.