The Black Death, Part 1 of 3

(The name given to the plague that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351.)

The Black Death is said to be the greatest catastrophe experienced by the western world up to that time.

The Black Death is considered to be the first widespread epidemic of which sufficient documentary evidence can be substantiated.

The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The mortality rate is said to have been 30-75%. The symptoms included enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes around the arm pits, neck, and groin.

The Black Death came in three forms:

  • The bubonic.
  • The pneumonic.
  • The septicemic.

The term "bubonic" refers to the characteristic bubo, or enlarged lymphatic gland. Victims were subject to headaches, nausea, aching joints, very high fevers, vomiting, and a general feeling of malaise. Symptoms took from 1-7 days to appear.

In all likelihood, a flea riding on the hide of a black rat entered the italian port of Messina in 1347, perhaps down a hawser tying a ship up at the dock.

The flea had a gut full of the bacillus Yersinia pestis. The flea itself was hasrdly bigger than the letter "o" in this paragraph, but it could carry several hundred thousand bacilli in its instestine.

Scholars today cannot identify with certainty which species of flea (or rat) carried the plague. One candidate among the fleas is Xenopsylla cheopis, which looks like a deeply bent, bearded old man with six legs. It is slender and bristly, with almost no neck and no waist, so that it can slip easily through the forest of hair in which it lives.

It is outfitted with a daggerlike proboscis for piercing the skin and sucking the blood of its host; and it is equipped to secrete a substance that prevents coagulation of the host's blood.

Although Xenopsylla cheopsis can go for weeks without feeding, it will eat every day if it can, consuming the warm blood.

One rat on which fleas feed, the black rat Rattus rattus, also known as the "house rat, roof rat", or "ship rat", is active mainly at night.

Such a rat can fall 50 feet and land on its feet with no injury. It can scale a brick wall or climb up the inside of a pipe only an inch and a half in diameter. It can jump a distance of two feet straight up and four feet horizontally, and squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter.

A rat can gnaw its way through almost anything; such as, paper, wood, bone, mortar, and even half-inch sheet metal. It gnaws constantly.

Indeed, it must gnaw constantly. Its incisors grow four to five inches a year: if it were to stop gnawing, its lower incisors would eventually grow; as sometimes happens when a rat loses an opposing tooth, until the incisors push up into the rat's brain, killing it.

It prefers grain, if possible, but also eats fish, eggs, fowl, and meat; including, lambs, piglets, and the flesh of helpless infants or adults. If nothing else is available, a rat will eat manure and drink urine.

Rats and mice harbor a number of infections that may cause diseases in human beings. A black rat can even tolerate a moderate amount of the ferocious Yersinia pestis bacillus in its sysrem without noticeable ill effects.

The bacilli breed even more extravagantly than fleas or rats, often in the millions. When a bacillus finally invades the rat's pulmonary or nervous system, it causes a horrible, often convulsive, death, passing on a lethal dose to the bloodsucking fleas that ride on the rat's hide.

This particular plague of Black Death started in Italy

From the shores of the Black Sea, the bacillus seems to have entered a number of Italian ports. The most famous account has to do with a ship that docked in the Sicilian port of Messina in 1347.

According to an Italian chronicler named Gabriele de Mussis, Christian merchants from Genoa and local Muslim residents in the town of Caffa, on the Black Sea, got into an argument; a serious fight resulted between the merchants and a local army led by a Tatar lord.

In the course of an attack on the Christians, the Tatars were stricken by plague. From sheer spitefulness, their leader loaded his catapults with dead bodies and hurled them at the Christian enemy, in hopes of spreading disease among them. Infected with the plague, the Genoese sailed back to Italy, docking first at Messina.

Although de Mussis, who never traveled to the Crimea, may be a less-than-reliable source, his underlying assumption seems sound. The plague did spread along established trade routes; however, most likely the pestilence in Caffa resulted from an infected population of local rats, not from the corpses lobbed over the besieged city's walls.

In any case, given enough dying rats and enough engorged and frantic fleas, it would not be long before the fleas, in their search for new hosts, would leap to human beings.

When a rat flea sensed the presence of an alternate host, it could jump very quickly and as much as 150 times its length. The average for such jumps is about six inches horizontally and four inches straight up in the air. Once on human skin, the flea would not travel far before it began to feed.

The first symptoms of bubonic plague often appeared within several days: headache and a general feeling of weakness, followed by aches and chills in the upper leg and groin, a white coating on the tongue, rapid pulse, slurred speech, confusion, fatigue, apathy, and a staggering walk.

A blackish pustule usually would form at the point of the fleabite. By the third day, the lymph nodes started to swell. Because the bite was commonly on the leg, it was the lymph nodes of the groin that swelled, which was how the disease got its name.

The Greek word for "groin" is boubon; thus, "bubonic plague". The swellings were tender, perhaps as large as an egg. The heart began to flutter rapidly as it tried to pump blood through swollen, suffocating tissues. Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurred, causing purplish blotches on the skin.

The victim's nervous system started to collapse, which caused dreadful pain and bizarre neurological disorders, from which the "Dance of Death" rituals that accompanied the plague probably took their inspiration.

By the fourth or fifth day, wild anxiety and terror overtook the sufferer; and then a sense of resignation, as the skin blackened and the rictus of death settled on the body.

How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world! Many died in the open street, others dying in their houses, made it known by the stench of their rotting bodies.

-Giovanni Boccaccio

In 1347, when the plague struck in Messina, townspeople figured that it must have come from the sick and dying crews of the ships at their dock.

They turned on the sailors and drove them back out to sea; eventually to spread the plague in other ports. Messina panicked. People ran out into the fields and vineyards and neighboring villages, taking the rat fleas with them.

When the citizens of Messina, already ill or just becoming ill, reached the city of Catania, 55 miles to the south, they were at first taken in and given beds in the hospital; however, as the plague began to infect Catania, the townspeople there cordoned off their town and refused, too late , to admit any outsiders.

The sick, turning black, stumbling and delirious, were objects more of disgust than pity; everything about them gave off a terrible stench, it was said, their "sweat, excrement, spittle, breath, so foetid as to be overpowering; urine turbid, thick, black or red. . ."

Wherever the plague appeared, the suddenness of death was terrifying.Ê Today, even with hand-me-down memories of the great influenza epidemic of 1918 and the advent of AIDS, it is hard to grasp the strain that the plague put on the physical and spiritual fabric of societies.

People went to bed perfectly healthy and were found dead in the morning. Priests and doctors who came to minister to the sick, so the wild stories ran, would contract the plague with a single touch and die sooner than the person they had come to help.

In his preface to The Decameron, a collection of stories told while the plague was raging, Boccaccio reported that he saw two pigs rooting around in the clothes of a man who had just died, and after a few minutes of snuffling, the pigs began to run wildly around and around, then fell dead.

"Tedious were it to recount," Boccaccio thereafter lamented, "brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and, oftentimes, husband by wife; nay what is more and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers. . ."

In Florence, Italy, everyone grew so frightened of the bodies stacked up in the streets that some men, called becchini, put themselves out for hire to gather and carry the dead to mass graves.

Having in this way stepped over the boundary into the land of the dead, and no doubt feeling doomed themselves, the becchini became an abandoned, brutal lot. Many roamed the streets, forcing their way into private homes and threatening to carry people away if they were not paid off in money or sexual favors.

—Compiled from excerpts located in
"How a mysterious disease laid low Europe's masses" by Charles L. Mee Jr.;
Smithsonian, February, 1990; pages 66-78.

Part 2 of 3.