The Black Death, Part 3 of 3

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

It took a long time before anyone was able to find out what really caused the plague!

By the fall of 1348, the plague began to abate; but then, just as hopes were rising that it had passed, the plague broke out again in the spring and summer of 1349 in different parts of Europe.

This recurrence seemed to prove that the warm weather, and people bathing in warm weather, caused the pores of the skin to open and admit the corrupted air.

In other respects, however, the plague remained unexplainable. Why did some people get it and recover, while others seemed not to have got it at all; or at least showed none of its symptoms, yet died suddenly anyway?

Some people died in four or five days, others died at once. Some seemed to have contracted the plague from a friend or relative who had it, others had never been near a sick person. The sheer unpredictability of it was very terrifying.

In fact, though no one would know for several centuries, there were three different forms of the plague, which ran three different courses.

  • The first was simple bubonic plague, transmitted from rat to person by the bite of the rat flea.
  • The second ,and likely most common form, was pneumonic, which occurred when the bacillus invaded the lungs. After a two-day, or three-day incubation period, anyone with pneumonic plague would have a severe, bloody cough; the sputum cast into the air would contain Yersinia pestis. Transmitted through the air from person to person, pneumonic plague was fatal in 95 to 100 percent of all cases.
  • The third form of the plague was septocemic, and its precise etiology is not entirely understood even yet.

In essence, however, it appears that in cases of septocemic plague the bacillus entered the bloodstream, perhaps at the moment of the fleabite.

A rash formed and death occurred within a day, or even within hours, before any swellings appeared. Septocemic plague always turned out to be fatal.

Some people did imagine that the disease might be coming from some animal, and so they killed dogs and cats; although, they never killed rats.

Fleas were so much a part of everyday life that no one seems to have given them a second thought. So called, "upright citizens" also killed gravediggers, strangers from other countries, gypsies, drunks, beggars, cripples, lepers, and Jews.

The first persecution of the Jews seems to have taken place in the South of France in the spring of 1348. That September, at Chillon ,on Lake Geneva, a group of Jews were accused of poisoning the wells.

They were tortured and they confessed, and their confessions were sent to neighboring towns. In Basel, all the Jews were locked inside wooden buildings and burned alive. In November, Jews were burned in Solothurn, Zofingen and Stuttgart, Germany.

Through the winter, and into early spring, they were also burned in Landsberg, Burren, Memmingen, Lindau, Freiburg, UIm, Speyer, Gotha, Eisenach, Dresden, Worms, Baden and Erfurt.

Sixteen thousand were murdered in Strasbourg. In other cities Jews were walled up inside their houses to starve to death. That the Jews were also dying of the plague was not taken as proof that they were not causing it.

On the highways and byways, meanwhile, congregations of flagellants wandered about, whipping themselves twice a day and once during the night for weeks at a time. As they went on their way they attracted hordes of followers and helped spread the plague even farther abroad.

The recurrence of the plague after people thought the worst was over may have been the most devastating development of all. In short, Europe was swept not only by a bacillus but also by a widespread psychic breakdown; as well as, by abject terror, panic, rage, vengefulness, cringing remorse, selfishness, hysteria, and above all, by an overwhelming sense of utter powerlessness in the face of an inescapable horror.

After a decade's respite, just as Europeans began to recover their feeling of well-being, the plague struck again in 1361, and again in 1369, and at least once in each decade down to the end of the century.

Why the plague faded away is still a mystery that, in the short run, apparently had little to do with improvements in medicine or cleanliness and more to do with some adjustment of equilibrium among the population of rats and fleas.

In any case, as agents for Pope Clement estimated in 1351, perhaps 24 million people had died in the first onslaught of the plague; perhaps as many as another 20 million died by the end of the century; in all, it is estimated, one-third of the total population of Europe.

Very rarely does a single event change history by itself. Yet an event of the magnitude of the Black Death could not fail to have had an enormous impact. Ironically, some of the changes brought by the plague were for the good.

Not surprisingly, medicine changed; especially, since medicine had so significantly failed to be of any help in the hour of greatest need for it.

First of all, a great many doctors died and some simply ran away. "It has pleased God," wrote one Venetian-born physician, "by this terrible mortality to leave our native place so destitute of upright and capable doctors that it may be said not one has been left."

By 1349, at the University of Padua, Italy, there were vacancies in every single chair of medicine and surgery. All of this, of course, created room for new people with new ideas.

Ordinary people began wanting to get their hands on medical guides and to take command of their own health; and, gradually more medical texts began to appear in the vernacular instead of just in Latin.

Significant social and economic changes resulted with a new fluidity of the rigid structures of society

Because of the death of so many people, the relationship between agricultural supply and demand changed radically, too. Agricultural prices dropped significantly, affecting the fortunes and power of the aristocracy, whose wealth and dominance were based on land.

At the same time because of the deaths of so many people, wages rose dramatically, giving laborers some chance of improving their own conditions of employment. Increasing numbers of people had more money to buy what could be called "luxury goods", which affected the nature of business and trade, and even of private well-being.

As old relationships, usages and laws broke down, expanding secular concerns and intensifying the struggle between faith and reason, there was a rise in religious, social, and political unrest.

Religious reformer, John Wycliffe, in England, and John Huss, in Bohemia, were among many leaders of sects that challenged church behavior and church doctrine all over Europe.

Such complaints eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, and the assertion that people stood in direct relation to God, without the need to benefit from intercession by layers of clergy.

Indeed, the entire structure of feudal society which had been under stress for many years, was undermined by the plague. The three orders of feudalism: clergy, nobility, and peasantry; had been challenged for more than a century by the rise of the urban bourgeoisie, and by the enormous, slow changes in productivity and in the cultivation of arable land.

The plague, ravaging the weakened feudal system from so many diverse and unpredictable quarters, tore it apart. By far the greatest change in Western civilization that the plague helped to hasten a change of mind. Once the immediate traumas of death, terror and flight passed through a stricken town, the common lingering emotion was that of the fear of God.

The subsequent surge of religious fervor in art was in many ways nightmarish. Although medieval religion had dealt with death and dying, and naturally with sin and retribution, it was only after the Black Death that painters so wholeheartedly gave themselves over to pictures brimming with rotten corpses being consumed by snakes and swooping birds of prey appearing with terrible suddenness, cripples gazing on the figure of death with longing for deliverance, open graves filled with blackened, worm-eaten bodies, devils slashing the faces and bodies of the damned.

Well before the plague struck Europe, the role of the Catholic Church in Western Europe had been changing. The Papacy had grown more secular in its concerns, vying with princes for wealth and power even while attempts at reform were increasing: "God gave us the Papacy," Pope Leo X declared. "Let us enjoy it."

The church had suffered a series of damaging losses in the late 1200s, culminating in 1309 when the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon.

Then, the Black Death dealt the church a further blow, for along with renewed fear and the need for new religious zeal came the opposite feeling that the church itself had failed; but, historical changes rarely occurred suddenly.

The first indications of change from a powerful catalyst usually seem to be mere curiosities, exceptions or aberrations from the prevailing worldview.

Only after a time, after the exceptions have accumulated and seem to cohere, do they take on the nature of a historical movement.

Only when the exceptions have come to dominate, do they begin to seem typical of the civilization as a whole (and the vestiges of the old civilization to seem like curiosities).

This, in any case, is how the great change of mind occurred that defines the modern Western world. While the Black Death alone did not cause these changes, the upheaval it brought about did help set the stages for the new world of Renaissance Europe and the Reformation.

As the Black Death waned in Europe, the power of religion waned with it, leaving behind a population that was gradually, but certainly turning its attention to the physical realm in which it lived, to materialism and worldliness, to the terrible power of the world itself, and to the wonder of how it works.

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

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