The Bubonic Plague in Europe
The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Plague or Black Death, is one of the most devastating outbreaks of disease to ever have occurred. Millions of people died across different continents and it seemed for a while that there would be no stopping it. The plague peaked between 1348 and 1350, killing anywhere from 30-60% of Europe’s population, but it affected people’s way of life for far longer than that.
The exact origins of the plague are unknown. It’s believed to have originated in China or Central Asia in the lungs of marmots. When fleas bit them, they contracted the diseases. In turn, they bit rats, spreading the disease. Those rats would get onto cargo ships and infect the people. In the 1320s, caravan routes carried the disease into Crimea, and from there into western Europe, and down into Africa.
In Europe, England was one of the hardest hit areas. Highly populated cities suffered greatly as the disease spread quickly. It was difficult to isolate due to the unsanitary conditions and dense populations. The plague hit Paris in 1466, Moscow in 1570, Italy in 1575, London in 1625, Germany in 1634, and Amsterdam in 1663. These were just the first or second large outbreaks as the disease would often crop up and then die out.
Bubonic infection is believed to be the main cause of the plague. It’s believed that the Black Rat introduced the disease to England. However, cats were also a leading cause as cats were seen as a symbol of the devil and commonly slaughtered, so the rats that carried the diseases were free to roam as they wished.
The Black Plague actually occurred because three kinds of plague broke out at the same time. The first, bubonic, which was the most common, killed 30 to 75% of its sufferers. Symptoms included aching joints, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and fever. The second type, the pneumonic plague, had a mortality rate of 90 to 95% and symptoms included a cough, red-tinged sputum, and fever. As the patient got worse, the sputum would be free-flowing and bright red. The rarest type, septicemic, killed nearly 100% of its suffered and the symptoms were the ones associated with the Black Death with purple skin patches and high fevers. Some sufferers of all types also had freckle-light spots or rashes.
In the four years it raged in Europe, it killed anywhere from 75 to 200 million people. That’s about 40 to 50% of the European population. The plague was a huge blow to the Catholic Church, which could do nothing to stop the spread of the plague. Many started to feel that the church had failed them. It also heightened the persecution of many minorities, especially beggars and lepers.
The Jews and foreigners often suffered as paranoia about the plague rose. The plague also brought interesting changes to the art world as people began to “live for the moment” and the art of the time reflected this attitude. The plague also had an interesting effect on the economy where countries with the plague found it hard to export foodstuffs for fear of spreading it. At that time, England was just coming off a war and a famine so many people went through even greater sufferings. However, many class barriers were also shattered.
The plague’s effect is still felt in England today.