Black Death


After enjoying generations of sunshine and warmer climes, Europe had undergone an unprecedented population boom that saw more people living on the continent than ever before. At the turn of the first millennium there were 24 million people in Europe, and by 1340 this had reached 54 million.

Entire countries were straining at the edges of their farmlands and eating into the forests, and the availability of food was beginning to reach the limits of population support. A dire evil, however, stalked the land, just as the Little Ice Age began, and a century later Europe’s population had plummeted to 37 million.

The true origins of this bringer of death are unknown, though many people believe it emerged in south-east Africa centuries ago and crept along the Nile to the Eurasian continent. This monster scurried on a million legs through the dank holds of ships, grain-stuffed silos and mills, filthy streets and docks slick with grime — and much worse in the years to come.

It sprang from the backs of great black rats, borne in the blood of fleas infected with Yersinia pestis, and thrived in the blood-flecked sputum of the plague’s violently coughing victims. It wept from the bulbous, stinking sores that erupted in people’s groins and armpits. It struck fiercely and mercilessly, bringing down towns in a matter of days, erasing families in mere hours.

While we now call this great pandemic that brought Europe to its knees in the mid-14th century the Black Death, it was known by a different name at the time -the apocalyptic moniker, Pestilence. With the Hundred Years’ War sweeping western Europe and conflicts with the unstoppable Golden Horde in the east, famine beginning to cripple countries whose populations were at the limits of sustainability, and then sickness swiftly following — bringing with it death — the people of the world knew that Pestilence was upon them, and many feared the apocalypse drew near…

Pestilence is shrouded in mystery, and even now researchers still debate the exact components of the beast and the path it took across the continent. What is certain is that it originated in the eastern end of the continent, and worked its way through the Mongolian Empire before piercing Caffa (now Feodosiya in Ukraine), Sicily and southern Europe, reaching peak strength as it smashed into France and England.

Scientists agree that its main weapon was bubonic plague, a bacterial disease carried by infected fleas that fed on the black rats ubiquitous to the continent, but were also known to dine on other types of rodents, rabbits and, sometimes, larger mammals like cats.

The bacterium itself — Yersinia pestis — was a rather nasty piece of work; it would infect the blood of fleas and then cause a buildup of old blood and cells within the proventriculus (a valve preceding the flea’s stomach). This blockage meant that when a hungry flea tried to bite its next victim, the high pressure in its stomach would force! some of the ingested blood back into the open wound, along with thousands of bacterial cells that had accumulated in the proventriculus.

This swarm of Yersinia pestis would then drain along the lymphatic tract of the victim from the source of the bite down to the nearest lymph node. Once there, the bacteria would proceed to colonise the lymph node so entirely that it would swell, stiffen and ooze a rancid pus. Since most people were bitten on their legs, this would usually be the lymph node in the groin. These enlarged lymph nodes, known as buboes, were the main sign of Pestilence; ugly and painful, they ranged from the size of a grape to a fat orange and they made any movement unbearable.

Before the appearance of the buboes though, victims would have a slight warning. Flu-like symptoms would appear first, swiftly followed by a high fever. Within a day or two these would be joined by ‘God’s tokens’ — small circular rashes, also called roses — that would spread over the body and particularly around infected lymph nodes. Caused by weak blood vessel walls and internal haemorrhaging, they were a sure sign that you didn’t just have a nasty cold, as noted by Shakespeare: ‘the tokened pestilence where death is sure’. Things tended to move quickly once the buboes had boiled up through the skin. Diarrhoea and vomiting would ensue, as would often septic shock due to the buboes bursting, with respiratory failure and pneumonia wiping up the last sops of life. Within two weeks, four out of five people who contracted the plague died.

Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, a chronicler from Siena, Italy, captured the terror of the time well:

‘I do not know where to begin describing its relentless cruelty; almost everyone who witnessed it seemed stupefied by grief. It is not possible for the human tongue to recount such a horrible thing, and those who did not see such horrors can well be called blessed. They died almost immediately; they would swell up under the armpits and in the groin and drop dead while talking. Fathers abandoned their children, wives left their husbands, brothers forsook each other; all fled from each other because it seemed that the disease could be passed on by breath and sight. And so they died, and one could not find people to carry out burials for money or friendship.’

In the face of Pestilence and the approaching end-times, King Philip VI of France commissioned the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris to deduce the source of the evil so that it might be eradicated. The findings of these professors did not bode well, for they ascribed the tragedy to the conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in Aquarius, and to the position of Saturn in the House of Jupiter — and nothing could be done to challenge the will of the cosmos. At the time, Jupiter was believed to be the source of warm, humid vapours, while hot, dry Mars was thought to ignite them. These pestilential vapours were thought to form a thick, stinking smog of sickness known as a miasma, which was compounded by the sulphurous eruptions of volcanoes and wrathful power of earthquakes.

Believed to be the main culprit of the Black Death, people gave up bathing (as it opened the pores to miasma), barricaded themselves in closed rooms hung with thick tapestries to block out the poisoned air and took to carrying nosegays and pomanders to avail themselves of the evil stench. None of this would save them though.

In 1346, amid reports from the east of biblical plagues — rains of frogs and serpents, hail, stinking smoke and thunder — the Mongols of the Golden Horde attacked Caffa — an island port off the north coast of the Black Sea. The horde laid siege to the city and were all set for a protracted campaign when the Black Death struck them in the back ranks. Suddenly, their army was dying and the siege began to fall apart. What followed is the first known incidence of biological warfare: about to pull back and return to the east, the horde first gathered up the diseased bodies of their dead and catapulted them over the walls of Caffa.

Instantly, Pestilence struck Europe, and though it took around 15 years to cross Asia it would destroy Europe in less than five. As the horde went home, defeated, the Black Death ran around the coast of the Black Sea and straight through the Byzantine Empire (south of modern Bulgaria). By 1347 — just as Joan of England, of the House Plantagenet, was departing Britain to marry Prince Pedro of Castile and form a political alliance — it had arrived on the Mediterranean and struck Messina in Sicily. Here, frightened peasants were beginning to realise that the monster attacked by sea and had started to refuse ships at the port, but it was a case of too little, too late.

Trading ships from Genova and Constantinople carried the plague to the Italian mainland, where it ran up and down the infected rivers, canals and walkways. By 1348, 600 people were dying each day in Venice; Rhodes, Cyprus and Messina had all fallen. The invasion gathered pace and then punched up into the heart of Europe, striking down 60 per cent of Marseille’s population and half of Paris’s. The bewildering death toll was so high that the mayor of Bordeaux even set fire to the port, in a remarkably prescient move considering the fact that serpents and smog were more feared than rats at this stage.

Britain fared little better at the time. Arriving on the south coast of England in 1348 — primarily through ports like Bristol, Weymouth and London the Black Death was to claim 50 per cent of the population and reach a height of around 300 souls each day in London by spring 1349.

It was a staggering loss in this age of arable farming, where the majority of the country’s wealth lay in the land. Acres and acres of golden cornfields were left without farmers to sow or plough them; knights and churchmen found themselves working by the sweat of their brows -and this led to the growth of the new yeoman class, as serf-less landowners were forced to rent their estates to the surviving farmers, whose labour was now very much in demand against crippling inflation and who became independent for the first time. This freed up capital and made it more economically mobile, possibly leading to the birth of a kind of proto-capitalism, but it also led to the English ‘lost villages’.

As well as being depopulated through disease, the estates of the rich also succumbed to the fat dowers of widows who were entitled, for life, to a third of their dead spouse’s income. With the death rate increasing and ageing spinsters gobbling up inheritances, young lords were as out of pocket as the poor and stood no better chance against Pestilence. While the chronic overpopulation in England before the Black Death meant that there was no initial effect on the labour market, by the next generation — the 1370s — there was a critical shortage. This led to the British government passing increasingly stringent regulations aimed at holding down rising wages, and ultimately to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The same was true elsewhere in Europe, with the effects of the Black Death also leading to the Jacquerie in France (1358) and the Revolt of the Ciompi in Italy (1378).

Despite the reassurance that the clergy provided, religion was powerless against the Black Death. Churchmen, who were often the closest thing to a doctor, were forbidden to dissect the bodies of God and so could not perform autopsies to learn the exact causes of death. Priests afraid of the plague refused to administer last rites, and urged people to confess to each other. Funeral rites were similarly abandoned, with corpses stacked several layers deep with a smattering of earth between each row, and entrepreneurial peasants began to gather and bury the dead for a fee.

Eventually, the clergy refused bodies entry into cities and, since death had become such a constant companion, ordained that no funeral bells were to ring. In 1348, however, a much greater religious threat abounded. The Brotherhood of Flagellants rose up in Germany and led 1,000-strong marches through the country for 33 and a half days at a time (to mark the Saviour’s years on Earth), brutally whipping themselves with iron-studded belts of leather to display their penance to God and earn protection from his wrath. They had something of a rockstar status and many people reached out to catch the sacred drops of blood that spattered from their holy wounds.

By 1349 the movement had petered out -falling prey to a bandwagon effect that led to too many misfits and vagabonds exploiting the Flagellants’ notoriety — but the effect it had on public sentiment was grave. The reinforcement of extreme Christian ideology in the face of the apocalypse inflamed anti-Semitism across Europe and the Jews were persecuted like never before.

Associated as they were with the mystical Kabbalah (and black magic), the 2.5 million Jews living in Europe at the time were prime suspects for witchcraft and nefarious deeds. Having been strong international merchants in 1000, they were in a period of decline that would ultimately lead to their replacement in economic terms by Italian merchants by 1500. Divided and wandering across Europe, they were accused of brewing poisons from basilisk skin, spiders, lizards and frogs — even Christian hearts and the wafer of Christ — and then infecting wells with disease.

Kill or Cure

A number of herbal treatments were thought to be effective against the Black Death. Sufferers were regularly prescribed, depending on their income, solutions of ground emeralds or potions made from the crushed shells of newly laid eggs mixed with chopped marigolds, ale and treacle. Treacle was, in fact, a leading remedy, though it had to be at least ten years old to have any potency. Another effective, if less appealing, curative was urine -two glasses a day was widely thought to strengthen the constitution and fend off disease.

Treatment of the buboes was a trickier affair. In their terror, people believed they could draw out Pestilence by holding bread against the boils and burying it — or, more incredibly, by strapping a live hen to the swelling, rinsing and repeating. Physicians later discovered that lancing buboes, draining the pus and applying poultices was relatively effective in the affliction’s early stages.

Such poultices usually consisted of tree resin, white lily root and then dried human excrement, arsenic or dried toad, depending on availability. Less extreme ointments were mixed from cooked onions, butter and garlic, while bloodletting through leeches or incisions and the application of clay and violets was also practised.

For the most part, since the Black Death was allegedly miasmatic, the best preventative measure was thought to be carrying pouches of sweet herbs and spices (or balls of perfume called pomanders), and burning them in your home. Most felt their only options were to fast, pray and join the Flagellants in order to pay penance for their sins, and kill suspected witches or well-poisoners, while waiting for Saturn to move out of the House of Jupiter.

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