The Black Death

The globe has seen quite a number of unpleasant events. In fact, the
history of the entire globe was carved and continues to be carved by
unpleasant events. Some of these are manmade while others are natural,
with some of them remaining unresolved for a long time. In most cases,
manmade calamities such as wars and acts of terror steal the show,
alongside natural calamities such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic
eruptions and others. Of course, natural calamities pique a lot of
interest thanks to the fact that there remain quite a lot of hidden
details. While there are variations in the magnitude and the interest
that different calamities pique, plagues have been among the topmost
both in magnitude and interest piqued. The human society has seen quite
a number of plagues, none of which can match the magnitude of The Black
Death plague.
The Black Death was a term given to arguably the largest pandemics to
occur in Europe’s (and human) history in the mid-1300s. The plague
peaked between 1348 and 1350 in Europe, leaving between 75 and 100
million people dead (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The Black Death was
responsible for about 1.5 million deaths in Medieval England between
1348 and 1350. While there exist varied theories pertaining to the Black
Death’s etiology, modern science has shown that the plague was mainly
caused by the Yersinia Pestis bacterium (Byrne, 2004).
The Arrival and Spread of the Plague
The Black Death, according to varied accounts, had its origin as Central
Asia or China. The disease then reached Crimea in 1346, travelling
through Silk Road. Black rats are credited with its spread from Crimea
to Europe and the Mediterranean as they were regularly found in merchant
ships. These rats were infested with Oriental Rat fleas.
Historians note that the plague, carried by 12 Genoese ships into Sicily
where it reached in October 1347 and spread all over the island. Venice
and Genoa experienced the outbreak in January 1348, introduced by ships
from Caffa. However, the key point of entry into Northern Italy was
Pisa. Italy seems to have been the key spreading ground as it was from
here that it spread northwest throughout Europe into Spain, England,
Portugal and France by mid 1348. It then spread into Scandinavia and
Germany in 1348, with Norway feeling the pinch in 1349 through its Askov
port (Byrne, 2004). The plague then swept through Bjorgvin before
finally sweeping through northwestern Russia around 1351. While a large
part of Europe was affected, the plague did not touch certain parts such
as the Kingdom of Poland, as well as some parts of Netherlands and
Belgium.
England had the first outbreak between 1348-49, with the disease seeming
to travel into the south in form of bubonic nodes in the summer months
of 1348. On the onset of winter, the disease mutated into a
significantly frightening pneumonic form, hitting London in 1348 and
sweeping across East Anglia in the New Year. Midlands and Wales were
already experiencing its pinch by spring 1349 (Byrne, 2004).
Causes of the plague and Human factors that enhanced the spread of the
Black Death Plague
The Black Death resulted from fleas carried by the oriental black rats
that were so common in cities and towns. The common fleas, which went by
the botanical name Xenopsylla cheopis, carries the Yersinia pestis
bacteria. Eventually, the bacteria in these fleas kills the rats, in
which case the fleas will have to seek new hosts and homes, which more
often than not is in humans. Once the humans were bitten by the fleas,
bacteria would be directly transmitted into their bloodstream, from
where it would spread throughout the blood stream and the human body.
Scholars note that, in about a fifth of the victims, the disease would
spread into the lungs of the patient, resulting into a pneumonic plague.
There were variations in the time taken for the victims to succumb to
the disease, varying from 2 to seven days. However, the pneumonic plague
comes as the most dangerous and highly infectious category of plague,
with the bacteria being spread through the air (Byrne, 2004).
Human activities
Nevertheless, there were varied human activities or conditions that may
have resulted in the spread of the disease especially in Medieval
England.
First, it is noted that the conditions of living in cities and towns
were far from the best. People lived extremely close to each other with
not much attention being given to sanitation. In fact, most people were
not very particular about their sanitation until the 19th century. These
unsanitary conditions created fair grounds for overpopulation of rats
carrying the fleas. While the rats may not have caused the disease, they
were responsible for its fast spread, aided by the filth littering the
streets (Byrne, 2004).
In an attempt to cure their sores, the people would also cut up the
buboes and lance them so as to draw out the noxious poisons. In such
cases, the buboes would release a spray of puss, which often escalated
the spread of the plague. Even in instances where the patients got over
the treatment, they became increasingly vulnerable to contracting other
infections thank to the open sores (Byrne, 2006). While the treatment
may have temporarily aided in relieving pain thanks to the release of
puss, it worsened things for doctors, patients and those people around
them.
In addition, the human society at this time was deficient of medical
knowledge in which case they tried numerous techniques to escape the
disease. Unfortunately, some of these techniques aided in the spread. An
incredible example is the flagellants, who thought that the plague had
resulted from God’s punishment, in which case they whipped themselves
to show repentance. On the same note, they believed that the disease was
in their blood, in which case they could eliminate it by bleeding
(Byrne, 2006). They also though that the demons resided in their bodies
causing the plague, in which case whipping themselves was a way of
beating the demons. Unfortunately, the open sores only aggravated the
spread of the disease.
Moreover, the people in this society believed that cats and dogs were
aiding in the spread of the disease. In this case, they killed the dogs
and cats, with the animals’ blood being used to make some concoctions
thought to eliminate the plague (Byrne, 2006). Unfortunately, this had
the contrary effects especially considering that cats and dogs are
natural predators of rats, in which case their elimination resulted in
multiplication of the flea-infested rats and the spread of the plague.
The limited knowledge led to the enactment of varied rules. The people
were forbidden from eating pig and poultry meat or even fat meat as
these categories of meat were thought to spread the plague. In addition,
they were forbidden from bathing as this was thought to weaken
people’s hearts, while exercising was thought to attract the
plague’s evil spirit (Byrne, 2006). These were real academic opinions
emanating from the pope, but had the exact opposite as the people simply
became dirty, hungry and weak thereby worsening the plague.
Impacts and Implications of the Black Death
The Black Death had far-reaching implications on the medieval English
society, stretching from their economic aspects to their political and
social lives.
On the economic aspect, the plague rendered the people incapable of
ploughing their fields, especially considering that the men who usually
carried these duties were victims. In addition, bringing in the harvests
was virtually impossible, while animals got lost as there was no one to
tend them. In essence, the entire villages faced starvations. The cities
and towns had food shortages simply because the surrounding villages did
not have sufficient food supplies. This also resulted in inflation of
food prices, which in some cases went as much as four times. On the same
note, most lords resorted to sheep farming after losing their manpower
to the plague as sheep farming needed considerably less labor (Byrne,
2004). Needless to say, basic foodstuffs became scarce in cities and
towns as the popularity of grain faming reduced considerably.
One of the most significant effects of the plague was on the
social-political arena, especially with regard to the Peasants Revolt in
1381. Individuals who survived the plague believed that they had done it
through God’s protection in which case there was something distinctive
and unique about them. In essence, they exploited the opportunity that
the disease had provided to enhance the quality of their lifestyle.
Scholars note that the peasants were required by the feudal law to only
leave their villages if they had the permission of their lord. (Scott &
Duncan, 2008) While it was previously difficult for the lords to grant
their permission, the disease had introduced an incredible shortage of
labor, in which case the lords had no option but to not only allow the
villagers to leave their villages but also encourage them to come and
work for them so as to fill the gap. Once the peasants left their
villages and signed up for the work, the lords would restrict them from
returning to their villages. Peasants were privy to the lords’
desperation in getting their harvests in, in which case they demanded
higher wages for their labor (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The massive loss in
population resulted in economic changes founded on increased social
mobility with the depopulation reducing the peasants weakened
obligations to stick to their conventional holdings (Zahler, 2009). In
essence, the government was faced with the paradox as peasants could
leave their lords and look for better and more enticing deals, something
that upset the fundamentals of the Feudal System introduced with the
sole aim of tying peasants to the land. It is worth noting that the
lords were encouraging this movement, which was ironic as the Feudal
System was bound to benefit them more (Zahler, 2009). The government
tried to counter the constant movement of peasants looking for better
pay by introducing the 1351 Statute of Laborers. This Statute limited
the amount of wages offered to peasants to the same amount as that paid
in 1346, with lords or masters being prohibited from exceeding this
amount. On the same note, peasants were prohibited from leaving the
village to which they belonged (Zahler, 2009). Any disobedience of this
statute could have resulted in serious punishments for the peasants, but
some chose to ignore it. However, the statute led to vast amounts of
anger among peasants, resulting in the 1381 Peasant Revolt. This
provides a causal link between the Black Death plague and the 1381
Peasant Revolt in England.
The Black Plague was also credited with the Renaissance, as well as the
Reformation. This is because of the sudden decrease in cheap labor,
which provided landlords with incentives to compete for laborers. They
would use varied enticements such as freedom and increased wages, an
innovation that is argued to have formed the basis for capitalism while
the subsequent social upheaval resulted in the Reformation and the
Renaissance. Apart from the increased ability to demand for better
remuneration, workers in Western Europe started moving away from the
yearly contracts, opting instead for successive temporary jobs as they
offered better remuneration (Scott & Duncan, 2008). The plague also gave
peasants the capacity to move to other areas that they previously could
not go to in search of better opportunities.
In conclusion, the Black Death was arguably one of the most devastating
plagues in written human history. It is thought to have emanated from
Central Asia through cruise ships into Europe. Of course, there were
varied entry points, but the disease was spread not only by the ships
but also through the air. Varied human activities aggravated the
situation, especially with regard to cleanliness and the techniques used
to eliminate the disease. Most of these techniques were based on
ignorance as not much was known about the disease’s etiology.
Nevertheless, the disease had far-reaching social, economic and
political implications. It is thought to have a bearing on the 1381
Peasants Revolt, as well as the Renaissance and Reformation. In
addition, it reduced cheap labor, thereby allowing peasants to move to
other areas seeking better opportunities.
References
Byrne, J. P. (2004). The black death. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood
Press.
Byrne, J. P. (2006). Daily life during the Black Death. Westport (Conn.:
Greenwood Press.
Scott, S & Duncan, C (2008). Return of the Black Death: The World`s
Greatest Serial Killer. New York: John Wiley & Sons
Zahler, D. (2009). The Black Death. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century
Books.
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