The Great Plague

Medieval people called the 14th century catastrophe either the “Great Pestilence”‘ or the “Great Plague”. Writers contemporary to the plague referred to the event as the “Great Mortality”.

The term “Black Death” was introduced for the first time in 1833. It has been popularly thought that the name came from a striking late-stage sign of the disease, in which the sufferer’s skin would blacken due to subepidermal hemorrhages (purpura), and the extremities would darken with gangrene (acral necrosis). However, the term is more likely to refer to black in the sense of glum, lugubrious or dreadful.

The Black Death was, according to chronicles, characterized by buboes (swellings in lymph nodes), like the late 19th century Asian Bubonic plague. Scientists and historians at the beginning of the 20th century assumed that the Black Death was an outbreak of the same disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat (Rattus rattus). However, this view has recently been questioned by some scientists and historians. New research suggests Black Death is lying dormant.

European outbreak

In October 1347, a fleet of Genoese trading ships fleeing Caffa reached the port of Messina in Sicily. By the time the fleet reached Messina, all the crew members were either infected or dead. It is presumed that the ships also carried infected rats and/or fleas. Some ships were found grounded on shorelines, with no one aboard remaining alive.

Looting of these lost ships also helped spread the disease. From there, the plague spread to Genoa and Venice by the turn of 1347–1348.

From Italy the disease spread northwest across Europe, striking France, Spain, Portugal and England by June 1348, then turned and spread east through Germany and Scandinavia from 1348 to 1350. It was introduced in Norway in 1349 when a ship landed at Askøy, then proceeded to spread to Bjørgvin (modern Bergen). Finally it spread to north-western Russia in 1351; however, the plague largely spared some parts of Europe, including the Kingdom of Poland and isolated parts of Belgium and The Netherlands.

At Siena, Agnolo di Tura wrote:

“They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in … ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands … And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

A Malthusian crisis

In addition, various historians have adopted yet another theory for the cause of the Black Plague, one that points to social, agricultural, and sometimes economic causes. Often known as the Malthusian limit, scholars use this term to express, and/or explain, certain tragedies throughout history. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus asserted that eventually humans would reproduce so greatly that they would go beyond the limits of food supplies; once they reached this point, some sort of “reckoning” was inevitable. While the Black Death may appear to be a “reckoning” of this sort, it was in fact an external, unpredictable factor and does not therefore fit into the Malthusian theory. In his book, The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, David Herlihy explores this idea of plague as an inevitable crisis wrought on humanity in order to control the population and human resources. In the book The Black Death; A Turning Point in History? (ed. William M. Bowsky) he writes “implies that the Black Death’s pivotal role in late medieval society… was now being challenged. Arguing on the basis of a neo-Malthusian economics, revisionist historians recast the Black Death as a necessary and long overdue corrective to an overpopulated Europe.”

Herlihy examines the arguments against the Malthusian crisis, stating “if the Black Death was a response to excessive human numbers it should have arrived several decades earlier” due to the population growth of years before the outbreak of the Black Death. Herlihy also brings up other, biological factors that argue against the plague as a “reckoning” by arguing “the role of famines in affecting population movements is also problematic. The many famines preceding the Black Death, even the ‘great hunger’ of 1314 to 1317, did not result in any appreciable reduction in population levels”. Finally Herlihy concludes the matter stating, “the medieval experience shows us not a Malthusian crisis but a stalemate, in the sense that the community was maintaining at stable levels very large numbers over a lengthy period” and states that the phenomenon should be referred to as more of a deadlock, rather than a crisis, to describe Europe before the epidemics.


Be Sociable, Share!

About Android