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How Black Death Changed the World

  • Updated October 7, 2021
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For our research project, we chose to study the Black Death. Our group chose this topic because we found it interesting how bacteria from a flea quite literally changed the world. The Black Death, known as the Bubonic Plague, was responsible for at least 25 million deaths in Europe, but the total extent of the worldwide devastation is unknown due to the chaotic nature of the event. Given the massive hazard of the plague to society, people naturally fled from this terrifying threat. Due to the time period of these events, the lack of population census record, and the hysteria ensuing as a result of the plague, it is difficult to accurately pinpoint the migration patterns of those who fled and where. We intend to research how the effects of the mass hysteria of the Black death outbreak caused force migration throughout Europe, and the ways in which this changed the world.

Additionally, we will use the historical information that we have relating to the plague and apply it to modern medicine breakthroughs, and relate the events seen in the plague to more modern significant medical events, such as the ebola crisis of 2014, approximately 670 years after the black plague began. Population and topic The field of science applied to our research paper is, simply put: Biology. In our research we will be zeroing in on the biological nature of the Yersinia pestis pathogen as well as the disease disaster-induced displacement the cataclysmic series of events spurred across mainly Western Europe. Biology as a specific field of science is fundamental to our understanding of the Yersinia pestis pathogen and how its bacterial nature allowed it to spread from fleas along the Silk Road to human populations throughout Eurasia (Sussman 2011).

Biology is also the main science involved in explaining how the conditions in Western Europe as well as the counterproductive medical practices of the time fostered a breeding ground for the plague to disperse relentlessly. After having established the pivotal role that the bacterial nature of Yersinia pestis played in the spread of the Bubonic plague, we can begin to understand how this disease-induced displacement affected the biological demographics of Europe. This is most notable through the massive loss of life that the plague brought– over 25 million lives lost– and the subsequent hundreds of years that it took for humanity to return to the populations it held before. While the bubonic plague originated in Asia, the disease reached critical mass in Europe, shaping the history of the world forever. The first records of the disease’s movement indicate that it began in Asia and made its movement up the the Silk Road, and spread throughout Europe. It was through trade movements that the disease made it through the Eurasian continent, and to the major port cities (Benedictow 2008).

The spread of the disease induced mass terror and panic. Due to the rate and incredible scale of the Black Death outbreak, many europeans made the decision to flee from the chaos to the safe countryside and to less developed nations in attempt to flee the foul nature of modern cities which gave the disease a breeding ground. An interesting note on the disease is that in the early stages it is relatively non-contagious with the most common form, bubonic plague, only occurring through infected flea bites. The contagion is only passed human to human through through the interaction with infected bodily fluids, and with the spread of airborne droplets hacked out of an advanced infected victim’s lungs. With even a basic knowledge of sanitation and quarantine procedure, the disease is effectively non-contagious. However, the europeans at the time had no understanding of the disease at all.

Due to this, the irrelevant goal of attempting to escape from the spread of the disease in reality assisted the spread of the disease, as the emigration ships housed infected fleas and their carriers which took them across the european trade routes (Green 2014). The displaced population was made up of a diverse conglomerate of people escaping their homesteads to whatever was perceived as safer, with those people coming from anywhere across the whole of the Eurasian continent. The culture at the time of the plague contributed greatly to the death toll that we saw. There was a massive misunderstanding of medicine at the time, coupled with the fact that scientific development was being hampered by religious fundamentalists. Practices like bloodletting – which only helped the plague to spread further – were common, and the research abilities of scientists trying to find the cause of the plague were nowhere near on par with the abilities of modern pathologists (Mullett 1956).

Economic status also played a role, though not incredibly significant, as those who had money could afford to pick up and leave affected areas, as well as receive private care, however medieval it may have been. Private care, even though not necessarily effective in treating the plague, was important, because the average commoner would be placed in a location with many other people who had already contracted plague, which would serve to worsen their condition. If someone was treated alone, they had a much better chance of recuperation. Additionally, the theories of how diseases functioned failed to prevent any of the disease spread, as a common belief at the time was that illness was spread through the eyes, and contracted through eye contact. “Therefore when a doctor, priest, or friend wants to visit an invalid he should persuade him to close his eyes and then blindfold him with a linen cloth”. (Horrox 2007).

This faulty conception led to a flawed understanding of the contagiousness of the plague which gave a false sense of security, increasing the danger faced by physicians and the clergy. Ultimately, the lack of understanding of how the disease spreads and how to manage it devastated both the Asian and European populations. The culture of Europe was absolutely changed in the aftermath of the plague. The understanding of medicine had developed to the point of Britain having a tentative understanding of the role of sanitation and rapidly advanced medical knowledge through the gauntlet that is attempting to understand and treat a mass pathogen (Routt 2008). In the whole of Europe, the socio-economic landscape was adapted to accommodate for the lack of manpower, leading to the fall of feudalism and the rise of mercantilism as the most modern and successful system of economic prosperity (Gottfried 2010).

The loss of manpower from the plague reduced the workforce by 30-60%, denying the possibility for the old system of working under feudal lords and increasing the demand for labor, bringing rise to paying workers livable wages, which granted them economic freedom (Benedictow 2008). Discussion We discovered that the Bubonic plague was actually a much more complicated issue than our oversimplified history books from junior high and high school had led us to believe. There were numerous compounding factors that led to it being as monumental a problem as it was. From an inherent lack of understanding of proper practicing of medicine to the massive prevailing unsanitary situations of the time period, many things came together to worsen the issue.

While none of the major discoveries regarding the plague have been all that recent, due to the fact that it has been mostly eradicated, we have seen discoveries from other epidemics that can apply to many of the questions that were left unanswered for far too long during the period that the plague claimed so many lives. We discussed ebola as a group, and the massive international effort to keep it contained, and find a cure rapidly. Things such as rapid quarantine of those infected in otherwise “clean” areas would have been massively helpful during the plague. Furthermore, our current understanding of sanitation reduces the spread of disease significantly. Disease is sometimes known as being nature’s counterbalance against the growth of organized civilization. It acts as a punishing mechanism for when humans desire to cluster together.

Under normal nomadic circumstances, diseases were a lesser concern. The spread of the contagious disease was propagated– and only became a concern– due to the congregation of man. The nature of combating disease is the very basic conflict of man versus nature, and raises the question of whether it is right to disturb the natural order. We’ve found that the question of what it means to heal and cure is to optimize the wellbeing of man itself, which means limiting the suffering and loss of human life. A more modern example of a disease which is facing a mass movement to cure is that of polio. We have seen mass humanitarian aid, especially from the likes of men such as Bill Gates, devoted to combating this virus.

We have nearly eliminated this disease from the face of the earth, stopping innocent people from living with a heavily debilitating disease. Our research of the bubonic plague revealed the interdisciplinary nature of the virus, its spread, and the lessons pulled from it. Just as biology is critical in understanding the way in which the organism attacks the human body, an understanding of the cultural landscape of Middle Age Europe is fundamental in understanding ways in which the disease spread was proliferated. For example, the practice of bloodletting was standard treatment for the plague based on the Christian influence of understanding of disease, when in reality this only served to further the bacteria’s spread.

Similarly, the plague’s dispersion would not have been as expansive if not for the existence Silk Road– the trade route that opened up material and cultural exchange between the West and the East up until the late 1400’s. A globalizing world that seems to become more interconnected gives diseases bigger stages to become full-blown epidemics with the potential of reaching millions of people. However, the advancements in medicine and technology thanks to globalization have offset this with increased efficacy at eradicating diseases. Ultimately, the biological nature of pathogens such as the Yersinia pestis must be examined in the context of other disciplines in order to paint an accurate picture of reality– and in order to avoid painting another Bubonic Plague.

The black plague and research investigations into it hold importance and gravity based upon the fact that it is by far the infectious disease with the most impact upon the world at large. The investigation into this held some difficulty as it is difficult to determine the exact data on how many people went where and how that spread the numbers of infected. Due to this being the first contagion of its kind, we have developed further methods and expanded the role of record-keeping in states of emergency and not simply tossed every corpse into a pit. The improvement in recordkeeping that has occured over the past centuries would definitely be my recommendation for the future of studying the spread of infectious disease for future generations.

I would also say that the passage of people across borders in time of emergencies should likely be recorded as it can be used to see if the movement of people in mass are responsible of the catastrophe itself. I was very surprised by the revelation that the bubonic plague was only one portion of the black plague, and was not even the form which spread from human to human. This is very rarely taught, as is the fact that the disease originally came from Asia before spreading to Europe. It was interesting to learn how we have learned from this experience with the form of the ebola crisis and how we attempted to quarantine the affected nations, but that we still have more to learn due to failing to completely contain those infected.

This project has been extremely enriching and eye-opening. We looked back in time to place modern day judgement on the practices surrounding the Plague, and what could have been done better to prevent the massive and catastrophic loss of life that we saw in Europe and Asia, with specific focus on the millions lost in Europe. Looking back on what contributed to those losses, we were also able to apply knowledge gained from looking at the events that transpired so long ago to much more modern events. Such topics as the modern crisis of Ebola, and how that was handled as well as the ways in which infected people were quarantined rapidly and not allowed to travel make sense when one looks back on the Plague for context.

One can almost see the ways in which humanity has made progress, how we have learned, and how we have moved forward in the practice of medicine. This seems to be a common theme that can be viewed in all of our studies in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, where it seems you can look back and see how people have learned or in some unfortunate cases, forgotten what we should have learned. It seems that this common theme applies not only to human history, but also to our own lives. There are lessons that we can learn by looking back at our failings, and there are times when we look back on our actions and realize that very likely we failed to learn a lesson that was readily available to us. Hopefully, when our lives near completion we will have more of the former than the latter.

This research assignment has been an interesting endeavor throughout this semester. From an academic standpoint, I found the Black Death’s effects and ramifications on the world population history to be extraordinary. The plague changed the world in an interdisciplinary fashion. It changed the way we handled sanitation and medicine, the way communities were structured, and how we understood the spread of disease. After going through the research, I found that the biggest contribution to the forced migration of individuals by the black plague was the lack of understanding of epidemiology and how diseases spread. Individuals who attempted to escape the plague often unknowingly became the agents that transported the disease throughout Europe, either as carriers of the disease or they transporters for the organisms that introduced the disease.

The mass hysteria of the populations of Europe was the plagues ultimate weapon, which inevitably promoted the masses to spread the disease as they fled in fear of infection. The limitations that we found in the research was the lack of population records in Europe. We could not effectively understand the plague’s full impact on force migration, because records of population movement and population census were not kept to date. This made it difficult to ascertain which cities and areas migrants fled to and what was the accurate death count. I would recommend that for the future studies regarding the plague, researchers ought to analyze the effects on specific regions in Europe. By basing more research on individual regions, we can ascertain a better image of the overall impacts when we bring that research together. This investigation is important because it highlights the fundamental nature of cause and effect for diseases.

Humanity needs to attain a better level of efficiency for disease control and understanding of disease outbreaks. In recent years, we have done a better job in both facets with the establishing of organizations like the CDC and WHO, who contribute to studying diseases and work to find cures for them. However, we do need to understand that diseases can get deadlier and if we are not prepared to contain and fight these new diseases; we could very well face our generation’s version of the Bubonic plague.

My experience during this research assignment has been a revealing delve into the history of epidemics and the subsequent human responses to them. Understanding the human actions that propagated the spread of the plague (and ultimately the spread of death) is crucial so that we may not repeat the same mistakes again. The biological treatment of our subject is especially important in understanding the conditions that have allowed for most recent outbreaks such as Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Tuberculosis in Venezuela.

While since the Bubonic Plague we have positively improved the way we treat patients with infectious diseases, the fact is that we still have a long way to go in eradicating human suffering thanks to disease. It was also interesting to learn how the extent of trade between Western Europe and Asia, notably through the Silk road network, was the catalyst that allowed for the spread of the Yersinia Pestis pathogen across Eurasia. It almost seems as if a paradox: the more interconnected we become as a species, the more good and bad that we are able to spread amongst ourselves. The Silk Road network of trade routes created vast amounts of wealth for both Western and Oriental parties involved, yet it propagated the spread of a pathogen that wiped out over 25 million people.

The main limitation we faced as a group approaching this topic was finding ways of applying what we had learned to the world we live in today. At first, it seemed daunting to try to apply the lessons learned from a disease that was treated with medieval medicine to a world faced with different problems, such as antibiotic resistance. However, what we learned about the way people interact with one another in times of strife says a lot about human nature. The pathogen responsible for the plague was never fully eradicated, yet this is not in the headlines because it only affects the most disadvantaged in our society.

Similarly, the Black Death was considered to be “over” in early 1350’s even though it was still prevalent in inner cities among the poor. I find it odd that we sometimes measure human progress based on the livelihood of those who are well off, when plenty of times this comes at the expense of the disadvantaged majority. What I am left with after this project is that human suffering must be approached from a universal perspective that takes everyone into account. If we fail to do this, we will continue to repeat the suffering of the past.

Cite this paper

How Black Death Changed the World. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-black-death-changed-the-world/

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