Pestilence in Medieval Europe 

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Imagine for a second the hustling and bustling of your hometown that is full of family, friends, and strangers you see every day. Now imagine the same town desolate and void of the lives that had once lived there due to a strange and highly fatal disease that no one knows how to cure. Such a plague existed in Europe during the Middle Ages and affected it in much the same way that your hometown was in the imagined scenario above. Due to the strange nature and features of the disease, it is named the Black Plague.

Plagues are caused by many different reasons, but the Black Plague was caused by the transportation of black rats with fleas to Europe by trade ships, humans living near rat dens, and the transmission of a bacterium from the fleas that lived on rats to humans. The first probable cause of the Black Plague dealt with the arrival of several fleeing trade ships carrying black rats with fleas from Asia to southern Europe during a turbulent time of conflict. The trade ships in question were part of a colony that belonged to the Republic of Genoa. This colony was under a heavy siege by Mongol forces which were using the plague as a biological weapon. Scared dying from the same disease as the Mongol warriors had the Genoese “fled in their ships to Constantinople and brought the plague with them …” (Nardo 45).

The same Genoese ships that fled to Constantinople soon reached the port of Messina which is in northern Sicily. After the plague had infected those in and around the port town, the “Messinese drove the ships that brought them the disastrous cargo from their port […]” (Nardo 45). Not long after this, the plague had made its way deep into southern Europe threatening urban centers like Genoa and Venice. However, the true horrors of the plague began to show with its attack on the city of Florence as “it was the first great European city to be struck, but also because of the great mortality in the city […]” (Nardo 46).

After the rats had settled into southern Europe, the second cause of the Black Plague was all too clear when seeing how close the rats built their dens to civilization. The specific species of rat present at the time was the black rat or Rattus rattus. This rat is one of which that is “accustomed to live close to men and whose fleas are among those that will attack humans most readily” ( Bowsky 1). The fleas that live on the rats are the real problem seeing as they carry the plague, and they survive for a very long time even if their host has died or left the den.

In fact, the fleas can “survive for between six months to a year without a rodent host in dung, an abandoned rat’s nest, or even textile bales” (Gottfried 9). The preservation of the fleas is also due the climate and condition that is provided by certain regions of Europe at certain times. For the fleas to remain active and alive they require “temperatures of 15°C-20°C, with 90%-95% humidity” (Gottfried 9).

The last and most probable cause of the Black Plague stemmed from the transmission of three strains of a bacterium from the fleas on rats to humans. The name of these bacterial strains is Yersinia pestis. The first strand is called the bubonic strand, and this strand the most common of three seen at the time. After its first symptom of a black pustule, “subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing purplish blotches and swelling in the lymphatic glands, from which bubonic plague takes its name” (Gottfried 8). This strand is not nearly as deadly as the others, but it is known to kill over half its victims.

The second strand of the plague is called the pneumonic strand, and it is different from the others because it was mostly spread by humans with the strand to those without it. This was often done when an infected person coughs up a bloody sputum containing the bacteria which made the transmission of the strand “airborne and thus direct from human to human” (Gottfried 8). The pneumonic strand is highly lethal and kills over 90% of its victims. Finally, the last strand of the plague is called the septicemic stand, and this strand is largely a mystery.

However, it is categorized by an eruption of the skin in mere hours, and a person dies from the stand in only a day. The septicemic stand “is always fatal, but is very rare […]” (Gottfried 8). To conclude, the hasty retreat of Genoese ships filled with flea-infested rats to southern Europe, the proximity of rat dens to humans, and the transfer of the pestilence to humans caused the Black Plague. Future generations must better understand plagues so that great epidemics like this do not occur again.

Cite this paper

Pestilence in Medieval Europe . (2021, Aug 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/pestilence-in-medieval-europe/

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