The Pestilence of The Middle Ages

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The pestilence of the middle ages was a disease that haunted Europe from 1346 to 1353 that kept coming back and stealing the lives of millions. Leaving towns ghostly in its wake, the Black Plague brought destruction and opportunities with it. Medieval Europe was changed by the plague with its deadly effects and its life-changing outcomes.

The plague was transmitted through fleas, contact with contaminated items, and trade routes. The transmission is simplified to “rat > flea > human,” (Ditrich). Rodents will die and the fleas will move to new hosts. The fleas will take the plague with them and transfer it to the new host. Whether it be to the pets’ humans have or skip directly to biting the human (“Ecology and Transmission”).

Through a process called epizootic, the plague can infect a human. This is after the infected animals and their parasites host bacteria. This is the enzootic cycle. When other species start getting infected, the outbreak is now referred to as an epizootic. This is when humans can get infected, (“Ecology and Transmission”). The infected rat will share the bacteria with the flea when it bites, and then the flea will share the bacteria with more rats. The fleas will eventually bite a human and “the bacteria will spread via the blood stream to the regional lymph-nodes and multiple, eventually causing a bubo,” (Ditrich).

The second way the plague was transmitted was through contaminated people and material. This can be blood, clothing, or skin of an infected animal. There was no regulations or sanitization put in place to protect oneself from exposure, it was easy to become infected with the plague. (“Ecology and Transmission”). This can also tie in with trade spreading the infected materials. Fur of animals could carry the fleas and that can transmit the disease. Because the plague cause the lymph-nodes to swell and burst, the skin-to-skin contact between people can spread the disease.

The third way the plague was transmitted was through trade routes. The “elaborate web of trade routes” connected medieval Europe (“Black Death”). “The expansion of trade brought many benefits, increasing access to material goods and technology, as well as spreading knowledge,” (“Bubonic Plague”). The Silk Road and the Red Sea naval routes were some of the popular routes that contributed to the spread of the infection, (Ditrich). Ships were also used, and the disease was able to spread faster by land and by sea, (Ditrich). Because the economy relied on trade, the plague was shared through these routes and spread to other regions very quickly. Since there were many stops along the trade routes, the “process of introducing and spreading the plague” was a never-ending cycle and only made the infectiveness more effective, (“Bubonic Plague”).

Lack of sanitization played a role in how quickly the plague was spreading. The rats on the ships was a common sight. These rats were found “in ships, buildings and stores, and had a certain fondness for climbing…,” (Ditrich). These rats carried the plague and the fleas that distributed the disease to other hosts. Because there was no pest control, these animals could roam freely and give everyone the plague. The plague also spread to the troops that were not in the best living conditions either, (Ditrich). Relating to how the people lived, “they didn’t wash often and there were no modern sewers. Not only that, rats and mice could thrive in the straw that many people used in their buildings for roofing and a floor covering,” (Brookshire). Since there was waste everywhere, it was a dingy place that could house many parasites and diseases. The housing material that was used acted as a home for plague carrying animals. If the buildings were cleaner, there would be fewer places for these animals to live and spread the infectious disease, (Brookshire).

“The death rate became so high that it was impossible to deal with the bodies properly, and they were dumped into mass graves,” (Dijkstra 1085). The bodies were loaded up and put in the graves. All the bodies were buried and their clothing, which could also carry the plague, was burned, (Trueman). With the mass graves filling up, the plague doctors had to try something to try to cure the epidemic.

The black death presented itself in three forms: bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, and septicemic plague. The bubonic plague was fatal withing four days and the sufferers had “enlarged inflamed lymph nodes (called buboes) in the groin, armpit, or neck,” (Dijkstra 1084). The second type is the pneumonic plague. This form of the plague has a faster death rate than the bubonic form. This form infects the lungs and can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing, (Dijkstra1084). The last form is the septicemic plague. This one can kill within 24 hours. This form is spread to the blood, (Dijkstra 1084). Each one was increasingly worse, and the doctors were ready to try anything possible, even if it was not practical or sanitary. Some actually caused the plague to spread more.

Two of the many attempts was “[s]trapping live chickens around plague buboes or drinking potions laced with mercury, arsenic or ground horn from the mythical unicorn…, (“The Black Death and Early Public Health Measures”). The practice of using chickens and drinking potions was religious. The plague doctor’s technique was the practice or bloodletting and boil lancing. Bloodletting was the plague doctors slicing the veins and let the patient bleed out so the disease would leave the body, (Trueman). They would also lance the buboes just like the did with bloodletting. The doctors cut the patients puss filled swellings and drain the buboes, (Trueman).

Since there was no end in sight, some people fled. Some even abandoned their loved ones in attempt to save themselves. Every man for themselves, but even then, they couldn’t escape the disease, (“Black Death”). Quarantine didn’t work because those that fled to other places, even if they didn’t know they carried it, continued to spread the plague, (Cartwright).

The black death killed about one-third of Europe’s population, (Dijkstra1085). Not only was the population thinned out severely, the belief that the black death was a punishment from god also hurt the population numbers. It was believed that God was angry, and the people had to pay for the sings against god. “[T]he way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers…,” (“Black Death”). Thousands of Jews were killed because of this view. The Jewish people were accused of causing this epidemic. Not only was the Jewish people being murdered, others were taking their anger out on themselves and others around them. The term flagellants is when upper-class men participated in “public displays of penance and punishment…,” (“Black Death”). They would take these whip-like tools and beat themselves and others that took part with these public beatings. They would go from town to town doing this to repent for their sins (“The Black Death and Early Public Health Measures”).

The economy was declining as the plague progressed. No work was being done because everyone was trying to avoid the plague. Because everything was at a standstill, the “economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation,” (“Social and Economic Effect of the Plague”). Everyone was dying and there was no one to work and the prices reflected that. Because the risk was higher when the products came in, the prices would be inflated. Suppliers would charge more when materials were to be bought because their clients have died, and the sellers would have to make up that difference by raising their prices.

The plague brought around a new world as it killed of the old one. The standard of living improved as the plague wiped out hundreds of lives at a time. All the dead left roles to fill. This also gave workers more room to negotiate. “Serfs were no longer tied to one master; if one left the land, another lord would instantly hire them,” (“Social and Economic Effects of the Plague”). Since work was demanded, serfs were able to find a better paying job without being tied down to one master. Their standards of living improved with the demand for work increased.

“The general welfare and prosperity of the peasantry also progressed as a reduced population reduced the competition for land and resources,” (Cartwright). The land that was left by those that have died was snatched up by the living. A right that the females were able to achieve from the plague was the right to own land. If they lost their husband, they were able to keep his land, (Cartwright). The land rights was a big step forward in a better society. All the land that was up for grabs would have put the females out of their homes and into another man’s arms after they just lost their husbands, allowed the females a time to mourn and get their lives back together.

Another thing the plague brought was better public health measures. One example was the techniques used to control the disease. These measures, such as turning ships away and quarantine were spurred from this outbreak. “When the Black Death spread through Italy in late 1347, some ports began turning away ships suspected of coming from infected areas,” (“The Black Death and Early Public Health Measures”). This was a very smart thing because it led to more regulations in place to prevent more outbreaks. One thing that was created was quarantine. The waterways would be closed and those that were traveling on those ships were subjected to 40 days of isolation, (“The Black Death and Early Public Health Measure”). This method is still used today. It is effective in stopping the disease from spreading by closing off those that are infected and keeping them away from the healthy.

The Black Death devested the lives of the European’s each time it came back. Thousands died and those that were left had to pick up the pieces and prepare for the return of the pestilence. What started from the arrival of ships to a deadly plague that reigned terror for years to come caused many changes to Medieval Europe. New systems of standards were developed that improved the lives of the surviving population to rebuild a new society. Medieval Europe was devastated, and like a phoenix, it rose back from the ashes and formed a new lifestyle.

Work Cited

  1. “Black Death.” History, A&E Television Networks, 17 Sept. 2010, history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death.
  2. Brookshire, Bethany. “Don’t Blame the Rats for Spreading the Black Death.” Science News for Students, 5 Feb. 2018, sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/dont-blame-rats-spreading-black-death.
  3. “Bubonic Plague.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/medieval-times/disease-and-demography/a/disease-and-demograpy.
  4. Cartwright, Mark. “Black Death.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 20 June 2018, ancient.eu/Black_Death/.
  5. Dijkstra, Henk. History of the Ancient and Medieval World: Europe In the Middle Ages. 2nd ed., vol. 8, Marshall Cavendish, 2009.
  6. Ditrich, Hans. “The Transmission of the Black Death to Western Europe: A Critical Review of the Existing Evidence.” Mediterranean Historical Review, vol. 32, no. 1, June 2017, pp. 25–39. Academic Search Complete, doi:10.1080/09518967.2017.1314920.
  7. “Ecology and Transmission.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 July 2019, cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html.
  8. “Social and Economic Effects of the Plague.” Decameron Web, 12 Mar. 2010, brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/plague/effects/social.php.
  9. “The Black Death and Early Public Health Measures.” Science Museum. broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/publichealth/blackdeath.
  10. “The Black Death.” Khan Academy. khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/late-gothic-italy/beginners-guide-late-gothic/a/the-black-death.
  11. Trueman, C N. “Cures for the Black Death.” History Learning Site, 5 Mar. 2015, historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval-england/cures-for-the-black-death/.

Cite this paper

The Pestilence of The Middle Ages. (2021, Aug 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-pestilence-of-the-middle-ages/

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