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The Black Death

The Black Death had profound effects on Medieval Europe. Although most people did not realize it at the time, the Black Death had not only marked the end of one age but it also denoted the beginning of a new one, namely the Renaissance (“Effects” 1). Between 1339 and 1351a. d, a pandemic of plague called the Black Death, traveled from China to Europe affecting the importance of cities, creating economic and demographic crises, as well as political dislocation and realignment, and bringing about powerful new currents in culture and religion.

In the beginning, the Italian town of Genoa was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ships sailed from there to trade all over the Mediterranean Sea. In October of 1347, 12 merchant ships sailed from Caffa to Italy (“Arrival” 1). A strange disease had infected the crew of these ships. Dying bodies lay aboard the ships. City officials, afraid that the disease might spread, issued an order that no person or piece of merchandise was to leave the ships. They even forbade medical treatment for the sick sailors and passengers. The disease still spread.

The officials had not considered that the rats from the ships were able to leave the ships by crawling along the ropes that were tied to the ships. From Italy, the disease spread all over Europe, traveling along the major trade routes. The rats were responsible for carrying the disease, which was transmitted by fleas from infected rats. The fleas drank the rats’ blood that carried the bacteria. The bacteria multiplied in the flea’s gut. While the fleas gut was clogged with bacteria, the flea bit the human and regurgitated blood into the wound (Transmitted” 2).

The Black Death came in 3 forms: the bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. Each different from of the plague killed people in a vicious way. All forms were caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis (“Forms” 1). The bubonic plague was the most commonly seen form of the Black Death. Which had a mortality rate of 30-70%. The symptoms were enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes (around armpits, neck and groin). The term “bubonic” refers to the characteristic bubo or enlarged lymphatic gland. Victims were subject to headaches, nausea, aching joints, fever of 101-105 degrees, vomiting, and a general feeling of illness.

Symptoms took from 1-7 days to appear (“Forms” 2). The pneumonic plague was the second most commonly seen form of the Black Death. The pneumonic and the septicemic plague were probably seen less than the bubonic plague because the victims often died before they could reach other places (this was caused by the inefficiency of transportation). The mortality rate for the pneumonic plague was 90-95%; (if treated today the mortality rate would be 5-10%). The pneumonic plague infected the lungs. Symptoms include slimy sputum; saliva mixed with mucus exerted from the respiratory system, tinted with blood.

As the disease progressed, the sputum became free flowing and bright red. Symptoms took 1-7 days to appear. This disease could only be transmitted through the air, by someone’s cough (“Forms” 2). Finally the septicemic plague was the most rare form of all. The mortality was close to 100 %. Symptoms, which took 1-7 days to appear, were high fever and skin turning deep shades of purple (“Forms 2”). The Black Death struck the European people without warning. Physicians and philosophers harmed rather than helped. They did not understand the causes of infectious diseases nor how they spread.

It is no wonder that they looked to priests and storytellers, rather than doctors, for answers. They did not have the ability to understand where this sudden cruel death had come from. And they did not know whether it would never go away (“Causes” 1). The most common belief was that God, being a punishment for the sin people had committed sent the plague. Even innocent people, such as infants, had to suffer for the horrible crimes of others. The church was quick to condemn gambling, excessive drinking, the immodesty of women, and the laziness of pheasants.

Guilt lay upon every man’s heart. Therefore, it was only natural that the first measures taken against the plague were the confession of all sins and prayer for forgiveness (“Punishment”2). Praying seemed to have very little effect. Therefore, many believed there was a necessary for extreme measures. A group of men decided to punish themselves in order to persuade God to forgive them. Each of theses “Flagellants” would carry a wooden stick with a couple of leather tongs attached to one end. At the end of each tong would be a sharp spike, about an inch in length.

The flagellants would walk from town to town. Once they would arrive in a village or city, they would go to a public place where there were a lot of people, such as a market or store. After they found that public place, they would start beating themselves with their wooden sticks, hitting their backs until blood flowed freely. The townspeople would always welcome them and the flagellants would sometimes encourage the townspeople to join their beatings. It was common for people to die in these beatings.

The flagellants would then leave the town after a few days, usually taking a few locals to join their group. The group’s numbers grew rapidly from 200-300 to 1000. They did more harm rather than help. The only thing they were doing was carrying the disease with them only spreading up the process (“Flagellation” 1). Many people believed in a legendary witch called the Plague Maiden. She was very beautiful and carried around her neck a red scarf. It was said that she traveled from town to town passing by each house.

When she waved her red scarf in front of a house window, the house would become infected. The legend also told that a man waited all night from the witch to arrive and when she did, he cut off her hand with a sword. It was said that this man was the last to die of the plague in his town (“Plague maiden 2”). In Europe the Jews were easy targets to blame. It was a common belief that the Jews were poisoning the water supply. In some towns, Jews were rounded up and burned to death. They also were accused of practicing witchcraft consequently also suffering the anger of mob violence.

There were massacres, especially in cities along the Rhine River, and many more cases of the Jews being expelled from the town. A few towns actually protected their Jews, but the Jews were being expelled generally from Western Europe during the 14th century, and they were tolerated in Poland and Lithuania. So when the persecutions associated with the Black Death a rose, some Jews simply migrated eastward and did not return (“Jews 1”). The effects that the Black Death had on Europe were very profound. The population of Europe lost about one- third of its people.

These general numbers disguise the uneven nature of the epidemic. Some areas suffered very little, some suffered far more. Some examples are as follows 45% and 75% of Florence died in a single year. One- third died in the first 6 months. Its entire economic system collapsed for a time. In Venice, 60% died over the course of 18 months, 500-600 a day at the height. Certain professions suffered higher mortality, especially whose duties brought them into contact with the sick, doctors and clergy. In Montpellier, only seven of 140 Dominican friars survived.

In Perpignan, only one of 9 physicians survived, and 2 of 18 barber surgeon (“Population loss” 1). The death rate of Auignon was 50% and was even higher among the clergy. One- third of the cardinals died. Clement VI had to concentrate the Rhone River so corpses could be sunken it, for there was not time or room to bury them. Long term population loss is also instructive. Urban populations recovered quickly, in some cases within a couple of years, though immigration from the countryside because of increased opportunities in the cities.

Hardest hit was special groups, such as friars, who took a couple of generations to recover. In many areas, pre-plague population levels were not reached until the 1500’s, in a few not until the 1600. This is one reason why the Black Death marks a dividing line between the central Middle Ages, with medieval culture in full bloom and at its greatest strength, and the later Middle Ages. The later period was one of chronically reduced population (“Population loss” 2). Prior to its arrival, life was difficult for the ordinary man, who was practically enslaved by his landlord.

Additionally, living conditions were very unsanitary. When the plague was brought to Europe, this state of existence promoted the spreading of this new disease and changed the way people, both rich and poor, dealt with their lives. After many years, when this epidemic finally ended, living standards had changes dramatically, Immense effects could be seen in culture, spirituality, and especially economics. Society was never to be the same again; life had changed forever. (“Effects” 3) Eventually, the plague did disappear, but it left Europe with great cultural changes.

Art, in other cases, was most effected by the plague. During the pre-plague times, Nobel lords were shown in full health, in their best clothes, and armor, holding their swards. Afterwards, half-decomposed bodies with parts of skeleton clearly visible were shown. The clothes draping the body were old dirty rags and some sculptures showed worms and snails borrowing in rotten flesh (“Art” 1). After the plague the art was obsessive with cruel aspects of pain and suffering. Painting focused on skeletons mixed in with men in every day life. It was a very cruel sort of art.

Literature was also effected by the plague. It became more dark and somber. Now that most of the stony writers and tellers died from the plague all that was talked about were dead bodies and poems of death and stories were told about the plague. In architecture, many of those with the skill to build died from the plague. Many buildings that were started before the plague were never finished. Universities were abandoned. In Europe Education Standards were incredibly low.

The whole community of scholars suffered as universities and schools were closed or even abandoned. of 40 Professors at Cambridge died. French was commonly spoken among the education in England, The death of numerous French teachers, however, helped the English language to gain over French in Britain. (“Art”1) Cities were hit had hard by the plague, Financial businesses were disrupted as debtors died and their creditors found themselves without recourse. Not only had the creditor died, his who family had died with him and many of his friends. There was simply no one to collect from (“Disruption” 1).

Construction projects were stopped or even abandoned, guilds lost their craftsmen, without the ability to replace them, important machinery broke, and those with the ability to repair them had died (“Effects”). The labor shortage was very severe, and consequently, wages rose. Because of the mortality, there was an over supply of goods, and prices dropped. Whole families died, with not heirs, their houses standing empty. The countryside faced a short-term shortage of labor. They tried to get more forced labor from them, as there were fewer peasants to be had. Peasant in many areas began to demand fairer treatment.

Lastly, the change in spirituality was one of the major effects of the plague. The Black Death left survivors mourning, depressed, and fearful of its return (“Economy” 1) One of the groups that suffered the most was the Christian Church. It lasts prestige, spiritual authority, and leadership over the people. The church promised cures, treatment, and an explanation for the plague. They said it was God’s will, but the reason for this awful punishment was unknown. People wanted answers, but the priests and bishops didn’t have anything to say. The people abandoned their Christian duties and fled.

People prayed to God and begged for forgiveness. After the plague ended, angry and frustrated villagers started to revolt against the church, this caused the churches to be abandoned (“Effects” 2). The Black Death changed European history in many ways. Its fatal symptoms took many human lives, and its influenced carried over into many areas of society. People suffered religiously because the disease brought out the darker side of life and made them question God. Europe would not be the same today without these changes brought on through the devastation of the Black Death.

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