The Black Death
The Black Death serves as a convenient divider between the
central and the late Middle Ages. The changes between the two
periods are numerous; they include the introduction of gunpowder,
increased importance of cities, economic and demographic crises,
political dislocation and realignment, and powerful new currents
in culture and religion. Overall, the later Middle Ages are
usually characterized as a period of crisis and trouble. The
portrait should not be painted unrelievedly bleak, but the tone
is accurate enough and echoes voices from the era itself.
The Black Death did not cause the crisis, for evidence of the
changes can be seen well before 1347. But the plague exacerbated
problems and added new ones, and the tone of crisis is graver in
the second half than in the first half of the century. Standing
at the century's mid-point, the plague serves as a convenient
Origins of the Plague
The Black Death erupted in the Gobi Desert in the late 1320s.
No one really knows why. The plague bacillus was alive and active
long before that; indeed Europe itself had suffered an epidemic
in the 6th century. But the disease had lain relatively dormant
in the succeeding centuries. We know that the climate of Earth
began to cool in the 14th century, and perhaps this so-called
little Ice Age had something to do with it.
Whatever the reason, we know that the outbreak began there and
spread outward. While it did go west, it spread in every
direction, and the Asian nations suffered as cruelly as anywhere.
In China, for example, the population dropped from around 125
million to 90 million over the course of the 14thc.
The Plague Approaches Europe
The plague moved along the caravan routes toward the West. By
1345 the plague was on the lower Volga River. By 1346 it was in
the Caucasus and the Crimea. By 1347 it was in Constantinople.
It hit Alexandria in the autumn of that year, and by spring
1348, a thousand people a day were dying there. In Cairo the
count was seven times that.
The disease travelled by ship as readily as by land -- more
readily -- and it was no sooner in the eastern Mediterranean than
it was in the western end as well. Already in 1347, the plague
had hit Sicily.
Arrival in the West
It reached Cyprus late in summer 1347. In Oct. 1347, a Genoese
fleet landed at Messina, Sicily. By winter it was in Italy.
January 1348, the plague was in Marseilles. It reached Paris in
the spring 1348 and England in September 1348.
Moving along the Rhine trade routes, the plague reached Germany
in 1348, and the Low Countries the same year. 1348 was the worst
of the plague years.
It took longer to reach the periphery of Europe. Norway was hit
in May 1349. The eastern European countries were not reached
until 1350, and Russia not until 1351.
Because the disease tended to follow trade routes, and to
concentrate in cities, it followed a circuitous route: the Near
East, the western Mediterranean, then into northern Europe and
finally back into Russia. The progress of the plague very neatly
describes the geography of medieval trade.
About the Disease
What was this disease? Bubonic plague is the medical term. It
is a bacillus, an organism, most usually carried by rodents.
Fleas infest the animal (rats, but other rodents as well), and
these fleas move freely over to human hosts.
The flea then regurgitates the blood from the rat into the human,
infecting the human. The rat dies. The human dies. The flea
lives a long and happy life. Nature has a morbid sense of
Symptoms include high fevers and aching limbs and vomiting of
blood. Most characteristic is a swelling of the lymph nodes.
These glands can be found in the neck, armpits and groin. The
swelling protrudes and is easily visible; its blackish coloring
gives the disease its name: the Black Death.
The swellings continue to expand until they eventually burst,
with death following soon after. The whole process, from first
symptoms of fever and aches, to final expiration, lasts only
three or four days. The swiftness of the disease, the terrible
pain, the grotesque appearance of the victims, all served to make
the plague especially terrifying.
Forms of the Disease
Bubonic plague is usually fatal, though not inevitably so.
Today, we have drugs that can cure it, if administered in time.
But if the victim is already at risk, through malnutrition or
other illness, it is more deadly. There were plenty of people in
the 1340s who were at risk.
Even so, historians have been hard pressed to explain the
extraordinary mortality of the 1348 outbreak. Our best guess is
that there was more than one variety of plague at work in
There are two other varieties of plague: septicaemic plague,
which attacks the blood, and pneumonic plague, which attacks the
lungs. The latter is especially dangerous as it can be
transmitted through the air. Both these two are nearly 100%
It seems likely that some form of pneumonic plague was at work
alongside the bubonic plague in those awful years. But the many
accounts we have describe mainly the bubonic form. The next two
pages are two contemporary accounts of the plague.
A Description of the Plague
This first account is from Messina, and it described the arrival
and initial progress of the disease.
At the beginning of October, in the year of the incarnation
of the Son of God 1347, twelve Genoese galleys . . . entered the
harbor of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a
disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal
illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread
to everyone who had any contact with the diseased. Those
infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their
whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on
the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which
the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and
penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This
vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days,
there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.
Not only all those who had speech with them died, but also those
who had touched or used any of their things. When the
inhabitants of Messina discovered that this sudden death emanated
from the Genoese ships they hurriedly ordered them out of the
harbor and town. But the evil remained and caused a fearful
outbreak of death. Soon men hated each other so much that if a
son was attacked by the disease his father would not tend him.
If, in spite of all, he dared to approach him, he was immediately
was bound to die within three days. Nor was this all; all those
dwelling in the same house with him, even the cats and other
domestic animals, followed him in death. As the number of deaths
increased in Messina many desired to confess their sins to the
priests and to draw up their last will and testament. But
ecclesiastics, lawyers and notaries refused to enter the houses
of the diseased.
Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No
ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter,
but they hired servants with high wages to bury the dead. The
houses of the deceased remained open with all their valuables,
gold and jewels. . . .
When the catastrophe had reached its climax the Messinians
resolved to emigrate. One portion of them settled in the
vineyards and fields, but a larger portion sought refuge in the
town of Catania. The disease clung to the fugitives and
accompanied them everywhere where they turned in search of help.
Many of the fleeing fell down by the roadside and dragged
themselves into the fields and bushes to expire. Those who
reached Catania breathed their last in the hospitals there. The
terrified citizens would not permit the burying of fugitives from
Messina within the town, and so they were all thrown into deep
trenches outside the walls.
Thus the people of Messina dispersed over the whole island of
Sicily and with them the disease, so that innumerable people
died. The town of Catania lost all its inhabitants, and
ultimately sank into complete oblivion. Here not only the "burn
blisters" appeared, but there developed gland boils on the groin,
the thighs, the arms, or on the neck. At first these were of the
size of a hazel nut, and developed accompanied by violent
shivering fits, which soon rendered those attacked so weak that
they could not stand up, but were forced to lie in their beds
consumed by violent fever. Soon the boils grew to the size of a
walnut, then to that of a hen's egg or a goose's egg, and they
were exceedingly painful, and irritated the body, causing the
sufferer to vomit blood. The sickness lasted three days, and on
the fourth, at the latest, the patient succumbed. As soon as
anyone in Catania was seized with a headache and shivering, he
knew that he was bound to pass away within the specified time. .
When the plague had attained its height in Catania, the patriarch
endowed all ecclesiastics, even the youngest, with all priestly
powers for the absolution of sin which he himself possessed as
bishop and patriarch. But the pestilence raged from October 1347
to April 1348. The patriarch himself was one of the last to be
carried off. He died fulfilling his duty. At the same time,
Duke Giovanni, who had carefully avoided every infected house and
every patient, died.
From Agnolo di Tura, of Siena:
"The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and
horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became
stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue
to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such
horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost
immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the
groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife
husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike
through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found
to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household
brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest,
without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were
dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by
the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those
ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches
were filled, more were dug. 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."
Contrary to what you might think, the reaction from public
officials, and from many churchmen, was that this calamity was
not the vengeance of God upon a sinful world but was a disease.
Authorities took what steps they could to deal with it, but of
course their effectiveness was limited.
Cities were hardest hit and tried to take measures to control an
epidemic no one understood. In Milan, to take one of the most
successful examples, city officials immediately walled up houses
found to have the plague, isolating the healthy in them along
with the sick.
Venice took sophisticated and stringent quarantine and health
measures, including isolating all incoming ships on a separate
island. But people died anyway, though fewer in Milan and Venice
than in cities that took no such measures.
When the government acts to prevent or control a calamity, but
the calamity persists, people turn to other cures. Many believed
that the disease was transmitted upon the air, probably because
the smell from the dead and dying was so awful. So, the living
turned to scents to ward off the deadly vapors.
People burned all manner of incense: juniper, laurel, pine,
beech, lemon leaves, rosemary, camphor, sulpher and others
Handkerchiefs were dipped in aromatic oils, to cover the face
when going out.
The cure of sound was another remedy. Towns rang church bells to
drive the plague away, for the ringing of town bells was done in
crises of all kinds. Other towns fired cannons, which were new
and which made comfortingly loud din.
And there was to end of talismans, charms and spells that could
be purchased from the local wise woman or apothecary. Lots of
people knew of someone's friend or cousin who had drank
elderberry every day, or who had worn a jade necklace, and who
had survived the dread disease.
The cause of the disease was a matter of concern to many. Popular
opinion did view the plague as a scourge from God, for the times
were indeed out of joint. This was mere vulgar opinion, however,
and the learned knew better than to believe it. But what, then,
was the source of the plague?
The pope sent to Paris to obtain the opinions of the medical
faculty there in 1348. They studied the problem for a time and
returned a report. The good professors opined that the disaster
was caused by a particularly unfortunate conjunction of Saturn,
Jupiter and Mars in the sign of Aquarius that had occurred in
1345. This conjunction cause hot, moist conditions, which cause
the earth to exhale poisonous vapors.
The report went on to recommend steps to keep safe from the
disease. This, in part, was their prescription:
No poultry should be eaten, no waterfowl, no pig, no old beef,
altogether no fat meat. . . . It is injurious to sleep during
the daytime. . . . Fish should not be eaten, too much exercise
may be injurious . . . and nothing should be cooked in rainwater.
Olive oil with food is deadly. . . . Bathing is dangerous. . . .
In time, other writings appeared from the pens of educated men
on the best ways to avoid the plague. From Italy came this
In the first instance, no man should think of
death. . . . Nothing should distress him, but all his thoughts
should be directed to pleasing, agreeable and delicious things. .
. . Beautiful landscapes, fine gardens should be visited,
particularly when aromatic plants are flowering. . . . Listening
to beautiful, melodious songs is wholesome. . . . The
contemplating of gold and silver and other precious stones is
comforting to the heart.
In truth, about the only action that was effective was
quarantine--simply staying far enough away that no fleas could
reach you. Avoiding the sick was a natural enough instinct.
In Germany, there was a bishop who during mass offered the host
at the end of a pole or on a long-handled spoon. The wealthy
would flee to the countryside.
Pope Clement VI, living at Avignon, sat between two large fires
to breath pure air. The plague bacillus actually is destroyed by
heat, so this was one of the few truly effective measures
If the plague was a manifestation of divine anger, then
Christians should do all they could to assuage that anger. From
this simple impulse came the flagellants: bands of people who
wandered through towns and countryside doing penance in public.
They inflicted all sort of punishments upon themselves, trying to
atone for the evil of the world, sacrificing themselves for the
world's sins in imitation of Jesus.
Society generally wondered at them and did not approve. The
flagellants showed a tendency to kill Jews they encountered,
and even killed clergymen who spoke against them. In October
1349 the pope condemned them and ordered all authorities to
suppress them. But flagellants reappeared in times of plague
well into the fifteenth century.
Descriptions of the Flagellants
Here are a couple of descriptions of the flagellants from
contemporary chroniclers. The first is from Jean de Venette.
While the plague was still active and spreading from town to
town, men in Germany, Flanders, Hainault and Lorraine uprose and
began a new sect on their own authority. Stripped to the waist,
they gathered in large groups and bands and marched in procession
throught the crossroads and squares of cities and good towns.
They formed circles and beat upon their backs with weighted
scourges, rejoicing as they did so in loud voices and singing
hymns suitable to their rite and newly composed for it. Thus,
for 33 days they marched through many towns doing penance and
affording a great spectacle to the wondering people. They
flogged their shoulders and arms, scourged with iron points so
zealously as to draw blood."
This second account is from the medieval historian Jean
Froissart, from his history of the Hundred Years' War.
...the penitents went about, coming first out of Germany. They
were men who did public penance and scourged themselves with
whips of hard knotted leather with little iron spikes. Some made
themselves bleed very badly between the shoulder blades and some
foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on
their eyes, saying it was miraculous blood. While they were
doing penance, they sang very mournful songs about nativity and
the passion of Our Lord. The object of this penance was to put a
stop to the mortality, for in that time . . . at least a third of
all the people in the world died.
Froissart's estimate of the population loss was about right,
which is ironic because Froissart wildly exaggerated numbers in
almost all his accounts. But the best of many revised estimates
still put the overall population loss in Europe at about one-
This bears re-stating. The plague came to Europe in the fall of
1347. By 1350 it had largely passed out of western Europe. In
the space of two years, one out of every three people was dead.
Nothing like that has happened before or since.
These general numbers disguise the uneven nature of the epidemic.
Some areas suffered little, others suffered far more. Here are
Between 45% and 75% of Florence died in a single year. 1/3 died
in the first six months. Its entire economic system collapsed
for a time.
In Venice, which kept excellent records, 60% died over the course
of 18 months: 500-600 a day at the height.
Certain professions suffered higher mortality, especially those
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 nine physicians survived, and
two of 18 barber-surgeons.
The death rate at Avignon was fifty percent and was even higher
among the clergy. One-third of the cardinals died. Clement VI
had to consecrate the Rhone River so corpses could be sunk in it,
for there was neither time nor room to bury them.
Long-term population loss is also instructive. Urban populations
recovered quickly, in some cases within a couple of years,
through immigration from the countryside because of increased
opportunities in the cities. Rural population though, recovered
itself slowly, for peasants left their farms for the cities.
Hardest hit were special groups, such as the friars, who took a
couple of generations to recover. In many areas, pre-plague
population levels were not reached until the 1500s; in a few, not
until the 1600s.
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.
Cities were hit hard by the plague. Financial business was
disrupted as debtors died and their creditors found themselves
without recourse. Not only had the creditor died, his whole
family had died with him and many of his kinsmen. There was
simply no one to collect from.
Construction projects stopped for a time or were abandoned
altogether. Guilds lost their craftsmen and could not replace
them. Mills and other special machinery might break and the one
man in town who had the skill to repair it had died in the
plague. We see towns advertising for specialists, offering high
The labor shortage was very severe, especially in the short term,
and consequently, wages rose. Because of the mortality, there
was an oversupply of goods, and so prices dropped. Between the
two trends, the standard of living rose . . . for those still
Effects in the countryside were just as severe. Farms and entire
villages died out or were abandoned as the few survivors decided
not to stay on. When Norwegian sailors finally visited Greenland
again in the early 15thc, they found in the settlements there
only wild cattle roaming through deserted villages.
Whole families died, with no heirs, their houses standing empty.
The countryside, too, faced a short-term shortage of labor, and
landlords stopped freeing their serfs. They tried to get more
forced labor from them, as there were fewer peasants to be had.
Peasants in many areas began to demand fairer treatment or
Just as there were guild revolts in the cities in the later
1300s, so we find rebellions in the countrside. The Jacquerie in
1358, the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381, the Catalonian
Rebellion in 1395, and many revolts in Germany, all serve to show
how seriously the mortality had disrupted economic and social
Persecution of the Jews
As ever in Europe, when a crisis arose, the Jews were easy
targets of blame. They were not the only group accused of
poisoning water or practising witchcraft and hence bringing on
the plague, but they suffered the anger of mob violence over a
There were massacres, especially in the cities along the Rhine
River, and many more cases of the Jews being expelled from the
town. On one day in Strassbourg in 1349, nearly 200 Jews were
burned to death by an angry mob.
These actions were outbursts of popular anger and fear, not the
instigation of the Church or even of the civil authorities. Pope
Clement VI issued two bulls in the summer of 1348 forbidding
the plunder and slaughter of the Jews. He pointed out that Jews
were suffering as severely as Christians. Yet in September 1348,
Zurich closed its gates to the Jews.
A few towns actually protected their Jews, with the city
authorities or the bishop coming to their defense. 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 arose, some
Jews simply migrated eastward and did not return.
As the chroniclers said, the plague touched everyone, rich and
poor alike. The noted Florentine historian, Villani, wrote this:
"And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague
lasted until __________" Villani left a blank at the end of the
sentence, planning to fill in a date after the plague had abated.
He neverdid. Villani died in 1348 from the plague.
The whole community of scholars suffered as universities and
schools, usually located in regions hardest hit, were closed or
even abandoned. Sixteen of the forty professors at Cambridge
Likewise in the institutions of the Church. The priests died and
no one could hear confession. Bishops died, and so did their
successors and even their successors.
The loss of life in such great numbers and to so gruesome a
disease, brought despair everywhere. Why would God do this? and
why could not His servants in the Church avert or mitigate His
"During this great epidemic of death [in Tuscany] more than
eighty died of every hundred, and the air was so infested that
death overtook men everywhere, wherever they might flee. And
when they saw everybody dying they no longer heeded death and
believed that the end of the world was at hand."
The tone in this exerpt finds echoes throughout Europe. There
were those indeed who believed this calamity marked the end of
the world. Even after the crisis had passed, and the world
remained, there were those who wondered why God should have so
scourged the world.
The tone of despair appears eventually in the art of the times,
though not immediately. By the later 1300s, when many parts of
Europe had been visited two or three times by the disease, there
appears a strain of grisly morbidity that is still compelling.
One striking example can be seen in tomb sculptures. A great
lord was buried in a sarcophagus: the body was in a coffin, which
in turn was in a larger stone casing that was usually decorated.
The sides might be decorated with religious carvings, but the lid
of the tomb often held the likeness of the one entombed.
Where previously these sculptures showed the lord in his armor
with his sword and shield, or the lady in her best clothes, and
both in full bloom of health, around 1400 we begin to see a
disturbing change. The sculptures of some (only some -- this was
never the dominant style) show half-decomposed bodies with parts
of the skeleton clearly visible. The clothes draping the body
were rags, and some showed worms and snails burrowing in the
It was and is a ghastly sight. The knight's tomb is a reassuring
denial of death; the face composed and well-featured, the
accoutrements of busy life all about. But the cardinal's tomb
tells the brutal truth: all flesh is grass. Normally, we prefer
to close our eyes to this, but this sculptural style will not let
us. It's disturbing to see, but equally disturbing is the
thought that such grimness could find a place as an artistic
The danse macabre
A similar brutality appeared in paintings, too. Here the style
has a name: the danse macabre, the Dance of Death. The
motif shows skeletons mingling with living men in daily scenes.
We see peasants at a harvest festival, or workmen at a
construction site, or hunters in a forests. And in each scene,
mingled with the living, are skeletons: skeleton horses carry
corpses to the hunt; peasant girls dance with death; a skeleton
receives an infant from its baptismal font.
The juxtapositions are shocking, for they catch us at our
merriest moments and remind us of horror and loss. It's a cruel
sort of art. It is even more striking when you realize that
these works were commissioned. These are no paintings wrung out
by tortured souls in isolation. These are works specifically
requested by churches or monarchs or city councils, and they were
displayed in public places. Not only did artists render these
frightening images, their patrons paid for them, displayed them,
and ordered more.
To me, nothing demonstrates better the effect of the Black Death
on Europe than these works of art.
The plague had no permanent effect on the course of politics, but
it did take its toll.
King Alfonso XI of Castile was the only reigning monarch to die
of the plague, but many lesser notables died, including
the queens of Aragon and France, and the son of the Byzantine
emperor. Parliaments were adjourned when the plague struck,
though they were reconvened. The Hundred Years' War was suspended
in 1348 because so many soldiers died. But it started up again,
The effect at local levels was more severe. City councils were
ravaged. Whole families of local nobles were wiped out. Courts
closed down and wills could not be probated.
But new courts were convened. The legal mess caused by so many
deaths was eventually sorted out, and political life went on.
Still, more than once you will read of a siege being lifted
because of the plague, or of some principality falling into
disarray because the prince died of the Black Death.
Historical Timing of the Plague
The plague itself was disastrous enough, especially in the
appearance of more than one form during the same epidemic. But
coming when it did was as catastrophic as its form. The middle
14th century was not a good time for Europe.
The European economy was already in difficulties. It was
approaching the limits of expansion, both on its frontiers and in
reclaiming land from forest and swamp. The arrival of the
Mongols and the Ottomans had disrupted trade routes, and certain
areas of Europe were edging into depression.
Worse, the overall climate was changing, with cooler and wetter
weather creating lower crop yields even as the population was
increasing. By the early 1300s we begin to hear of great
The Church was in poor shape as well. The popes resided at
Avignon, not at Rome, to the scandal of many. Heresy could be
found in England and Bohemia and southern France, and the Church
seemed unable to control it. The Holy Land had been lost in the
1290s and efforts to recover it had been dismal failures.
The Hundred Years' War added war to plague and famine. Just two
years before, at Crecy, the English had inflicted a great defeat
on France. Soon would appear the routiers, mercenary
armies that served one king or the other or, when neither king
could pay, would roam the countryside in search of plunder.
The difficulties created by war and a constricted economy were
exacerbated by the Black Death. There is a relationship here, of
course. The effects of the plague were made worse because of
these other problems. And the problems themselves were redoubled
because of the plague.
Recurrence of the Plague
One of the worst effects of the plague was that it came not once,
but over and over. It was never as bad as the first instance.
In some cases the plague was as virulent but it was more limited
in geographic scope. A couple of times it covered Europe again,
but not with such devastation.
It was this recurrence that so reduced the population of Europe,
as countries never really had the chance to recover properly
before another outbreak would occur. All through the second half
of the fourteenth century, every generation was visited by the
plague. It struck again and again in the 15th century, but less
Those were the worst centuries, but there were local epidemics
for another two hundred years. Parts of Europe did not recover
their pre-plague population until the 17th century.
Last outbreak in England was the Great Plague of London in 1665.
This was the sort of epidemic that was characteristic of the
plague after the 15th century: restricted to a city or a
The sensible thing to do when the plague struck was to get out of
town, for people expected the plague would remain local.
Aristocrats could do this because they had estates in the
countryside. The poor, of course, had nowhere to go, so they
remained and died.
One of those in 1665 who had a country estate was a young
Cambridge professor, Isaac Newton. He had been working on some
theories and mathematical problems regarding the physics of
motion, but his teaching duties allowed him little time to work
The plague of 1665 forced him into isolation and idleness. It
was while at his country estate in the summer of 1665 that Newton
solved the mathematical problems associated with his theory of
The bubonic plague did not go away. It still exists, everywhere
in the world. It is quite common among rodent populations--rats,
of course, but squirrels, rabbits and skunks as well. The Rocky
Mountains (where I live) is one of the places where it is still
widespread. Every few years I read in the newspapers how a
hunter has contracted the disease. We have a cure for it, but
the disease moves very quickly, and there are some isolated
places in the Rockies, and once in a while the hunter doesn't
The plague is still very much with us.