Black Death, Bubonic Plague or the Black Plague

About the worst disease in world history, the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which killed over 75 million people, beginning in Europe and spreading to all parts of the world in the 14th century.


The scourge of the 14th century, the Black Death or bubonic plague, took a far greater toll of human lives than the "plague" of Pericles, Marcus Aurelius, and the massacres of Hulagu and Tamerlane. From Central Asia the mysterious malady spread around the globe to eliminate half of mankind.

When: 1347 through 1351.

Where: Asia, Europe, Africa, Egypt, Iceland, and Greenland.

The Loss: 75 million people died.

The Disaster: Early reports of the Black Death say it entered Genoa from the Crimea on a Genoese ship; and that it began in China following a tremendous storm that caused unusual atmospheric changes. History records its origin as Central Asia. From there it spread through the civilized world. Since then medical knowledge has lifted the veil of mystery to uncover the culprit.

Black Death is endemic to rodents and transmitted to humans by the common flea. In humans the disease invades the blood, the glands under the arms and in the groin, and causes dark splotches to appear on the skin. Lack of sanitation and sound medical knowledge in the 14th century accounts for repeated epidemics of bubonic plague, cholera, and other diseases. John Richard Green (1837-1883), an English historian, had this to say: "Its ravages were fiercest in the greater towns where filthy and undrained streets afforded a constant haunt to leprosy and fever."

The island of Cyprus was 1st to succumb to the Black Death in the latter part of 1347. England was hit in early 1348. Two-thirds of the students at Oxford died. One-quarter to 1/2 the population of England perished. In Bristol, victims died faster than the living could bury them.

In a Latin chronicle, Carmelite friar Jean de Venette wrote of the Black Death in France: "The mortality was so great at the Hotel-Dieu in Paris that for a long time more than 500 dead were carried daily on wagons to be buried at the cemetery of St. Innocent of Paris."

Half the population of Italy died. There were but few funeral services and even fewer single graves. Most of the dead were buried without ceremony in deep trenches, a layer of corpses, a light covering of earth, then another layer of corpses. When one trench was filled, another was dug. The plague struck in 2 forms. Pulmonary victims exhibited high fever and spitting of blood, which resulted in death within 3 days. Bubonic victims, with high temperatures, abscesses, and carbuncles, died in 5 days.

In his Decameron, Boccaccio wrote: "This tribulation struck such terror to the hearts of all that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew, oftentimes wife husband; nay what is yet more extraordinary and well nigh incredible, some fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children as though they had not been theirs."

When the Black Death abated in 1351 at least 75 million people had perished, certainly the largest death count of any catastrophe in history.

Aftermath: Outbreaks of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, continued long after 1351, though it is believed that the domestic cat played a major role in lessening occurrences by ridding towns and villages of rodents. The disease still exists but is known by other names such as the Levant or Oriental plague, and it is no stranger to Asia Minor, Turkey, and Egypt.

Tomorrow: Twentieth-century life-styles take for granted the sanitary disposal of trash, garbage, and human waste, but should these systems cease to function for any reason, what happened in 1347 could happen again.

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