Black Death (1347-1352)

Kristy Wilson Bowers. Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues. Editor: Joseph P Byrne. Volume 1, Greenwood Press, 2008.

The Black Death is the term most often applied to the initial outbreak of bubonic plague that began the second pandemic of plague. This outbreak, which spread across Europe, the Levant, and North Africa between 1347 and 1352, brought bubonic plague into Europe from the Asiatic steppes where it had long been endemic. Following this epidemic, Europeans experienced recurrent outbreaks of plague over the next four centuries. As a result of the many effects of the plague on society and culture, many historians consider this half-decade a turning point in European history.

Although the term “Black Death” came into common use only in the nineteenth century, it has remained a popular descriptive term for this epidemic. Many accounts of the Black Death offer an explanation for the term based on physical symptoms, but it actually comes from a misunderstanding or mistranslation of the Latin atra mors, which can mean either “terrible death” or “black death.” Those living through this epidemic did not give it a specific name, but used general terms including pest, pestilence, plague, and mortality.

The Black Death was one of the most significant events of the late medieval world and spawned numerous changes, most visibly in the drastic reduction of population in those areas affected. Estimates of the overall mortality from the Black Death are difficult to obtain, as none of these areas kept accurate or consistent census or burial records. Historians working with a variety of local studies, however, continue efforts to approximate overall mortality. Those estimates currently range between 45 and 60 percent across the affected areas.

Historical Record

The historical record of the Black Death is extensive, as there are numerous first-hand accounts of the epidemic from Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Best known are the accounts of Italian chroniclers, such as Gabriele de’ Mussis (c. 1280-?) who described the transfer of disease from besieging Mongol troops to besieged residents of the Black Sea port of Caffa (Kaffa; modern Feodosiya) via dead bodies catapulted over the city’s walls. Another Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), included a vivid description of the plague in the introduction to his collection of short stories The Decameron, the frame story of which is set during the pestilence in Florence in 1348. These and many other accounts and descriptions have been translated and are increasingly accessible, often in abridged form, in studies on the Black Death.

In addition to individual chronicles detailing events, evidence of the reaction to and impact of the Black Death may be found across all areas of society that generated any type of records. These include municipal, ecclesiastical, medical, and scientific authorities. Scholars have made use of diverse records such as city council meeting minutes, municipal statutes, sermons, tax rolls, court records, medical and scientific treatises, and personal letters to uncover information about the Black Death.

Nature of the Disease

That some disease swept through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, causing death rates unlike anything previously experienced, is clear. What is less clear is the exact cause of those deaths. Although bubonic plague is generally assumed to be the infectious agent, it is important to note that a number of scholars have raised questions about whether plague—in its three forms of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic—truly fits the symptoms, spread, seasonality, and mortality rates described by chroniclers in the early modern era. Few satisfactory alternatives have been proposed, however, and in the absence of conclusive evidence otherwise, most historians continue to attribute the Black Death to bubonic plague. In addition, recent work in paleomicrobiology has confirmed the existence of DNA from Yersinia pestis (the causative bacteria of bubonic plague) in tooth samples from plague-era graves in France, lending credence to the argument for the existence of plague there. Nonetheless, the Black Death remains a case study in the difficulties of diagnosis of historical disease and historical epidemiology.

Accounts and descriptions of the Black Death exist in such numbers that only a general summary of the symptoms given in them is possible. All of the accounts describe a horrible and painful disease that struck suddenly and killed rapidly. It was the rapid course of the disease that most contemporaries commented on, recording accounts of acquaintances healthy in the morning but dead by nightfall. Descriptions of symptoms most often include some sort of swellings (also referred to as tumors, boils, or apostemes) in the groin or armpit, which were exquisitely painful and the contents of which (when lanced open) were foul smelling. Others describe pustules, blisters, or black spots, the coughing or spitting of blood, and a high fever followed by great thirst and delirium or prostration. Because the disease spread quickly among family members or households, many blamed the contaminated breath of the sick for spreading the disease.

Origins and Spread

Bubonic plague, endemic to certain mammal populations but not to humans, has natural reservoirs scattered across the Asian steppes region. The epidemic of 1347-1352 likely began from one of these, spreading as a result of Mongol traders opening new trade routes. Chroniclers describe outbreaks of disease among the Mongols or “Tatars” in the early 1340s. By 1346 outbreaks had occurred in the region between the Caspian and Black Seas. According to contemporary accounts, Genoese traders helped spread the pestilence outward after visiting the city of Caffa, a Genoese colony located on the Black Sea. While there, traders became trapped by a Mongol siege of the city. Plague broke out among the Mongols, who responded by catapulting the bodies of the dead over the city walls. Some ships managed to leave Caffa in the fall of 1347, passing through Constantinople (Istanbul) and stopping briefly in Messina (Sicily) before returning to Genoa. Although the movements of these trade ships may well have helped the outward spread of the Black Death, evidence from the Near East and Africa show that it was quickly spreading in several directions by the late 1340s. In 1347 it appeared in Constantinople, Greece, Venice, and most of the Mediterranean islands (Crete, Sicily, Sardinia, Mallorca) as well as Alexandria in Egypt. Once in the Mediterranean, the epidemic spread both northward across Western Europe and westward across North Africa in 1348. In Europe it spread across Spain, southern France, and most of Italy in 1348, then passed to Germany, England, and Norway in 1349. Continuing northeastward, plague infected Eastern Europe and the Low Countries in the next year, and then finally arrived in Russia in 1351-1352.

Religious Responses

By far, the strongest reaction in Christian lands was a religious interpretation of the plague as a punishment from God. This belief, held across all levels of society, led to conflicting responses. As Boccaccio eloquently describes, some, believing there was little that mankind could do in the face of such a scourge, abandoned morality in favor of pleasures. Others turned to extreme piety and prayer in an effort to appease an angry God. In parts of Europe, the flagellant movement (named for the flagellum or whip) flourished for a time. These groups of pilgrims moved about from town to town holding displays of public piety in which they offered bodily penance in the form of whippings as a supplement to traditional prayers. The movement initially gained many converts and strong popular approval, but within a year had lost official support and was forbidden by Pope Clement VI (1291-1352) in October 1349. Less drastically, communities across Europe organized a variety of public processions, pilgrimages to shrines, and other forms of communal piety. Responding in part to a surge in pilgrimages to sacred sites in Europe, including Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela, the papacy declared 1350 a jubilee year, offering plenary indulgences (remission from the obligation to carry out penance for confessed sins) to all those who visited the principle churches of Rome that year.

Alongside prayers to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, came prayers to St. Sebastian, a third-century martyr who became increasingly associated with plague. Sebastian, a member of the imperial guard under Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), was sentenced to death for his Christian beliefs. Shot with arrows and left for dead, he was found while still alive and nursed back to health. His subsequent execution by bludgeoning made him a true martyr, but his survival of the arrows created the association with plague. Fourteenth-century thinkers often described the sudden onset of the disease as akin to being shot by an arrow (and the communal onset as a sort of rain of arrows from heaven). Thus, Sebastian’s success in surviving his (real) arrows made him an empathetic patron saint who would likewise work to protect people from their (metaphorical) arrows.

A tragic religious response to the Black Death, encouraged in part by the anti-semitism preached by the flagellants, was the persecution and massacre of Jews. As the epidemic spread and the death toll mounted, many searched for scapegoats to blame for the disease. Accusations were leveled against various groups of outsiders, most notably Jews who came under suspicion of deliberately spreading disease. Despite the efforts of many civil and ecclesiastical authorities (including the papacy) to protect Jewish residents, thousands were rounded up and executed in Spain, in southern France, and across central Europe.

Social Response

One of the most striking features of accounts of the Black Death is the overwhelming fear expressed by most authors. Accounts of the epidemic are rife with stories of flight and abandonment, though whether these stories are objective records of fact or simply literary expressions is unclear. But regardless of how commonly “brothers abandoned brothers … fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children” as Boccaccio describes, it is clear from the records of this epidemic that there was a notable shift in society. The most common prescription of the era, reproduced into a variety of languages, was to “flee far, fast, and for a long time,” and flight (from cities to countryside, from one town to another) was a common reaction during this and later epidemics. The observed patterns of illness led to popular beliefs that it spread from person to person, which would have been the case with pneumonic plague. Whereas medical theories held on to the miasmatic concept of disease (caused by “corruption” in the air), the popular belief in contagion led to a noticeable fear not just of disease, or even just of the sick themselves, but also of the potentially sick. Public venues such as markets, churches, or public squares were increasingly avoided, and care for the sick often fell to either the very pious—those willing to place themselves in danger—or the very poor, who may have sought to profit however they could. Burials, which could no longer be carried out individually as a result of the excessive number of corpses accumulating, were likewise left in the hands of the charitable or the desperate. The accumulation of bodies faster than they could be buried led to a variety of psychological reactions—guilt, fear, anger, sorrow—none of which is directly measurable but all of which are indirectly evident in the sources.

Medical Response

Although medical theory lagged behind popular conceptions in formulating a theory of contagion, medical personnel developed a variety of theories on how plague spread and how it could be prevented. In some areas, especially Italy, efforts were made to understand better the disease by conducting autopsies on victims. These principally discovered problems in the lungs, which helped reinforce the humoral theory of corrupted air causing disease. The disease was viewed as being so virulent that it was believed to be spread by the very breath of the infected (which it may have been, in the case of pneumonic plague). Prescriptions for prevention of plague included the burning of aromatic herbs (often carried out in public squares) to cleanse the air as well as the regulation of diet to maintain humoral balance. Other plague treatises advocated keeping one’s mouth covered with a handkerchief or the use of a posy of sweet-smelling herbs while in public. One author advocated ensuring a patient’s eyes had been covered before entering the room, believing that the disease could be passed along via direct eye contact.

A notable disparity existed in reactions to plague between Christian and Muslim populations, both within Spain and in the Middle East. Though plague took a high toll on both groups, and though both believed plague to be sent from God, their reactions were distinct. Whereas Christians blamed human sin as the cause of God’s anger and punishment, Muslims viewed plague as a disaster to be endured, one which offered a martyr’s death to its victims. Muslim submission to the will of God meant a strong focus on prayer rather than the flight and self-preservation seen among Christians, though observers noted many cases of Muslim flight. There was no scapegoating or placing of blame among Muslims, and likewise little tolerance for theories of contagion, which challenged God’s supreme power over all events. Ibn al-Khatib, a Spanish Muslim medical writer in Spanish Granada, offered a treatise in which he argued for the contagious nature of plague, an argument that likely led to his subsequent persecution for heresy and his ultimate exile.

Historical Effects

The Black Death is acknowledged as a momentous event in European history, one that affected all aspects of society. Alongside the more obvious demographic and economic effects, scholars have also argued for indirect psychological effects, manifested in art, intellectual development, and social changes. Part of the difficulty in assessing these changes, however, is the fact that the Black Death was just the first (though the most widespread and the most lethal) epidemic of many during the second pandemic that would continue to haunt Europe until its gradual disappearance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The overall mortality of the Black Death has fascinated historians for generations, but reliable figures remain elusive. Accurate census numbers from the era prior to the Black Death simply do not exist, nor do reliable death or burial records for more than scattered territories. Thus, calculating the overall impact on Europe as a whole is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, estimates have steadily risen in recent generations from roughly a third of Europe to nearly two-thirds. It is considered safe to assume at least half of Europe died in the Black Death, and possibly more than half. These deaths occurred in all levels of society, from the very poorest to royalty, including King Alfonso XI of Castile (1312-1350) who fell sick and died in 1350 while besieging Gibraltar. Those who tended to the sick suffered the highest losses, including physicians, surgeons, clergy, and notaries (who recorded last wills). These losses had their own ripple effects, as medical and clerical positions stood empty or were filled with less qualified (or less dedicated) applicants. Throughout Europe the drastic population decline had repercussions on several generations that, coupled with recurrent epidemics, meant that population levels did not recover in most regions until the late fifteenth century.

One significant result of Black Death was an overall shift in rural population away from marginal agricultural lands and onto more fertile ones. The evidence of a large number of deserted villages in Europe, once taken to be a result of massive mortality, is now recognized as resulting from both deaths and relocation as survivors moved in search of better economic opportunities.

Economic Impacts

The most obvious economic impact of the Black Death was a rise in the standard of living for survivors. For both free and enserfed farmers, the loss of so much population meant that lands stood open awaiting workers. This provided greater opportunities for them to gain mobility and to negotiate favorable terms of employment. For landowners, finding and retaining workers now meant paying higher wages or offering better terms of living. Across many trades, wages and prices rose dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, as there were simply fewer skilled workers to provide goods and services.

As early as 1349 authorities across Europe (at both the local and national levels) began to respond to these economic shifts by regulating wages, prices, and the mobility of workers. Wages were held to pre-plague levels and attempts were made to prevent secret agreements offering bribes or bonuses. These statutes led to further political and economic tensions as workers sought to capitalize on gains while employers sought to rescind them.

Cultural Changes

Alongside the written records that reflect people’s experiences with the Black Death are artistic depictions. A wealth of art, created both in direct response to the Black Death and in response to subsequent epidemics in later generations, reflects themes of death and the transitory nature of life, wealth, and power. Images increasingly showed “King Death,” personified as a skeleton, stalking or attacking victims, often now armed with a scythe. The Danse Macabre (“The Dance of Death”) became a common theme, illustrating how quickly and easily death could interrupt life and “dance” the unsuspecting victim into the grave. In addition, new cults devoted to plague saints Sebastian and Roch (Roche) sprang up, and both are depicted with greater frequency after the Black Death.

The intellectual impact of the Black Death is the hardest to quantify, but there is evidence that the massive population loss created new intellectual space for upcoming generations to fill. The loss of intellectual continuity, which allowed older ideas and traditions to slip slightly seems to have provided opportunities for new approaches, such as the increased use of the vernacular in a variety of writings, and for new ideas, such as the Renaissance humanists’ new interest in reviving ancient models. Though there is no consensus on the issue, many scholars have argued that the Renaissance, which emerged on the heels of the Black Death, owes its birth to the intellectual upheavals and questions raised by the epidemic and its successive waves. Although historians do not agree on the extent to which the Black Death represented a “turning point” in history, it clearly had long-lasting repercussions and must be taken into account as a contributing factor for long-term social, economic, and intellectual shifts.