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Bubonic Plague or Black Death
1347-1352 A.D. +
Bubonic Plague was responsible for the deaths of over twenty-five million Europeans during the above time frame. This accounted for more than one third of the population. It was called the Black Death because the skin color of infected persons turned dark gray, almost black. Death came so quickly that Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio commented: “one could eat lunch with friends and have dinner with ancestors in paradise.” Symptoms began with aching limbs followed by vomiting of blood. Lymph nodes began to swell and finally burst. Victims suffered immense pain and disfigurement. They did not know how the disease was transmitted nor how each person was selected. Dying workers meant a loss of production and business slowly came to a halt. Death came so quickly that it hurried the living to bury all the dead. In many towns, the dead occasionally outnumbered the living. People were horrified.
Acute infection is caused by the bacillus Yersina Pestis which results in high fever and painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes, from which it received its name. The disease also causes spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black, hence the name Black Death. The plague mainly affects rodents but fleas (especially Xenopsylla Cheopsis) can transmit the disease to humans. Fleas draw infected blood from the rodent and then regurgitate some of that fluid when biting the next victim. Rodents, cats, dogs, and humans die from the fluid but the flea survives the entire cycle.
The year 541 A.D. may be the earliest known record of an outbreak when trade vessels brought the plague to the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, yet researchers seem to disagree on where this plague may have originated. Some contend that it came from a remote part of China while others suggest east Africa. Trade routes from both China and eastern Africa converge at generally the same points near the east end of the Mediterranean. Persuasive documentation exists for each claim. However, the time frame of the Black Death incursion of central Europe is very well known. In October of 1347, several Italian merchant ships returned from the Black Sea and when they docked in harbors of mainland Italy, many of those on board were already dying. It was only a matter of time until the plague spread to every major country in Europe.
Several factors contributed to the distribution of the infection. Garbage was ubiquitous in European cities and rodents naturally congregate in these places. Bubonic plague rapidly spread throughout cities and eventually to the country. Tragically out of the uncertainty surrounding this plague, family members often abandoned each other, death of civil authorities meant no law enforcement in some areas, monks and nuns left monasteries and convents to care for the dying (for which they also died), thus no one was present to give Christian burials and dead bodies were frequently discarded in empty houses.
Winter saw a disappearance of Bubonic Plague as fleas were dormant, but the very next spring, the plague would begin killing again. It has been estimated that nearly twenty-five (25) million people had died - about one third of the population of Europe.
One of the biggest impacts of the plague was the shortage of labor, due to the enormous number of people that had died. Surviving laborers demanded higher wages for the increased amount of work that was expected of them but the contracting interests generally refused. This led to peasant revolts in England, France, and Italy.
Another impact was theological or philosophical: “Why had not devoutly energized prayers for deliverance been answered?” This gradually led to ecclesiastical and political turmoil as neither church or government officials were able to answer the question, thus civil instability resulted. Some blamed poisoned wells which naturally needs a culprit. Jews were blamed in many areas, which precipitated racial instability. Brutish thugs infected with the plaque threaten to break into homes unless bribed. Agriculture comes to a halt with crops withering and cattle roaming. No food and threats of harm often created panic. Many people lived in constant fear since no one knew what was causing the plague or how to stop it. All methods to curtail this devastating plague failed, except time.
Written by Ronald J. Gordon as extended information for other major articles